Read the series so far.
In previous essays I have suggested that organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel, while certainly centered in the gospel, are actually committed to a system of faith that is more specific than the gospel itself. This system is broad enough to allow differences over the mode of creation, the continuation of miraculous gifts, the correct observance of the ordinances, and the proper order of the particular church. Curiously, however, it is so narrow that it excludes or treats prejudicially those gospel believers who question Calvinism, Lordship salvation, or inaugurated eschatology.
These organizations certainly have a right to adopt a doctrinal system that is more specific than the gospel. That is not the problem. So what is it? First is the apparent lack of candor in claiming the moral high ground of the gospel while actually defending a system that goes well beyond the gospel—particularly if gospel people who differ with that system are made to feel unwelcome. Second, some of the points upon which these organizations have chosen to take a stand (e.g., Calvinism or Lordship salvation) are less important than some of the areas in which they have agreed to allow diversity (e.g., continuationism or a form of progressive creation that is “not quite” theistic evolution). Third, since I do not agree with these organizations in some of their commitments, I can only conclude that my voice is not really welcome among them. This consideration does not have to stop me from attending a meeting or two and benefitting from the sessions. It does, however, stop me from coming into too-close association or identification with these organizations. In other words, I cannot “join” them (the word join being understood not in the sense of putting my name on a membership list, but in the sense of unreservedly joining hands to promote all of their distinctives).
This does not mean that I wish them ill. Far from it! I desire their success and prosperity, because I agree with most of what they have to say, even when they go beyond the gospel. They do some things better than anyone else. Nevertheless, I cannot promote them as wholeheartedly as I might wish.
Besides the foregoing, another difference exists between us, and this one relates directly to the purpose of advancing and defending the gospel. These organizations have said much to help define and clarify the gospel. They have also been willing to respond to certain contemporary challenges to the gospel. As far as I am aware, however, they have seldom emphasized the danger of fellowship, mutual recognition, or cooperative ministry with gospel deniers. Furthermore, as far as I am aware, they have not said anything about what to do with gospel believers who actually cross the line into fellowship, mutual recognition, and cooperative ministry with gospel deniers.
This is, I believe, a gospel issue. The gospel is the boundary of Christianity. Profession of the true gospel is the very thing that determines whether an individual can be recognized as a Christian. No one who denies the gospel is a suitable subject for Christian fellowship, mutual recognition, or cooperative ministry. Certainly no one who teaches a false gospel should ever be treated as a Christian leader. Nevertheless, I do not recall ever hearing of anyone who has said these things from a T4G or TGC platform.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was once offered a chance to state them myself. One of the organizers of one of the gospel-only meetings asked if I would be willing to be interviewed by him on the platform, with the goal of highlighting the distinctiveness of fundamentalism. Before I could make a commitment, I wanted authorization from my board (I was president of Central Seminary at the time). Within a couple of weeks the board had stated its full support, but then I received word that the invitation was being withdrawn.
The nub of the problem is that one can affirm and believe the gospel while actually betraying the gospel. For that reason, I think that John Vaughn is correct: we cannot claim to be truly together for the gospel if we are not separated to the gospel. If we refuse to separate from those who teach false gospels, or if we elevate people to leadership who deliberately recognize gospel-deniers as Christians, then we are jeopardizing the clarity and integrity of the gospel itself.
That is what happened with cooperative evangelism from the 1950s onwards. Something like it appears to have happened again with the fawning over T. D. Jakes by James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll in the “Elephant Room 2.” Jakes is closely identified with Sabellianism and is a preacher of the prosperity gospel. At the time of the episode, both Driscoll and MacDonald were seen as leaders within The Gospel Coalition.
Some evangelicals did react to the episode. Mark Dever withdrew from participation in the Elephant Room conversation. Thabiti Anyabwile was willing to label Jakes a heretic. Other evangelicals such as Phil Johnson and Carl Trueman offered cogent, public criticism of the puff treatment that Jakes received in the conversation. Voddie Baucham said enough to get himself disinvited from a different event that MacDonald was hosting.
The leadership of TGC, however, failed to speak either soon enough or decisively enough. Only after the event did Kevin DeYoung offer a seven-point summary of his reactions, here and there worrying about the possibility that something may have been left obscure, but never actually rebuking MacDonald for having obscured it. D. A. Carson and Tim Keller offered an analysis of Jakes’s theological position that left MacDonald largely untouched. Justin Taylor also weighed in with a review of the history of the event, but any challenge he may have offered was completely overshadowed by concluding remarks in which he criticized MacDonald’s critics.
Thankfully, TGC did eventually address the theological position of Bishop Jakes. For his part, MacDonald, after first dismissing his critics as “discernmentalists,” removed himself from leadership in the organization. Any formal reproof or censure of MacDonald and Driscoll by the leadership of TGC, however, was muted at best.
Of course, we do not know what may have transpired behind closed doors. Surely conversations must have occurred, but whatever private rebukes were administered gave no guidance to those Christians who were looking to TGC as a champion of the gospel. What the TGC leadership needed to do was not merely to offer an analysis of Jakes’s theology, and not even to express concern over the possibility of confusion, but to rebuke MacDonald publicly and to distance itself sharply from his conduct. This was a Galatians 2:11 situation.
Anyone can claim to be committed to the gospel. If an organization genuinely stands for the gospel, however, it must require that its leaders and speakers not only believe the gospel, but be ready to defend the gospel publicly against all adversaries. It must stand, not only against those who preach false gospels, but against those who demean the gospel by depriving it of its rightful place as the boundary of Christianity.
The Shepherd Boy Sings in the Valley of Humiliation
John Bunyan (1628–1688)
He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low, no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.
I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much:
And, Lord, contentment still I crave,
Because Thou savest such.
Fullness to such a burden is
That go on pilgrimage:
Here little, and hereafter bliss,
Is best from age to age.