This week the Gospel Coalition’s annual meeting features a panel discussion with panelists who reject the Gospel. On the face of things this seems to be out of step with TGC’s founding principles, which exalt commitment to the Gospel as the singularly non-negotiable feature of belonging to the TGC “alliance.” To be a TGC “ally,” one must be a “born-again Christian with whom I can go a long way down the road.”
But as Bethany Jenkins notes in her apology for the TGC’s decision to include panelists who are hostile to the Gospel, there exists a cause broader than the Gospel in which an unbeliever may serve as a “co-belligerent,” or “a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position, but takes the right position on a single issue.” And because of this isolated virtue, “I can join with him without any danger as long as I realize that he is not an ally and all we’re talking about is a single issue.”
Jenkins evinces sympathy for her position by noting that as “individual Christians” we labor with co-belligerents all the time “in our work outside the church and home”—the common/civil sphere, or the realm of “common grace.” And, irrespective of whether one agrees with her in using the term “common grace,” we must agree with the substance of her observation. As fellow image-bearers, believers and unbelievers must work together in our pursuit of God’s revealed mission for collective humanity: the dominion mandate. And when rogue humans or groups of humans rebel against God’s natural/civil structures (attacking the sanctity of human life, denying human dignity/solidarity, corrupting marriage/family, distorting justice, etc.), we as collective humanity must do what we can to suppress this rebellion. The substance of our “alliance” in such cases is not the Gospel, but the imago dei. And I would argue with the greatest of energy that as individual believers, we must be the very best humans, citizens, and neighbors that we possibly can be, irrespective of whether we live among fellow-Christians or pagans. I cannot be more earnest in this statement.
Jenkins makes a colossal leap, however, when she argues from individual co-belligerence to ecclesiastical co-belligerence: “The church, too, can work with co-belligerents who are committed—knowingly or not—to certain kingdom purposes.” Even though we “radically disagree,” she continues, we can work together “against a common enemy,” which she identifies as those who seek to thwart of “the common good and human flourishing.” And it is the destruction of this enemy that divulges the heart of the newest evangelical experiment. The Gospel exists not merely to establish regenerate communities alien to and paradoxical with our fallen world, but to domesticate fallen culture and establish “eschatological signposts ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ of the coming kingdom.” And to that end it may and must court co-belligerents from unbelieving culture.
This is precisely the same path that the new evangelicalism took last century. Its ecclesiastical mission included the Gospel, certainly, but its goal was the realization of a particular vision of the kingdom that could accommodate social action and cultivate the cultural/societal goodwill enjoyed by the modernist (and by-and-large postmillennial) church of even earlier vintage. And I think it is reasonable to wonder whether what we have today is really a gospel coalition, or whether instead it is a coalition utilizing the Gospel as one of several measures in the service of realized eschatology.