Potential and Pitfalls of Together For The Gospel
New Testament Christianity, because of the gospel itself, is separatistic. The church is no longer “of the world” and must not live like the world (John 17:14; Eph 4:17-19). It’s commanded to break all ties with false religions and religious apostasy (2 Cor 6:14-7:1; 2 John 9-11). Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ died so that he might purify a bride for himself (Eph 5:25-27), which is why the writer of Hebrews could conclude that, since Jesus “suffered outside the gate … let us go out to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:12-14).
In the middle of the twentieth century, New Evangelicalism overreacted to the separatist battles of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. At its core, New Evangelicalism abandoned what I believe is the biblical concept of separatism in favor of cooperation, infiltration, and engagement. Its members strove to build the broadest possible coalition, which meant that a reductionist approach to doctrine became the controlling mindset. As a result of this “lowest common denominator” approach, the confessional nature of Christianity began to erode, ultimately producing a debate about what the term evangelical really means and who can rightly claim to be one.
What seems obvious to an outsider—and what’s becoming more obvious to many within Evangelicalism—is that not all who claim the label evangelical can do so with any biblical or historical legitimacy. The so-called post-conservative Evangelicals, for example, are radically redefining the Christian faith according to the measure of human thought rather than to divine revelation. The result is a postmodern reincarnation of the modernism that plagued the church a century ago.
Conservative Evangelicals must face the reality of this situation squarely. For six decades the non-separatist agenda of the New Evangelicalism has left the gate wide open for liberalism. Extending the Christian hand of fellowship to those who actually deny the faith causes terrible confusion about the boundaries of the faith. If the “official” strategy is to work cooperatively with theological liberals from outside evangelicalism, how can one really expect Evangelicalism to exclude theological liberals who are on the inside? If there is no confessional core to Evangelicalism, how can anyone tell who is on the outside or inside?
This is where there is as tremendous opportunity for efforts like Together for the Gospel. It is essential to reaffirm the confessional nature of biblical Christianity, but it’s also crucial to articulate a principled approach to the issue of separatism. Christian leaders should draw lines where the Bible does, and call people to abandon the flawed anti-separatist agenda of New Evangelicalism.
This strategic and timely opportunity could also be the place where T4G fails most sadly. If the net result of calling people together to stand for the gospel is a faux separatism, then it will be a feel-good rally without long-lasting impact. By faux separatism, I mean the kind that sounds nice, but is so clouded by vagueness that it does not translate into the actual practice of separation for the sake of the gospel.
This was the reason for my disappointment with the first T4G conference. In many respects, it was one of the most spiritually beneficial conferences I’ve attended—the message by John Piper alone was worth the time and cost of the conference. But, as a historic Fundamentalist, I came to the conference because of what I’d heard about the affirmations and denials. My understanding was that, in light of the serious doctrinal issues confronting the church, the affirmations and denials were being developed as a means to “draw a line in the sand” and call people to choose sides. In some ways this was done, but at the point of my highest hopes, they opted for generality and broadness.
Specifically, on the issue of separation itself, the only pertinent statement in the document seems to be Article XV, which affirms “that evangelical congregations are to work together in humble and voluntary cooperation and that the spiritual fellowship of Gospel congregations bears witness to the unity of the Church and the glory of God” and denies “that loyalty to any denomination or fellowship of churches can take precedence over the claims of truth and faithfulness to the Gospel.”
This leaves a lot to be defined and does not suggest much in terms of application. What does “take precedence over the claims of truth and faithfulness to the Gospel” mean and look like? Is this all attitudinal or does it have real implications for relationships? As a fundamentalist, I was hoping to see something that would help me understand whether these men were taking a different stand than the pioneers of the new Evangelical movement. This affirmation/denial is not sufficiently clear to make a distinction. Would any of the early new evangelicals not be able to make this affirmation and denial? Frankly, would anyone other than a full-blown ecumenicist not agree with it?
I am thankful for what it does say, but so much more could be affirmed and denied on this particular point if the goal is to find out who will take a stand for the gospel and who won’t. At the risk of being presumptuous, how about an article like this:
We affirm that all genuine fellowship is in the gospel and that true gospel ministers and congregations must not grant Christian recognition or assistance to those who have denied the faith or turned away from the biblical gospel. We further affirm the biblical responsibility of elders and congregations to be vigilant in watching out for those who teach false doctrine and to turn away from and have no fellowship with them.
We deny that the biblical calls for unity and separation are contrary to one another, and that refusing Christian fellowship to false teachers and false congregations is schismatic. We further deny that confessional subscription necessarily contradicts soul liberty. We also deny that the glory of God and good of the church are properly advanced through theological and ecclesiastical union with those who have denied the gospel.
Certainly not perfect, but something which I believe may be defended on biblical grounds and does actually draw a line. Of course, it is always easier to critique from the bleachers than from the playing field. But this is where I would like to have seen the statement and the conference make a clearer stand.
I sincerely applaud the vision and leadership of the T4G principals and participants. I share their burden that the contemporary church is losing sight of the gospel. We desperately need God’s reviving and reforming work. I would contend that this divine work has always produced a division between truth and error. Contrary to the popular notion, the primary emphasis in the pursuit of revival is not unity; it is truth. Every great revival has drawn a line between truth and error, between the gospel and its counterfeits, and between the converted and the unconverted. Truth separates.
I’d love to see evangelicalism recover the biblical concept that you can’t truly stand for the gospel if you won’t stand apart from false gospels. Genuine gospel unity flows from genuine gospel separation. T4G provides a great platform to call contemporary believers and churches to “go out to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach” (Heb 3:13). If the emphasis is biblically centered on the gospel, it will be a conference that is both “Together for the Gospel” and “Separated for the Gospel.”