Observations about the Gospel-Centered Interpretation of Ministry

Several years ago, I wrote a blog that cautioned fundamental leaders about unbiblical attitudes and actions that are driving younger ministers from the ranks of fundamentalism. The article attempted to correct abuses within our movement—abuses that presented us as bitter rather than kind and unscholarly rather than exegetical. Although the article was warmly received, there still is a somewhat alarming exodus. And one of the attracting magnets is The Gospel Coalition.

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a “a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”[i] This fellowship was founded by Don Carson and Timothy Keller and has drawn many younger fundamentalists. It is not uncommon to see these fundamentalists attending TGC conferences and referencing TGC publications and blogs.

To be sure, the scholarly approach, the cultural relevance, and the calm spirit pervading the TGC movement has much to commend, and it is understandable why some fundamentalists who are disenfranchised with mean-spirited and intellectually-inferior preaching are drawn to it. I wonder, however, if the pendulum has swung too much in the opposite direction. There are certain landmines that are embedded within the TGC movement, and the failure to navigate these landmines may result in a significant amount of collateral damage.

Inaugurated Eschatology

Timothy Keller’s formal education came from Bucknell University (BA, 1972), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1975) and Westminster Theological Seminary (D.Min., 1981). At Westminster, Keller came under the supervision of Harvie M. Conn and was introduced to the concept of urban center ministry. Eventually Keller was recruited to start Redeemer Presbyterian Church in center-city Manhattan. Keller has become a spokesman for urban city church planting and offered an address to the Lausanne Conference of 2010 to advocate the need for church planting in light of world-wide rapid urbanization. This should be applauded.

In his zeal to reach urban centers, however, Keller has become a strong advocate of cultural engagement. Instead of speaking out against cultural deviances, Keller has become a proponent of cultural participation encouraging the members of Redeemer Presbyterian to participate in business, art, and entrepreneurship. To be sure, we are to live “godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:12), and every Christian is to be salt and light in the very culture in which they live. My concern is not that Keller is encouraging influence and participation, but that he is promoting integration into culture as the primary method of evangelism while at the same time not wanting to preach against deviant aspects and sinful practices of our culture.[ii]

It is not surprising that Keller has embraced this desire for cultural relevance since he identifies as a neo-Calvinist. Calvinism has a long-standing tradition of seeing the kingdom of God as something that takes place currently on earth as God reigns and rules in the hearts of men. To quote Roland Bainton, “Calvin . . . terminated the early Christian expectation of the speedy coming of the Lord and envisaged successive acts in the historical drama in which the Church came well-nigh to be equated with the kingdom of God. Even so Calvin substituted for the great and imminent day of the Lord the dream of the Holy Commonwealth in the terrestrial sphere.”[iii] To Calvin, there was no separation of church and state. He thoroughly believed it was the church’s responsibility to usher in kingdom-like conditions through an overhaul of culture.

Though virtually all dispensationalists would see the kingdom as something future rather than a present-day reality, progressive dispensationalists such as Darrell Bock have argued that the New Covenant is not made predominantly with Israel but with both Israel and the Church. The initial fulfillment is with the church, while the ultimate fulfillment is with Israel. Some Southern Baptists, like Russell Moore, have embraced this “inaugurated eschatology” that highlights the kingdom of God as the center of theology and ethics. They argue that the Kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet.”[iv]

This embrace of inaugurated eschatology has motivated neo-Calvinists such as Moore to become aggressive in cultural issues such as removal of the confederate flag,[v] support of Syrian refugees,[vi] and the defeat of Donald Trump.[vii] While there is nothing wrong with being engaged in the political positions with which you align, Moore does so to such an extent that he aligns most of these positions with Christian duty. Ironically, although Moore has argued that the policies of the Christian right in showing partisanship for the Republican Party has undermined the Christian Gospel,[viii]  he has no problem being partisan in his desire to eradicate partisanship. In the early 1990s, prior to entering the ministry, Moore served as an aide to U.S. Representative Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a democrat who strongly opposed the fiscal policies of George W. Bush. Moore is entrenched within the stream of Christian democratic communitarianism, calling for a Christian demonstration of ethical transformation within the church as the initial manifestation of the kingdom.[ix]

There is no denying that Christians should seek to apply biblical principles to cultural issues and that cultural relevance can produce an atmosphere that is conducive to people understanding the Gospel, the primary objective of the church is not to improve culture. The primary objective of the church is to carry out the Great Commission.

The church is not responsible to bring in the kingdom or to produce a kingdom-like atmosphere. Indeed, kingdom-like conditions will never be attainable apart from the saving truth of the Gospel. Attempting to impact culture without a clarion call to repentance and faith is like mopping the floor with the faucet still running. The need of this world is not improved culture but inner conversion. It appears that the Gospel-centered theology, inasmuch as it holds to inaugurated eschatology, fails in that it fails to keep the Gospel central.

Ineffective Evangelism

Another pervasive influence of the TGC movement is its apologetic approach to evangelism. Keller, for instance, in seeking to appeal to an educated and skeptical audience outside the faith, turns to apologetics. His most famous work on this subject is The Reason for God, which has reached number seven on the New York Times bestseller list.[x] I’m thankful for any well-reasoned arguments that gain the ear of unsaved people, helping them see the accuracy of Scripture and hopefully then understand that it is the authoritative Word of God.

I question, however, whether debate is an effective evangelism tool. To be sure, all Christians should be ready to give an apologetic for the Christian faith (1 Peter 3:15). In Acts 17, Paul presented well-reasoned arguments on Mars Hill as a way to lead into preaching the gospel itself. People may be loved or taught into salvation, but they seldom argued into it. So while apologetics may be used to gain a hearing, nothing but preaching the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ will lead to salvation (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). When it comes to apologetics, we must be very careful that we don’t compromise truth to appease liberal thought in our community.

Keller, as many others in the TGC movement, has shunned both “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” labels because of their political connotations. The thought is that the abrasiveness of fundamentalism is actually a deterrent to evangelism, and a softer, milder approach is in order. As mentioned earlier, I too have concerns about being harsh and anti-intellectual in our methods. But I’m concerned that the Gospel Centered movement has taken this much further so that leaders are ashamed of truth and unwilling to take an uncompromising stand or to confront people with their need for salvation.

Intellectual Elitism

The desire to become amiable to a world that lives in hatred to Christ and His followers (John 15:18) creates a slippery slope. In fear of looking crazy to a fallen world, wide-sweeping doctrinal concessions have been made. Keller, for example, states that biological evolution is “neither ruled in nor ruled out.”[xi] Thus, Keller’s views on creationism are not strictly literal.

Historically, when one makes concessions on the literalness of Genesis 1-11, he makes concessions in succeeding theological areas as well. One assumes that these doctrinal concessions are made in order to avoid looking foolish to the world. Where does this concession end? We know biblically that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). When a person or group begins with a premise of desiring to avoid looking foolish in the eyes of the world, this will necessitate eventual concessions with regard to the cross. Intellectual elitism inevitably leads to a devalued view of the atonement. Our fear is that the desire for scholarly recognition may eventually lead to soteriological concessions. The very foundational structures of the Gospel Centered movement may lead to the Gospel not being central at all.

As one evangelical admitted, “An evangelical is a fundamentalist that wants the respect of modernists, and sells his soul to get it. That is to say, the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical isn’t the content of their respective beliefs, but the way in which those beliefs are held. Fundamentalists, to their credit, clung to the fundamentals like a pit bull on a t-bone. There was nothing attractive or sophisticated about it, but everyone knew you’d never tear the two apart. The evangelical, on the other hand, sought to find, at least culturally, a middle ground. Yes, we believe in the authority of the Bible, but we believe it for nice, professional, academic reasons. Indeed, all that we believe we believe for nice, professional, academic reasons. What separates evangelicals from fundamentalists is that we evangelicals don’t breathe fire, and we have fancy degrees hanging in our studies, instead of pictures of Billy Sunday. We evangelicals are they who cut this deal with the modernists, ‘We will call you brother, if you will call us scholar.’”

He went on to say that fundamentalists “fought the good fight, while we collaborated. They kept the faith, while we merely kept our positions in our communities.”[xii]

In my opinion, the TGC movement has much to learn from this critique. Thus, because the Gospel Centered movement places undue emphasis on impacting culture rather than personal conversion, and because it places undue emphasis on defending the Gospel rather than proclaiming it, and because it seeks to reach the mind of fallen man rather than his conscience, it is debatable whether the Gospel Centered movement is as Gospel centered as claimed. May our pastors and church leaders become less concerned with image and perception and more concerned with a direct confrontation with the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ.

[i] The Gospel Coalition. Foundation Documents. Preamble. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/

[ii] Keller’s views on Christianity’s interchange with culture are well-documented in his books Every Good Endeavor and Center Church.

[iii] Roland H. Bainton. The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952, pp. 114-15.

[iv] Russell Moore. “The Kingdom of God and the Church: A Baptist Reassessment.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Winter, 2007. pg. 17.

[v] Sarah Bailey and Karen Tumulty, “How a Southern Baptist leader became a surprising voice on Confederate flag”, Washington Post, June 24, 2015.

[vi] Russell Moore, “Stop pitting security and compassion against each other in the Syrian refugee crisis”, Washington Monthly, November 19, 2015.

[vii] Symposium: Conservatives Against Trump, National Review, January 21, 2016.

[viii] Sarah Bailey, “Could Southern Baptist Russell Moore lose his job?” Washington Post, March 13, 2017.

[ix] Russell Moore and Robert Sagers, “The Kingdom of God and the Church: A Baptist Reassessment,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12, Spring 2008, pp. 68-86.

[x] “Best sellers: nonfiction.” The New York Times, March 23, 2008.

[xi] Timothy Keller. “In His Words: The Pastor on the Issues.” New York Times. January 25, 1998.

[xii] R. C. Sproul, Jr. “Our Fundamentalists Betters.” Ligonier Ministries, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/our-fundamentalist-betters/.

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