The Gospel Coalition has once again lit up the Christian internet with an unfortunate article with an even more unfortunate title. While the intentions are obvious and pure enough, the post needed the heavy hand of an editor tuned in to the conversation of race in America. What concerns me is the established pattern of likely response from The Gospel Coalition:
History tells us that The Gospel Coalition isn’t interested in taking responsibility for how their content impacts readers beyond their narrow audience. We’ve been taught that critique from outside the camp is not welcome. As an organization they have displayed zero interest in posturing themselves as learners, only as standing in front as teachers. This know-it-all posture as left those who have challenged TGC on their tone, content, and impact feeling frustrated and dismayed.
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it is getting,” is a saying in organizational systems theory. The idea is that the United States healthcare system is perfectly designed to get the results that it is getting – including its successes, complaints, and costs. The same is true for any church. Is your church making disciples or bogged down in inter-family disputes? The system is perfectly designed to get those results.
In this sense, TGC has the perfect system for a disconnected, unengaged online presence: Align theologically like-minded individuals into one coalition while maintaining their personal brands. Limited theological diversity ensures that cultural issues, theological questions, and even people will be attacked in near unanimity despite the lack of a coordinated effort. The result is a ‘unified front’ of criticism to rally the troops behind. But when criticism and pushback comes, the coalition is absolved of accountability by legitimately claiming a lack of institutional center to hold accountable. No one person is speaking on behalf of the whole coalition. Editors claim an inability to shape messages or tone because they simply host bloggers’ content under the header of TGC, but aren’t actually speaking for TGC. The result is a cloud of opinion that is strong enough to block the sun but diffuse enough that it cannot be grabbed.
This is why it is unlikely that valid concerns will ever receive a direct response from TGC. Why not? Simply put, no one speaks for The Gospel Coalition. The response to critics is always, “The Gospel Coalition is diverse. It isn’t monolithic and so no one person can speak for the whole organization.” It’s true. The ministry is a varied collection of PCA and Reformed Baptist complementarians. There’s just enough “diversity” (about the same amount of diversity that exists in my central Indiana suburb) to lend credence to the diversity claim. This diversity becomes a tool for deflection. For example:
— Joe Carter (@joecarter) June 8, 2016
What we have instead is an organization with a soft center coalesced around certain doctrines but lacking a true institutional center to dialogue with or hold accountable. If dialogue with the rest of the church and culture at large really interested TGC, then they need to understand that their system has made it impossible for any conversation to occur with the organization as a whole. Individuals can have a dialogue on their personal blogs or Twitter pages, but the structural design eliminates the possibility of the umbrella ministry engaging a dialogue.
Individually the writers and contributors are great people, many whom I have a great deal of respect for. I have had a number of cordial, friendly, and helpful conversations with individual bloggers and writers. I consider them all brothers (and for the small minority of women contributors, sisters) in Christ. What makes The Gospel Coalition difficult to interact with is not so much the individuals that make up the coalition, but the powerful, untouchable coalition of influential people that leaves the footprint of a tightly unified institution but responds to criticism as if they have no affiliation.
The question those of us outside the system are asking is, “Does The Gospel Coalition want to engage and learn from the broader church community?” We can only assume the answer to that question is, “No.” At least that’s the conclusion one arrives at based on the current system.
It is seems more likely that their primary interest is protecting a particular theological ideology and hoping others will join them in the defense of it. If this is in fact true, then of course criticism would be ignored. Engaging with honest theological questions and criticism might elicit change, and change would be perceived as a threat to a group centered on preservation of an ideology.
(Incidentally, this will almost ensure TGC will never be as diverse as they desire. Diversity assumes a vast range of experiences. Experiences affect theology. It’s why the vast majority of liberation theology comes from the margins of society. They are doing theology out of their experience, as we all do. When Dutch and German thinkers dominate the theology you’re trying to protect, incorporating the theology of voices with differing experiences is a threat to that which you have already determined to be correct. This is why liberation theology is often seen as a threat.)
The church needs all of it parts so that we might all be built up into Christ, and that includes The Gospel Coalition. Some may take umbrage with that perspective, but I believe the church in America needs The Gospel Coalition just as it needs Sojourners, Missio Alliance, Arminian, LGBT, Charismatic, Catholic, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Black, Hispanic, and Asian voices. The beauty of the church is found in our diversity coming together to proclaim one Lord, one baptism, and one faith. For this reason, we need The Gospel Coalition. But not as it currently exists. We need the best version of the coalition; one that includes feedback loops from outside the system – otherwise known as the universal, catholic Church. A humble, engaged, willing to listen, willing to take responsibility for its impact, and self-reflecting TGC that operates with an open-minded engagement of the world it inhabits.
That includes engaging the criticism it receives.