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.

Two Campbells and a Bird sat down to chat

Nathan Campbell has responded to recent articles written by Mike Bird and myself, criticising the tone and contour of what we said.

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First up, I want to say that I’d be happy to play the bagpipes and swap stories about the MacDonalds with my fellow Campbell any day of the week. More than that, I love my brother Nathan’s passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ; his faith in the power of God’s good news is an example for Christians across the country.

I agree with so much of what Nathan has written: Yes, the laws are dumb, yes Christ is triumphant, yes Daniel Andrews’ policies are small fish in comparison with what many believers are suffering in the world. His reminders of the Christian hope are wonderfully important and refreshing in an age where we can get bogged down in some of the daily mud of life.

At the same time, Nathan has profoundly misunderstood our tone, and his critique of our alleged lack of Gospel-centredness is disappointing and off the mark.

First, he conflates voicing concern with fear and panic. I don’t feel afraid or panicked, and neither am I suggesting that we should feel as such. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to express legitimate concerns over legislation that will impact religious freedom in Victoria. 

Second, I sense as though Nathan doesn’t appreciate the role of rhetorical devices when illustrating points for readers. Of course Daniel Andrews is not Henry VIII or Julius Caesar; but his disdain for opposing viewpoints and his desire to squash religious liberties is real enough, and that’s the point.

Third, and this one troubles me the most, Nathan has confused us expressing concern over a current issue with having a myopic view of God’s Kingdom, and of diminishing Christ’s victory over the grave.

I am happy to concede that if my latest blog piece was the only thing people ever read of mine, readers might misconstrue the reality which drives me; as they say, context is everything. But of course, this is only one of many articles dealing with multiple theological, social, and political matters. For the most part, the Gospel is front and centre, and when it is not, the Gospel is nonetheless serving in the background as the framework in which I express my views. Must every article contain an explicit ‘this is the Gospel’ clause?

Indeed, it is our confidence in the Gospel that give us courage to respond to current issues. We are not afraid to speak and even to lose these battles, because we know who has ultimately won.

Nathan wrote, “I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower”. 

That is easy to say if you’re not one of the 5 million piddling Victorians living in this State. To be honest, I think our friend from Queensland has on this occasion  denuded the situation in Victoria in a way that is a little unhelpful. Evangelicals should never put too much emphasis on our present circumstances, but neither should we make it altogether redundant.

As a way of outlining some Gospel perspective to the matters Nathan has raised, let me reiterate portions of a piece that I wrote for TGCA in June this year,

“We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.”