Critic Of The Gospel Coalition Criticises Them For Critiquing

Mike Frost has once again taken out his rhetorical shotgun and gone shooting. In the spray, there a few pellets which hit the mark, but many fall wide.

Mike is my brother in Christ, we even share a Baptist heritage. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I have never thought of him as a heretic (or even close), which is somewhat ironic given the article that he has posted today.

I had to laugh at his introduction which talks about the last heretic to be executed because that’s exactly what I want to see happening today, church heretics once again being publicly executed for their religious views. But seriously, as with much of Mike’s commentaries, he says some things that are helpful and other things are incorrect.

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picture of bearded dude who called out heresy

 

In his post, Mike is outlining concerns with Christians using the language of heresy, and in particular, he presents The Gospel Coalition as having a habit of and being quick to label others as heretics.

He says,

“I get it that the Gospel Coalition sits firmly in the Calvinist tradition. And I get that they have differences with Anabaptists (like Bruxy Cavey) and Pentecostals (like Bill Johnson) and female seminary professors. They have every right to express those differences. But could we lay off condemning every tradition we disagree with as heretical and refusing to have anything to do with them?!”

Hey, I’m all for robust exchanges. I’m not complaining about vigorous theological disagreement. But a few too many TGC writers seem to be making the assumption it’s their role to pass judgement on heresy or orthodoxy”

Mike leaves readers with the impression that there is a culture of heresy bell ringing within The Gospel Coalition. This is untrue.

The Gospel Coalition Australia (TGCA) publishes around 15-25 articles a month (similar number to that of Canada), while The Gospel Coalition (TGC) publish around 150 new resources every month. It would be accurate to say that some articles are critical of ideas, events, and teachings that have gained some prominence or momentum around the globe. It reasonable to expect notable Christian coalition would sometimes offer comments and even criticisms of significant movements within society and Christianity. These articles only represent a minority of all the material that is ever published on the websites, and even then, only on very rare occasions has it ever been suggested that a teaching is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. By rare, I mean perhaps 10 articles on the TGCA website out of many hundreds of articles. The New Testament books call out false teachers more regularly than TGCA!

Let’s take a snapshot of the articles that are currently being shown on TGCA’s homepage:

  • “6 ways to teach children humility”
  • “Pray for China”
  • “Which is Easier”
  • “1 Corinthians 5: Why it is Necessary and Loving Not to Associate or Eat with Certain ‘Christians’”
  • “Resilience = A Spiritual Project”
  • “The Challenge of Feminism (2): God’s Better Solutions”
  • “Use Your Singleness to Prepare for Marriage (Not)”

I noticed that Mike Frost is very selective in the examples he brings forward. He doesn’t mention TGC’s very public stance against racism, which has resulted in significant backlash in some conservative American quarters. He failed to tell his readers of the recent TGC article that refers to racism as ‘demonic’. Mike neglects to mention TGCA’s critique of Churches that have failed to properly support and care for women who are victims of domestic abuse.

If Mike’s point is simply to caution Christians about being too quick to use the language of heresy, then he has a valid and important point to make. Thank you. I agree with him. In fact, I can’t think of a single contributor to TGCA who wouldn’t agree with that point. Mike is going much further, by suggesting that the Gospel Coalition condemns every tradition it disagrees with as heresy. This is simply false.

There are different degrees of agreement and disagreement, and we find such even in the New Testament. Not every issue is a question of orthodoxy, not every disagreement means division, disunity, and breaking fellowship. Sometimes it is a matter of orthodoxy. These nuances are readily and constantly found articles published by Gospel Coalition.

It is also a caricature to paint The Gospel Coalition as a homogenous group without difference. Don Carson has recently written this helpful explanation of the nature of relationships within TGC.

No one is denying that there are many shared theological convictions among those on the TGC and TGCA Councils. Isn’t that a strength? Isn’t that a sign of Gospel unity? We must also note that these very members represent and serve in many different Christian traditions and they in turn fellowship with and serve and do mission with many other Christian traditions. And of course, there have been occasions when TGCA has published two separate articles on the same topic but from different theological persuasions. I don’t remember anyone throwing heresy grenades on this occasions, but I do recall robust and gracious discussion.

Mike is not pushing against rigorous theological discussion. He does, however, say this,

“I don’t see it as my responsibility to condemn anyone as a heretic.”

Critically assessing what we believe, teach, and practice is a biblical thing to do. Mike wouldn’t disagree with that.

Loving one’s congregation and other Christians such that we alert them to ideas and practices that are unhelpful or even dangerous, is a biblically mandated thing to do.

“Let them merely exist, but have nothing to do with them. Is this any way to speak of our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree?”

Doesn’t this depend on the issue? For many matters, this would be a gross way to speak to brothers and sisters in Christ, but on occasions, as Paul himself says several times in the NT, this is precisely what a church should do.

When Mike refers to my recent use of Acts ch.20 as some ‘wow’ moment, the fact is, the Apostle Paul did speak those words to the Ephesians Elders, and I reckon Church leaders ought to take them seriously. It loving and biblical for pastors and elders to watch over their congregations and to guard them against ideas that are wrong and harmful. In another gush of over-the-top embroidery, Mike insinuates that TGC must be denying peoples intelligence and minds. He says, “We’re not in the 11th century. Our congregations don’t comprise illiterate farmers and blacksmiths. Our church members are capable of critical thinking and basic research.”

Of course, we’re not living in 1066. And just as in the 11th Century, the Holy Spirit is given to every believer today, but this does not undermine or reduce other instructions in Scripture about how God gives gifts to some believers to teach and to have responsibility for congregations.

Mike has a habit of using of hyperbole, and in doing so he sometimes misrepresents the people he is criticising. This has been pointed out to him in the past. In this most recent article, Mike is quick to paint Stephen Tan with a furious and negative brushstroke. He describes Stephen as an “inquisitor” and acting as “a theological gatekeeper”. The very choice of words is designed to remind us of those terrible days in history, that no one wants to see returned. Let’s get the facts straight. Stephen attended a Bethel connected Church for several years and has first-hand experience and knowledge of Bethel teaching. He is not a distant gatekeeper or armed spiritual warrior descending on helpless victims. Stephen knows what he’s talking about. He has seen and experienced the damage caused by Bethel teaching. Of course, Mike could have mentioned this, given that he also quotes a post of mine where I explicitly point out this important fact.

Can Christians (on any platform) ever make mistakes and misunderstand and mispresent others? Of course, none of us are immune to this, including TGCA. Where we are wrong, we need to correct and to apologise. It is true, Stephen did make a couple of mistakes in his original post, and he was quick to fix these as soon as they were pointed out; these did not alter the overall concerns he was expressing.  Mike says that ‘Awakening Australia’ have responded to Tan’s article. Perhaps he could provide readers with a reference, for the only remark I have seen thus far is from the organiser, Ben Fitzgerald, who has referred to criticisms of Bethel as “smaller issues” and “tiny things”. There has been no explanation of what they do believe and no refutation of the criticisms in Tan’s article.

It is only a minor point but Stephen Tan is not a TGCA member. He is an Aussie Pastor who has twice submitted articles for the website, for which we are appreciative.

Perhaps the strangest thing in Mike’s article was this remark,

“Interestingly, in response to a critical blog post I wrote recently about Franklin Graham, someone from a TGC-like tradition asked me, “So if Franklin Graham tried to attend your church would you bar him?”

What does Franklin Graham have to do with any of this? Why refer to a nameless “someone from a TGC-like tradition”, in an article aimed at criticising TGC?  If Mike really wants to drag American politics into this discussion, shouldn’t he tell his readers of the two Gospel Coalition writers whom he knows have publicly agreed with his concerns about Franklin Graham’s upcoming visit to Australia?

One gets the impression that Mike is setting up a false dichotomy, and for what purpose? Surely he isn’t implying that like Franklin Graham, TGC is somehow ardently supportive of Donald Trump, over and against the ‘righteous’ left? Really?

It is healthy for us to take the kernel of truth in what Mike has presented here. Yes, let’s be very careful in how we use the language of orthodoxy and heresy.  Sometimes though, people do present and encourage beliefs that are outside of Christian orthodoxy, and it is wise and loving to warn our brothers and sisters about it. It is unfortunate that in offering a caution, Mike needed to caricature people and organisations.

Redeeming social justice from liberals (and conservatives)

Behind this post are two conversations that I’m having with myself today: One, Mike Frost wrote a piece titled, It’s Not a Liberal Agenda, it’s the Gospel!. Second, this Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 7:15-23, and so I’m spending time grappling with these words from the Lord Jesus.

As you read these ponderings you shouldn’t read them as a critique of Mike Frost, unless I refer to him explicitly. Mike’s meanderings serve as a jumping point for some ideas rather than the framing of what I want to say.

Also, as you read this article I understand that some people may burst a boil as you spot caveats, ‘what ifs’, and buts. In light of these medical emergencies may I offer this prefatory remark: this is a blog post not a 15,000 word essay, and so don’t be disappointed if I don’t fill in every gap or close every alleged theological aperture.

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i. Social selectivism

The Bible is certainly not short of individuals who lived a ‘form of godliness’, but ‘denied its power’, meaning they were bereft of Christ’s Gospel.

In my experience, both cultural conservatives and progressives have a propensity to fail in this way.

First of all, they are almost always selective in the kind of issues they promote. When was the last time you heard social and theological progressives defending the rights of unborn children and fighting to retain a classical view of marriage? Of course, the question could be asked of many issues across the socio-political spectrum.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but we know it needs to be said, Jesus never voted Green, Labor, or Liberal. Trying to squeeze Jesus under under any socio-political umbrella is wrong;  maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!

There are historical reasons why evangelicals have dropped the ball on many social concerns. These include the World Council of Churches’, Missio Dei, Second Vatican, and Lausanne 1974, each which have negatively impacted confidence in and need for verbal proclamation of the Gospel. Before this century long trajectory, Evangelicals immersed themselves in caring for the poor and suffering in society; some of the greatest evangelists were also intimately involved in creating orphanages and charities for the poor (John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon, for example).

Perhaps Mike’s critics smell some WCC residue in his social concerns; I don’t know.

But I love the fact that Mike Frost (and others) is seizing these issues from those who think they belong to a ‘leftist agenda.’ Concerns for Refugees and Indigenous people doesn’t belong to theological liberals, any more than other issues belong to the ‘right’. Rather, he’s rightly placing all things in the scope of God’s cosmic rule in Christ. While none of us can be active across all that troubles this fallen world, there is no opting out of loving our neighbour, including further examples that Frost cites,  people caught up in gambling and in the sex industry.

ii. Missing the Evangelical heart.

“Our job, as his followers, is to both announce and demonstrate what the rule of King Jesus is like and invite others to join us, to recognize that Jesus’ sacrificial death atoned for the sins of all, and that his resurrection establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom.” (Mike Frost)

It’s a great statement, but the question is, in practice what is this looking like? Four questions/concerns come to mind. I don’t know Mike well enough to know what he’d think of these points, but they are certainly true of some of my friends who readily identify with some social justice issues. With the view of loving the poor:

1. Verbal proclamation of the Gospel is often relegated, if not dispensed with altogether.

I remember sitting in a seminar a few years back, addressing the topic of local mission. The presenter spoke of ‘doing mission’ by creating programs to help the poor and marginalised. I asked a question about evangelism, to which he answered, one might explain the Gospel but it is not necessary.

I did find this comment of Mike’s about evangelism a little boorish,

‘Is the gospel really just a set of magic words, like an incantation, I have to blurt out to appear to be true to Jesus?’

I certainly don’t know anyone who thinks this way, and it’s a bit mischievous to portray folk this way. We would do well to remind ourselves of Jesus’ earthly ministry where he prioritised the public preaching of God’s Word, a model adopted by the Apostles and passed on to future generations of pastors. At the same time, they didn’t ignore the very real social needs around them, and Jesus gives us the example par excellence of loving society’s most disadvantaged.

2. Aspects of the atonement such as Christus exemplar and Christus victor take centre stage while penal substitution is squeezed out, often becoming little more than an awkward ‘theory’.

3. The Gospel of ‘forgiveness of sins’ drops from the centre of  the Christian message, and we fall danger of converting people into a Gospel of works.

4. I want to be careful about confusing Gospel fruit with the Gospel, although we want to say the Gospel will inevitably and necessarily produce fruit (cf. Matt 7:15-23).

If any of these points are representative of the bald man of Manly, then there may be warrant for criticism, but fighting for refugees is no indicator of belittling evangelism or compromising the Gospel. And of the social concerns he has written, how can we not want to speak up and to defend and love?

iii. Redeeming social justice.

None of the above points are inevitable. Serving the hurting, lonely, and unwanted, are beautiful and necessary examples of loving our neighbours. These actions are fruit of the Gospel.

Does not the good news of Jesus Christ change everything? When we have experienced God’s forgiveness, and by grace been brought into his family, this love changes the way we view other people. Therefore, we mustn’t leave these issues to the left or right, for the love of Christ compels us.

In light of the Scripture I think it is fair to say that a Church who promotes social justice but doesn’t practice evangelism has failed to understand the Gospel and is disobeying God. And Christians who believe in evangelism and who think it unChristian to fight for the most oppressed, they too are yet to grasp the Gospel. As Jesus says, a good tree will produce good fruit. And in the Sermon on the Mount, fruit is almost a synonym for righteousness, and righteousness here includes purity, humility, sacrifice, and generosity. Is it not applicable to live out these things for the good of society’s most vulnerable people?

From what I can see, Evangelicals are returning to social justice ministries, and many respected evangelical leaders are increasingly speaking to these issues, including Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Al Mohler, and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. Why? The Gospel changes everything.

We don’t have to choose between helping the poor and doing evangelism. We ought to do both for both express love for others, and we commit to both without de-centralising the place of Gospel telling.

More Christian leaders weighing in on the plebiscite issue

Two thoughtful articles were published today by two Australian Christian leaders, critiquing the pros and cons of the marriage plebiscite.

While they are addressing different points, they could be read as complementary pieces.

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Mike Frost asks the question, ‘is Australia really mature enough for a plebiscite on this matter?’ His answer? No. His reason?  ‘Are Australians capable of debating this matter without descending into a cruel and divisive fight about intensely personal matters like people’s religious views and their sexuality? I very much doubt it.’ Sadly, it is not difficult to find examples, many from people supporting SSM, but deplorable comments have also been made toward LGBTI Australians.

Ray Galea is also concerned with the rhetoric plebiscite; he is concerned for the well being of gay and lesbian Australians, and he is also conscious of how Christianity may be presented to the public during this debate.

This Pastor from Western Sydney offers sage advice for Christians, that we must not let this issue confuse, lessen, or hide the good news of Jesus Christ. He is also right to point out that personal testimony is a powerful tool to persuade people of Christian theology and ethics:

“Our ongoing focus should be on where the battle is really fought. Its in our homes. It’s when we get to present to our family and friends spouses who are loved and respected.”

Whatever the outcome on the plebiscite the real battle for marriage is first and last on the ground, as the world sees husbands and wives under the Lordship of Christ living out order and equality, love and respect (Eph 5:33).

The better our marriages the more powerful is our argument that God’s way is indeed the best way.”

Without taking away anything they have said, the fact remains, someone needs to decide whether the Marriage Act will change to include same-sex marriage or not. If not the people, then the Parliament, but of course  many of the malicious and slanderous comments have come from the lips of our political representatives. If we can’t trust the Australian people with a plebiscite, we certainly can’t trust the Parliament.

The question then is, where can serious discussion take place on this issue?

There are of course many positive examples, although few come to public attention because calm, intelligent, and respectful conversation doesn’t send the news cameras racing to the scene.

I don’t think we should give up on highlighting attractive examples of public debate on marriage, and to encourage Australians emulate these. Sadly, there will always be some who insist on fighting dirty, and we trust that these dreadful tactics will be exposed and seen for what they are. Perhaps some of the vitriol stems from fear, certainly much of it is hate, but most disgraceful of all are those who are using hate and insult as a weapon to silence other points of view. Such methods are unChristian. Indeed, we must go further and not only set an example of gracious dissent, we must be prepared to call out that mud when ‘Christians’ are throwing it, and we should be ready to take those hits for our gay and lesbian neighbours.

Always remember the Lord Jesus. Jesus Christ remains the most true and compelling example of how to engage in conversation where there is significant disagreement. He would never compromise the righteousness of God; the New Testament records many events where Jesus disagrees with the views of 1st Century Jewish society. But Jesus didn’t stop with disagreement; he went much further: he volunteered to lay down his life for the very people with whom he disagreed. His death and resurrection provides us not only with the example par excellence, but it works, it brings about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.

It is encouraging to see more Christian leaders expressing views on this issue of marriage. I share the concerns that my brothers Mike and Ray have raised, but I do not think any of the alternatives will prove to be more reasonable and civil. However, whether there is a plebiscite, a Parliamentary vote, or no vote at all, the Gospel doesn’t change, the way we view our fellow Australians shouldn’t change,  and the partnership of love and truth must remain in our mouths, hearts and lives.