Together (Only?) for the Gospel
The differences between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals include considerable disparity in their attitudes toward miraculous gifts. Fundamentalists are almost universally and vigorously cessationists. Conversely, many conservative evangelicals are continuationists, and those who are not can still function comfortably with the ones who are. From a fundamentalist perspective, this difference is rather a significant one.
Nevertheless, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals do hold much in common. What they hold in common is properly designated as koinonia or fellowship. It would be hypocritical to pretend that this fellowship does not exist, just as it would be hypocritical to pretend to enjoy fellowship where none existed.
Most fundamentally (the word is deliberate), both groups are united in their affirmation and exaltation of the gospel. None of the differences that we have examined to this point results in a denial of the gospel. Both fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals believe the gospel, preach the gospel, and defend the gospel.
This mutuality in the gospel leads to a question. Since conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists are united in their allegiance to the gospel, should they not be able to cooperate at the level of the gospel? To put it positively, should fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals get together for the gospel?
Frankly, I am still thinking through an answer to that question. It is not really an urgent question, though, for two reasons. On the one hand, fundamentalists do not seem to be sponsoring any enterprises that center on the gospel alone. On the other hand, conservative evangelicals (who do sponsor such enterprises) do not seem to wish for fundamentalist involvement. I know of no recognizable fundamentalist leader who has been invited to speak at T4G or The Gospel Coalition.
Consequently, I have the luxury of making a few guesses and testing a few speculations. The following paragraphs are a tentative effort to think through the problem. Should fundamentalists join conservative evangelicals in projects such as T4G and The Gospel Coalition?
A moment ago, I noted that fundamentalists are not sponsoring any endeavors that center upon the gospel alone. Why is that? The answer cannot be that fundamentalists have no concern for the gospel. Every fundamentalist I know—even the most aberrant ones—care deeply about the gospel. In fact, fundamentalists have championed the preaching and proclamation of the gospel. Their most distinctive practice (ecclesiastical separation) is an effort to maintain the purity of the gospel.
So why don’t fundamentalists have an equivalent to T4G or The Gospel Coalition? I think that it is because fundamentalists realize something, although it is so basic that they might even have trouble explaining it. It is this: while our joint profession of the gospel constitutes the most basic form of Christian fellowship, our fellowship is rarely about the gospel alone. Nor should it be.
The gospel is the atmosphere of Christianity. It is the very air that we breathe. It is assumed in and by everything that is genuinely Christian.
Viewed from this perspective, it makes as much sense to have a rally in favor of the gospel as it does to have a rally in favor of air. Do we value air? Are we committed to its centrality for breathing? Of course! Under normal circumstances, however, someone who wanted to focus simply on air would leave us all nonplussed. The same would be true of a Christian who wanted to focus just on the gospel.
Of course, not every circumstance is a normal circumstance. We actually do focus on air under two circumstances. We become deeply concerned when we see someone who needs air. We also become concerned when the air is threatened by harmful pollutants.
Our focus on the gospel is analogous. We concentrate on the gospel when we see someone who needs it (i.e., evangelism). We also concentrate on the gospel when we see someone who threatens it (i.e., polemics). These are the two circumstances under which Christians might band together for the gospel: to propagate it through evangelism, or to defend it polemically. Under neither of these circumstances are they simply together for the gospel.
The task of evangelism does not terminate in the proclamation and acceptance of the gospel. Biblical evangelism includes baptizing. It includes teaching disciples to observe all the things that Jesus has taught.
If baptism and discipleship are part of biblical evangelism, then organizing for the gospel simpliciter is really a truncation of Christian responsibility. To come together for the gospel actually requires us to come together for more than the gospel alone.
The organizers of T4G and The Gospel Coalition seem to realize this. When they get together for the gospel, they actually feature a pretty narrow slice of gospel-believing theology. In fact, whole ranges of conservative evangelicalism have been excluded.
If they simply wanted to get together for the gospel, we might expect to see an outspoken non-Calvinist or two in the lineup. We might expect to see someone who expressed questions about Lordship Salvation. We might expect to see an avowed (i.e., non-leaky) dispensationalist. We might expect to see someone whose theology was not explicitly Reformed.
After all, organizations like T4G and The Gospel Coalition feature continuationists. Their leaders are willing to work with people like Mark Driscoll and Rick Warren. Is it really believable that they cannot find a place for Christian statesmen like Charles Ryrie or John C. Whitcomb?
The leaders of T4G and The Gospel Coalition certainly make choices about acceptable boundaries. Those choices are reflected in the names that are featured on the platform. That is not wrong. In fact, recognizing boundaries is important. In view of the choices that these leaders make, however, it seems a bit facile to think that their fellowship in these meetings is determined by nothing but the gospel.
Lovers of the gospel may band together for evangelism. They may also band together to defend the gospel. The gospel requires defense when it is attacked and subverted by apostate teachers.
The gospel is not defended merely by restating it. It is not defended merely by exploring it. It is not even defended merely by replying to the arguments of those who attack the gospel. Each of these things is necessary, but even together they are inadequate as a defense for the gospel.
The defense of the gospel requires that apostate teachers be exposed and labeled. It requires that Christian recognition be withheld from them. It requires that the Lord’s people be warned against them, much as Paul did in Galatians 1:6-9 or John did in his second epistle.
In other words, being together for the gospel implies being separated unto the gospel. It implies a radical break with those who deny the gospel. Furthermore, I think it involves a refusal to follow the leadership of Christians who betray the gospel by making common cause with apostates.
This is not the time or place to develop these ideas. What I will note here is that these considerations introduce the fourth, and (in my opinion) most serious difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. The bone of contention between us is over the necessity of absolute ecclesiastical separation from gospel deniers.
The gospel is surely the most important thing in the world. It is the most important thing in Christianity. What is of utmost importance in the Christian faith is expressed in, assumed with, or implied by the gospel.
If we are Christians, then we live and move and have our being in the gospel. Precisely because of its sweeping importance, however, it comes into focus only when it needs to be proclaimed or when it needs to be defended. Both of these activities, however, turn out to entail more than just the recognition of the gospel message.
If my musings come anywhere close to the truth, then evidently we are never simply together for the gospel. For Christians, other factors will necessarily be at work in decisions about fellowship and cooperation. Some of these factors appear to be recognized in practice by the planners of T4G and The Gospel Coalition.
So what about fellowship and cooperation between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals? I suggest the following considerations.
First, when conservative evangelicals get together for the gospel, they appear to use more than simply the gospel as their basis of fellowship. Perhaps they are wrong to do so, but I am inclined to think that they are right. Whether it is proclaimed or defended, the gospel points beyond itself.
Second, if conservative evangelicals are right to base their cooperation upon more than the gospel, then it becomes difficult to criticize fundamentalists for doing the same thing. The factors that fundamentalists consider are sometimes different than the factors that conservative evangelicals consider. We can weigh each factor for its merits. What we cannot do, however, is to suggest that fundamentalists must strip aside everything except the gospel as a basis of cooperation—unless we are willing to demand that conservative evangelicals do this as well.
Third, if both fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are weighing factors that go beyond the gospel, then an additional possibility opens up. That is the possibility that the two groups are not necessarily obligated to cooperate for the sake of the gospel. They are not obligated to cooperate in its proclamation and they are not obligated to cooperate in its defense. They will need to determine the extent of their cooperation, not simply on the basis of their mutual allegiance to the gospel, but also on the basis of the other factors that they are weighing.
Fourth, if these two groups choose not to cooperate, then their non-cooperation must not be construed as opposition. Choosing to work separately is not the same as antagonism. It is possible to love one another, be grateful for one another, pray for one another, and wish one another success without necessarily working together. Possibly (remember, I am simply testing the idea) such fraternal non-cooperation might be the best course for fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals at more than one level.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.