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.

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Another Problem with W-w

At a time when Europeans and their former colonial outposts are reflecting on the nation state, political union, and the shelf-life of post-World War II peace-keeping institutions, the celebration of U.S. independence was another chance to ponder the merits of political autonomy and state sovereignty. But notice the way that some Christians decided to frame the matter:

Those of us who identify as Christians should never fear admitting the truth, even when it means letting go of the myth of a “Christian America.” And those of us who identify as both Christian and social conservative should not fear that admitting this particular truth means abandoning what we believe the “We hold these truths” line to mean. Unlike with the Constitution, the “original intent” of the authors shouldn’t necessarily be our guide. If it really is a truth—and a “self-evident” one—it is only because it was revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

In an age when even many Christians are hostile to religiously informed public philosophy, it’s understandable that social conservatives would turn to the past for examples and look to the founding documents for affirmation. But such an effort is likely to be as unproductive as it is unpersuasive.

If Christians wish to build a polis informed by Christian convictions, if we want the truths we hold to be seen once again as “literally true,” we must look to the future, thick with possibility, rather than to the thin material left over from the religious sentiments of our Founding Fathers.

Really? The best Christians can do is ask once again what kind of believers the founders were or whether the Declaration’s self-evident truths are compatible with special revelation?

Compare this to Noah Millman’s thought experiment. Imagine if the Declaration left out self-evident truths:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. . . .

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Which leads Millman to make this point:

One people is oppressed by another, suffering a long chain of abuses. Eventually, the abuses can no longer be tolerated. They constitute a tyranny, and they oblige the oppressed people to throw off the tyrant’s yoke.

That’s not a new story – nor is it a story that requires a new political theory to justify rebellion. The Dutch Revolt required no such theory. Neither did Tyrone’s Rebellion. Why, then, did America’s founders find it necessary to introduce such a theory into the document justifying our own rebellion against the crown?

It’s hard to believe that this philosophical language was introduced to win the support of the France’s absolute monarchy. The philosophes might have applauded, but Louis XVI would surely have preferred to back a rebellion that cast no particular doubt on the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy to one that did. It is even harder to believe that the language was intended to justify a revolution in the domestic arrangements of the colonies. The Declaration was a document intended to be something that the colonies – from slaveholding South Carolina to loyally-inclined Pennsylvania – could assent to unanimously. An alarmingly revolutionary doctrine would surely be the last thing the Congress would have wished to include.

Was it revolutionary, though, to American ears? Quite likely not. In fact, the most stirring portion of the Declaration, the words that have had profound implications for American and world history, may have been so much boilerplate. Americans from Virginia to Vermont, with long experience with self-government, casually assumed Lockean premises about where government legitimately derived and what was its legitimate purpose. Including these words in the document justifying American independence may not have established an American creed so much as they reiterated the largely unexamined premises that many Americans already assumed.

Whether you agree with Millman or not (and the whole piece is a plausible case for American exceptionalism), you have to admit that his take is much more interesting than Joe Carter’s. The latter feels compelled to squeeze a political statement into a theological mold. Millman simply imagines the political stakes. No religious references. And in so doing, the Declaration takes on even more significance than when Christians try to find America’s eternal meaning (or not).

If U.S. Christians thought about politics politically rather than religiously, they might not look so odd to their neighbors.

Another Two Cheers for Secularization

What a great achievement the United States is and the entire process of breaking up Christendom into nation-states with their own sovereignty, based not on Christian teaching but on the give and take of practical politics. Gary Welton sees secularization as a problem but his reaction to the Paris killings actually shows the value of secularization:

I understand that much of the world sees the West as Christian, yet it can be argued that Christianity is on the decline in the West, while it is expanding in Africa and China. It is a stereotype to think that the West portrays the essence of Christianity. In fact, the West provides for a rather free expression of faith. Granted, Christianity has been the dominant faith in the West, but I am not willing, as a Christian, to take the blame for Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo is a reflection of the secular West, not particularly a reflection of Christianity. I am not Charlie Hebdo.

If Europe and its off shoots around the world were still in the mold of Christendom, Mr. Welton would not have the option of distinguishing between his temporal and spiritual identities. Again, the Crusaders did not fight as Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, or Irish. They fought as Christians. But by distinguishing Christian identity from a political one defined by a nation (as problematic as that may be), Mr. Welton and I have the advantage of dissenting from our countries’ policies and distinguishing Christianity from politics. But if we get rid of secularization, then Christians need to fight in the name of Christ. And that doesn’t make any biblical sense. Just ask Peter, the first pope.