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Friday, June 24, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Coalition of the Unwilling

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Gospel Coalition is an evangelical colossus, with close to 8,000 affiliated congregations across the U.S., 65 million annual website pageviews, regular live events, a full slate of in-house blogs and other media promoting its theological checklist.

Tom: But one very slightly unsettling feature of TGC’s ministry, Immanuel Can, is that they seem to have little interest in engaging in the exchange of ideas, as this Jonathan Merritt article very effectively documents.

You’re quite familiar with TGC. What do they stand for?

Getting Organized

Immanuel Can: Well, they’re up to a number of things, Tom.

One is that they organize their own conferences, publish books, produce their own videos and study materials, advance their blogs and websites, and generally aim at “educating” Christians. And those are not ignoble goals under the right conditions. A second is that they aim at promoting certain high-profile personalities, such as John MacArthur and John Piper, and their leaders, Tim Keller and D.A. Carson. A third is that they promote clericalism in the form of “pastors”. Another is that they promote centralization: the association, affiliation and merging of disparate Christian ministries and denominations under their form of the “gospel” as interpreted by TGC itself ...

Tom: Which would explain the TGC “confessional statement” and so on. It’s a very organized coalition; a huge number of churches signing on to a specific set of beliefs.

Sovereignty and Theistic Determinism

IC: Right. But their key goal, the one that drives all the others, is wholesale promotion of a narrow doctrine called “Theistic Determinism”, also called “Reformed Theology”. They’re in it to win the world for John Calvin.

Tom: Now, they would never SAY that. Their confessional statement, while employing the word “sovereign” and its variants multiple times, seems to deliberately avoid explicit association with Calvin.

IC: Ah, yes … “sovereign”. That’s a word loaded with special content for them, their current buzzword for “deterministic”. They don’t now say often, “We believe in the Reformed Theology package”, though they do. And they certainly don’t say, “We’re campaigning for Calvinism”, though they certainly are. But “sovereign” is a word that can be misunderstood, and that suits their purposes very well.

In the Confessional

Tom: You think that’s a calculated thing? Because I do find their “confessional statement” quite neutral in tone. It’s like they had it professionally scanned for buzzwords and inadvertent “tells”, and had it purged thereof. What’s left is a fairly orthodox document that (rather conveniently) allows room to accommodate a number of things like determinism, Replacement Theology, amillennialism and so on, without explicitly referencing them by name. For instance, this line is quite orthodox:
“We believe that God’s new covenant people have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem; they are already seated with Christ in the heavenlies.”
On its own that works fine: it doesn’t specifically exclude God’s old covenant people from future blessing. It doesn’t explicitly deny the literal fulfillment of the words of the Old Testament prophets to the nation of Israel. But it leaves room there. It’s remarkable not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t.

Under the Umbrella

Is this a shift in tactics for Reformed Theologians, IC, or is TGC just a big umbrella that needs to be general enough to accommodate more than one viewpoint on these things?

IC: TGC makes a definite attempt to present itself as representing a neutral, “vanilla” type of Christianity, a broad umbrella under which various kinds of evangelical Christians can safely shade. But in practice, it’s less of an “umbrella” than a cage-trap: once you’re “in”, they seem to feel they’ve got you: and the line they most want to peddle is Calvinism. It keeps coming up in everything they do.

Are they aware of their own duplicity? Maybe. These are not stupid men. But we could look at it another way: they are dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists, so what else is going to squirt out of them once they get rolling? They can’t very well just act like they don’t believe what they think is the most important doctrine, and talk about doctrine at all. So maybe they’re speaking with genuine intent but bad doctrine.

A One-Way Conversation

Tom: Well, what’s interesting to me about the Merritt article is that the talk seems to go only one way. Merritt does a nice job of documenting a persistent tendency on the Coalition’s part over the last year to shut out all expressions of dissent from their forums. Question the TGC narrative, and you’re blocked on social media, and Merritt has published the screen caps to prove it.

Merritt followed up with TGC’s editorial director and others, none of whom would respond to his emails or answer his questions.

Now, those of us with an online presence — especially those in the Christian blogosphere — understand that certain sorts of comments are unprofitable in a Christian blog space and may be deleted rather than published: persistent trolling, foul language, hyper-aggressive tone, and so on. But that’s a rarity. We’ve never blocked anyone here, ever. We’ve never needed to. (I might have held back a single comment out of hundreds because it was wildly off topic, if I recall.) But a policy of blocking fellow Christians for asking questions or daring to disagree seems more than a little unproductive.

Fear of Effective Disagreement

IC: Unproductive, and also fearful. Why worry about engaging different viewpoints if you have confidence that yours is sound? But if, on the other hand, you anticipate your doctrine is actually vulnerable, and if you aren’t interested in improving it, then shutting dissent down makes some sense, I suppose.

And this is one of the big appeals of TGC — the illusion of certainty. Some of their proponents seem to be acting just like they know the truth with such absolute confidence that they have no need of further thought. That’s worrisome. And I think it’s not Christian. Christ engaged the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and even the Gentiles. Paul engaged pagans and secular philosophers. In combating false doctrine, Apollos did sterling work for the Church. Their confidence in the truth was expressed in readiness to take on other ideas, not in shutting discussion down.

Tom: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God”. Sure, some of us are better at it than others, but you would think that in a coalition of 8,000 congregations, a few sound men might be found.

Corporate and Individual Policy

Now, to be fair, I know of people who have contacted Don Carson or John MacArthur directly and gotten personal responses, and I’m sure that’s true of others listed as Coalition staff too. So it’s not as if these guys have put themselves entirely off limits to their fellow believers. What Merrick is saying, it seems, is that the twelve “official TGC” blogs (Carson, Jared Wilson, Justin Taylor, etc.) embedded in the main Coalition website and the TGC Twitter account are scrupulously policed for dissenting opinions and anyone who runs afoul of the censors not only has the offending comment scrubbed but is blocked from all further commenting indefinitely. It’s the public face of the Coalition that’s at issue.

IC: Yet why have a public face that’s different from your real face?

Tom: Maybe I should say the corporate face then. I don’t think it’s a question of private vs. public policy so much as it’s a question of corporate vs. individual. It seems some of the individuals in TGC will discuss some of these issues person to person. But corporately, not so much. Merrick says he was told off the record that TGC has “no official social media policy” and that “several persons have access to the accounts”. In the absence of a response from someone in the Coalition, one would guess their official policy is that there is no policy and that there is nobody officially accountable for whatever censorship is occurring.

And yet somebody is making the decision to censor not only critical comments, but questions, and comments on subjects that might eventually lead to criticism.

Church Life without Empires

IC: Yes, that seems right: there definitely seems to be someone with antipathy to controversy, that’s for sure. Meanwhile, it’s got to be worrying that the alleged “coalition” has become so formal and publicity-conscious that it has a “public face” about which to be skittish. After all, TGC, or anything like it, is not an entity conceived in the New Testament, is it? It’s a sort of parachurch club, so far as I can see, and one that is more concerned about its public face and corporate solidarity than with honouring the liberty and convictions of the local church … or do you think that’s too much to say at the moment?

Tom: No, I think that’s right. There’s simply no biblical precedent for this sort of thing, and, frankly, no need for it. It serves no valid purpose I can see. It’s empire building. It promotes a particular slate of beliefs (many of which, I believe, are quite wrongheaded) and gives a platform to up-and-coming voices with those interpretational preferences by associating them with known quantities like the Pipers and Carsons and MacArthurs.

But the people in all those 8,000 local churches would be doing everything the Lord has asked them to do if they simply carried on meeting, praying, building one another up in their faith, worshiping … and simply talking.

The Corrective Value of Disagreement

IC: So you’re suggesting that cutting off discussion and refusing to engage with contrary views is an ineffective way to demonstrate sound doctrine, a counterproductive way for a parachurch organization to serve the needs of the local church, and a poor way to maintain a testimony to the world?

Tom: It’s not just a matter of external testimony. Sure, it looks bad and is counterproductive when you won’t respond to the very people you are allegedly trying to reach. But what about internally, among believers? There’s a huge corrective value in facing one another with truth that is sometimes unpleasant. I think of Paul saying, “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned”. It was only through those kinds of courageous stands that the New Testament church resisted the creeping tendency toward legalism.

What if Paul had said to himself, “I’d better not criticize Peter publicly. We don’t want to cause division here”? Or what if Peter had said, “We need to block this guy. He’s making me uncomfortable”? We’d have a very different moment in church history, and not a good one.

Testimony or Propaganda?

IC: This is what I fear. I don’t object to the Mohlers, Platts and Pipers of this world taking a stand for whatever they believe to be the truth, though I think I have good reason to believe they are in error. Errors will come, and the open process of refuting them can produce a great opportunity for observers to mature in their faith and solidify their convictions. No, what concerns me is the unidirectional nature of their delivery; they have strong means to advance their agenda but limited willingness to entertain being questioned or contradicted. The danger of that is of becoming propagandists for an errant agenda. I think we have to have more confidence than they are evincing in the truth winning over error.

Tom: Yes, we’ve got to be willing to put our views out there and trust that the Holy Spirit of God is able to bring conviction not just to those whose views are not in conformity with his word but also to those who, in Internet parlance, are “lurkers” — undecided third parties listening in.

IC: Well, the idea of refusing to engage in conversation over one’s views — especially with manifestly sincere fellow Christians — smacks of nervousness to me. It says, “I’m not as sure as I’d like to pretend that my doctrine is true, and I don’t want to risk my public appearance of certainty”. If there’s another interpretation of the decision to shut down conversation, I’m ready to hear it.

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