“The Gospel Coalition” and Post-Christendom: Will it be a Coalition or an Expedition? 5 Years Later

banner_thecity3-300x106Five years ago now (May 2009) I wrote the post “The Gospel Coalition” and Post-Christendom: Will it be a Coalition or an Expedition? I asked some questions and worried about the then nascent Gospel Coalition as they emerged as an influencer in evangelicalism. I worried they would become a defensive gathering of people who in seeking to clarify and purify doctrine, would dig in, polarize and become defensive. They would then lose their ability to dialogue with parts of the church (even the evangelical church) in this very crucial time of Mission in N America. I worried that the TGC would enforce a return to the Reformation and become more Euro centric in its theology. I worried that TGC would reject in totality the New Perspective on Paul, N T Wright, Scot McKnight and others seeking to break the gospel out from from the evangelical narrow focus on subtitutionary atonement. I worried that women would be more excluded from ministry in our local churches. For me, this was organizing for efficiency and hierarchy. It meant the loss of the charismatic gifts and God’s agency in the church for mission. I also worried TGC would be a return to “power church planting” where large personalities and money would plant large mega churches based on personalities who preach and rock concert worship. I saw this as a step back from missional presence in the world.

5 years later, what do you think? How much of this has happened. I’m just asking. At the end of the post I put a challenge out for a Neo-Anabaptist Missional Vision for the church. As I look back, I’ve tried to broaden my conversations with the TGC crowd. And there are signs of hope in the midst of some disarray. Likewise, I see the emergence of the Anabaptist challenge in many parts of evangelicalism. And I am encouraged. What do you see?

Here’s the original post below word for word.

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There can be no doubt, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has been galvanizing many younger evangelicals to re-think their theology and practice (especially if it is of the Reformed variety.) I applaud this new theological energy. My question nonetheless is (given its moniker) will TGC be a force for coalition or expedition? “Coalition” describes the coalescing of a group of people or nations to agree on some understandings in order to defend some boundary or prepare for war (think Pres. Bush’s “coalition of the willing”). “Expedition” on the other hand, is the organizing of a group to adequately prepare for an exploration/adventure into unknown territory. Will TGC be a coalition for the hardening of some doctrinal lines in order to defend boundaries and/or launch an attack of some kind (say against others who don’t agree with its take on Reformed theology)? Or will TGC be a force for the preparation of missionaries (in doctrine and practice) to engage the unknown territories of the new cultures of post Christendom? Will TGC be a coalition or an expedition?

Ever since the publishing of Collin Hansen’s The Young, Restless, Reformed, a lot of attention has been drawn towards the revival of a Neo-Reformed theology among the younger evangelicals. In distinction from the pragmatic and the emerging responses (remember this) to the challenges of post Christendom/post modernity and the decline of evangelicalism in N America, the Neo Reformed groups have pressed for a return and renewal of protestant orthodoxy as the means towards renewal of the church. Main figures in this new push for a purer or more missional Reformed theology include David Wells, Al Mohler, John Piper, Don Carson, Mark Driscoll, Ed Stetzer and Tim Keller. Let me be explicit that I value and have learned much from each of these writers/thinkers/ preachers. I especially value what I have learned from Tim Keller and Ed Stetzer. Let me also say explicitly, I do not disavow the Reformation. We can no more write off the past 500 years any more than we can write off the patristic age and return to a purer “primitive” Christianity. Nonetheless, for the current cultural challenge – post Christendom/post modernity in the West – I am concerned that the approach of the Gospel Coalition is ill-suited to engage the cultural challenges of post-Christendom. Let me offer five statements that encapsulate what I think TGC might be implying in their work so far, even though they may not say it explicitly. I think, if true, each of these positions will inhibit, if not prohibit, TGC from being a cause for Christ in the engagement of the new post Christendom cultures of the West. TGC will then become more of a coalition than an expedition. So I am asking (with genuine concern) whether these statements are accurate to the positions as navigated by TGC or just the misconstrual of my Anabaptist fear laden projections?  Here are the statements:

1.) If We Purify Our Doctrine The Rest Will Follow. I have observed an impulse in the TGC that says if we just get our doctrine right (which means a certain version of Reformed orthodoxy), then mission and church renewal in post Christendom will follow. But at least in post Christendom (as it is in the N United States urban areas and Canada) this is not enough. This is not 16th century Europe where the majority Catholic population, under the influence of a corrupt Roman Catholicism, need doctrinal renewal. This is not the 1920?s N. America where the majority protestant mainline Christian population,  under the influence of a modernist liberalism, need doctrinal renewal. This is post Christendom territory where there are very few Christians of any kind left who have no doctrine to be renewed. If TGC then thinks doctrinal purity is the single issue, and leave it at that, they will be a coalition for retrenchment as opposed to an expedition for mission. (As some have suggested, this is already proving true in the SBC).

2.) We Must Return to the Reformation. Is the TGC seeking a return to the Reformation? The Reformation cannot be discounted, but neither can it be returned to. The Reformation was built on the back of Christendom. It gave birth to the Sola’s, especially Sola Scripture and Sola Fide which in their time called people to a renewed purity and personal commitment to the gospel. Today however, those same impulses, aligned with the Enlightenment, have given birth to a modernist individualism, Christian relativism, Cartesian rationalism and experientialism that later became modernity, protestant liberalism and indeed the current manifestations of evangelicalism that the TGC appears to be in critique of. We therefore must go beyond the Reformation, not back to it. We must be sober about the doctrinal problems of the Reformation that elevate the individual, isolate Scripture (as an authority and conceptual document) away from the church and a way of life. If TGC is only a call to a purer Reformed orthodoxy, it will be a coalition for retrenchment as opposed to an expedition for the advancement of the gospel into post Christendom.

3.) Woman Cannot Be Pastors. Is TGC seeking to enforce a particular reading of the NT that opposes the role of  women in authority within church ministry? I have observed the prominence of a particular view of women in ministry in the TGC. I would characterize this view as a.) based in an inerrancy view of the text, which b.) latches on to texts as if they were isolated units of universal teaching on women, which then c.) leads to a blindness to the NT’s overall elevation of women into ministerial authority in the church. To me, this robs the church of the new politic that was birthed in Jesus Christ. It robs our witness to the reconciled relationship born of Jesus Christ in the post-non-Christendom cultures. I personally have spoken against the egalitarian form of politics I believe has been adopted naively by some evangelical feminists at the expense of both women and Christian marriage. Nonetheless, I believe that the NT calls women into the full participation in the new authority of the Kingdom unleashed in the church (this means I affirm the full ordination of women). I believe the TGC will be impotent to engage the culture of post Christendom if it cannot give witness to the new new “politics of Jesus” in its gender politics. It will be a coalition for retrenchment versus an expedition for the advancement of Christ’s Mission in post Christendom.

4.) The New Perspective is Our Enemy. John Piper and Don Carson have energetically sought to dismantle the New Perspective on Paul (most notably here, here and here). I do not agree with everything written by Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, Wright etc. Nonetheless, I believe it is a mistake to see the New Perspective as the enemy (it’s not even that new any more). I believe there is much to learn from it.(I recommend everyone start with ch. 11 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and go from there).  The Reformation tendency has been to separate the justification of the individual in Christ (due to developments extending from the  Reformation) from the justice of God and the new social order God is inaugurating in the world thru Christ. As long as we keep doing this we will forever be conceptualizing the gospel and separating it from the life of the Triune God as worked out in His Mission. We then will be hindered from socially embodying the gospel in post-Christendom. Maybe even worse, emerging Christians will continue to make the error of separating social justice from the redemption of the individual in Christ. I think the New Perspective is not the enemy but a source of great insights for this much needed renewal of the gospel. If TGC makes the New Perspective the enemy, I believe this is another sign TGC is becoming a coalition for retrenchment not an expedition for Mission.

5.) The Mega Church Still Makes Sense.
Because of the above mentioned Reformed tendencies (exacerbated by American pragmatic evangelicalism) to individualize the gospel, to individualize the reading of Scripture, to individualize salvation, to separate doctrine from “way of life,” the Neo-Reformed do not see the problem of mega church for the future of church engagement with post-Christendom. Mega churches have worked well within Christendom’s modernity. Here the individual reigned supreme and the remainder of Christian culture lingered long enough to provide a foundation for masses of individuals to become Christians within large servicing organizations. Now however, with the lingering remainder of Christian culture gone, the gospel must take root in a social communal embodiment. Here is where the gospel can be seen, heard, understood, experienced by those completely foreign to our faith in Christ. This kind of communal embodiment is nigh impossible in mega sized organizations (although I think I’ve seen it at least once). Still, I see the Neo-Reformed enamored that good solid preaching and culturally relative apologetics will gather post-non-Christendom into its churches. I fear TGC then becomes a force for coalescing mega size preaching churches that preach to the already initiated. We in essence become a church that preaches to ourselves and in the process retrench from being expedited for Mission into post Christendom. (P.S. I still strongly believe in preaching!! As my writings and “the college of preachers” at our church will attest to).

A Call to The Neo-Anabaptist Missional Vision

For the reasons stated above, and indeed some more reasons I have not posted, I suggest that the Neo-Anabaptist Missional impulse is a viable alternative to the Neo-Reformed groups including TGC. For both historical reasons and theological reasons, I believe the Anabaptist Missional impulse has much to offer the dwindling churches of N America in engaging the new post Christendom cultures of the West. I include in this camp Alan Hirsch, Alan Roxburgh, Shane Claiborne, Neil Cole, Scot McKnight. I myself have tried to write to contribute to the furtherance of this vision. Tim Keller has characterized the Neo Anabaptists on this blog as follows: “… As you know, I think that the neo-Anabaptist missionals are a bit too rigid in what they are putting forth for the future, but its emphasis on process over program, ecclesial liturgy over experientialism, deep community, concern for the poor and justice, and contextualization-are all quite right. and traditional mega churches don’t see this.” I agree with Tim Keller on his description, including the being “a bit too rigid” part. Such statements however encourage me to believe that Neo Reformed and Neo Anabaptist should be in dialogue together to further Christ’s Kingdom (some of my best friends are Neo-Reformed :) ). So I am open to dialoguing and even being proven wrong on the five positional statements above that I suspect the Gospel Coalition of advocating. Where am I right? Where am I wrong?

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Posted in Acts 29, Cultivating Mission, Neo-Anabaptist, Post-Christendom, Tim Keller
7 comments on ““The Gospel Coalition” and Post-Christendom: Will it be a Coalition or an Expedition? 5 Years Later
  1. Arthur Sido says:

    “Such statements however encourage me to believe that Neo Reformed and Neo Anabaptist should be in dialogue together to further Christ’s Kingdom”

    Absolutely. While I find blind spots and rigid dogmatism in both the neo-Anabaptist and neo-Reformed camps, they both have important things to teach each other. As someone who holds to many distinctives of both groups I truly hope that these estranged step-brothers of the Reformation era are reunited.

  2. Jim says:

    I’m surprised you’ve only gotten one comment thus far.

    I’ve only got one foot in TGC’s bandwagon. I don’t think they’re pro-megachurch, though. The most prolific bloggers are mostly small-town pastors and ministry leaders from the Midwest and South. If they are indeed pro-megachurch, then they aren’t pro “rock concert” worship. Their posts on worship tend to lean heavily the opposite. They seem to want hymn-like theological poetry in a quieter “blended” setting, and they really like Keith Getty.

    • David Fitch says:

      Jim,
      Yes, I think I can agree with you. My inkling was that they would be more open to the mega church as the driver for church. Their focus on gathering and preaching opens the door to see church in that way. Thus we have Driscoll, Chan, Chandler, MacDonald, etc. all of who I see as once part of TGC nexus. But I agree, this is not a general driver as I thought it might become. And the music varies …

      DF

      • Tom says:

        A couple of weeks a go I was at the Forge conference in Scotland and Alan Hirsch was saying that missional was one approach to church which he promoted but that megachurch/attractional churches should not be written off. We needed multiple apporaches to church in every nation. The problem is when megachurches become the only model of church. He name checked Hillsong as an example.
        I suppose I would see the TGC approach as being similar. It’s not that they are promoting megachurch/mutlitsite/whatever as much as they are not actively opposing those things. You could be in TGC and be in a mega church, or you could be in TGC and be in a missional community.

        As for “Driscoll, Chan, Chandler, MacDonald, etc. ” it’s interesting how each of those people have developped.
        Driscoll and MacDonald have left many of their old networks and have moved into a more Rick Warren stlye direction – something that members of TGC openly admit.
        Chan famously quit his megachurch, has been working in the Verge Network and majoring on discipleship (along with David platt). TGC founder Tim Keller is also a supporter of Verge Network and is concetrating on missiology.
        Chandler now heads up Acts 29, a group which while it has a very strong confessional statement is very diverse on the ground and in the types of churches it is planting. Some would look like wannabe mega chuches, others would be much more missional.

        So even within those who started in TGC there is a large amount of diversity.

  3. Brett says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this – I think your original post was pretty well on target. I do think there have been some positive ideas and people associated with TGC in the years since you wrote this – Greg Thornbury’s “classic evangelicalism,” for example, or Tim Keller (though I haven’t read much by him) emerging as a public voice for thoughtful faith. But by and large, I find it troubling that’s group of hitherto unknown TGC bloggers like Kevin DeYoung and Trevin Wax have become disproportionately influential in evangelicalism, becoming the gatekeepers of orthodoxy for many people. (I say this after grading my 100th paper on “Love Wins.”) This is bad news for women – whose leadership we badly need in the church – as well as for theological diversity within evangelicalism. As folks like Mark Driscoll and Don Carson regularly forget, complementarianism, Reformed theology, and orthodoxy are not synonymous.

    I also think you are right that an Anabaptist “stream” is on the rise and could serve as a good corrective. This is, I think, a good thing. I would also hope, however, for more liturgical/high church influence on evangelicalism as well. I have considered the idea that most of the criticism lobbed at the Emerging Church was essentially veiled anti-Catholicism. I don’t think the Gospel Coalition is a step forward for an “evangelical catholic” church in North America.

  4. Paul says:

    Interesting thoughts. As a conservative Mennonite, I find the YRR crowd like DeYoung, Wax, Anyabwile, Platt, etc, to be beacons of hope amongst the evangelical leadership. I’ve just returned from attending T4G, and was quite bowled over by the consistently humble and God-glorifying worldview shown by these brothers. Historically, those of the Reformed persuasion majored on maintaining a vigorous allegiance to theology that has endured for 2000 years. Anabaptist believers have paid more attention to sanctification, emphasizing faith-based obedience and community over doctrines such as justification or the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. In recent years, however, I have observed an encouraging shift among leaders and churches represented by The Gospel Coalition, a shift that is taking up the call for sanctified living, for building sustainable community, while maintaining or even raising the bar of affirming the inerrancy of Scripture, the glorification of God in Christ, etc. Indeed, this latest T4G witnessed what I am convinced will be known as some of the most influential sermons of the decade. Kevin DeYoung delivered a brilliant message on the inerrancy of Scripture, David Platt on desperate prayer, Anyabwile on repentance, Ligon Duncan on the Gospel in Numbers 5, and of course the inimitable John Piper on the doctrine of election and how it DRIVES evangelism rather than stifling it. This Gospel-centered movement is what is so desperately needed not only in evangelical churches, but especially in Mennonite or Anabaptist churches.

  5. Tom says:

    Hi,

    thanks for reposting the article.
    On one of the things you mention:
    “I worried that TGC would reject in totality the New Perspective on Paul, N T Wright, Scot McKnight and others seeking to break the gospel out from from the evangelical narrow focus on subtitutionary atonement.”

    I’m still quite new to the missional movement so sorry if what I say sounds simplistic. But I think TGC have learnt a lot from Wright and McKnight. The resurrection and new life are defnately vital parts of the message TGC promotes. But I’d also say it is (and was) a bit of a sterotype anyway. Wright describes himself as being in the Conservative Reformed camp. And if you read works by people like Mike Reeves on the love of God, or Adrian Warnock on the resurrection, even older generations like J I Packer and John Stott and you’ll soon read of a much wider focus than just the attonement.

    I would see an appearance of focusing on subtitutionary attonement as a reaction to those who want to remove it entirely. TGC quite often have posts about all the things the cross accomplishes for us other than attonement. But when others in the church are saying that attonement is unncessary, or is barbaric, then I’m not surprised that those who do believe in it want to push back and say “hang on, this really happened, and it’s really important”. And the problem is that when you do that some will label you as only being concerned about that one issue.

    I suppose that’s how I see the TGC approach to doctrine as a whole. Not that they are saying “if we get our doctrine right it will lead to revival and mission” (though obviously what you believe about conversion, church and mission will have a major impact on those things) but rather “As we do mission and hope to experience revival, lets make sure we don’t lost these vital truths.”. And in a pragmatic age that seems like a good thing to want to do.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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