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.