Social Gospel Coalition

I have sometimes wondered if the appeal of organizations like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, Acts 29 Network, Redeemer Global Network, Desiring God, and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is their extremely chummy atmosphere. At the various blogs of these outfits, the posts are usually flattering of the other participants in the organization. If criticism comes, it is always as a punchline to a joke. Readers must conclude that only a fool would disagree with anything written at these blogs.

This makes parachurch organizations very different from the church where officers at synods and assemblies need to be on their toes and prepared to be challenged. A General Assembly is not a love-fest, though the sorts of activities that take place there are loving in the way that changing the oil in your Chevy is a form of care. Granted, I have never been to one of these organizations’ conferences (except for the initial launch of ACE in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1996). But the feel of these association from their blogs is one of encouragement, uplift, inspiration, earnestness, and occasional comic relief. You wouldn’t know from reading these cites that a Christian could actually grow through discouragement, criticism, and rebuke. (When will someone start the Iron-Sharpening-Iron Fellowship of Evangelical Whiners?) (Update: Justin Taylor may have the clue on the lack of criticism among the allies of the gospel.)

To Kevin DeYoung’s credit, he did take a modest swipe at one of the Gospel Coalition’s constituencies and, because members are not used to disagreement, he caused a minor imbroglio. DeYoung’s original comments came at a Desiring God National Conference about the difference between “mission” and “missional,” and later became part of a video and a post at the Gospel Coalition’s blog. What DeYoung had the temerity to do was suggest that social justice and neighbor love were not the same as building the kingdom of Christ. Word and Deeders from the Acts 29 Network took a measure of umbrage and DeYoung wrote a second post, trying to clarify and while sidestepping toes. He doesn’t want churches to abandon the social aspects of missional. He simply wants the proclamation of the gospel to be the basis for all the church does.

Most recently DeYoung interviewed Tim Keller on his new book on justice and even asked the New York pastor if he had misconstrued the relationship between word and deed. Keller’s response was to affirm an asymmetrical relationship. Keller said:

. . . the first thing I need to tell people when they come to church is “believe in Jesus,” not “do justice.” Why? Because first, believing in Jesus meets a more radical need and second, because if they don’t believe in Jesus they won’t have that gospel-motivation to do justice that I talk about in the book. So there’s a priority there. On the other hand, for a church to not constantly disciple its people to “do justice” would be utterly wrong, because it is an important part of God’s will. I’m calling for an ‘asymmetrical balance’ here. It seems to me that some churches try to “load in” doing justice as if it is equally important as believing in Jesus, but others, in fear of falling into the social gospel, do not preach or disciple their people to do justice at all. Both are wrong. A Biblical church should be highly evangelistic yet known for its commitment to the poor of the city.

Never mind if your church happens to be in the suburbs or the country. Move on to the next blog in your Google Reader account.

Now the confounding aspect of DeYoung’s valuable even if timid point about the priority of word to deed and Keller’s notion of an asymmetrical relations that prioritizes the gospel over justice is that nowhere does the Bible say that the church is supposed to do justice. Of course, a distinction may need to be made between the church as Christians and the institutional church, and I believe Keller needs to make this one the way contestants on “Wheel of Fortune” often buy vowels. But with that distinction in mind, where does Scripture talk about the corporate church as an agent of social justice or social anything? (Warning: if you appeal to the Old Testament you are entering a world of theonomic pain.)

Jesus and the apostles did not engage in social justice. Paul’s instructions to Timothy about preaching did not include telling Christians to do justice. In fact, the New Testament call to submit to rulers and to live quiet and peaceable lives is not the basis for social justice Sunday or word and deed ministry.

And what happens when we look at the creeds of the Reformed churches – nothing on the church as an instrument of social work? It is all about redemption 24/1.

Article 29 of the Belgic Confession says:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

Because of the centrality of word and sacrament in establishing the kingdom of Christ, the Second Helvetic Confession (ch. 18) describes the duties of ministers without mentioning social justice:

The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the sacraments. For it is the duty of the ministers to gather together an assembly for worship in which to expound God’s Word and to apply the whole doctrine to the care and use of the Church, so that what is taught may benefit the hearers and edify the faithful. It falls to ministers, I say, to teach the ignorant, and to exhort; and to urge the idlers and lingerers to make progress in the way of the Lord. Moreover, they are to comfort and to strengthen the fainthearted, and to arm them against the manifold temptations of Satan; to rebuke offenders; to recall the erring into the way; to raise the fallen; to convince the gainsayers to drive the wolf away from the sheepfold of the Lord; to rebuke wickedness and wicked men wisely and severely; not to wink at nor to pass over great wickedness.

And, besides, they are to administer the sacraments, and to commend the right use of them, and to prepare all men by wholesome doctrine to receive them; to preserve the faithful in a holy unity; and to check schisms; to catechize the unlearned, to commend the needs of the poor to the Church, to visit, instruct, and keep in the way of life the sick and those afflicted with various temptations. In addition, they are to attend to public prayers or supplications in times of need, together with common fasting, that is, a holy abstinence; and as diligently as possible to see to everything that pertains to the tranquility, peace and welfare of the churches.

The word-and-sacrament character of the church is also part and parcel of the Gallican Confession:

27. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward. Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins. Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness can not destroy the title of the Church.

28. In this belief we declare that, properly speaking, there can be no Church where the Word of God is not received, nor profession made of subjection to it, nor use of the sacraments.

Notable here is that social justice is neither a mark of the church nor of the Christian person.

One last example comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith which describes the purpose of the church without mentioning society, economics, or politics – at all:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (25.3)

I understand that the confessions do mention the poor as part of the diaconal work of the church, and I also understand that this is the crack through which most conservative Presbyterians will pour every conceivable faith-based humanitarian project. But diaconal work in a state-church environment is a very different animal in a secular society environment where the state has BILLIONS of dollars ready for the poor. Of course, if no one were attending to needs of the homeless, the hungry, widows, and orphans, then the church conceivably could step in and even extend diaconal care to non-believers. But unless I missed the federal government adopt a Weight Watchers regimen, I’ll need to be convinced that the church can match the modern state for social justice output.

Diaconal work aside, the conviction of the Reformed churches has always been that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends. New School Presbyterians came along and tried to conceive of the church in activist terms. But the Old School Presbyterians shot back with the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, and the related teachings of the marks of the church and the keys of the kingdom. All those Presbyterians – Tim Keller included – who owe their conservatism to the Old School tradition as taught at Old Princeton, reiterated at Old Westminster, and carried into the OPC and the RPCES precincts of the PCA really need to be clear that the institutional church has no mandate from Scripture for social endeavors or activism. They may want to side with the New School. But then they will really need to explain how the contemporary asymmetrical relationship of word and deed will not turn out differently from the asymmetrical relationship maintained briefly during the nineteenth century by Union and Auburn Seminaries before blossoming into doctrine (word) divides but ministry (deed) unites.

Hey, wait a minute, that bloom may already be on the rose of interdenominational parachurch ministries where words about sacraments matter less than ministries about deeds.

16 thoughts on “Social Gospel Coalition

  1. “Christian charity” was subsumed by the “social gospel”; The Gospel became a “gospel,” small “g.”

    I see your point about the “institutional church,” dgh. Related, although the 4th century CE may be too far along to serve as Christian tradition:

    Letter from Emperor Julian to one of his priests, the last pushback by the Roman Empire for the Greco-Roman gods against the rising tide of Christianity:

    “The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time [i.e., the arrival of Julian himself, a reforming traditionalist, on the throne]. Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?”

    “For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

    The “social gospel,” small “g,” not capital. Circa 360 Anno Domini.


  2. DeYoung is an influential figure in the young ‘Restless and Reforming’ movement, and this conversation he has been having about the priority of the gospel over social mission/missional is well worded. But he gives no mention to the role or centrality of deacons, which has been highlighted by DG Hart which is a flaw and weakness in his argument. What his post and the Gospel Coalition web site does suggest, at least to me, is that the celebrity culture of the world where folks hang on the words and ideas of ‘stars’ taking up their leading is seemingly being morphed into the world of the evangelicals in a powerful way; it has always been there, but the internet has fuelled with a fresh massive impetus.

    DeYoung is a seriously smart guy – just look at the way he writes. But you can see much about a man and his convictions from who he works with and admires. His ‘Reformed’ theology leads him to greatly admire and work with men who claim to be calvinistic and yet are in truth far from a fully fledged Reformed position. Why bother about this? Because given time and without serious critique, the word and defining of being ‘Reformed’ and the work to go back to the sources of the Reformation for universal catholic practise will be shaped afresh (and damaged?) as men like DeYoung pick and mix their theology under a gospel framework which has no qualms of delighting in practises which the Reformers rejected such as Anabaptism and enthusiasm of the pietist kind. The trajectory of this movement after it’s first few years is not looking good in terms of Reformed understanding of the older Presbyterian kind.

    So, listen to DeYoung and the other celebrities of T4G, the Gospel Coalition etc if you really want to. But their ideas like those about the priority of the Gospel, and interviews with other celebrities like Keller, are in essence saying nothing that hasn’t been already said so often before. Eloquent, clever arguments may bounce back and forth as a result of such posts, and may have some limited worth, but I really do wonder if they unintentionally create a virtual world which can lead to nowhere in practise.


  3. DGH: And what happens when we look at the creeds of the Reformed churches – nothing on the church as an instrument of social work? It is all about redemption 24/1.

    I hope you meant “24 / 7” but I suppose a big box of nuances could support a one as in 1st day o’ the week.


  4. Darryl:

    I’ve noted these chummy atmospherics also and a “good ole boy” ethos.

    Not sure what to make of it, but why are all these Anabaptists appearing at ACE and Ligonier?



  5. I”m curious as to why Ligonier didn’t make the list. Is it a different sort of parachurch organization than the others?


  6. “But diaconal work in a state-church environment is a very different animal in a secular society environment where the state has BILLIONS of dollars ready for the poor.”

    So nobody need help the poor because the government already helps them enough – a government that you feel should be a lot smaller.


  7. Kate,

    Maybe it’s a fault of my blog perusing, but I don’t follow Ligonier’s blog (if it has one). Plus, Ligonier appears to be more a one-man operation (with lots of support from staff).


  8. Chris E., when HHS is below 5,000 workers (currently over 70k), I’ll be glad to give this more consideration. But I am still struck by social justice advocates who don’t seem to consider the issue of redundancy or effectiveness. At least the original Social Gospellers did not have a fed. govt. on which to fall back. But today NYC’s welfare apparatus is (likely) bigger than the federal government’s was in 1890.


  9. Jesus: Simon, do you love me?

    Peter: Yes Lord, you know that I love you.

    Jesus: Fight injustice, homophobia, racism, you name it. Simon Peter, do you love me?

    Peter: You know all things Lord, you know that I love you.

    Jesus: Fight poverty. Don’t let anyone fool you when they say you’ll always have the poor with you. You can make a difference Pete. Do you love me?

    Peter: You know that I love you.

    Jesus: Well put my sheep to work.


  10. The answer in two words: sphere sovereignty.

    The church qua church is not about social justice. I’ll never cry out to God “Give me justice” lest I get what I deserve. I want grace, mercy, and forgiveness. (Of course, in Christ, I get both justice and mercy.)

    However, justice/social justice IS the domain of the civil magistrate for the punishing of the evil-doer and the promotion of the general good. So surely the civil magistrate, and Christians with that calling are interested in social justice. (And that may include all the voting citizenry of the USA since we can play a greater role in justice issues.) Frankly, I’m not sure you even have be a Christian to be concerned about social justice.

    DH, as I’ve said before, I don’t really know who you learned your neo-Calvinism/Kuyperianism from but you seem to have a missed a few things along the way. The CRCNA revision to the Belgic Confession article on the civil magistrate embodies sphere sovereignty, as does the Contemporary Testimony. (Although there is at least one place where “church” is used to mean all of the people of God acting in all their spheres–unfortunate sloppy language that I’m surprised got past Spykman and the other Dooyeweerdian authors of the Contemporary Testimony.

    Now I will unhesitatingly admit that some/many in the CRCNA have forgotten about sphere sovereignty. Social justice issues, Christian education including Calvin College, world relief, embrace AIDS, etc. are NOT the work of the church qua church (you admitted the correct answer in your post, but seemed unwilling to dwell on it).

    Frankly, I’m not sure that 2K is that far from Kuyperianism properly applied through sphere sovereignty. It’s certainly closer in overall outlook than it is to NPP or Emergent Churchism–a la Van Drunen’s insulting broad stroke in the introductory chapter of the new book. (It’s like lumping Orthodox Presbyterians and Roman Catholics together because of their common belief in paedobaptism.) Among friends I tend to be a lumper rather than a splitter, so Van Drunen’s characterization of the neo-Calvinists was particularly disappointing.

    On this point I will continue to assert that your (and Van Drunen’s) beef is not with Kuyperians but with theonomists and there is huge world between those.


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