Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Gospel Coalition's Non-Christian Allies

Is The Gospel Coaltion Losing the Gospel?

Is The Gospel Coalition losing the Gospel? How could it? After all it is a coalition formed around the Gospel. In the interests of coalescing around the Gospel a number of important matters are considered secondary. Among them are baptism, ecclesiology, and worship. One may be a paedo, credo, or take your pick which baptist; a congregationalist, presbyterian, or episcopalian; a practitioner of the regulative principle, a praise band enthusiast, a follower of a prayer book, or gospel hymns revivalist. But the Gospel (detached from baptism, church order, or worship) is non-negotiable and the bond of unity. (If you are wondering, yes, the Coalition has a few token Anglicans.)

But then you have to wonder about the Coalition and the Gospel when you read Bethany Jenkins' "Why are Non-Christians TGC15 Panelists?" The Gospel Coalition Conference will meet in Orlando next week (April 13-15). The theme is eschatology. The special event, which Ms. Jenkins will chair and which will involve the non-Christian panelists, is "Seeking Justice and Mercy from Ferguson to New York." 

Ms. Jenkins' defense of this inclusion of non-believers as panelists is based on a Schaefferian distinction between allies and co-belligerents. According to Francis Schaeffer, an ally is "a born-again Christian with whom I can go a long way down the road" while a  co-belligerent “is a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position, but takes the right position on a single issue. And I can join with him without any danger as long as I realize that he is not an ally and all we’re talking about is a single issue.”

With sincere respect for Dr. Schaeffer, it seems to me that, even if one can accept his definitions of "ally" and "co-belligerent",  the distinction between "ally" and "co-belligerent" does not hold up. What is a non-believing opponent of abortion on demand or of redefining marriage except an ally on the particular issue? What is a non-believing proponent of a religious liberty restoration act or of a bill to prevent human trafficking but an ally?

Ms. Jenkins then argues: 
As individual Christians, we act as co-belligerents all the time, especially in our work outside the church and home. Most of us have colleagues with whom we work toward a common organizational goal, but with whom we disagree about issues of faith. (See, for example, Joseph in Gen. 41 and Daniel in Dan. 2.)
"Co-belligerents" continues to be a strange way of speaking about those "colleagues with whom we work toward a common organizational goal." The person next to you on the widget making assembly line is a co-belligerent or a fellow line worker? The person on the team to sell those widgets is a co-belligerent or a sales team member with you? Joseph was a co-belligerent for the prevention of famine and Daniel a co-belligerent for the interpretation of dreams? (This is to say nothing about the unique providential arrangements God made for each in the outworking of redemptive history and the preservation of the redeemed people through whom he would work out his plan of redemption.)

Ms. Jenkins then makes this stupendous claim:
The church, too, can work with co-belligerents who are committed—knowingly or not—to certain kingdom purposes. (Emphasis added by me.)
The church? What does she mean? Does she mean the church as the institution for which Christ died and over which he is King? Or does she have in mind para-church organizations such as The Gospel Coalition? These are important questions, especially because there is so much confusion within the evangelical world about what "church" means, but for now we can set them aside. Whether she means either or both, she is arguing that the church redeemed and ruled by Christ and/or the Coalition formed around the Gospel can become co-belligerents or allies with unbelievers "who are committed - knowingly or not - to certain kingdom purposes" - such as, we presume, the kingdom purpose of seeking justice and mercy from Ferguson to New York. 

Let's assume you think that Mike Brown was an innocent and unarmed teenager who was gunned down by Officer Wilson in Ferguson. When Al Sharpton comes to town to call for justice and to protest the killing and demand changes in the police department, government, and judicial system of Ferguson, then, since he is seeking a kingdom purpose, I, as minister, and my church, as a church, will lock arms with him outside city hall. 

Let's assume on the other hand that you think Mike Brown was a bully and thug, who strong-arm robbed a store and attacked Officer Wilson, who shot him in self-defense and who then, though he was not charged, lost his job. When Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County comes to Ferguson to rally support for the police, law and order, and justice, and to raise money for Wilson's family, then because he is serving a kingdom purpose, I as a priest, and my parish, as a church, will attend the rally in front of police headquarters.

Which is the kingdom cause I and my church/parish must support? With which leader do I as a minister become a co-belligerent? Whose ally am I?

And, if I can put baptism, church order, and worship aside, and unite with others around the Gospel, can I put Ferguson and racial justice issues aside and unite around the Gospel? Or does the Gospel not of necessity entail baptism but does of necessity entail racial justice? 

Ms. Jenkins then argues that the theological foundation for co-belligerency is common grace:
 Unlike particular grace, which relates to God’s sovereignty in salvation for believers, common grace relates to God’s care for his creation. It’s “common” because it’s universal and “grace” because it’s an unmerited gift of God. (See Matt. 5:45.) 
Common grace gives Christians the platform on which to engage culture. When we know that the fall didn’t completely annihilate God’s created order, we can work with people of different faith commitments toward good purposes. (Note: Since she is giving an apology of the inclusion of unbelievers in the panel, it would be more consistent to say "different or no faith commitments.")
Notice the very limited realm assigned to particular grace. It "relates to God's sovereignty in the salvation of believers." Common grace, however, "relates to God's care for creation" and is "universal." Neither definition without much qualification and expansion is adequate, but again, for purposes of argument, let's take them as they are. To which realm of grace does the church belong? Is the church, defined either in terms of historic ecclesilogy or as an organisation like TGC, an institution of particular (better redemptive) grace or common grace or both? Does the church belong to the realm of redemption or creation or both? Is the church concerned with salvation or care of creation or both?

This brings us around to the question of the title. Is an organization committed to unity around the Gospel in danger of losing the Gospel? There are reasons to ask the question: 

(1) The social gospel movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries did not begin with a jettisoning of the Gospel but with a concern to apply the Gospel to the social problems of life - liquor, industrialization, tenements, education, war as an instrument of national (Civil War) and international (World War I) justice ("our God is marching on!"). What ended up being lost was not the church's interest in the social issues but the church's commitment to the Gospel. 

(2) I still wait for someone to demonstrate that Jesus and his Apostles showed a concern to apply the Gospel to the issues of their day. Rather, if engagement with social issues is as important as we are told, they seem to have been singularly neglectful. There were great political and social injustices and evils within the empire. Where in the New Testament is the concern for and involvement in the social issues of the day? I know that most evangelicals take it as self-evident, settled, and beyond question that  New Testament teaches us to apply the Gospel social issues. I am not convinced. 

(3) What is the Gospel according to The Gospel Coalition? Just as when you subtract from the Gospel what Apostolically required, so when you add the to the Gospel what is not Apostolically authorized, the Gospel is threatened and over time may be lost. The Bayly brothers undermine the Gospel when they make patriarchy an element of the Gospel. Theonomists undermine the Gospel when they make a Gospel project of using the case laws of the Old Testament as the guide to godly justice in the modern state. Does TGC face similar dangers with its particular concerns to apply the Gospel to what it sees as systemic oppression of racial minorities, of macro and micro aggressions, and the necessity of pursuing racial justice as a Gospel issue?



Curt Day said...

I may not agree with how things are implemented, but having the Church, as an institution, address corporate sins, which are sins committed by groups whether they be small groups of people or even societies, would be a legitimate way of restoring some credibility the institutional Church.

Certainly, how the Church does this must be nuanced. The Church must focus far more time talking about on the ills that are being produced than on solutions that would reverse those ills. BTW, this blogpost's example of whether the Church should have stood with Michael Brown or the police officer just doesn't do justice to the problem. For example, could the Church address the issue of police brutality and possible racism in law enforcement without taking a stand on any individual case?

The current situation that now exists is that the Church hammers people over the head regarding personal sins, especially sexual sins. But the Church is silent about exploiting workers, the destruction of the environment, and war. Now realize that those sins are system and societal sins. And those people who are a driving force in the practice of such sins are those who control and benefit most from the status quo--namely those with wealth and power. And so while we preach to convict the average pew sitter of his/her individual sins, groups of sins committed by those with wealth and power go unmentioned and that indicates complicity. We only need to read history to see what happens to the Church when it aligns itself with wealth and power.

JM said...

"...the Church is silent about exploiting workers, the destruction of the environment, and war."

Since when?

Curt Day said...

For almost all of America's history. Where was the Conservative Church during the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, and slavery? When do we hear the Conservative Church speak out against the offshoring of jobs to sweatshop labor factories overseas?

And which conservative Church is talking about climate change, fracking, or mountaintop removal?

Which conservative Church protested the invasion of Iraq or the use of terrorists during the Afghanistan invasion? Which conservative churches are protesting the current use of drones?