If Lecrae Can Leave, Why Can’t Orthodox Presbyterians Get Out

Some of us have been saying for a while that Reformed Protestants are not evangelical, but the standard scholarship puts conservative Presbyterians squarely in the evangelical camp. Those different assessments of Presbyterian and evangelical relations make the recent discussion of Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism seem partial and shortsighted. But they should give confessional Presbyterians sympathy with black Protestants.

For instance, notice what happens if you change words in Raymond Chang’s defense of Lecrae:

We need to be aware of how we bring unconscious biases to our own litmus tests of whether people of color Orthodox Presbyterians are theologically correct enough based on their emphasis on justice doctrinal issues. Often times, people of color are viewed with greater scrutiny simply because of their skin tone dress. We need to be concerned with the ways our political commitments co-opt our faith commitments. The fact that people equate Christians with a particular political party is problematic, especially if we consider how both parties are deeply flawed. We need to redefine our understanding of organizational fit. This means we need to reconsider what it means to be equipped. For example, is someone equipped for the pastorate if they have racist heterodox tendencies or beliefs? And who gets to decide if they do, white people or the people they disparage?

We also need to be mindful of how networks and credibility is established. Consider who is promoted within evangelicalism through publishing deals. If a Christian publisher looks through their catalogues and white people overwhelmingly occupy the authorial space, it is likely because the people they have come across were developed through their white evangelical network. Consider who speaks at conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel and you’ll see how people who had local or regional platforms, now have national or international ones. Whether you are aware of it or not, we normalize whiteness in evangelicalism by having an overwhelming majority of white speakers and only one or two plenary speakers of color Orthodox Presbyterians. Consider the ways in which people get mentored. There are tremendous barriers to mentorship felt by Christians of color Orthodox Presbyterians who would say they hold the same faith commitments and convictions as evangelicals do, but don’t either know or have an entry point into these networks (I fortunately, had people who helped me navigate in, but I am a part of the exception, not the rule). Consider who is appointed the most senior level leadership roles and how they are found and determined upon. It cannot be true that only white people are “called” to these positions of authority and influence and people of color Orthodox Presbyterians are not.

If white evangelicalism is serious about representing the unity Christ calls us to in this world, this means you cannot find successors who preach like you do, see the world like you do, and share the same skin tonefashion as you. This means Thabiti Anyabwile or Bryan Lorritts (or any of the small handful of others) Carl Trueman cannot be the only black preachers Orthodox Presbyterian in your conferences (despite their his wonderful gifts). This means that conferences need to provide substantial opportunities for Asians and Latinos and Native Americans Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Reformed to speak as well. This means that senior leadership at churches cannot be satisfied with a disproportionate percentage of white pastors/elders to non-white confessional pastors/elders.

Further, we need to look deeply into the reasons why leaders of color Orthodox Presbyterians who occupy the top spots in Christian (evangelical) organizations and churches do not last. This means we need to have the humility to listen, but not just listen, and act upon the problems we see. This also means evangelicalism needs to allow people of color Orthodox Presbyterians to speak for themselves and on their own terms. We also need to create pipelines for evangelicals of color confessional Protestants to grow in leadership opportunities (see what Intervarsity did with the Daniel Project) because we know that leadership matters and that leadership shapes organizations.

Of course, the difference is that Orthodox Presbyterians already have their own institutions and structures. That institutional basis means that OP’s aren’t necessarily jonesing for leadership in TGC. Since that is true, and since the freedom of religion means that all Protestants have the opportunity to form their own structures (which the black church already has), then why is it that Christians of color or some Orthodox Presbyterians aspire to receive the imprimatur of John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Tim Keller?

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Signers and Decliners

Now comes another statement, named for a Tennessee city, with the signatures of more Christian scholars attached to it. I wonder if those who signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today” will also sign the Nashville Statement on biblical sexuality. Lots of professors are listed on each statement, and yet I can’t help but think each set has reservations about the scholarship practiced by the signers of the other statement.

What is it about statements? The one time Tim Keller and I agreed came in 1996 at the meeting of theologians and pastors that produced the Cambridge Declaration, a statement that expressed concerns about contemporary worship and megachurches. Keller did not sign. Nor did I. My reasons for not signing went along the lines that Matthew Anderson recently gave for not signing the Nashville Statement:

While I am generally ‘statement-averse,’ it seems reasonable to want a succinct depiction of the theological boundaries on these issues. If nothing else, such statements are efficient: they remove much of the work of retelling all of our convictions on a certain matter by giving us a public document to point to. It’s a lot easier to find all the people who are on board with a certain vision of the home, for instance, by asking what they make of the Danvers Statement.

Yet this virtue is also a vice: by creating a public context in which all the people who affirm certain doctrines or ideas are identified under the same banner, statements tacitly shift the playing field, such that to not sign is to signal disagreement.

Ding ding. Statements imply that those who don’t sign are not of the right outlook because those who sign are right. A lot of signaling going on.

Yet, a curious feature of the Nashville Statement is that it includes the heavy hitters in the Gospel Coalition. John Piper, Lig Duncan, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, even J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul. Tim Keller did not sign.

The problem could be that statements are a problem. But Anderson also explains another reason for the Nashville Statement’s deficiency. It specifies a minimal set of norms while leaving aside a broader sexual ethic and biblical anthropology that should provide the source for specific practices or convictions:

With the signers and the drafters of the Nashville Statement, I am persuaded that the current controversies over sex, gender, and marriage are of maximal importance. With those individuals, I agree that there are matters here essential to the truthful, beautiful articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With those individuals, I agree that the crisis in the evangelical church is real, and that those seeking to alter our institutions so that they affirm gay marriage undermine and distort the faith that all Christians, in all places and times have affirmed.

But issues of maximal importance deserve maximal responses. It is possible to say too little, as it is possible to say too much. If I have sometimes erred toward the latter vice in my exposition and defense of a traditional account of sex and gender, I have done so only because the deflationary and minimalist approach to such questions is itself an intrinsic part of the intellectual atmosphere which has left the orthodox Christian view unintelligible to so many.

Meanwhile, secular academics are trying to defend middle-class virtues:

That [mid-twentieth-century bourgeois] culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Imagine if the Christians who signed the Open Letter or the Nashville Statement had joined with Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in a defense of older American norms.

It sure looks like Wax and Alexander could use it:

We, a group of Penn alumni and current students, wish to address white supremacist violence and discourse in America. Even if we are not surprised that Charlottesville can happen, witnessing blatant racism takes an emotional toll on us, some more so than others. And yet, overtly racist acts are identifiable and seem “easy” to criticize. It is nearly impossible for anyone, white, black or otherwise to see what happened in Charlottesville and not admit that a wrong occurred — unless you are a white supremacist yourself, that is.

But at the same time, history teaches us that these hateful ideas about racial superiority have been embedded in many of our social institutions. They crawl through the hallways of our most prestigious universities, promoting hate and bigotry under the guise of “intellectual debate.” Indeed, just days before Charlottesville, Penn Law School professor Amy Wax, co-wrote an op-ed piece with Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, claiming that not “all cultures are created equal” and extolling the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.

Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists “dismantled” decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression.

Against outlooks like this statements don’t have a snowball’s chance in hades.

Gospel Coalition as Harlem Globe Trotters

One of our many southern correspondents notified me of TGC’s year-end pitch for charitable donations. At the end of Collin Hanson’s post is a link to TGC’s 2016 Annual Report. Curiously absent are the financials. The Allies encourage people to give but those people have to trust TGC staff about funds.

The similarities and differences between the Coalition and a church are striking. Since I serve on the Christian Education Committee of the OPC and am also one of the OPC’s representatives on Great Commission Publication’s board of trustees, I see strong similarities among the OPC, PCA, and TGC at least in the arena of education, curriculum development, and publication. TGC’s report on website hits, best selling books or pamphlets, and plans for 2017 titles is the sort of information I see four times a year as an OPC/GCP officer. But what I don’t see from TGC is any financial spread sheet. Since the church and parachurch both operate in a voluntary world of free-will gifts, support, and self-identification of members, you might think that giving supporters some insight into the Coalition’s funds would be not only wise but honorable.

Chalk up one for the church over the parachurch.

Another note of concern for TGC supporters may be the popularity of Jen Wilkin. According to TGC’s report:

Our all-time bestselling resource on any paid platform is Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount study with LifeWay, but it may end up topped by her 2016 TGC release, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ.

Jen Wilkin may be a great lady — I’ve never heard of her though she appears to take hairstyle-advice from Ann Voskamp (not Jen Hatmaker) — but do supporters of TGC have no trouble with a non-ordained person teaching the Word of God to Christians? Maybe Ms. Wilkin is ordained. Either way, TGC’s efforts to attract support from conservative Reformed Protestants runs up against church polity that again separates the parachurch from the church (not in a good way, by the way).

But when you look at TGC’s report, you have to come away impressed with all the effort the Allies put into their labors. But what would happen if those same people put their energies into the PCA with Tim Keller or into the Southern Baptist Convention with Ms. Wilkin who goes to The Village Church (is there only one?) or into the Evangelical Free Church with D. A. Carson (does he belong to the EFC?). Where’s the efficiency? Sure, a TGC supporter could argue that the OPC or PCA or SBC are competing with TGC and these other Protestants should join forces with the Allies. But this is always what happens with “unity” projects among Christians. You form one agency to unite everyone and simply add one more organization or church to the landscape. The United Church of Canada did not unite Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It added the United Church to the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican churches.

And then there is the question of officers or pastors who hold credentials in the PCA or SBC adding their energy and resources to another Christian organization. If I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, would the NFL allow me to play for a European football league midweek during the season (or even in the summer)? Or if I am a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, do I write regularly for The New Republic? These are obviously apples and oranges — publishing and sports are not ministry (though to hear some neo-Calvinists. . .). But questions about which is the primary outlet for Coalition contributors and officers is a real question that supporters of TGC should question. If I give to TGC, do I want Tim Keller spending a lot of time on committee work for his presbytery?

Chalk up another for the church.

One last observation that makes me think TGC more like an exhibition sports team (Harlem Globe Trotters) than a Major League Protestant Communion: I went to the staff page of TGC and noticed that no one works in a central office. The executive director lives in Austin, Texas (no church mentioned). The executive editor lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is part of a local community church. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the organization, payroll, accounting, general housekeeping, again staff is scattered. The director of operations lives in Austin (no church listed). The director of program development lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (no church listed). The director of advancement lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (no church listed). The manager of operations lives in Minneapolis (no church listed). The business manager lives in Austin (no church listed). And yet, for full-time staff’s location in places far away from the Big Apple, TGC’s major publishing project for 2017 is a print version of Keller’s New City Catechism. When terrorists band together, we call them non-state actors to distinguish them from the military personnel of nation-states. Nation-states engage use coercive force legitimately (ever since 1648). Terrorist organizations do not. Does that make the Allies spiritual terrorists who have no geographical or ecclesiastical home?

The impression TGC gives overall is doing all the stuff a church does (including solicitation of funds) without many of the rules that give accountability to churches in their work of word and sacrament ministry. The Allies produce conferences and literature and a website presence that provides much of the teaching and encouragement that churches also give. And yet, the Coalition has no mechanism for discipline or oversight or even ecumenical relations. To be in TGC’s orbit is like following an exhibition basketball team instead of the National Basketball Association. I guess, when your home team is the Sixers, the Globetrotters look pretty good. But it’s not real basketball.

If You Want to Engage the Culture, Don’t Publish with Crossway

Isn’t this the flip side of Tim Challies’ advice about reading the “right” books?

If you are an academic and you publish with a famous university press, that is wonderful for your career. If you go with a vanity press, that can sink your career. That division of presses also matters in defining whether a particular issue is part of mainstream debate, or way off on the disreputable fringe.

The problem in all this, though, is that some presses are very strong and reputable within particular fields, but that fact need not be known to university authorities. I can imagine a junior professor trying to argue to a department head or dean that a title with such a firm should be counted as equal in prestige to a leading university press, and struggling to make the case. Please understand, that would not be a fair situation, but I could see it happening.

Let me take a specific example. I am currently using a book that came out from Inter-Varsity Press some fifteen years ago. It is a really excellent piece of work, scholarly and well written, and IVP is a very strong and well known publisher from the evangelical point of view. Hence my surprise, recently, when I tried unsuccessfully to find a copy in the very large and wide-ranging library at Penn State University. They had other works by this author, but not that particular title. Like many major university libraries, Penn State has standing orders with certain mainstream publishers, and acquires pretty much everything they put out. That principle does not extend to well known evangelical presses like IVP, Eerdmans, Baker, Thomas Nelson, and so on. The more library budgets shrink, the harder they cut back on any presses they don’t see as absolutely core and necessary.

In itself, that decision is not disastrous for me, because if I want a copy of the book in question I can get it through inter-library loan. But the underlying attitude demands attention. These libraries are assuming that the presses in question are not fully respectable houses for academic work, they are partisan or denominational, and therefore they do not demand the same credibility as even minor university presses.

Maybe that explains why TKNY doesn’t publish with the company that subsidized the gospel allies.

UPDATE: a multi-author 16-page tract is not a book, and I’m guessing Ross Douthat hasn’t read it.

Another Solution to Celebrity Pastors — Modesty

I’m betting (if I were a gambling man) that celebrity pastors are a bigger problem for God’s people than transgender bathrooms. At least, Denny Burk Jared Wilson concedes that famous ministers are a problem, though he writes at the website that would not have a following if not for — wait for it — celebrity pastors. Here’s how celebrity happens:

. . . we participate in the highest elevation of a pastor’s platform as we can manage and then load him up with all the expectation we can muster. The result, naturally, is that he is top-heavy and prone to toppling.

BurkWilson adds that “pastoral smallness and obscurity” have their own problems, but “the most prominent dangerous temptations in pastoral bigness are these idolatries — worship of the celebrity pastor by his fans and himself.”

The possible fix for the celebrity pastor include:

1. Transition your “video venue” satellite campuses to church plants or at the very least install live preaching.

2. No more book deals for gifted preachers who are not gifted writers.

3. Discerning the credibility of our experts.

4. Actual parity among elders.

What about recognizing that celebrity pastor is an oxymoron?

1. Celebrity pastors are not really celebrities. Bruce Springsteen and Scarlett Johansson are celebrities. D. A. Carson and John Piper are not. And if Protestants long for pastors with celebrity appeal, they may show a greater degree of worldliness than they should. What it says about an organization — Gospel Coalition — that thrives on celebrity is something that the celebrity pastors and professors may want to consider the next time their schedules permit them to meet.

2. Pastors are not celebrities. First, they are undershepherds. They serve their lord and master, and are mere stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1) — sort of like butlers. Unlike celebrities who avoid rubbing shoulders with the people and who hire servants to do work beneath them, pastors need to live and move and have their livelihood among smelly sheep (at least they’re not goats).

Second, real pastors serve a local congregation. That means real pastors have much more the fame footprint of a local television news show anchor than they do a Hollywood, NBA, or network star. Who outside eastern Michigan knows the NBC anchor for the 5:00 news show? I don’t. In other words, the genuine audience for a pastor is the local congregation, the one who called him. Fame outside the congregation is an indication that something is wrong.

What if the pastor writes books? Depends on whether the books are good, pretty good, or great. Great books won’t be so until they stand the test of time. Will Tim Keller’s books still be in print in fifty years? That’s one test of greatness. Simply having someone with fame write a book is no indication of merit. The bookshelves are full of promotional materials designed to feed off and enhance celebrity.

3. Celebrities can’t pastor. This may go without saying since celebrity is something that increases fame but decreases access. A pastor has to be available to his people almost 24/7. But imagine a celebrity pastor like Tim Keller paying a family visit. If he does, great. Chances are, with celebrity come handlers, schedules, and limitations to access. A celebrity is remote, a pastor is accessible.

What about recognizing that celebrity is unbecoming sanctification (where are the obedience boys now that we need them?)?

This is where the New Calvinists may want to take a little instruction from the original Calvinist (and notice the connections between 2k and piety that is modest in its affects and aspirations). Here is John Calvin’s commentary on the sons of Zebedee’s exchange with Christ about greatness (celebrity?) in the savior’s kingdom:

Their ignorance was worthy of blame on two accounts; first, because their ambition led them to desire more than was proper; and, secondly, because, instead of the heavenly kingdom of Christ, they had formed the idea of a phantom in the air. As to the first of those reasons, whoever is not satisfied with the free adoption of God, and desires to raise himself, such a person wanders beyond his limits, and, by unseasonably pressing himself forward beyond what was proper for him to do, is ungrateful to God. Now to estimate the spiritual kingdom of Christ according to the feeling of our flesh is highly perverse. And, indeed, the greater the delight which the mind of man takes in idle speculations, the more carefully ought we to guard against them; as we see that the books of the sophists are stuffed with useless notions of this sort.

Can you drink the cup which I shall drink? To correct their ambition, and to withdraw them from this wicked desire, he holds out to them the cross, and all the annoyances which the children of God must endure. As if he had said, “Does your present warfare allow you so much leisure, that you are now making arrangements for a triumphal procession?” For if they had been earnestly employed in the duties of their calling, they would never have given way to this wicked imagination. In these words, therefore, those who are desirous to obtain the prize before the proper time are enjoined by Christ to employ themselves in attending to the duties of piety. And certainly this is an excellent bridle for restraining ambition; for, so long as we are pilgrims in this world, our condition is such as ought to banish vain luxuries. We are surrounded by a thousand dangers. Sometimes the enemy assails us by ambush, and that in a variety of ways; and sometimes he attacks us by open violence. Is he not worse than stupid who, amidst so many deaths, entertains himself at his ease by drawing pictures of a triumph?

Our Lord enjoins his followers, indeed, to feel assured of victory, and to sing a triumphal song in the midst of death; for otherwise they would not have courage to fight valiantly. But it is one thing to advance manfully to the battle, in reliance on the reward which God has promised to them, and to labor with their whole might for this object; and it is another thing to forget the contest, to turn aside from the enemy, to lose sight of dangers, and to rush forward to triumph, for which they ought to wait till the proper time.

The advance of the kingdom of grace does not come from great awakenings or grand gestures or bestsellers or big conferences. It comes through Gideon’s small band, an obscure Palestinian kingdom, a suffering savior, and apostles who died as martyrs. It is time more than ever for New Calvinists to get over George Whitefield.

Are the New Calvinists Green or On Fire?

Tim Challies engages in a bit of introspection after the most recent kerfuffle surrounding Mark Driscoll. Challies concedes that a problem for the young sovereigntists was their lack of maturity. They were not mature or settled:

Bear with me as I artificially divide Driscoll’s ministry into three parts: theology (what he said), practice (how he said it) and results (what happened). So many of us had genuine concerns over the second part, but were willing to excuse or downplay them on the basis of the first and third. Yes, he was crude and yes, he sometimes said or did outrageous things, but he never wavered in publicly proclaiming the gospel and both his church and his church-planting movement continued to grow. We were confused. We did not have a clear category for this. We had concerns, but the Lord seemed to be using him. So we recommended his podcasts, or bought his books, even if we had to provide a small caveat each time.

In retrospect, I see this as a mark of immaturity in the New Calvinism, in what in that day was called the Young, Restless, Reformed. It was the young and the restless that allowed us to be so easily impressed. To large degree, we propelled Driscoll to fame through our admiration—even if it was hesitant admiration.

But Challies contradicts this very conclusion when he throws — unintentionally — the old young sovereigntists under the bus with the immature. First John Piper shows some lack of years:

In 2006 Driscoll was more formally introduced to the New Calvinism with his inclusion in the Desiring God National Conference and even then he was a controversial figure. When Piper invited him again in 2008 he recorded a short video to explain why he had extended the invitation. These words stand out: “I love Mark Driscoll’s theology.” While Piper did not deny the concerns, he loved Driscoll’s theology and loved what the Lord was doing through him.

Then D. A. Carson also shows the weakness of youth (from an earlier post):

Last weekend I had the privilege of spending a fair bit of time with D.A. Carson and he said something about Driscoll that I found interesting and meaningful. Because he has said this to others, I don’t think I’m violating any kind of trust in mentioning it. There is no doubt that people have had difficulty knowing what to do with Driscoll and knowing how to think about him. But Carson said he finds it helpful to look not just at where Driscoll is, but at the trajectory he is on. I took that to mean that if we look at where he has come from and then plot a course by where he is now, we’ll see that he is growing and maturing as a Christian and that he is continually emphasizing better and more biblical theology. We are all works in progress. This is not to say that we should hope that Mark Driscoll grows up to become John MacArthur or R.C. Sproul. Rather, it simply means that it is sometimes wise to look at the wider picture.

When we look to that wider picture we see that Driscoll clearly believes in and teaches the gospel.

So perhaps the problem is not age or maturity. Could it be that Challies continues to share with Driscoll an understanding of the church and the Christian ministry that provides room for the sorts of celebrity, technology, mass crowds, and enthusiasm upon which the young sovereigntists thrive?

After all, the young sovereigntists have not found the Old Calvinists very attractive. The charge of mean or argumentative has been a fairly read one to discount the kind of Reformed Christianity from which folks like Challies and the Gospel Allies want to create some distance. This is why it is curious now to learn that the young and old sovereigntists were willing to overlook Driscoll’s failings for the sake of his theology.

Well, if you could do that for Acts 29, why not for the OPC or the URC or the PCA in its non-TKNY iterations? What’s so bad about the theology of the Reformed churches? What’s wrong with baptizing infants and ministering within the bounds of an ecclesiastical assembly? What’s wrong with singing Psalms? What’s wrong with seeing hedonism and spirituality as antithetical? Nothing that would have raised real questions about Driscoll or C. J. Mahoney or James Macdonald a long time ago.

Who Will Review in that Great Day?

Our Virtuous Commonwealth of Pennsylvania correspondent sends us news of a book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, on limited definite atonement. It features chapters by:

Raymond A. Blacketer, Henri A. G. Blocher, Amar Djaballah, Sinclair Ferguson, Lee Gatiss, David Gibson, Jonathan Gibson, Matthew S. Harmon, Michael A. G. Haykin, Paul Helm, David S. Hogg, Robert Letham, Donald Macleod, J. Alec Motyer, cJohn Piper, Thomas R. Schreiner, Daniel Strange, Carl R. Trueman, Stephen J. Wellum, Garry J. Williams, and Paul R. Williamson.

It comes with endorsements from:

J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, Michael Horton, David Wells, John Frame, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Ligon Duncan, and Kelly M. Kapic.

So who is left who teaches theology or historical theology to review this book? And will those people feel all that kindly to a book whose editors overlooked them?

Sometimes publishers go overboard with endorsements and take out of circulation people who should be reviewing the book. Of course, endorsements may sell more books than reviews. But I doubt it.

Comments Open and Closed

Alliances close comments, churches open them.

That conclusion is hard to avoid after recent developments in the PCA and at the Gospel Coalition. The PCA sponsored an enclave of fifty officers, a “Meeting of Understanding,” to discuss challenges and differences within the denomination. The rationale for the meeting was akin to marriage counseling. Spouses who live and work together have differences and the way to overcome them is through better communication. (I wonder if that would be Mark Driscoll’s advice since it sounds overly feminine, as in girls want to talk, guys reach for the remote).

Meanwhile, the Gospel Coalition (doing a pretty good imitation of the Presbyterian Church, USA’s apologetic acceptance of Pearl Buck’s resignation) said so long to James MacDonald. At the blog of D. A. Carson and Tim Keller (who appear to be the co-arch allies), MacDonald’s departure received these warm words:

James MacDonald publicly announced his resignation as a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. James was one of our founding members, and we would like to thank him and Harvest Bible Chapel warmly and publicly for their years of service and support. As the reason for his departure, James notes that he “has very different views on how to relate to the broader church.” He added, “I believe their [TGC’s] work will be assisted by my absence, given my methodological convictions.” We acknowledge that James feels called of God into these spheres, and we wish him well in his far-reaching endeavors, and many years of ministry both faithful and fruitful.

But that is the only talk going on at TGC. Comments are closed at both the Carson-Keller post, and Justin Taylor’s aggregation of it.

Some in the PCA are concerned about the nature of the meeting in Atlanta. From worries about irreconcilable differences that talk won’t address to concerns about a buddy-buddy system that excluded some from the meeting, the Meeting of Understanding has arguably escalated misunderstanding within the PCA.

At least our Presbyterian brothers in the PCA are talking about their differences, both at their meetings, and in comments about the meeting. Our Presbyterian allies in the Gospel Coalition are not.

What's The Difference Between the Gospel Coalition and the PCA?

If this were a joke, the punchline might be, “only Tim Keller’s hair dresser knows for sure.” Ba dop bop!

I understand that this question might wind up some readers, especially those who think the Gospel Co-Allies do no wrong. But it is one that need not be pejorative. It could say good things about the Gospel Coalition, for example, that it resembles the PCA. Since the latter is still a Reformed church and Reformed churches are good things, a comparison between the Coalition and a Reformed church could be possitive. Of course, the answer to the question could go the other way and liken the PCA to the Gospel Coalition, a parachurch agency that fancies itself Reformed.

The reason the question could go either way is the lengthy explanation that Tim Keller and D. A. Carson gave (though the text uses the first person singular several times) to the recent imbroglio over James MacDonald’s invitation to T.D. Jakes. They distinguish between a “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set,” and claim that the Coalition has always been a center-bounded institution. I’m still scratching my head over these concepts. They sound more like sociology than ecclesiology and I tend to be skeptical when ministers or theologians employ jargon outside their own expertise. Be that as it may, the use of these concepts does not necessarily clarify the difference between a parachurch agency like the Coalition and a Reformed denomination like the PCA.

First, the nature of a boundary-bounded body:

. . . you establish boundaries to determine who is “in” and who is “outside” the set—whether the set of true believers, or the set of faithful Presbyterians, or the set of evangelicals, or any other set. For the boundary to have any hope of doing its job, it has to be well defined. If the definitions are sloppy, the boundary keeps getting pushed farther and farther out.

What makes this definition odd, especially in reference to Presbyterians, is that Keller has been involved in the recent debates over subscription within the PCA in ways that have expanded the boundaries. Even if someone wanted to interpret the recent changes in the PCA’s constitution in a conservative manner, it would be hard to read Keller’s understanding of the PCA or his presence in those debates as placing him on the side of tightening the PCA’s boundaries. In which case, I wonder if Keller really sees that big a difference between boundary- and center-bounded identities.

Next comes the center-bounded conception:

. . . center-bounded sets don’t worry too much about who is “in” and “out” at the periphery. Instead, there is a robust definition at the center. For TGC, the center is defined by our Confessional Statement (CS) and Theological Vision for Ministry (TVM) and sustained by the Council members. There we expect unreserved commitment to these foundation documents.

This still sounds to me like a boundary-bounded set up. But what makes this different is that no one can join the Coalition.

Individuals and churches may choose to identify themselves with us and use the thousands of resources on our site, but Council members do not fall into paroxysms of doubt as to whether or not this individual or that church truly belongs to TGC: we are not a denomination, and we do not have the resources to engage in the kind of vetting at the periphery that a boundary-bounded set demands. At the margins there are many who love part of what we stand for and not other parts.

So it would seem that the big difference here is membership. The PCA has members and the Coalition doesn’t. This gets confusing because Keller and Carson, among others, are “Council Members” of the Coalition. Why some parts of the Coalition have membership and others don’t is a mystery. Yet, the same thing — that some in the PCA love, Keller included, parts of what the denomination stands for and not other parts — can be said of a denomination or a boundary-bounded set. In fact, it is true of most Reformed churches. In which case, Reformed churches may actually be much more center-bounded than the Coalition, except that the center of confessional Reformed Protestantism happens to be much bigger than the Coalition’s center, and for that matter, more biblical because the Reformed confessions try to do justice the whole word of God, not simply the bits about which guys from different denominations might agree.

One last similarity comes when Keller and Carson describe the diversity of ministries that exist outside the Coalition among the various “members'” activities:

Within these bounds, Council members discharge ministries that are highly diverse, with their own networks, specific aims, and relationships with many people outside the Council. Sometimes these relationships make other Council members uncomfortable. A Council member may choose to participate in discussions with an organization known for its laxness in doctrine and practice. He may do so in order to serve as a voice for faithful Christian confessionalism within that organization. Looking at this ministry, other Council members might evaluate things differently and warn the participating Council member that he is merely being used: it would be wiser for to avoid the association. But those are judgment calls. TGC does not normally take any position on whether a Council member’s associations are wise or expedient, even though there are not a few Council members who will offer their private judgments out of genuine affection and concern for gospel fidelity and clarity.

“Within these bounds”? I thought the Coaltion was center-bounded, not boundary-bounded. Be that as it may, this description of ministry diversity could also well apply to the PCA where the ministers who belong to the denomination have any number of ministries beyond the denomination’s. Think of New Life Presbyterianism and the different agencies that this wing of the PCA sponsors. Think of the Perimeter Church of Atlanta. Or how about Briarwood in Birmingham, Alabama? But speaking of Elephants in Rooms, what about Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church? What about all of the networks that Keller has established?

Which leads to the question that I asked at the outset: how different is the Gospel Coalition from the PCA? Judging by the Tim Keller’s involvement in the Gospel Coalition and the PCA, not much.

P.S. I might actually have received more counsel on these musings from the Coalition if the Keller-Carson post had been open for comments, but not even Justin Taylor’s post about the statement permitted discussion. I guess the indirect rebuke to MacDonald was all that the Coalition could bear.