This is a second post on the overuse and misuse of the G Word – the gospel.
In the first post I proposed that claiming authenticity for everything we do by attaching the word ‘gospel’ to it actually devalues a word that has a specific meaning in the NT.
A second, and more important reason, to question overuse of the G word is when it is used as an exclusionary boundary marker. Ah we evangelicals are rather good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice.
It seems to me that there is a defensive subtext to the sort of insistent claiming of the G-word for ourselves and all we do described in the first post. ‘Gospel’ becomes reduced to a shorthand way of claiming spiritual authenticity, doctrinal ‘soundness’ and evangelical orthodoxy – even over against fellow evangelicals.
And so, sometimes quite subtly (and sometimes not) ‘gospel’ becomes an exclusionary word.
Sometimes it is as blunt as ‘We have the gospel and you do not’ – a hard sort of fundamentalist separatism. I’ve written on how Ian Paisley forged a whole career out of a competitive assault on the gospel authenticity of other Christians (especially the Presbyterian Church in Ireland) in order to build up his ‘pure’ and ‘free’ church.
More often it carries the strong implication that ‘we know best what the gospel is’. ‘We know how to preach and teach it and to share it. We know how to do things the right way and since we’re not too convinced that you do, we won’t have any gospel partnership with you but we will with others who think and do things the same way as us.’
And I guess the motive behind this is a sincere desire to ‘protect’ the gospel. We ringfence the gospel by working only with those like us who are safe and sound. So we circle the wagons and won’t risk venturing outside our self-imposed boundary since this in some way may compromise the gospel.
Now I don’t have any problem with churches and networks with particular affinities working together. It often makes perfect sense. What I do object to is to label such relationships as, to take one famous example from the States, a ‘Gospel Coalition’. This co-opting of the G word for ourselves is divisive, even if unintentionally so.
Now I admire and have learnt much from many people who are part of the ‘Gospel Coalition’ – especially Tim Keller who should just straight up be declared a saint 😉 I just wish they had come up with another name.
I’ve re-read their Confessional Statement and Theological Vision for Ministry carefully. And it is striking how in the latter they (a bit begrudgingly to be honest) acknowledge that God is working beyond the boundaries of what they call ‘gospel-centered’ churches. I assume they don’t deny that other churches believe in and are committed to the gospel.
Yes they have concerns about the gospel faithfulness of some strands of contemporary evangelicalism – if there is such a coherent identifyable thing any more. But that is not relevant to my point.
The point is to notice how the G word is being used. It has shifted from being a description of the NT gospel to being equivalent to whole way or style of doing ministry, what the GC call ‘gospel-centered ministry’. Such ministry, they say, involves empowered corporate worship (including expository preaching); evangelistic effectiveness; counter-cultural community; integration of faith and work; and the doing of justice and mercy. And if you don’t share these emphases, you are not qualified to be part of our gospel coalition.
I’m sorry but that move is failing to be consistent with being gospel people (evangelical).
Why? Because it is the very essence of a generous, or better, grace-filled ‘big tent’ evangelicalism, that the evangel (gospel) is NOT any particular sub-group’s ‘property’. The gospel is by definition what unites evangelicals. So one part of the movement claiming the label for themselves is inherently contradictory to ‘being evangelical’.
But the GC are going even further than this. The word ‘gospel’ has now been tightened and redefined to describe particular emphases of how to do church ministry. The inevitable implication is that if you don’t do it this way, you are not doing gospel-centered ministry. That move is fatal to evangelical unity.
The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the joyful announcement of what God has done in and through his son. It is a story of celebrating that the kingdom of God has come with the arrival of the Messiah of Israel; that a new age of the Spirit has dawned in light of the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Jesus who has been exalted to the right hand of God. It is the good news that God is reconciling sinners, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, to himself within his bigger purposes of redeeming all of creation.
It is a crying shame when this wonderful G word becomes a basis for excluding other Christians who believe in the same gospel. It like charismatics and Pentecostals claiming that they are the only ones with the Spirit, or the Reformed the only ones with the Word.
Now I imagine someone may say; ‘You are being naive. We need boundaries. Paul contended for the gospel against false teaching in Galatians for example.’ Yes indeed – I’m not suggesting that the G word be emptied of its content – exactly the opposite in fact. I’m not suggesting that just because someone wishes to claim the title ‘evangelical’ that we ignore their doctrine. Yes, evangelicals need to stand firm in the gospel.
I am arguing for evangelicals to live up to their name and live in the unity of the gospel (Phil 1:27); unity in the essentials of the faith. And in this, no-one says it better or with more integrity and graciousness than the late John Stott who, after over 60 years in ministry, wrote in Evangelical Truth of his grief that
many of us evangelical Christians acquiesce too readily in our pathological tendency to fragment. We take refuge in our conviction about the invisible unity of the church, as if its visible manifestation did not matter. In consequence, the devil has been hugely successful in his old strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. Our disunity remains a major hindrance to our evangelism.
The gospel is the ‘gospel of God’ (Roms 1:1). Let’s stop trying to claim it for ourselves to the exclusion of other brothers and sisters.
Comments, as ever, welcome.