Foundations: No.66 Spring 2014

Gospel Partnerships and Gospel Unity in the United Kingdom

One of the most significant developments in the UK in the last decade has been the establishment of a number of regional “Gospel Partnerships”. These offer a new model for unity and co-operation in the core doctrines of the gospel. The parallel development of The Gospel Coalition in the USA has been met by criticism, especially on the grounds that it exacerbates an unhelpful celebrity culture amongst pastors, exercises an undue power in defining the gospel and undermines ecclesiology and church practice. This article will examine the rise and role of Gospel Partnerships in the context of parachurch organisations more generally, highlight the blessing they have been and offer a preliminary critique of dangers they may face.

 

Over the course of the last decade a number of organisations which seek to unite Evangelicals in mission and church planting have emerged in the UK, whilst others have undergone significant renewal or transformation. In particular a new network of “Gospel Partnerships” have been established, which have brought conservative Evangelicals, both Anglican and Nonconformist, together to co-operate in mission, training, church planting and mutual support. Although their development has some parallels with the establishment of The Gospel Coalition in the United States, they have developed organically and indigenously. As with all such pan-evangelical bodies they have sought to identify core non-negotiable doctrines of the gospel as the basis for unity and co-operation, and have regarded convictions on matters of ecclesiology as secondary. As such they have been criticised by those who insist on the need for a full confessional basis for unity and ministry co-operation. This article will seek to explain and assess the emergence of such inter-denominational groups in the wider context of the role of parachurch organisations within UK Evangelicalism, and to indicate both the advantages and potential dangers that they might pose.[1]  

(1)  Why have Parachurch Organisations Emerged?

Ever since the disintegration of a single church institutional structure at the time of the Reformation, and the subsequent failure of the magisterial reformers to create a uniform Protestant alternative at a national or territorial level,[2]  it has been inevitable that Christians and churches will seek to find ways to co-operate together in the wider work of the gospel. Such co-operation may take the form of denominational groupings of churches, which share a detailed confessional position and have a legally-constituted hierarchy of authority, whether Presbyterian or Episcopal, to enforce discipline. Those who take an independent view of church government, with the conviction that the local church is competent under Christ to govern itself,[3]  would see such structures as themselves akin to parachurch organisations. Indeed many Evangelicals within denominations, especially those that no longer enforce their Reformed or Evangelical confessional position, view them as little more than a support structure for their local church ministry.

However, denominational structures are able to develop co-operative ministry initiatives, such as the establishment of theological colleges and seminaries, which reflect the confessional or doctrinal position of the denomination, and are subject to its authority and discipline. Whilst these share some of the characteristics of parachurch organisations, and may also come to reflect the weaknesses of such entities, they are not strictly speaking parachurch organisations.

More significantly, the past three hundred years have seen the emergence of parachurch organisations that are not tied to one particular denomination, or to one single confessional or doctrinal constituency. Christians and churches from a variety of denominational and confessional positions have sought to form organisations, associations and societies to work together, regardless of their differences in theology, church government, ministry philosophy and sacramental practice, especially in regard to baptism. This has been especially true of Evangelicals, because they have come to realise that they share a set of core doctrinal convictions, and a conversionist ethos, that ultimately transcends their lesser doctrinal differences. They instinctively share more in common with each other than they do with those who might subscribe to an identical confessional position, but who lack the same passions and priorities.

A further driving force for the creation of parachurch organisations has been the simple recognition of the need to work together, because no single group can hope to accomplish the task of mission on its own. There is no realistic prospect that, say, Presbyterians will accomplish the evangelisation of the UK alone, irrespective of how tenaciously they believe that their ecclesiology and confession are truly biblical, although they may be able to contribute very substantially to the task. In a context where less than 5% of the population are born-again believers in the Lord Jesus there is no point fighting for denominational or confessional hegemony. Denominations inherently have to stress and emphasise the points at which they disagree with others, for example in regard to church government or baptism, and to highlight what they believe are the deficiencies of those who hold different convictions. However an emphasis on the points of division, which may be relatively minor, seems less important when the church as a whole is declining and struggling against aggressive secularism and rampant theological liberalism that denies core doctrines.                

At its best, the rise of parachurch organisations has always been driven by a missional imperative, out of a desire to enable the church to serve the cause of the gospel more effectively. It was perhaps the rise of the missionary movement, and emergence of the missionary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that led the way. Initially denominational mission agencies were formed, reflecting a common ecclesiology and confession, but inevitably cross-denominational agencies and non-denominational agencies also emerged. Such agencies were formed to foster co-operation in reaching a particular country, continent or people group. The sheer scale of the challenge of the unevangelised world meant that no single denomination could accomplish the task alone, thus necessitating a willingness to co-operate that was not as necessary at home.

Cross-denominational parachurch organisations have emerged to serve a wide variety of different objectives. Some exist to co-ordinate and promote ministry in a specific context, such as work amongst university students,[4]  or amongst a specific profession, for example supporting Christian healthcare professionals.[5]  Others have been created to undertake co-operative social action projects, such as the establishment of an orphanage or foodbank, or to engage in research or campaigning on behalf of churches, facilitating co-belligerence over social or political issues on behalf of Christians.[6]  Individual local congregations and small denominations are unable to advance such projects alone, and therefore co-operation is essential. Interdenominational theological colleges and seminaries have emerged alongside denominationally-affiliated colleges.

The emergence of parachurch and cross-denominational institutions and organisations has also been necessitated by the growth, in the last two centuries, of independent churches, which are now the largest and most vibrant worldwide form of evangelical Protestantism. The historic confessional denominations, such as Presbyterianism and Anglicanism, simply cannot provide a home for those who are not convinced that their historic confessions are an accurate reflection of the Bible’s teaching on ecclesiology, church government or the sacraments. The creation of alternative vehicles for co-operation is therefore inevitable.                                  

The rise of Evangelicalism itself contributed to the development of parachurch organisations. The eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals transcended existing denominational boundaries. In the UK the evangelical awakening touched both Anglicans and historic Nonconformists. The pan-confessional nature of Evangelicalism was embodied by the relationship between Whitefield and Wesley; despite their differences of theology, temperament and methodology, they enjoyed fundamental unity in the gospel, and the revival breathed new spiritual life into both Calvinist and Arminian groups. New churches and denominations were created, such as Methodism in both its English Wesleyan and Welsh Calvinistic forms,[7]  which could not be accommodated within existing structures. In the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries other new evangelical church movements emerged, claiming to have recaptured a truly biblical ecclesiology and ministry, including the Brethren, Pentecostalism and apostolic networks arising from Restorationism.

Whilst Evangelicalism was a deeply doctrinal movement, it was also experiential, requiring conversion and new birth to true spiritual life rather than mere formal assent to a confessional position. It was inevitable that Evangelicals would have more in common with each other because of their insistence of a particular salvation-receiving experience. A born again Presbyterian Calvinist will instinctively have far more in common with a born again Arminian Baptist than with someone who formally subscribes to the Westminster Standards but who displays no signs of true conversion and spiritual life, and has no passion for ministry and mission to the lost. It is natural that they will want to work together to see lost people saved, and that this is accorded higher priority than ecclesiological exactitude. As E J Poole-Connor observed in his 1941 book Evangelical Unity, the fact that God made no differentiation on grounds of ecclesiology when he worked in revival, but was pleased to bless those with a wide diversity of ecclesiastical structures, was itself a driver to closer unity and co-operation.[8]  The development of a pan-denominational Evangelical identity, encompassing those within historic confessional denominations and those in new or independent churches, was further consolidated by the emergence of Evangelical conventions and conferences, such as the Keswick Convention.

Over a long period of time the interaction between Evangelicals from a breadth of ecclesiological and confessional positions led to the emergence of a commonly-agreed set of core Evangelical doctrinal convictions. These convictions were also honed, shaped and tested by the battles of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries against Liberalism, and more recently by the new challenges of postmodernism. The crucial tenets of Evangelical belief (alongside the historic creeds of the early church, which have always provided a boundary for Trinitarian orthodoxy, and the Reformation recovery of justification by faith alone) became the authority and sufficiency of the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God, the penal substitutionary death of Christ on the cross for sin,[9]  and the necessity of new birth by the Holy Spirit to eternal life in Christ. Parachurch and inter-denominational entities defined themselves by such core beliefs, and adopted more minimalist confessions, statements of faith or doctrinal bases, to delimit the grounds of unity and specific co-operation.

The test of time also began to reveal whether novel theological positions would inherently lead to heresies or to dangerous distortions of gospel belief and practice, and lead to the development of a distinct Evangelical “tradition”. It became apparent that divergent views on eschatology, such as dispensational premillennialism, did not inherently undermine core doctrinal convictions, even though they might affect ministry priorities and perspectives. The same is true of the emergence of the charismatic movement in the twentieth century, which was met with initial scepticism or caution, but where time has shown that many charismatics hold to core gospel convictions just as tenaciously as historic conservative Evangelicals. Thus there is a considerable core commonality between Evangelicals from divergent ecclesiological and confessional positions, which means that they have more in common with each other than with some who hold to the same confession. A committed Reformed Presbyterian may find that she has more in common with a conservative Arminian Baptist than with an extreme hyper-Calvinist, and the Arminian Baptist has more in common with a reformed Evangelical Anglican than a prosperity-gospel revivalist.

(2)  Is there a Biblical Basis for Parachurch Organisations?

Whilst the emergence of parachurch organisations is an undisputed fact, it is more difficult to provide an adequate biblical basis for their existence. However, this is, in fact, a subset of the bigger difficulty of providing an adequate biblical justification for any ecclesiological structure beyond the level of the local church. The New Testament simply does not provide an uncontestably clear blueprint for how the church as a whole should be organised.[10]  The focus of the New Testament teaching is on the structure and leadership of the local congregation (1 Tim 2:3-13; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-4), and there are little more than glimpses of a structure beyond this. There is little to suggest a biblical mandate for an Episcopalian structure of church, especially given the fact that the terminology of “bishop” is used interchangeably with that of elder and pastor to describe the same single office (1 Tim 3:1, 5:17), nor is there any evidence of an apostolic succession. The early churches were certainly in close relationship with one another, and there was a high degree of interchange and movement between them, but there is little indication of a formalised Presbyterian structure of church government at regional and national level.[11]  Even at the local church level there is little specific indication about the way in which church officers are to be appointed to their role, so that it can be debated whether this is by congregational election or some other means,[12]  whereas there is a great deal of material concerning the gifting and character qualities required of office holders (e.g. 1 Tim 3:1-7).

The result is that it has proved impossible for Bible-believing Christians to come to a commonly-agreed ecclesiology, or for a uniform ecclesiology to be imposed other than by the use of coercive force. Even this has proved impossible in anything other than the short run because individuals have demanded the right to exercise their conscience and organise churches in accordance with their understanding of the Bible. Following the collapse of the magisterial Reformation even historic confessional churches are voluntary associations of those who choose to submit themselves to a particular confession. Nearly five hundred years of church history, theological reflection, biblical interpretation and practical experimentation has led to the emergence of a limited number of well-worn and established ecclesiological positions. However strongly adherents may feel about their own confessional position, it is unlikely that a common belief about baptismal practice, the presence of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper, the appropriate structure of church government or the validity for today of charismatic gifts will emerge. Individuals may change their minds, and shift from one position to another, and indeed from one confession to another, but the basic “mega-block” positions will likely remain until the Lord returns. This reality necessitates either confrontation or competition between those with differing ecclesiologies, or co-operation across boundaries.

Whilst it is difficult to provide compelling direct biblical warrant for parachurch organisations as they currently exist, a number of key principles emerge from the New Testament that ought to have a bearing on their nature and purpose. In the first place, the New Testament holds a high view of the inherent unity of the church in Christ (John 17:20-26; Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-22). The universal church is a spiritual reality, comprised of all those who are united with Christ by faith and who have been baptised into membership of his body by the Holy Spirit at their conversion (1 Cor 12:12-14). Jesus is the Head of the Church (Eph 5:23), and he is the Chief Shepherd of all his sheep (John 10:11; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 5:4). Whilst the predominant emphasis of the New Testament is on the life and order of the local congregations, great effort is made to express unity between the many congregations (Rom 14:1-15:13), to foster fellowship and partnership in the work of the gospel (Phil 1:4), and to maintain a sense of belonging to a bigger worldwide movement. Denominational structures and parachurch organisations are, at their best, an attempt to give some expression, albeit imperfect, to this bigger understanding of the church. It is evident that the early churches experienced great diversity of culture and practice, and that the individual congregations would not have been able to sign up to a single, detailed confessional position. There were clearly divergent views about the relevance of the Jewish law to the Christian life, including observance of the dietary laws and the Sabbath (Rom 14-15; Col 2:16-17). Some groups of churches identified themselves with specific apostles or gifted leaders, and followed their model of life and ministry (e.g. 1 Cor 1:12; Gal 2:9). Yet Paul, in particular, worked very hard to try to maintain a unity in Christ that transcended these differences, and this necessitated the development of a hierarchy of doctrinal beliefs and practices that would differentiate between an essential core and other convictions which, while not unimportant, could not be the prerequisite for fellowship and unity.

It might perhaps be thought that Paul’s organisation of a collection from his Gentile churches for the poor Jewish believers in Jerusalem was a kind of proto-parachurch initiative, joining diverse churches together in a common project that would serve the goal of wider gospel unity across cultural and theological divides.[13]  It is quite clear that Paul had to persuade the churches and their leaders to join his initiative, and that he could not simply command them to do so. He invited the churches that were willing to participate to appoint representatives to join him and oversee his completion of the task, thus reassuring the churches of his integrity and faithfulness, and holding him to account on their behalf.[14] 

As has been noted, the New Testament itself suggests the development of a number of core beliefs that are essential to true Christian faith and unity. The language of “secondary issues” is unhelpful because it suggests that some aspects of church life and ministry do not matter at all and are matters of pure indifference. However, Paul makes clear that there are some doctrines which are of more importance than others. There are things of “first importance” (1 Cor 15:3-8), and therefore others which are of lesser significance, that are not essential to true saving faith, fellowship or to gospel co-operation. In 1 Cor 15 Pauls states a relatively minimalist confessional position, as indeed does the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. In contrast, believers ought to be willing to relativise their conviction in less essential matters, so that they do not insist on imposing practices that would undermine unity in Christ with those who would take a different view to themselves.[15]     

Whilst never laying down a specific leadership structure for the universal church, other than the Headship of Christ himself, the New Testament does lay down clear doctrinal and character qualifications for those who exercise spiritual authority in the church, whether as elders or as deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13). They must be theologically orthodox, gifted for the ministry responsibility they bear, but most especially humble, peaceable, trustworthy, honest and have a proven leadership track-record. These qualities must have been demonstrated in their family lives and civic involvement. There is no reason to suppose that any lower standard should be required of those serving in leadership capacities in parachurch organisations.

The New Testament also stresses the central importance of local churches to the work of the gospel. Christians live out their new life in Christ primarily in the community of the local church. It is in the local church that they are subject to the authority of duly-appointed leaders (Heb 13:17), and where they hear the word of God taught and applied. It is in the local church that they participate in the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper, which appears to have been celebrated at the weekly gathering of the congregation, at least in the church at Corinth (1 Cor 11:17-34, also Acts 2:42). It is from the local church that the gospel is preached and proclaimed to the community, and through the local church that they are enabled to play their part in the wider mission of the church, giving to support the needs of brothers and sisters in Christ elsewhere, giving to support gospel work and gospel workers and sending out evangelists to do the work of mission and church planting (see Acts 11:19-30). It is in the local church that church discipline is to be exercised, both of professing believers and of church officers (1 Cor 5:1-5; 1 Tim 5:19-20). Neither denominational structures nor parachurch organisations are to supplant the role of local churches.        

(3)  What are the Dangers Posed by Parachurch Organisations?

At their best, parachurch organisations complement and extend the work and ministry of local churches, enabling local churches to work together with others to do what they could not do themselves, or supporting their own work and ministry. They ought to be an expression of the local church, staffed and served by members or leaders of local churches, and ultimately accountable to local churches through their governance structures. Such organisations ought to adopt the same standards for those who serve or exercise authority as are required for local church leaders, be they deacons or elders. They ought to ensure compliance with their own doctrinal confessions, albeit that they are likely to be more minimalist than those of local churches, and enforce appropriate discipline against those who belong to them, in conjunction with the local churches to which the individuals concerned belong. By their very nature parachurch organisations are voluntary associations, but they can exclude and disassociate from individuals that fall short of what is required, and police their own boundaries.

Whilst they can be great servants of the church and the cause of the gospel, parachurch organisations can fall into common dangers. These are not inherent to parachurch organisations as such, but the result of sinful human tendencies that can affect any organisation, including a local church or a denomination. Parachurch organisations may become detached and unaccountable to local churches, and take it upon themselves to undertake the work of the local church. This may be especially the case where a parachurch organisation has come into existence precisely because it has been felt that local churches are failing in their ministry, thus apparently necessitating an organisation to do what the local church should be doing.

Parachurch organisations can take on a life of their own, and come to believe that their ministry, which is usually in a narrowly-defined area, is more important than that of the local church, so that the local church should exist to further the aims and objectives of the parachurch organisation. It may draw the time, energy, focus, money and commitment of local church members away from their church. It may employ people who would never be accepted to serve in ministry in the local church, perhaps because they lack the gifts or the character, and fail to exercise discipline against those who transgress doctrinal, ethical or character boundaries.

Parachurch organisations have a tendency to persist and self-perpetuate long after they have ceased to be useful to the church, because history, tradition and “institutional drag” make it hard to close an established ministry. This is especially the case, for example, with mission agencies, which have a tendency to seek to ensure their own survival rather than to merge or close if this would better serve their supposed objective. There are also particular problems with parachurch organisations that have been established to facilitate the ministry of a specific individual, as these have a tendency to create a celebrity culture, or to elevate a person to a prominence beyond their true gifts, or to enable them to minister when they are unable to settle and accept the oversight of a local church. Parachurch organisations can become a means of escaping the controls and restraints of local church assessment and accountability.

A key issue for parachurch organisations is their accountability. To whom are they accountable, and who exercises authority over them? In practice the governance structures of parachurch organisations are just as varied as those of churches, ranging from membership models through to self-appointed trustee bodies. Genuine local church accountability is only likely to be maintained where the governance body of the organisation is comprised of suitably qualified representative leaders of local churches who are committed to the ministry and centrality of local churches.

Whilst many potential problems can be identified with parachurch structures, in reality the same difficulties have arisen with churches and denominations themselves. Neither Episcopalianism nor Presbyterianism has proved especially capable of preventing doctrinal drift and maintaining unity. The mere fact of subscribing to a confessional position does not guarantee the maintenance of orthodoxy if there is no willingness to discipline in practice, and even within a clear confessional position differences of culture and ministry philosophy may cause splits and divisions, leading to the creation of new denominations. The proliferation of Presbyterian denominations that formally adhere to the Westminster Standards, which have been the result of multiple splits and divisions, speaks for itself that this alone is not the answer. A more limited confessional basis with strong, informal, relational accountability may prove more effective in practice at maintaining gospel orthodoxy than a formal structure of submission to a confession. Unsuitable individuals exercising undue power by force of personality, and an unwillingness to discipline obvious breaches of standards, are just as common within confessional denominations and churches as parachurch organisations. In both cases a careful guard must be maintained.

(4)  The Emergence of Parachurch Organisations that Exist to Pursue Gospel Unity

The emergence of parachurch organisations to facilitate cross-denominational or pan-evangelical ministry has ultimately led to the development of organisations which seek to express, maintain and encourage gospel unity as an objective in itself. Evangelical co-operation in parachurch organisations has always tended to foster gospel friendships and unity across confessional divides. Cross-denominational mission agencies inevitably relativise denominational distinctives, as do interdenominational preaching conferences and conventions such as Keswick, Spring Harvest or Word Alive.

In the UK whole generations of students have been united together, despite their diverse Evangelical backgrounds, in the strategic work of IVF/UCCF on university campuses,[16]  with the result that several generations of leaders have spent their formative years working side by side in the gospel. Arminians and Calvinists, Baptists and Paedobaptists, Anglicans and Nonconformists, Charismatic and Cessationists, have prayed and laboured together to reach lost students with the good news of the Lord Jesus. Previous generations of Evangelicals have been united by their common participation in mission initiatives, such as the Billy Graham Crusades. Reformed Evangelicals across the baptismal divide were united by the work of the Banner of Truth and the Westminster Fellowship. More recently, conservative Evangelicals have been united by the work of the Proclamation Trust as it has sought to promote and encourage expository preaching.[17]  The Evangelical Ministry Assembly has, for more than thirty years, provided a forum for the development of cross-denominational unity amongst those who are convinced that faithful ministry must be Word-centred.[18] 

In many cases a more general unity around core gospel convictions has been a positive result of co-operation in a specific ministry task or objective. However, it is a natural desire to seek to institutionalise such unity in organisations that exist to encourage faithfulness to essential Evangelical beliefs and practices. This has been especially important to Evangelicals when they find that they are embattled in denominations that have abandoned biblical truth, a society that is rapidly secularising, and internal challenges that seek to redefine the established boundaries of Evangelicalism. Where this is the case, both Evangelicals who belong to confessional denominations and those who are belong to independent churches have a desire to stand together and work together. Most recent generations of Evangelicals have felt the need to do this in some way, so organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance[19]  have been created to serve as a rallying point, enabling them to manifest a coherent identity and to speak both to the nation and to the church with a common voice. Other groupings such as the Evangelical Movement of Wales[20]  and Affinity[21]  (formerly the British Evangelical Council) have also emerged to serve a similar purpose. The desire to stand together and work together has led to some, ultimately abortive, initiatives to manifest unity, as was the case with Essentially Evangelical in the late 1990s.

The development of such entities has perhaps been more commonplace in the UK than the USA, both because British Evangelicalism is much smaller in scale, meaning that there is a greater need to work together rather than just in denominations, and has a longer history of gospel co-operation by Evangelicals in student ministry. However the pressures of secularism, decline and doctrinal confusion have led to the emergence of broader unity movements in the USA, most significantly The Gospel Coalition, which has sought to establish unity on a common understanding of the gospel across a broad range of denominations.[22] 

The emergence of such entities has been criticised by some on the grounds that they lack legitimacy and accountability, that they assume to themselves the right to define the content of the gospel, and that they engender a dangerous focus on celebrity leaders. Whilst all these criticisms have some truth in them, and they are perennial dangers that face such organisations, they can be overstated.

The reality is that these entities adopt a clear confessional position, requiring adherence to specific doctrinal positions. The Gospel Coalition, for example, has an extensive confessional basis which binds all of its council members.[23]  In the UK, entities such as the Evangelical Alliance,[24]  Affinity,[25]  and EMW,[26]  also have doctrinal statements that define and delimit their membership. It is certainly true that the doctrinal requirements of such bodies do not extend to every area of church practice, avoiding those that divide Evangelicals such as the administration of the sacraments, but this is not surprising. The very purpose of these bodies is to engender and express unity in core Evangelical beliefs. They are voluntary associations of churches, or of other Evangelical agencies, not totalising institutions. They do not seek to be churches or denominations, and the churches that belong to them generally have their own more detailed confessions that determine local church practice.

The very fact that such entities establish doctrinal boundaries inevitably means that they exercise a role in defining the essence of the gospel. However the definition that they adopt will reflect the constituency that has come together to form the association, and will necessarily address the specific challenges of the time at which they were formed.[27]  The same will be the case with any group that gathers to formulate a confessional position, including, for example, the Westminster Assembly. The criticism directed at The Gospel Coalition, for example, for requiring a Reformed understanding of soteriology and a complementarian view of women’s ministry, but not a specific position on baptism or charismatic gifts, is misguided and fails to recognise the limited purpose of the organisation.

The criticism that such organisations promote an unhelpful celebrity culture has also been overstated.[28]  It has always been the case that gospel unity amongst Evangelicals has coalesced around certain gifted and prominent leaders, be they a Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, C H Spurgeon, Terry Virgo or Billy Graham. This is simply a reflection of the fact that God raises up particularly gifted men in every generation, who exercise an influence beyond their own local church. Whilst it is certainly the case that gifted men can begin to behave without humility, and promote themselves rather than Christ, or that an organisation can reflect the corrosive celebrity values of the wider culture, this need not be the case. Money, sex and power are temptations that Evangelical leaders need to resist irrespective of whether they are serving churches or parachurch organisations. It is arguable that gospel unity movements built around informal personality cults, or unacknowledged old-boy networks, are in fact more dangerous than the attempt to establish formalised structures bounded by a clear statement of faith, because they lack any effective accountability. The model of The Gospel Coalition, with a council of up to sixty senior leaders who subscribe to a common confessional position, is more likely to preserve gospel faithfulness and to dilute the tendency to celebrity influence, than to encourage it. Over time those who might be tempted to promote themselves as gurus will either develop greater maturity and humility, leave because they do not wish to be so constrained, or find themselves side-lined and excluded because they transgress the boundaries.

The argument that such entities are unaccountable to the church can also be challenged. In many cases the entities established to express Evangelical unity are themselves associations of churches, church representatives or of church leaders. They are not disconnected from the accountability provided by denominational structure or local churches. Leaders that are disciplined by their local church, or by their denomination, are likely to lose their position in the wider body. As in the case of denominational structures, this does not mean that discipline will always be enacted appropriately or as swiftly as might be wished, but it is wrong to assume that there is no accountability. The recent exclusion of Steve’s Chalke’s Oasis Trust from the Evangelical Alliance, because of its support for same-sex relationships, is a case in point where such discipline was exercised and the organisation’s confessional basis enforced.[29] 

In the final analysis such entities exercise no formal control over local churches, so that churches are free to withdraw their involvement and their financial support at any time. Without the willing active participation of churches, such parachurch organisations will eventually die or become irrelevant. This may take a substantial period of time if they are bankrolled by wealthy individuals or enjoy a generous endowment.

Some unity organisations are essentially associations of churches, or associations of denominations. The FIEC is a case in point. This association of independent churches was established in 1922 to provide mutual support and foster gospel co-operation. It comprises 520 local churches who subscribe to a common Doctrinal Basis[30]  and to a number of other mutually- agreed policy positions, including a complementarian view of women’s ministry in church. The Fellowship is overseen by a body of trustees elected by the churches, and accountable to them. Discipline can be exercised by excluding churches from membership if they cease to hold to the required confessional standards. Affinity operates on a slightly broader basis, admitting not just individual churches but denominational bodies and parachurch organisations into membership.

(5)  The Emergence of “Gospel Partnerships” in the UK

A major development over the past decade in the UK has been the establishment of a number of regional “Gospel Partnerships” around the country, which have sought to provide a framework for co-operation in gospel ministry between like-minded Evangelicals.[31]  The growth of these partnerships has been largely organic. The first “Partnership” was established in the North West of England,[32]  in the aftermath of a tour of the UK in 2003 by Archbishop Peter Jensen to encourage Anglicans who were beleaguered in their denominational struggles.[33]  The success of this model of fostering gospel co-operation and extending gospel ministry has led to similar Partnerships being established around the country. Initially they were mainly an English phenomenon, but Partnerships are now beginning to emerge in Scotland. There are currently at least 13 such regional Partnerships, and two more are currently being considered in Scotland.[34]  Whilst representatives of the different Partnerships meet together on a regular basis there is, as yet, no national controlling body, with decision-making devolved to a local level.

The Partnerships have been especially effective in creating regional training courses for Bible-centred ministry at a sub-seminary level,[35]  and fostering ministry apprentice schemes in local churches. They have also been able to develop a strategic approach to church planting in their regions, identifying areas of gospel need and encouraging and supporting new plants or church revitalisation projects. They hold regional conferences for ministers that seek to equip and encourage them for gospel ministry in the contemporary context. They have also initiated two national church-based mission initiatives, called A Passion for Life, the first in 2010 and the second in 2014.[36]  Some Partnerships have grown to the point where they have needed to employ a member to staff to lead their ministry.      

The Partnerships were not centrally-imposed, but grew out of existing gospel friendships between church leaders that had already been fostered through the Proclamation Trust. The formalisation of such informal gospel relationships has opened the way for the Partnerships to embrace a wider range of churches with differing cultures but the same gospel convictions. As a result, gospel co-operation has become less orientated around personalities and cultural groups, and is more clearly rooted in common gospel convictions.

Each of the Gospel Partnerships has adopted a Doctrinal Basis which provides the terms for membership.[37]  The basis of unity is once again the core doctrines of the gospel. These doctrinal statements deliberately seek to highlight the historical conservative Evangelical convictions about the Bible and the cross, as these are under attack from those who use the self-designation “Evangelical” but who do not accept the Bible as the fully truthful and sufficient word of God for today, the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice for sins, salvation as primarily rescue from God’s wrath and eschatological judgment, and that the means of salvation is through the ministry of the word of the gospel. The term “gospel” rather than “Evangelical” has been used precisely because the latter has become doctrinally-debased. Every generation of Bible-centred Christians has had to find new ways to qualify the term “Evangelical” so as to guard against the insipient doctrinal downgrade as, for example, by qualifying the term with the adjective “conservative” or “classic”.[38]  Within these boundaries there are a wide range of ecclesiological positions represented in the Partnerships.

The Partnerships are essentially associations of local churches, and they do not seek to replace the centrality of the local church to the work of the gospel. One of the great blessings of the Partnerships is that they have made a major contribution to overcoming the divisions between conservative Evangelical Anglicans and conservative Evangelical Nonconformists that were tragically precipitated in the aftermath of the disagreements of the 1960s, often unfairly misrepresented as a simplistic conflict between Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott.[39]  Somewhat ironically, in the intervening decades Anglican conservative Evangelicals, through the influence of the Diocese of Sydney, have come to share an emphasis on the priority of the local church over denominational hierarchy, which has made cross-denomination inter-church co-operation at local level a natural objective. It is perhaps the Presbyterians, who have a stronger sense of the church as an organised hierarchy, who find it more difficult to identify with the Gospel Partnerships, as their efforts are inevitably concentrated on their regional and national presbyteries and assemblies.

The Partnerships are led and overseen by “Steering Committees” comprised of local church leaders, who act as trustees under a formal constitutional arrangement. These committees are generally self-appointing, but this does not mean that they are unaccountable. The Partnerships would rapidly decline if their member churches chose to leave, and stopped supporting their events and activities. This necessitates that the Steering Committee members are mindful to serve the constituency that they serve. The Partnerships have absolutely no authority over the life and ministry of the local churches that belong, and they are free to leave at any time. The Partnerships may inculcate and encourage a specific culture of ministry, which some who would share their core doctrinal convictions would eschew, but these others are under no compulsion to join or to change their practices. However, the Partnerships will inevitably reflect the culture of the churches that choose to associate with them, so the culture is fluid and a diversity of churches joining will inevitably result in a greater breadth of culture within the Partnerships. Across the country the Partnerships have their own distinct character, which reflects the local culture and varying denominational strength. In some places Anglicans are more dominant, whereas in much of the country conservative Evangelical Anglicanism is relatively weak so the Partnerships have a stronger Nonconformist feel. The creation of new Scottish Partnerships will inevitably change the overall culture of the Partnerships, so that they will be less English and less Anglican. One massive challenge facing the UK is the need for greater integration and connection between the historic indigenous churches and the rapidly-expanding growth of ethnic and immigrant churches. UK Evangelicalism is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, but this is not being reflected in the Partnerships, or in any other Evangelical unity organisation.                

Most conservative Evangelical churches in the UK are relatively small, and there are few prominent leaders who exercise authoritative personal influence. The cult of celebrity pastors is not as great a danger in the UK as it may be in the US at the moment. Kevin DeYoung, who recently spoke at a number of Gospel Partnership conferences around the UK, has commented on the prevailing differences between contemporary church culture in the UK and US.[40] 

One area where Gospel Partnerships have been slower to make progress is in church planting. This is because it is more difficult to persuade Evangelicals with differing ecclesiologies to establish local congregations co-operatively. Inevitably, each local church will seek to adopt a particular ecclesiology of its own, according to the convictions of its leaders and congregation. At a congregational level denominational loyalty has largely broken down amongst conservative Evangelical believers in the UK. Most will choose to attend what they view as the “best” Bible-teaching church in the area, irrespective of its denominational affiliation. Conservative Evangelical credobaptists will join an Anglican Evangelical church in preference to a liberal or emergent Baptist church, and Anglicans will join a credobaptist church in preference to an Anglo-Catholic parish church.

However, this does not mean that local churches are being planted without ecclesiological convictions at a leadership level. There is little evidence in the UK of churches within the Gospel Partnerships adopting a “no creed but the Bible” approach that is so ably critiqued by Carl Trueman in his recent book The Creedal Imperative. However, it is a false antithesis to suggest that the alternatives are either “no creed but the Bible” or the adoption of one of the historic Reformation confessions. In cities and large towns it may be possible to sustain a number of churches which have different ecclesiologies, all of which are also members of the Partnership. However, in smaller towns and estates, and places where there is no gospel witness, it is both impossible and unnecessarily wasteful of scarce resources to seek to plant multiple churches with differing ecclesiologies. Instead, new church plants are likely to seek to reach out and welcome people with a wide range of views on baptism and church government, whilst the church will adopt a specific ecclesiology that will be constitutionally-enshrined and binding on its leaders. Credobaptist churches are increasingly adapting to admit convinced paedobaptist believers into membership, and sometimes even leadership, whilst remaining constitutionally-baptistic and refraining from conducting infant baptisms.

Those who hold very strongly and exclusively to either paedobaptism or credobaptism, and who believe that this is essential to the life and health of the local church, will inevitably find this trend more difficult, and they are less likely to identify with Gospel Partnerships or to support church plants that fail to reflect their ecclesiological convictions.[41]  However, this does not mean that the Partnerships, or other groups that promote cross-denomination Evangelical unity, are inherently undermining and diluting ecclesiological concerns. Rather, a healthy gospel pragmatism and recognition of the desperate need for the lost to be reached with the good news of the Lord Jesus, means that these important matters are regarded as subservient to the missional imperative to have at least one thriving gospel church in every community – whatever its ecclesiology.

(6)  Critiquing Gospel Partnerships

Gospel Partnerships are still in their infancy, so it is too early to offer any extensive critique. Time will reveal whether they will manifest the weaknesses of some other parachurch entities.

They are not yet universal in geographical coverage, and there has been little indication that the Partnership model will be adopted in Wales. Areas such as Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire do not have functioning Partnerships. They tend to be strongest where conservative Evangelicalism is already relatively strong, such as the North West and South East, whereas the Partnership in the North East is much smaller. It will be a challenge to ensure that the Partnerships do not just consolidate gospel work in places where it is already strong, but ensure that they are able to support, strengthen and plant churches in those areas of the country where there is greater need.      

Given their origins, it is inevitable that the Partnerships have tended to attract conservative Evangelicals from a specific sub-culture, generally parallel with the constituency that would identify with the Proclamation Trust. Whilst they formally base their unity on a common confession of core evangelical truths, it may be a challenge for them to embrace and welcome those who would share their doctrinal convictions, but who might advocate a more traditional, rather than contemporary, style of ministry. At the other end of the spectrum it also remains to be seen whether they are able to welcome and embrace those who would equally share their doctrinal beliefs but who would be charismatic in regard to the use of the gifts of the Spirit.

One of the blessings of the Partnerships has been the renewed fellowship and gospel co-operation between Anglican and Nonconformist Evangelicals. However, this unity will always be fragile to some degree, and subject to challenges arising from issues within the denominations. Independents do not have to face a choice between denominational loyalty and involvement in other organisations, but they are prone to isolation, separatism and to adopting a superior attitude towards those who have remained in mixed denominations. Those in denominations may face a choice between loyalty to the denomination or the gospel, or between denominational involvement and investing their energies outside the denomination. As the Anglican Church enters into convulsions over the issue of same-sex marriage, and as Evangelicals feel pressure to collaborate with Anglo-Catholics within the denomination, there is a danger that history might repeat itself. It is to be hoped that the friendships and mutual understanding fostered through Gospel Partnerships might provide some protection against potential misunderstandings, and ensure that unity in the gospel is preserved even where there may be differences in conscience as to the best strategy to adopt in the face of false teaching and the absence of biblical discipline within denominations.

It remains to be seen whether the Partnerships are able to become a genuine movement of churches, actively engaging the support of congregations as well as their leaders. They tend to reflect a more Anglican style of leadership, whereby the congregation is expected to follow the decision of the leaders, rather than a more congregational model where the church leaders are expected to reflect the decision of the congregation as a whole. Nonconformist churches that have joined the Partnerships are more likely to have done so with the consent and support of their congregation members, who will generally have given their approval. The lack of congregational commitment may be overcome with time, as churches begin to experience the benefits of membership, for example as they make use of training courses and take part in mission initiatives.

It also remains to be seen whether the Gospel Partnerships will be able to maintain their national coherence, or whether different regional groups will come to vary considerably. It also remains to be seen whether they seek to become more significant, providing a totalising identity for churches that eclipses their other denominational affiliations, either de facto or because they leave their denominations to join the Partnership instead, or whether they remain a secondary identity for churches alongside their existing denominational membership or affiliation. In all likelihood different local churches will decide upon a different degree of involvement and identification with the Partnerships. Will the Partnerships develop co-operative relationships with other existing entities that seek to manifest gospel unity and co-operation, or will they find themselves competing with them?

The reality is that, at present, the Partnerships are run on a relatively shoestring budget, and have limited resources. They are not comparable to The Gospel Coalition and do not seem to be seeking to develop in a similar way. The mutual suspicion of both conservative Evangelical Anglicans and historic Independents to controlling hierarchical structures means that there is no desire to become a quasi-denominational body. There is a fundamental commitment to the autonomy of the local church, whether it belongs to a denomination or not, and no desire for the Partnership to compromise this. However, there is no doubt that the Partnerships, like any such entity, can and will exercise a degree of cultural power and influence over churches and their ministries, and advocate models of gospel ministry that will leave others feeling excluded or criticised by implication. However, there is no sign as yet that the Partnerships will be able to be dominated by any single leader, as there are few leaders of undisputed national standing within the UK, and the Partnerships themselves are locally-owned and led. This is one of the advantages of the fact that they have developed organically, locally and from the bottom up, rather than being conceived and imposed centrally.

One particular challenge will be whether the leadership of the Partnerships are able to remain truly accountable to local churches, especially since they are not appointed directly by the churches, or removable by the church. It also remains to be seen whether they will be able to exercise appropriate discipline if partner churches, their leaders, or Steering Committee members drift from their doctrinal convictions. Mercifully, this has not yet been necessary. However, one of the perennial dangers of parachurch organisations, and especially those formed to express gospel unity, is that they find it difficult to exercise discipline against those who have been friends and colleagues. There is a natural desire to think the best about others who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder for the gospel in the past, and to grant them leeway if they start to question their former convictions. This will be a test that Gospel Partnerships will almost certainly face in the future, and failure to stand firm for their confessional requirements has been the downfall of many churches, denominations and parachurch organisations.

The relative newness of the Gospel Partnerships has meant that these issues are only just beginning to be considered. It is to be hoped that they will be able to mitigate or avoid some of the dangers that afflicted parachurch organisations. But there can be no guarantee that this will be the case, so careful vigilance is required. No doubt they will run their course, so that in a generation’s time a different model of gospel co-operation will be required. However this does not prevent them from serving a useful and necessary purpose in the current generation, or for however long the Lord may be pleased to use them.

(7)  Conclusions

Gospel Partnerships are in their relative infancy and are still developing. Where they have been established they have contributed to local gospel unity and to the growth of gospel ministry. Churches that were initially hostile to them, and may not have felt that they shared the culture of their founders, have begun to join as they have seen and appreciated the benefits – and as a result the culture of the Partnerships is itself changing. They should be welcomed as an expression of the recovered unity between Anglican and Nonconformist Reformed Evangelicals, and commended for their commitment to historic Evangelical doctrinal convictions.      

It remains to be seen whether the Gospel Partnerships will be a growing and enduring manifestation of cross-denominational Evangelical unity and co-operation in ministry. History would suggest that every generation creates entities to serve this purpose, and that such organisations can serve a useful and beneficial purpose for a time, after which they may lose their way, overreach themselves or become a self-serving end in themselves which does not advance the gospel. There will almost inevitably be some tension between those who are loyal to the institutions and organisations that served this purpose in a previous generation, but which are in danger of being eclipsed by new initiatives that are more in tune with the contemporary Evangelical zeitgeist and win the loyalty of a younger generation of leaders.

In contrast, local churches, which inevitably belong to one of the long established ecclesiological mega-blocks, will endure from generation to generation. This is to be expected because Jesus is at work by his Spirit to build his church. Parachurch organisations are only useful in as far as they serve this purpose rather than supplanting it, but they provide a necessary means of giving some expression to the reality of the universal church, which inherently transcends the denominational and ecclesiological differences that have been created by human tradition over the centuries.