Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014
Should Christians who share many of the most important theological commitments partner across denominational lines for mutual support and collaborative ministry? Are there historical precedents for the kind of gospel networks we see flourishing in Evangelicalism today? How do popular extra-ecclesial gospel partnerships work (or not work) in the current U.S. church scene? This article seeks to answer such questions, using Together For the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition as primary test-cases, and arguing that the dangers common to these kinds of non-denominational movements should not lead one to minimise the gospel-defining, gospel-promoting, and gospel-celebrating work they do. If we enter into these partnerships with our eyes open to their inherent limitations, they can serve a useful purpose in supporting the local church, encouraging pastors, and defending the faith.
Over the past two decades North American Evangelicalism – especially that of the broader Reformed tradition – has seen the birth of a number of interdenominational partnerships (or alliances, networks, movements, etc.). No two share the exact same aims and goals; no two draw the exact same theological lines or circles of inclusion. But many share a similar spirit.
Together for the Gospel (T4G), for instance, is simply a biennial conference for pastors, yet a flavour of interdenominational partnership is clearly found in the friendship and collaboration of the recurring plenary speakers, especially T4G’s founders, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, C J Mahaney, and Albert Mohler. Despite differing – quite candidly – on secondary theological matters and in denominational allegiances, these four friends have been outspoken about their personal appreciation and willingness to collaborate in ministry together. The Gospel Coalition (TGC), founded by Don Carson and Tim Keller, is a far more comprehensive entity with multiple conferences, a massive website housing a dozen blogs and thousands of resources, a council of national leaders, regional chapters, and several international outreach initiatives. While T4G and TGC are marked by important differences in scope and focus, they share a similar ethos and include many of the same church leaders.
The ministries of T4G and TGC are distinct and prominent on the landscape of American Evangelicalism, but they are not novel or unique. Other ministries share many of the same aims and inhabit the same theological universe of evangelical Calvinism. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), founded by the late James Montgomery Boice in 1994 is something of a forerunner to today’s most popular partnerships. This multi-dimensional networking and resourcing ministry is similar in many respects to TGC. Several church-planting networks also contribute to the scene, including Acts 29 (now led by Matt Chandler), Sovereign Grace Ministries (started by C J Mahaney), and Redeemer City to City (under Tim Keller). While some such church-planting networks function as something closer to denominations, with pastoral training and a vetting process, they nevertheless together represent this growth of intentional collegiality that is not merely denominational.
The question that has been put to us is whether such inter-denominational alliances are legitimate, or, even more positively, may be a sign of God moving with blessing upon the broader church. Concerns and criticisms have certainly been raised, and we have been asked to interact with those in this article. However, while we acknowledge inevitable limitations, including present and future hurdles, we will argue that many such extra-ecclesiastical partnerships represent a measure of health and divine blessing on the Evangelical church in North America and should be generally encouraged and pursued.
Before examining two case studies from within contemporary North American Evangelicalism it is worth considering whether church history offers any healthy examples of interdenominational, extra-ecclesiastical partnerships – and, if so, what we can learn from them. Several historical illustrations might be considered. None of them corresponds directly to the aforementioned examples within modern North America. Many, for instance, were inextricably tied to a state church and had political, not just ecclesiastical, aims. Nevertheless, some aspects of these examples suggest that the recent movement of networks and partnerships should not be judged too quickly as historically novel or circumspect.
Throughout the mid-late sixteenth century, English Puritans grew increasingly weary of a Church of England that was still “but halfly reformed”. In 1575, Cambridge Puritans caught wind of a movement of preaching renewal and training in Norwich and travelled there to observe it firsthand. In such weekly meetings seasoned ministers helped younger ministers learn to “keep to the text”, to “show the things of the Holy Ghost, and briefly, pithily, and plainly apply”. A young minister would deliver a sample sermon, followed immediately by candid feedback from older ministers regarding “the soundness of his doctrine, how he kept and followed his text, [and] where he swerved from it”. With the Elizabethan Church sorely neglecting the able training of future (and present) ministers, the Norwich pastors, and later the Cambridge men, sought to take matters into their own hands, using such “prophesying conferences” as a primary tool in pursuit of “a learned and godly ministry”.
Not all of the Cambridge Puritans had the same commitment to or forecast for the future of the Church of England – some with more separatist inclinations, others more patient and willing to conform – but their conferences were plainly not sanctioned by the Church of England. Queen Elizabeth, in fact, vehemently and consistently opposed them. It would be too anachronistic to say that their prophesying conferences were “non-denominational” (indeed, “denomination” by nature implies more than one, which was hardly imaginable in sixteenth-century England), but such extra-ecclesiastical meetings grew organically out of a need presently unmet by formal ecclesiastical structures. It bred a localised, ad hoc preaching partnership – something which later came to be known as a “spiritual brotherhood” among the Cambridge Puritans.
Anyone familiar with the preaching workshops of The Proclamation Trust in England or The Simeon Trust in the U.S. might already recognise some familiarity between these modern preaching ministries and those which grew out of Norwich and Cambridge over 400 years before. While the leadership of The Proclamation Trust has always had a strong Anglican representation, today’s leadership includes Baptists and its ministries are open to all Evangelicals. The Simeon Trust has been thoroughly non-denominational since its inception, and its workshops are taught by pastors from a number of denominations. These are truly interdenominational – and in that sense, they differ from their forefathers in Cambridge Puritanism. On the other hand, they share much of the same DNA – that of an extra-ecclesiastical partnership seeking to resource the broader church, especially its ministers, with training and community, for the overall health and growth of the body of Christ.
The famous assembly of Puritan divines that met at the Abbey from 1643 to 1652 ended up producing not only the Confession of Faith but a host of other catecheses and ecclesiastical documents. The thoroughness and cohesiveness of the documents themselves may give the impression (to the uninformed) that the assembly was a wholly unified, almost monolithic, group. Of course, this was far from the case. Although much academic historiography has done little better in its portrayal of the assembly – dividing its members into only two groups, Independents and Presbyterians – the monumental work of Chad Van Dixhoorn has greatly corrected this error, showing that the assembly was made up of three or more parties, and party-lines drew up slightly differently with each doctrine debated. Also, Hunter Powell has argued that the Scottish Presbyterians at Westminster were closer in ecclesiology and affinity with English Congregationalists than with English Presbyterians.
Of course, the representatives called to Westminster by Parliament were just that – called by Parliament. It was an ecclesiastical body, but one politically formed for the political purposes of settling a new state church. So what hath the Westminster Assembly to do with modern parachurch networks? In many ways, nothing at all – the political dimension alone makes Westminster another animal altogether. However, a number of elements may have a familiar ring to them: the broadly reformed, from multiple ecclesiastical parties, with clearly held differences, gathered together to hammer out the lines of unification and deference, and draw up documents as such. To point out that the Westminster Assembly was not diverse in the same way as, say, TGC is diverse does not negate the fact that the divines had serious disagreements among themselves and had to determine what issues needed striking clarity, which ones allowed for ambiguity, and which ones might not be touched at all. From that angle, the Assembly was a far more ecumenical enterprise than many would care to admit. It was as unifying as it was boundary-defining. However, theirs was not a theologically-minimising unity. As Powell concludes, “we should remember that some… Presbyterians and the [Congregationalist] Apologists could work together because their differences were in ‘lesser things’ not because they papered over their differences or believed them to be unimportant”.
The Presbyterianism enacted by Parliament in 1648 had been poorly established and loosely enforced in the years that followed. Additionally, those coming to power in Parliament and the New Model Army in the later years of the Civil War increasingly favoured an Independent ecclesiology and more liberty in matters adiaphora than was allowed under the few years of Presbyterian uniformity. By the early 1650s the writing was on the wall for the establishment of a new church state – one which would more broadly unify “the godly” and allow for liberty on ecclesiastical matters of church government and worship forms.
Simultaneously, many Puritan statesmen, such as John Owen, had an additional concern about the proliferation of heresies like Socinianism. In 1652 Owen, with other Puritan pastors, presented Parliament with The Humble Proposals. This short document essentially proposed a whole new church settlement, one which forbade promulgation of what is contrary to the “principles of Christian religion” but otherwise allowed liberty for all others. Such “principles of Christian religion” were defined in 16 short fundamental articles representing basic Trinitarian and evangelical Protestant orthodoxy. With the dissolution of Parliament later that year nothing came of the Proposals, but it was only the first attempt of many for Owen and his colleagues.
Throughout the rest of the 1650s the same Cromwellian churchmen had a hand in the architecture of several legislative proposals and constitutions, including The Instruments of Government (1653), The New Confession (1654), and The Humble Petition and Advice (1657). The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658) was most likely also a politico-ecclesiastical proposal, the final attempt at establishing a Cromwellian church state. Each of these proposals and corresponding confessions, while spearheaded by Congregationalist Puritans, also included Presbyterians, and allowed liberty for Baptists and Episcopalians. Each proposal drew the theological boundaries slightly differently, some more overtly Reformed than others, some more thorough than others. Each tinkered with the precarious balance of ideals: to limit heresy, to promote godliness and the gospel, and to provide a godly, uncoercive church state united around Protestant (or broadly Reformed) orthodoxy.
As with the Westminster Assembly, the political context and aims of these confessional bodies makes them very different from anything happening within today’s ministerial alliances and networks. Indeed, the hurdles and complexities that faced the Puritans during the Interregnum were quite unusual, even in their own time. But, by now, some similarities with the aforementioned partnerships of our own day should be obvious. Unity was sought, neither by erasing theological convictions, nor by making ecclesiastical practices uniform. Partnerships in many cases began organically and relationally, and what became “official” did not have binding ecclesiastical authority. Circles of varying circumference were drawn, never to everyone’s complete liking, and certainly not for everyone’s inclusion. Nevertheless such circles of participation, fellowship and collaboration were drawn not merely according to parties (or what today might be akin to denominations). There were concentric, co-existing circles – some strictly ecclesiastical, others broader and more volitional. And, of course, such circles were codified in new confessions – not unlike the confessional documents which help define theologically TGC and T4G. Sadly, the experiment of a Cromwellian church of the 1650s was not successful or lasting. But we see many of the ideals described above not only admirable, but also adaptable to a different context and age.
If space allowed, we could expand this historical sketch to include other relevant snapshots of inter-denominational, extra-ecclesiastical partner-ships. We could look at the Trans-Atlantic evangelical awakenings during the middle part of the eighteenth century, which brought together men like Frelinghuysen (Dutch Reformed), the Tennents (Presbyterian), Edwards (Congregational), Whitefield (Anglican), and John Erskine (Scottish Kirk) in partnerships forged by letter writing, publishing, prayer initiatives and, at times, shared ministry. We could look at many modern mission agencies which partner with local churches of different denominations. We could also consider Christian colleges and seminaries. Some seminaries in the U.S. are denominational, like Calvin Theological Seminary (Christian Reformed Church in North America) or Covenant Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church in America), while others, including those deeply rooted in and committed to the Reformed confessional tradition, such as Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary, are not under the official auspices of any denomination.
T4G and TGC are far from the only partnerships worth talking about, but as they are two of the biggest and most well known, it may be helpful to briefly zoom in on what they are and what they do.
T4G began in 2006 as a conference for pastors that grew out of the friendship of four men who, despite their significant differences in some theological matters and in denominational affiliation, were adamantly together for the gospel. Mark Dever, the de facto leader of the group and of the conference, is the Pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist (SBC) in Washington, D.C. Albert Mohler is the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBC) in Louisville, Kentucky. Ligon Duncan, until recently the Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, is now the Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. C J Mahaney, after serving for many years as the President of Sovereign Grace Ministries and as a pastor in Maryland, is now the pastor of a SGM church plant in Louisville.
Although the conference has tripled in size since then to over 8000 people, the every-other-year event still has the same rather narrow aim: to encourage and equip pastors. To that end, the four principals of the conference have always invited other men to share in the plenary addresses. In 2014, I (Kevin) was in the line-up of speakers, along with John Piper, Thabiti Anyabwile, David Platt, Matt Chandler, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Albert Mohler, and Ligon Duncan. Several breakout speakers are also present. The conference has become a significant event in galvanising conservative Evangelicals, promoting theological resources, defending the faith from contemporary aberrations, networking like-minded leaders, and supporting pastors.
What makes T4G unique is the emphasis on the relationships among the speakers. The plenary speakers not only share meals together during the conference and sit together throughout the whole event, they also meet annually for three days of prayer and fellowship, and communicate by phone and email throughout the year. T4G is really nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends pursuing their friendship in the gospel, enjoying these friendships publicly, and preaching a series of messages every other year so that pastors might be encouraged for the work of faithful preaching ministry.
TGC, by contrast, is a bigger organisation with a bigger tent and with larger aims. Under the leadership of Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Illinois) and Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (New York City), TGC began in 2007 with an initial gathering of 500 interested persons. Since then the reach of the organisation has grown at a remarkable pace, with a popular biennial national conference (on the opposite years from T4G), a regular women’s conference, regional conferences, international initiatives, a publishing imprint, and one of the most trafficked Christian websites.
Technically, TGC is a council of not more than 60 members – mostly pastors, pulled from a variety of denominational (and a few non-denominational) backgrounds, chiefly the Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church in America, and Evangelical Free Church in America. The Council members must agree to the TGC Confessional Statement and Theological Vision for Ministry. These confessional documents – which have been amended, at least once in an effort to clarify that the organisation did not see itself as an ecclesiastical body – reflect classic reformational theology, with Calvinistic soteriology, complementarianism, and neo-evangelical sensibilities toward engaging the culture. The Council meets annually, every other year in conjunction with the biennial national conference and then more substantively on the off years for a three-day colloquium. TGC also has several employees, including Ben Peays as Executive Director, Collin Hansen as Editorial Director, and Kathleen Nielson in charge of women’s initiatives.
While the conferences give TGC a live, personal face to the organisation, there is little doubt that the vast majority of people who interact with TGC do so through its website. With 20 million unique visitors in 2013, traffic to the website has increased by roughly one-third each of the last three years. TGC’s online presence is simply massive. The TGC platform hosts more than a dozen regular bloggers, a steady stream of book reviews, a serious theological journal (Themelios), a catechism (New City Catechism), and a dizzying array of videos, interviews, podcasts, articles, commentary and regular contributors. TGC is read widely in different languages, from different religious backgrounds, from all over the world. It has become the best-known Christian website in North America for cultural and theological reflection from a broadly Reformed, evangelical perspective.
As significant as the web presence is and as impressive as the big conferences can seem, there is often a local dimension to TGC that gets overlooked. Both of us have seen TGC be a unifying force on the ground and in the trenches. Kevin’s church hosts a monthly gathering for a dozen church leaders in the area under the aegis of TGC. While there are no official prerequisites for participation in the group, there is an explicit understanding that pastors meeting in this informal lunchtime of prayer and learning should share the same set of core doctrinal convictions. This means a support for the TGC Foundational Documents in particular and an appreciation for the gospel priorities of organisations like TGC in general.
I (Ryan) am privileged to lead one of TGC’s fifteen Regional Chapters (in Albuquerque, New Mexico). These Chapters exist to bring the dynamics and aims of the national Council (fellowship, partnership, sharpening, prayer) to a local context among participating pastors. About 30 local pastors make up TGC Albuquerque. We meet quarterly for three hours for relationship building, prayer, burden-bearing, sharing advice and discussion of a theological or ministerial topic (preceded by a reading assignment). These meetings (and the smaller, informal ones that grow out of them) help protect from territorialism and competition. They foster camaraderie and care for each other. They promote broad-mindedness about the kingdom and the gospel in our local area, without taking away from our different denominational allegiances. They help mitigate church-hopping and enable pastors to communicate about congregants floating between churches and/or leaving poorly. And especially for solo pastors in smaller churches, these gatherings help fight against isolation and discouragement. Our Chapter also hosts one of the TGC Regional Conferences, which not only brings churches together and presents a strong witness to the community, it allows for local pastors and laypeople to experience the fellowship and learn from the teaching that might otherwise be inaccessible at a national conference in Orlando.
Having participated in other, less-defined pastoral networks, we can testify that one of the unique benefits of the TGC-shaped groups is that there is a much greater degree of doctrinal depth and theological integrity. In some places, denominational groups work well for the same purpose. But in many places, there may not be others from the same denomination in close proximity. Or in mainline denominations those in the same area may not actually share the same core theological convictions. In the Albuquerque Chapter, for example, pastors must be in “hearty agreement” with TGC’s Foundational Documents. That means then that we are unified on specifics such as Reformed soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, penal substitution, and double imputation. This also means there will be diversity in other areas like eschatology, church polity, sacraments, and miraculous gifts.
No doubt, some readers will view such parameters as too exclusive, others as too inclusive. We can only say that these points of agreement and diversity work well in our context for our purposes. We can also say with confidence that the differences we have tolerated in theology do not come from or lead to a latitudinarianism when it comes to our own preaching and local church practice. We are able to be more theologically precise and picky with our own church’s leadership – and we must. However, since TGC is a network, not a church or denomination, we do not find that differences of ecclesiology get in the way of our unity, friendships, collegiality and mutual encouragement. In fact, such differences (e.g., spiritual gifts, the age of the earth, approaches to racial reconciliation, emphases in sanctification) are often freely discussed and warmly debated among us. 
Before interacting with some of the criticisms that have been raised a couple of prefatory remarks are in order.
First, Carl Trueman has been one of the more outspoken critics of these new alliances, particularly TGC, as his article in this journal demonstrates. Both of us count Carl as a dear friend. He has often made us laugh, made us think, made us better churchmen, made us better historians, and only occasionally has he made us mad! We have both enjoyed personal time with Carl over the years. We have been out to dinner. He has been in our home (Ryan’s at least). We have benefited from countless little emails, quips, and comments. So when we say that we are friends with Carl we do not mean that we are Facebook “friends” or we met in person once – we mean we genuinely like each other and know each other. As such, we have discussed these matters in person and over emails many times. In every case we have been helped and challenged. We want to say “Amen” to many of his concerns and cautions. Nevertheless, we do not always agree. And that is precisely what these articles are for – to continue friendly discussion by interacting with some of the concerns Carl has raised.
Second, we will use TGC as the primary referent point. This is not because TGC is the only possible representative of the concerns Carl raises, but because it is the largest, most influential parachurch ministry of its kind, and it seems to be what Carl – not to mention people like Darryl Hart or Scott Clark  – most frequently has in mind when he writes critically of parachurch alliances, celebrity culture, and the tyranny of the “Top Men”. Further, both of us serve on the TGC Council (Kevin also serves on its Board and Ryan serves on its Governance Committee). So we are familiar with TGC “from the inside”, so to speak.
With those prefatory remarks out of the way, we will interact with five categories of concern that have been raised.
TGC is not a denomination or a church, but is it trying to be? Does it come too close to resembling or functioning as a church or a denomination? Some have argued yes. It surely does not help that some mistakenly refer to their own or another’s church as “a TGC church”, or speak of “joining TGC”. By this perhaps they mean that such-and-such church is on TGC’s Church Directory. Perhaps they mean that their pastor is part of a Regional Chapter. But in point of fact there is no such thing as “a TGC church” and there is really no “joining TGC”. The Church Directory is simply a way to find a church which believes that it shares the theology and ministry vision of TGC. The churches in the Directory are not vetted, as a disclaimer clearly states. It is simply a connecting point like other church directories.
The Regional Chapters are something slightly more official in that they will, at times, need to turn away a pastor who is keen to join but holds to beliefs outside the Foundational Documents. But, as was described above, these chapters are not ecclesiastical entities; they have no authority over pastors or churches; they are volitional fraternals for pastors.
The Council of TGC is more official still. It is a group of (currently) 53 men who have been recommended to, and voted on, by the Council itself. The Council may, if necessary, vote to remove one of its members. But none of this presumes any kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction or authority whatsoever. Ecclesiastically, these men are accountable to their local churches and fellow elders (or presbyteries or bishops). It is a brotherhood of sorts. Confrontation and exhortation have taken place when needed – sometimes privately, sometimes publically. But it is not mistaken as some sort of extra-local church eldership. As a friend recently put it: when kids in the neighbourhood form a clubhouse and get together, it does not mean that they have deserted or replaced their families!
Beyond the Church Directory, Regional Chapters, and a Council, TGC is a ministry of resources to the broader church. People from all over the world can and do freely use the thousands of resources on the website; they may attend one or more of TGC’s conferences. In these ways they may choose to “identify” with TGC, but such would be no different from one identifying with, say, Desiring God through its rich website and many conferences.
Many of the church-planting networks in the States operate somewhat differently than this. In addition to conferences and website resources there are clear member-churches and/or member-pastors. There is a vetting process, even ongoing pastoral accountability in church-planting networks like Acts 29. A church and/or pastor may also simultaneously fall within a denomination, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Presbyterian Church in America. And where that is the case there would be distinct but overlapping circles of fellowship, identity, accountability, (perhaps) even authority. Thus, it may be fairer to argue that some church-planting networks function like a church or denomination, but it does not seem to be a fair representation of TGC as a whole or in any of its parts.
It is unfortunate if some Christians identify themselves more with TGC than with their local church or denomination. We personally have not seen or heard such a sentiment. Yet, regardless, we can say as men in the closed-door meetings of TGC’s leadership, there is no intention for TGC to “be mistaken for the church”, to offer itself as a “virtual denomination” or a source of “ecclesiastical identity”. In fact, all of the TGC Council members are committed and active churchmen in their own denominations.
As already noted, TGC’s doctrinal parameters have been judged too narrow and exclusive by some and too broad and inclusive by others. Space does not permit us to interact with the first concern, except to recognise that TGC circumscribes certain doctrinal positions and not others, because some are central to the preaching of the gospel (e.g., penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, eternality of hell); some differences evince deep hermeneutical differences, and are practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism); and some so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that they must be made explicit (Reformed soteriology). This makes TGC theologically tighter than the co-belligerent efforts of mid-twentieth century neo-evangelicalism. We suspect it is also theologically narrower than some comparable networks in the UK today.
Trueman’s critique has not been with the narrowness of TGC, but with its perceived doctrinal ambiguity. TGC’s Confessional Statement falls within the broader Reformed tradition, and, as noted earlier, it is particular regarding monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification; yet it is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts and the like. The Foundational Documents could not be fully embraced by hard-line Dispensationalists, Lutherans, Emergents, or mainline Liberals. However, among the Council there are Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopalian/Anglican, Baptist, Free Church, and nondenominational, all of which must agree with what is contained in the Foundational Documents. At just over 2300 words, the Confessional Statement is not aiming for the kind of doctrinal specificity found in the Westminster Confession of Faith or The Second Helvetic Confession. The points of doctrinal specificity in TGC’s documents are intentional, as are the areas of silence.
It is also important to note that the vast majority of the Council members are part of denominations or churches which confess the faith in one or another lengthy (and, in most cases, historic) document. That is to say that, personally and ecclesiastically, the men of the Council do not eschew doctrinal specificity in order to espouse a “mere Christianity” kind of confessionalism. We heartily agree with the sentiment that “being confessional is inextricably bound up with ecclesiastical commitment”. We, however, would disagree if it is also implied that any other (extra-ecclesiastical) confessional statement is wholly illegitimate. Confessions have, historically, served varying purposes. Primarily and most often they were ecclesial documents, but sometimes they had primary political aims and sometimes they were public testimonies of the unity shared between Christians in other communions and on other continents. The church has historically crafted statements of varying length/specificity – some more elaborate, some mere “fundamental articles”. The latter did not generally (at least not in the Reformed tradition) grow out of a desire to minimise particulars for baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or church polity, but to acknowledge the degree of unity that could be confessed and the inevitable diversity in Christ’s church in matters secondary and tertiary.
One wonders what the alternative is. Should pastors and churches limit any and all fellowship to their own strict confessional communion? Must it be all-or-nothing? Can there not be spheres of fellowship and degrees of partnership, while the local church robustly remains at the centre? And if fellowship, partnership, and networking are possible or even noble, shall we not sometimes write down our shared confession?
Some of the criticism of TGC has centred on its perceived desire to dominate the Evangelical scene, to become “the voice” of Reformed Evangelicalism, or to “set the church’s agenda”. Perhaps one reason for this concern is the sheer size of TGC’s footprint on the web and social media. The numbers involved, already mentioned, are quite remarkable. In as much as these “clicks” represent people reading good, thoughtful material, we rejoice that Christ may use those efforts to strengthen his church. The same would go for the number of TGC conferences and their attendees. Many have come. Conferences have been added. Hopefully those labours have borne true fruit, by God’s grace. We believe that they have, along with many other good conferences of our day.
Growth, whether in business or ministry, is a strange thing. It certainly cannot be manufactured out of thin air. It arises from reciprocating responses between public interest and leader initiative. A businessman (or a pastor, sadly) may set out from the beginning to become the biggest or most famous, and he may manoeuvre for market share in his industry. Such was not the case with TGC’s organic and uncertain beginnings. Tim Keller and Don Carson went for a walk one day – quite literally – and began talking of ways to encourage gospel-centred ministry in the broader church. They later invited a few dozen pastors to join them in that discussion. This group began to discuss their points of doctrinal agreement. Formal documents and future plans began to emerge. In 2007 these men went public with an unadvertised conference, and a few hundred pastors attended. By 2009 another conference was planned, this time with the typical promotion of a national conference, and thousands turned up. Such developments were not accidental, not totally detached from human activity, of course, but grew out of a mysterious mix of perceived need, human planning, and divine providence.
Some criticisms of TGC have, at times, seemed to presume to know and impugn motives of those leading TGC. We must always remember that it is a dangerous thing to venture a sure assessment of another man’s heart (see 1 Cor 4:3-5). As we think about the men currently on our Council we do not know of any man who seems to have overtly sought out a massive ministry. Of course, they are sinners all, and no doubt wrestle with pride and the like. But more apparent to us is that they seem to be gifted men who have simply done the next thing God has put before them. A book needs to be written; one has the wherewithal to write it, and so does. A conference seems like a good idea, and so it gets planned; then another. A gifted blogger is willing to come under the umbrella to blog from TGC’s website. An international initiative seems wise, and God provides for it and continues to bless it. On and on it goes – or so it has thus far. God only knows whether it will exist, let alone be fruitful and faithful, in the decades to follow. It is a human institution, and only Christ’s church is sure to grow and prevail (Matt 16:18). Thus far we can only confess that a Paul may plant, and an Apollos may water, but “God gives the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything” (1 Cor 3:6-7).
Surely the discussion of celebrity culture in American Evangelicalism is far broader than TGC, but occasionally those two have been united in the same conversation, and so it is unavoidably part of this discussion here. Why say unavoidably? Well, because something strange does seem afoot. It is true: at large conferences well-known speakers are often sought out for a picture or a signature. The thankfulness shown to a public preacher can at times appear to slip into adulation. Some seem to identify more with a famous preacher or author than their own church or pastor. It is an issue that has been bemoaned by a number of well-known pastors themselves.
However, a number of points have also been made on various blogs, not in complete denial of such concerns, but in seeking to clarify the language used, dynamics involved, and the overall complexity of the matter. We will not retrace the same arguments here (to do so would occupy a full journal article or more), but highlighting some of the bullet points might be useful:
Perhaps it would be helpful for me (Ryan) to speak personally and anecdotally. I suspect I have a somewhat unique insight here since I am a decidedly un-famous figure who happens to be friends with many of these so-called “famous” pastors. I have been privileged to serve on TGC’s Council for a few years now – not because I have written a best-selling book or speak at large conferences. It is certainly not because I have deep pockets; nor does my mid-size church. Don Carson simply asked me if I would be open to joining the Council after spending time at our church for a conference weekend. It was inexplicable and humbling; yet enormously encouraging, as it signalled something that I would not have known from the outside – that it is not just a Council of movers-and-shakers.
From the outside I suppose the Council (with its well-known names like Piper, Carson, Keller, Dever, etc.) seems an impressive group. In many ways it is, I have learned, but perhaps not the way some may think. Every man in the room is a gifted and able pastor or theologian, but many are largely unknown outside their own churches. Yet, I have never seen any kind of class system or snootiness or gamesmanship. I have never seen someone brushed aside. Of course, some men are more vocal than others; some are more influential than others. That is inevitable just as it is in a local church eldership. But, similar to a godly eldership, I have found our yearly Council meetings to be marked by humility, not hubris; by genuine care and affection, not rivalry or boasting. When theological discussions have been rigorous, I have witnessed self-control and mutual respect, alongside passionate conviction and allegiance to truth.
I cannot speak much to the issue of “famous” pastors outside of TGC’s Council. I simply have no up-close experience. But as pertains to TGC’s present Council I have not seen much, if any, of the concerns that seem to be raised on blogs. Take that for what it is; it is simply one man’s observation – but note that it is not from one of the “pretty people” or “Top Men”, as my friend Carl likes to say.
Of course, the above is far from the only thing to be said about “famous” pastors and “celebrity” culture. Not only is it one man’s perspective, it is solely an observation about the perceived attitudes and ambitions of our Council members. It is not meant to convey that all is well and that issues of celebrity and fandom are mere bogeymen. So we must circle back to a more cautionary note for what must happen or continue to happen if God is in these networking, conferencing efforts:
As mentioned earlier, potential Council members of TGC are voted in by the Council itself. In that sense, the Council is inevitably a self-appointed entity. This has been an oft-stated concern for some. But once again we wonder what the alternative is. Is the critique meant to suggest that TGC should become a denomination? Well, that would revive the first of the concerns addressed in this article. Is it suggesting that TGC should come under a single denomination? That would necessarily limit the Council’s constituents to that single denomination, creating a silo affect, which we are overtly trying to avoid. Is it suggested that we form a super-denomination invested with ecclesiastical powers made up of elected officials from member churches? Of course it is not (most thankfully). What then is the alternative to a council and/or board that votes upon its new members? Is such a system with a non-ecclesiastical board and larger council much different than the leadership structure one finds in a non-denominational seminary or missions agency?
A related concern is a possible lack of accountability. As was already noted, however, there are constitutional allowances for the Council of TGC to ask for a Council member’s resignation. The same is, in fact, true for the President and Vice President. There is institutional accountability as far as that goes. There is also fraternal or brotherly accountability; confrontation and exhortation can, and does, take place. Obviously this sort of accountability would precede any formal, institutional kind. But neither pretends to be ecclesiastical in nature.
There are a number of legitimate dangers that need to be heeded when it comes to interdenominational, somewhat amorphous, largely self-selecting gospel partnerships. Any of the organisations, networks, or movements mentioned in this article could end up as just another fad, just another chasing after the wind. Indeed, we should be well aware that Christ only promises that he will build the church. Every interdenominational organisation will pass away in time, just like our denominational organisations may pass away. But the fact that David passed away does not make it pointless that he served the Lord faithfully in his generation (Acts 13:36). Let us not make T4G, TGC, ACE, A29, SGM, or any other abbreviation more important than it is, but let us not make them less than God may want them to be. Sure, there are dangers; these movements could crumble under the weight of supposed self-importance; there is the danger of idolising our heroes and envying our colleagues; there is the danger of minimising important doctrines in an effort to promote gospel-centred unity; there is the danger of not being careful enough with our associations – and the opposite danger of taking glee in deciding who is in and who is out.
These new partnerships have all the problems that any extra-ecclesial partnership has. There is no official spokesperson, no adjudicating assembly, no easy way to determine where and when to draw lines. In some organisations, people fight too much. In others, they are too reticent to criticise. Some leaders may labour in their informal networks to the detriment of principled participation in their own ecclesiastical structures. We need to be on guard against triumphalism and pragmatism. We need to be wary of pride. We need to be careful not to be too derivative in our thinking. We need to be anchored in books over blogs, in old truths over passing tweets. We need to be sure our deepest and most sustained energies are poured into that one institution against which Christ promised the gates of hell could not stand.
In other words, almost every critique has some merit; almost every warning should be considered. And yet, our first response to these new movements is not a roll of the eyes or a “yeah but”; it is gratitude:
We have no desire to spend our days as apologists for man-made ministry acronyms. If every organisation in this article disappeared tomorrow, the gospel would keep going out and Christ would keep building his church. The question is not whether any of these partnerships are essential. The question, at least for us, is whether they help to support what is essential. Do they serve the local church? Do they help pastors? Do they defend the truth? Do they preach the gospel? Do they get people into their Bibles? Do they provoke people to pursue holiness? Will someone who gets deeply involved with the conferences, the resources, the websites, the documents, and the teaching of these networks end up more committed to the church, more engaged with Scripture, more sure of what they believe, more precise with doctrine, more equipped for reaching the lost, more passionate about the nations, and more delighted with the glory of God in the face of Christ? If the answer is a yes – or even a qualified yes – then for our part we are eager to see these movements flourish and eager to partner with those similarly concerned for and similarly committed to the same gospel.
* Ryan Kelly is the Pastor for Preaching at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico and serves on the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Kevin DeYoung is the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan and has been involved with both Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition.