Are We Really Together for the Gospel?
We live in an age of conferences, seminars, and mp3 downloads. Evangelicalism bulges with an excess of venues for pastoral education and encouragement. In the past, the majority of these events focused on new tools or particular programs that a pastor or pastoral staff might implement in their church. And while some of these suggestions were helpful, an awareness of their inability to solve our problems grows .
Partly because of this heightened awareness, many evangelicals are experiencing a reformation of sorts. Many pastors and even laity are reading Christian classics, studying biblical languages, rooting themselves in church history, and instructing their congregations in rich theology.
Groups such as The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Together for the Gospel (T4G) have kindled and fanned this Reformational flame. The men who comprise these groups have a visible, individual zeal for strengthening the Church through a return to biblical ecclesiology. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.
Nevertheless, I have some level of concern about these groups—for instance, in the way they are structured, framed, and operated. What are these concerns? I have at least three.
(1) These Groups Diminish Ecclesiology and Denominational Distinctives
In a recent panel discussion at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, host Russell Moore asked Carl Trueman to identify some of the weaknesses in the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. Trueman answered that they (particularly TGC) diminish certain doctrinal and denominational distinctives .
For instance, Trueman focused on the examples of baptism and other ecclesiological aspects. As a paedobaptist Presbyterian, he wholeheartedly disagrees with his credobaptist, Southern Baptist friends on the baptism issue Similarly, Trueman, and Baptists would disagree on the structure of church government. But these are the very things which go entirely unaddressed at these conferences. They are put aside for the sake of “togetherness.” With Trueman’s deep love and admiration for the Reformation, he does not see these issues as negligible.
Many will disregard this concern for baptism and particularly church government. But we must ask whether avoiding such important doctrines downplays their weightiness. Trueman seems to think so, and I tend to agree. Such issues formed the very heart of the Reformation. So, isn’t it a bit odd when Reformational movements actually minimize their significance?
Let me be more direct: On the one hand, Southern Baptists within TGC and T4G cross ecclesiological and denominational boundaries to unite with Presbyterians and Charismatics on issues of soteriology. Yet, on the other hand, they remain unwilling to cross soteriological boundaries to include the majority of their own denomination in these Gospel-centered movements. Interestingly, one could baptize infants, speak in tongues, receive new revelation, and practice Presbyterian church government, but be included if he affirms at least four points of Calvinism and complementarianism. They solely emphasize Calvinistic soteriology while bracketing out important ecclesiological distinctives.
This somewhat confusing soteriological emphasis leads to my second concern.
(2) These Groups Use the Word Gospel Confusingly
A second problem I see is their use of the word Gospel. Both TGC and T4G use the word in their very names. But what exactly do they mean by it? The Gospel Coalition gives a quite extensive definition of the term . T4G does so in a less direct way with their Affirmations and Denials. Personally, as a Classical/Reformational Arminian, which is distinct from Wesleyan Arminianism, I agree with nearly all of their definitions and affirmations. Yet you will neither find any Classical Arminians speaking at their conferences, nor affiliated with them in any official capacity.
The case is similar with T4G. Their website explains: “Together for the Gospel began as a friendship between four pastors. These friends differed on issues like baptism and the charismatic gifts. But they were committed to standing together for the main thing—the gospel of Jesus Christ .” Yet, while these men’s Church tradition’s are diverse, their Calvinistic soteriology is quite similar. And while you will find Calvinist Charismatics, Calvinist Baptists, and Presbyterians at T4G, you will not find any Gospel-centered, Southern Baptist whose soteriology is closer to Arminius’ than Calvin’s.
Why is this? Both groups began in different ways, but seek similar goals—Christ-centered preaching, worship, and ministry in the local church. If the goal then is to unite evangelicals into a coalition that is together for the Gospel, then why are these groups made up solely of Calvinists? Are we together for the Gospel, or simply together for Calvin?
It would be inconceivable that these dear brothers see their metaphysic as the only biblical or historical interpretation of Scripture. As a matter of fact, I know very well that this is not the case for several of them . But if it is not the case, then why do they use word Gospel to refer only to one historical branch of soteriology?
This approach contains inherent dangers. For instance, it equates Calvinism with Gospel. At the very least, it acts as if it is the only historically valid understanding of biblical soteriology. While these faithful men likely do not intend this, it is nevertheless implicit in their doctrinal statements and in their operational patterns.
To them, the Gospel is quite narrow. Yet biblical, historic, orthodox, and even Reformational soteriology is broader and more balanced than these movements represent. This leads to my final concern.
(3) These Groups Have Far Too Narrow a Focus
If these efforts are truly about the Gospel’s furtherance, then their focus is far too narrow. In a recent interview with the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding, Alistair Begg expressed similar concerns. When asked about his involvement with The Gospel Coalition, Begg explained that he had little involvement in its conception or structure, even though he is on the TGC Council and has spoken at the conference . Begg stated, “This Gospel Coalition, at least ostensibly, seems not to appeal in the same degree to those who may not have a sort of Reformed view of things. So, in that respect, it still has a ways to go to really be a coalition that is representative of evangelicalism across the board” .
This leads us to the question: Do TGC and T4G really seek to represent “evangelicalism across the board”? I am not suggesting that they reduce their aims to this goal. It is ultimately these groups’ founders and participants’ prerogative to decide who they want to include. They are not required to be some sort of equal opportunity employer, and it would be foolish to imply that they ought to be. The point is this: If they truly are about the Gospel, they must broaden their focus. But, if what they’re hoping is to promote their particular theological strand, they should be very forward and honest about that. Without further clarification, the danger of equating Calvinism with the Gospel will continue to be perceived as a reality.
It is difficult to exaggerate the many marvelous developments that have resulted from these two groups’ efforts. But it is also saddening to think of the impact that could be experienced by the broader Evangelical community if they included them in these movements. There are many conservative, reformational, evangelical Arminians who could greatly benefit this Gospel-centered community.
What then is the solution to this dilemma? Here are a few potential horizons to consider:
(a) Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition could openly state that they see Arminian soteriology as a hindrance to their efforts: If they openly admit this, then it is at least an honest approach that eliminates this misunderstanding of Gospel unity and togetherness for all evangelicals.
(b) Arminians could create counter conferences such as The Arminian Gospel Coalition or Together for the Arminian Gospel: Though this is offered in jest, it serves a rhetorical end. It obviously wouldn’t solve anything. Some sort of counter-movement would have to involve Calvinists and Arminians alike, or we would be back at square one.
(c) T4G and TGC could reevaluate their current approach and seek a more open dialogue with Reformed Arminians and less Calvinistic Baptists: This could offer greater balance to their efforts and vastly broaden their impact upon evangelical churches. However, I do not believe that T4G and TGC want to represent Evangelicalism across the board. And quite frankly, I do not blame them for that. But the fact of the matter is that there are Classical Arminians and other non-Calvinists who are both Complementarian and Gospel-centered. These men make much of Christ and much of His grace through a more Classical Arminian perspective.
No matter what comes from either of these movements, some sort of clarification is needed. If Arminians are included in the future, soteriological discussions should not be off-limits. If they are not included, our dear brothers should honestly consider discussing ecclesiology and baptism because of their great importance. Either way, honest and direct clarification is absolutely necessary. My honest hope is that we truly can unite together for the sake of the Gospel someday very soon.
 Some of this awareness is due to cultural critique of program-driven models of ecclesiology. Another factor is stagnation and weariness due to ever-changing ideas and models.
 After attending the T4G conference this year, Carl Trueman altered some of his thoughts about T4G. He explained that he saw it simply as a conference rather than some sort of movement or coalition. You can read that piece here: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2012/04/t4g-made-me-look-like-a-girlym.php. Accessed May 26, 2012.
 That definition can be found here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/confessional/. Accessed on April 25, 2012.
 http://t4g.org/about/. Accessed on April 25, 2012.
 Russell Moore appears to be particularly interested bringing about greater unity among Evangelicals. This was clearly shown by his extending an invitation to J. Matthew Pinson to participate in a pre-T4G discussion a the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
 Alistair Begg is on the committee for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
 http://www.henrycenter.org/media/player_audio.php?id=327. Accessed on April 25, 2012.