Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carl Trueman on the Mission of the Church, the Gospel Coalition, and Gospel-Centered Polarization

Just over a year ago I argued that the growing debate over the Church's mission is likely to be "the fault line that will form a crevasse, dividing evangelicals—even conservative, reformed evangelicals." In their new book, Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung make the same argument:
[O]ur sense is that this whole issue of mission (along with related issues like kingdom, social justice, shalom, cultural mandate, and caring for the poor) is the most confusing, most discussed, most energizing, and most potentially divisive issue in the evangelical church today. (25)
And last week Carl Trueman made a similar point:
The gospel-centred world seems divided over whether the gospel is primarily about transforming culture or individual forgiveness for sins. Of course, there is a spectrum of opinion on this matter and not everyone is at one end of it or the other. Yet the passions generated by DeYoung and Gilbert highlight the problem and indicate that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, it seems likely that the gospel-centred world is set to become more, not less, polarized on this issue. After all, how one answers the question of the mission of the church reflects how one understands the gospel and shapes everything that the church does.
In that same article Trueman alludes to some of his concerns about both the nature and role of The Gospel Coalition in reformed-ish, conservative-ish evangelicalism. But he's much more punchy in this interview. There, he relates an anecdote that might be a bit repugnant to those who share his sensibilities:
I received from an employee of The Gospel Coalition just last week an e-mail basically telling me to shut up about James MacDonald because I was effectively opposing the work of the church in the current time, and I'm sitting in my office thinking, "Since when did James MacDonald get appointed as my spokesman? I'm ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He's not an officer in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Who has decided that the agenda of my denomination and my congregation is suddenly to be set by people that I hadn't heard of until six months ago?"

So I think the overweening ambition of the parachurch becomes critical at this point as well. To me, churches should set the Church's agenda. Parachurch is helpful in supporting the church in that, but when you get an organization that is effectively starting to creep into church areas and trying to silence churchmen on these key points, that is very, very problematic to me.


Dave Doran said...


I agree with Trueman and you. I'd only add, though, that this has been developing on the horizon for decades. Arthur Johnston wrote "The Battle for World Evangelism" back in the late 70s as a response to the shift that he saw introduced by the Lausanne conference and documents.
I think what we are seeing now is that the John Stott vision of things has become the dominant view and, I'd contend, the Trojan horse by which the mission of the church has been captured.

Anonymous said...

I think that the discussions being held publicly by the likes of DeYoung, Tchavidjian, Keller, Hart, etc. are good and productive. They are trying to clarify some things that are difficult to keep clear in the minds of regular joe pew sitters like me.

On the other hand . . .

Dave, the "Trojan horse" was an intentionally deceitful combative act. It was an act of war. Surely you don't think Stott deliberately deceived the church. Do you? Perhaps you meant, Stott's views were the top of a slippery slope?

Either way, I'd love to see fundamentalists try to go a year without using either of those metaphors/arguments. But, I digress . . .

This debate about the "primary role" of the church goes back much farther than Lausanne and Stott. So, if there is a "horse" or "slope" it's uphill of them.

New School presbys have usually said that the church's role is more -- not less -- than the saving of individual souls. To them, the answer to the question, "Should we do X or Y?" has always been "yes."

That does not mean that they have no understanding of the difference between gathered worship and the work of Christians in the world. It does not mean that they have no understanding of spheres of authority and responsibility.

How to work all of this out in the world will always be a question of application and strategy and, therefore, will always be subject to a great deal of difference of opinion and disagreement.

Trueman and the OPC are more of Old school presby. Keller and the PCA -- and the Gospel Coalistion -- are more New school presby. So, it's not surprising that their approaches/strategies are different. At least as they begin the discussion.

Oh, and the Old school / New school divide is a lot older than Lausanne and Stott.


Josh said...

I agree with what is being said here. However, doesn't Trueman work for a parachurch organization? Seems ironic.

Bruce said...

Does it need to be a "fault line"? Baptism is an issue on which conservative reformed evangelicals do not agree, but nobody's arguing that baptism must define-- or will be the thing that finally destroys-- such collegial enterprises such as Together for the Gospel or The Gospel Coalition.

The debate should be with those who have replaced the cross with a truncated notion of kingdom, not those who are seeking a biblically faithful expression of cross and crown: reflecting the values and priorities of the coming kingdom while proclaiming the saving message of the crucified King, who alone will bring that kingdom in its fullness.

Ben said...

Dave, thanks for the reminder on that book. It was on my radar awhile back and I lost track of it.

Keith, you no doubt know much more about the historic issues between OS/NS Presbyterianism than I do, but my suspicion is that the differences on this issue will (sooner or later) strike closer to the heart of soteriology-ecclesiology-eschatology. If I'm wrong, I'd guess that I'm underestimating the divide in the OS/NS divide, not overestimating the significance of the contemporary debate. And by the way, Gilbert/DeYoung are absolutely NOT saying that the church's mission is merely saving souls.

Josh, you don't have to be anti-parachurch to critique how some of them function and what role they fill. CT addressed that in the article.

Bruce, I don't think it has to be a fault line, but I believe that it will be. If the movement were where I think Stetzer and Moore are, it's probably not a major rift. But I sense that the mainstream is, or is going to, more where Wallis is at.

Charles E. Whisnant said...

Don't we all look at ministry from a polarization position. Sad to say. I subscribe to a number of blogs that are not Baptist at all. And we all look at church ministry through the lens of our training. Its easy to say "What does the Bible teach about church ministry." And at the same time we view the Bible from our mindset. I am so amazed how many various positions there are in understanding "How to do the Lord's Work in the Lord's way. And we all believe we are right.

Anonymous said...

"And by the way, Gilbert/DeYoung are absolutely NOT saying that the church's mission is merely saving souls."

Oh, I agree with that fully. Of course, Keller and others are absolutely NOT advocating the dread "social gospel."

As I said, I think that the conversation is a good one. Not only are there historical factors at play (Os/Ns) there are also communication approaches and particular, local concerns that color what/how is mentioned by any one person.


Anonymous said...

What I find to be an obvious point about the church's mission is what a church actually is.

If the church is nothing more than the universal church, the individual responsibilities are also "church" responsibilities.

It isn't popular to define others into the realm of rebellion, but that is the natural conclusion. Whether it is T4G or TGC, or an alliance or whatever, they can only speak of the church in vague terms.

What is also a seemingly obvious point is where the church is going. Eschatology is yet another theological area that is largely kept vague on purpose, which only further complicates and disrupts the truth.

So how can anyone settle what the church should be doing when they can't agree on what a church is or where it is going? Not gonna happen.

Where did anyone in the NT try to overturn slavery, or high taxes, or war theories, or _______? What you see is: stay in your situation, pay your taxes, don't be a warmonger, etc.

Ben said...

Charles, what the Bible says means something. We can't all be right. We better believe that what we believe is right, but we better be humble enough to assume that we're wrong on some things we think we're right about. And then we better be humble enough to admit when we learn we've been wrong.

But the bottom line is that we're not helping each other if we pretend as if truth and falsehood is just a matter of perspective. And we're also not helping each other if we act like every point of disagreement demands division. So we need to have some good judgment on how to evaluate the significance of disagreements. Sadly, not too many people are good at that.