Name-dropper alert: Al Mohler and I have been friends for over two decades. (The Harts used to be on the Mohler’s Christmas card list until the former’s nomadic way of life prompted USPS to stop forwarding those attractive greetings from the president’s house in Louisville.) Al and I met when we were participants in a Lilly Endowment project for young Protestant leaders. Because Lilly has historically been most interested in mainline Protestant communions, the religious leaders in Al’s and my group were mainly from the mainline. But because Lilly was aware of the growing prominence of evangelicalism in the United States, they included so-called conservative Protestants, which left Al and me the beneficiaries of mainline Protestant affirmative action. We held hands (not literally) and commiserated over the social justice orthodoxy that continued to prevail among mainliners, and we expressed mutual surprise at how little the Trinity of race-class-gender had come in for revision among those Protestants ever looking for excuses to revise. When a couple years later I was looking for a co-editor for a book on evangelical theological education, Al who had been recently appointed president of Southern Baptist, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, was a natural for the book project.
All of this is to say that Al and are friends, we are co-authors, and we also affirm the five points of Calvinism.
But all of this coalition potential would not generate a second look at my candidacy if Southern Seminary had an opening in church history and I applied for the job. As Calvinistic as SBTS may be, it is also an agency of one of the conventions (Southern Baptist polity is so Byzantine) within the SBC. That means that my membership and identity as an Orthodox Presbyterian is a non-starter at Southern Seminary. What may be strike-two against me is my disbelief in evangelicalism. Strike three is a less than winning personality (though the Harts’ felines, Cordelia and Isabelle seem to enjoy my ornery companionship). Even aside from these other drawbacks, not being Southern Baptist is enough of a strike to count me out – like those backyard wiffle ball versions of home run derby which dispense with all three strikes.
So big an obstacle is my ecclesiastical identity that even if I joined the Gospel Coalition Al would still not have enough approving material in my dossier to recommend me to his board for a faculty appointment. Indeed, joining TGC would arguably deconstruct my efforts to deconstruct evangelicalism, and might even send the message that I am a kinder and gentler warrior child of J. Gresham Machen. But Gospel Coalition status still would not be enough for me to clear the hurdle of Southern Seminary’s faculty requirements.
For what it’s worth, when I was academic dean of Westminster California, if we had had an opening in theology and if Al had been interested in a change of scenery, his Calvinism and courageous and commendable stands against various theological and cultural ills would not have been enough to get him to the interview stage. His Southern Baptist credentials would have failed to meet the requirements for Westminster faculty. And in case this is not obvious by now, Al’s identity as a Southern Baptist would also disqualify him from holding office in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
This leaves us with the following set of memberships and identities:
The Southern Baptist Convention rejects D. G. Hart because he is Orthodox Presbyterian.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church rejects Al Mohler because he is Southern Baptist.
The ‘Gospel Coalition accepts Al Mohler and D. G. Hart no matter what their ecclesial identities (if they choose to join).
This picture would seem to make the Gospel Coalition a commendable organization in that it looks aside from seemingly petty ecclesiastical differences in order to unite seemingly conservative Protestants together in promotion of Christ as revealed in the gospel. And set of allegiances would also seem to depict the Southern Baptist Convention and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as narrower and more divisive than the simple gospel of Jesus Christ and its proclamation.
Beneath this picture’s warm and alluring hues is the downside of the Gospel Coalition, namely, that they run their affairs as if the church does not matter, as if the gospel is independent of every church affiliation and membership (Protestant, that is). That may sound strong but ecclesiastical membership and ordination pose no apparent barrier to working with, attending, or speaking at the Coalition. The reason for setting up an organization free from denominational norms apparently is to get around the difficulty that confronts administrators at denominational seminaries and officers in churches: ecclesiastical standards are divisive and the creators of the Coalition seem to think that the gospel should not nurture such separation. For a confessional Protestant, this logic is a huge problem since confessionalists believe that the gospel not only inevitably produces good works but also is inevitably embodied in a disciplined ecclesiastical body. This is not, by the way, simply the oddity of hard-core Missouri Lutherans or vinegary Orthodox Presbyterians. It is also the outlook of Southern Baptist institutions like Southern Seminary (such as I understand it).
But an even deeper problem for the Gospel Coalition is that its cultivates its appeal through religious stars who have established their reputations not in parachurch ministries but through the churches themselves. In which case, the Gospel Coalition wants the results of the hard work of ordination and pastoral ministry in church settings without the baggage that comes in those ecclesiastical institutions. (And as long as the Gospel Coalition is an exclusively Protestant outfit, it will implicitly rely on differences that divided the Eastern and Western branches of the church, and on the churches that broke with Rome in the sixteenth century. Short of the new heavens and new earth, we can’t have Christianity in this world apart from the visible churches who translated the Bible, interpreted its teaching, established forms of worship, and determined qualifications for membership and office.)
Most if not all of the figures who attract the hearers and viewers of TGC materials and events are ministers. Their credentials come either from denominations or congregations. These communions are responsible for creating the spiritual capital that gives credibility to the Coalition’s speakers and authors. These pastors in turn add value to this capital by conducting successful ministries (leaving aside that thorny question of what constitutes success in the kingdom of God). The Coalition then assembles the most successful pastors, shorn of their denominational or congregational ties, either during the minutes it takes to conduct a Youtube video or over the course of several days at a conference. The Gospel Coalition adds no inherent value to the capital that these pastors and their churches have created and invested. No offense to Justin Taylor or Colin Hansen, but American evangelicals are not signing up to attend the Coalition conference because those young and restless editors and bloggers are speaking.
This leaves the Coalition with a product that is worth only a percentage of the ecclesiastical currency that the ministers (and the communions they represent) have created. To be sure, the gospel is of incomparable value. But Christ did not complete the gospel merely by his death, resurrection, and ascension. The last I checked, he commissioned apostles, inspired authors of sacred writings, ordained means of grace, gave instructions for planting churches, and included rules for those churches’ government and discipline. The reason would apparently be that sheep need shepherds, that believers need to hear the gospel longer than an evangelistic sermon lasts and learn of its implications for a longer time than at a two-day conference. They need to hear the gospel their entire life, and that means they need pastors and overseers who will be faithful, hence all the mechanisms to insure the creation and maintenance of sound pastoral ministry, and the rules governing how those ministers conduct worship and oversight.
Yet, the Gospel Coalition seems to regard all of this ecclesiastical work as incidental to the gospel, as a mere appurtenance. How else can one explain the indifference to the communions from which their speakers and leaders come? How else to explain that those speakers and leaders could not hold jobs or receive calls in the other speakers and leaders’ communions? For the sake of the Gospel Coalition’s gospel, those differences and separations are unimportant compared to the gospe.
But at institutions like Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Seminary they do. For that reason, I’d rather live in the real world of respectful differences between the SBC and the OPC in their diverse efforts to follow all of Christ’s Great Commission (word, sacrament, and discipline) rather than the la la land of the Gospel Coalition where speakers and audiences act as if such differences don’t matter and where members of different communions are tempted to forget about the ecclesiastical vows and think that what happens in Chicago stays in Chicago.
Postscript on fellowship: Readers may be thinking that the point here about the church and the parachurch here make sense, but is there no room for pastors and members from different churches and denominations to fellowship together? Should the Banner of Truth stop offering conferences?
Part of the answer depends on what we mean by fellowship. If a Southern Baptist pastor cannot minister in the OPC without rejecting his former views on baptism and polity (for starters) and subscribing the OPC’s confession of faith, then it is fair to conclude that the OPC and the SBC are not in fellowship. And if a Southern Baptist transferring his membership into the OPC has to go through the same examination as someone who is a recent convert, then again fellowship is not the word we would use to describe this relationship.
Was it fellowship that I had with my parents when we prayed before meals, even though they were Baptists and I an Orthodox Presbyterian? Probably, but not in an ecclesial sense.
In which case, why do paraecclesial ideas about fellowship trump ecclesial ones? Why is a gathering of ministers at a Banner of Truth Conference more “sweet” than the relations among pastors and elders at a presbytery meeting? Or why is a Gospel Coalition conference (or a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, for that matter) more moving and invigorating than an ordinary Lord’s Day sandwiched by two preaching services?
It could be that the conferences are subjectively more moving than worship. Or it could be that spiritual standards, like the decline of cultural standards from watching too much television, have declined thanks to the prevalence of revivals, conferences, and retreats – all of those man-made devices for generating devotional excitement.
Of course, it is a free country. We do not have a federal agency regulating spiritual life (I don’t think they have one even in Moscow, Idaho). So parachurch agencies are free to have their conferences and American evangelicals are free to flock to them and feel warm and filled. At the same time, confessional Protestants are free to wonder what good these extra-ecclesial forms of fellowship are doing to the means that we do know God ordained through the clear teaching of his word. If the experiential Protestants are really serious about biblical inerrancy, wouldn’t you think they would want to be faithful to what God has inerrantly revealed about the means he has promised to use to save his people (even when they don’t feel “it”)?