Read the series so far.
After three weeks of my discussing popular gospel-only organizations, a friend wrote to me to remind me that we have been here before. Gospel-only organizations were not invented by evangelicals in the early 21st century, but by fundamentalists in the early 20th century. My correspondent pointed out that, if I express reservations about the odd mixture of diversity and specificity within these organizations today, I should probably register the same reservations about some of the early fundamentalist associations.
The point is well taken. A fundamental is fundamental because of its connection to the gospel. For an organization to claim the name fundamentalist is to claim that it is committed to the clarification and defense of the gospel. Unless the organization adds some other qualifier (e.g., a denominational tag), it may rightly be viewed as a gospel-only organization. Such organizations are almost exactly analogous to The Gospel Coalition or Together for the Gospel.
For example, in 1919 W. B. Riley organized the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. An early example of non-denominational fundamentalism, the WCFA prided itself upon the defense and propagation of the fundamentals. Yet from the beginning, the WCFA doctrinal statement spelled out a strong commitment to premillennialism.
The WCFA never made an issue out of denominational distinctives because those distinctives are not essential to the gospel, but it did make an issue out of premillennialism. This resembles the puzzling combination of diversity and specificity within present day gospel-only organizations. Only the issues are different.
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).
Read the series so far.
Even among evangelicals, the gospel constantly faces the danger of being obscured. It is obscured when gospel believers embrace gospel deniers in cooperative ministry. It is obscured when new doctrinal constructs redefine gospel essentials. It is obscured when Christians embrace values or practices that are contrary to gospel living.
Since such obfuscations abound, Christians ought to give themselves to the task of clarifying and defending the gospel. Organizations that support this task should be welcomed as helpers in a day of theological confusion. The common perception is that groups like The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Together for the Gospel (T4G) have been created specifically to perform this task. Many people believe that these organizations exist only for the clarification and defense of the gospel.
To be sure, both TGC and T4G are strong defenders of the gospel. Insofar as that is the case, I support their efforts. Nevertheless, I find that I cannot bring myself into too-close association or identification with groups of this sort. I cannot “join” them.
Most evangelicals think that The Gospel Coalition and comparable organizations exist exclusively for the proclamation, explanation, and defense of the gospel. These organizations present themselves as clarifying voices in an age when many evangelicals have embraced doctrines and practices that obscure or damage the gospel. To the extent that TGC and other organizations have devoted themselves to the defense of the gospel, they should be applauded by all gospel believers.
Organizations like The Gospel Coalition have been marked by broad fellowship within the bounds of the gospel. For example, its leaders include Baptists, Presbyterians, and even Anglicans, among others. Clearly one need not affirm a particular polity in order to identify with TGC.
The Gospel Coalition also displays considerable diversity on other theological issues. Leaders like C. J. Mahaney and John Piper affirm that at least some miraculous gifts are available today. In an interview with Eric Metaxas, Tim Keller said that he affirms a version of “progressive creationism” that is “not quite” theistic evolution. No one would argue that these divergences are merely incidental, but they are thought to be acceptable in a coalition that centers upon the gospel.