Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

15 Apr 2015

A Coalition for the Advancement of Realized Eschatology?

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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.

8 Responses

  1. paul

    Aren’t there some limits to co-belligerence even on the individual level? It seems like participation on the individual level in many social causes could require compromise with individual beliefs almost as serious as ecclesiastical level compromise. It seems like the Keller/TGC approach tries to establish the idea of individual commitment to certain types of social action as being part of gospel faithfulness. If that is true for the individual, how can it be wrong for the church. It’s all the outworking of the gospel.

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Paul, a couple of good questions, one fairly simple, the other more complex:

    (1) Yes, there are limits to co-belligerence on an individual level. The pro-life cause is not furthered, say, by an endorsement from a serial killer. Still, co-belligerence on the civil level is extremely broad. Politically, for instance, I can vote with and for a Catholic, a Mormon, Luther’s “competent Turk,” or even an atheist in the common pursuit of a stable society.

    (2) What concerns me about your second question (if that is true for the individual, how can it be wrong for the church?) is that it suggests that all of God’s disparate causes can be conflated into a single, monolithic mission. I don’t think that this is possible (the ‘missional’ movement notwithstanding). The mission of humanity (summed up in the dominion and detailed in the Noahic covenant) allows for broad co-belligerence, because it it to be carried out by collective humanity irrespective of religious commitments. All mankind, Christian and non-Christian alike, is charged with protecting human life, preserving justice/equality, cultivating natural/industrial resources, etc.). The mission of the church, on the other hand, is a Gospel mission carried out by regenerate communities. It doesn’t allow for co-belligerence. Just as the organized state has no ecclesiastical mandate, the institutional church has no socio-political mandate (Matt 22:21). Their respective missions, while broadly a part of God’s overarching mission, are distinct. The church has a strictly Gospel mandate and has no jurisdiction outside that sphere.

    …that is, UNLESS the mission of the church and the scope of the Gospel are expanded, due to some actual presence of Christ’s kingdom on earth today, to include the church’s establishment of eschatological harbingers of the restoration of all things. If THAT is true, then ecclesiastical co-belligerence is not only possible but necessary. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to me to be Jenkins’s argument in a nutshell. That’s why I would say that the call for ecclesiastical co-belligerence reveals that TGC is not strictly a Gospel coalition, but a coalition with already/not yet realized eschatological commitments. This seems to be expressly borne out by Article 10 of TGC’s confessional statement.

    Hope this helps to explain my earlier comments.

    MAS

  3. paul

    Do you think their already/not yet eschatology might also be influencing the way they envision the duty of the individual Christian in the social sphere for this dispensation that is different than someone who envisions that duty based on the mandate of the Noahic Covenant? They seem to have a more radical vision of their role in society. Dispensational Fundamentalists have seemed in the past at least to have a more modest notion of their civic responsibility.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Paul,

    I think you’re right that dispensationalist fundamentalists in the past have at times heard the argument that the INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH has no socio-political mandate and concluded that INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIANS have no socio-political responsibilities either–that it’s OK to be reclusive and ambivalent toward human suffering outside the walls of the church.

    The new evangelical answer to this error was for the church, in the name of already/not yet realized eschatology (think Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism) to partner with co-belligerents in pursuit of budget-sapping, Gospel-eclipsing social programs that tended to obfuscate the Church’s true mission. It seems to me that TGC is retracing this pathway.

    What I’m suggesting is not a reversion to cultural withdrawal, but an aggressive assignment of responsibility for “co-belligerent” mercy/benevolence to the sphere of individual/civic responsibility, rather than weaving it into the mission of the organized church, where it has historically done more harm than good.

  5. paul

    I wonder if individual believers aren’t going to be drawn into compromise as they aggressively pursue co-belligerency especially in a post-Christian cultural setting. Also I doubt that most who see the individual duty as you and TGC see it are going to see the need to keep it out of the mission of the church as you do. Thanks for your responses Mark.

  6. so 1 workshop out of the 49 makes you “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?” I could see if there were 20 or 30 of the workshops, but 1? I wasn’t at the TGC conference, but here is a link to the write up of the actual workshop. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/correction-panel-offers-pastors-advice-on-becoming-ministers-of-reconciliation-in-african-american-communities/2015/04/16/f75f67c2-e44a-11e4-ae0f-f8c46aa8c3a4_story.html

  7. Mark Snoeberger

    Joel,

    I think if you look at the list of conference topics (http://2015.thegospelcoalition.org/talks), the emphasis on the church’s role in promoting social/civil progress and human flourishing is not limited to just one workshop. Further, TGC did make a point of offering a preemptive defense just before the conference was held. And as I noted in the comments, the fact that an already/not yet, realized eschatology is actually built into TGC’s confessional statement seems to identify the issue as a fairly important one for the coalition (see article ten at http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/confessional-statement).

    I may be guilty of being excessively alarmist, but I don’t think I’m guilty of taking shots at the TGC periphery.

  8. Actually I wonder how you could ever have missionary zeal if you did not see in “every” human being a co-belligerent, either in actuality or “in spe”. The tenets at least of the New Testament which supersede the “chosen people” meaning just one race but meaning “everyone” suggest that you need to be prepared to find the “imago dei” in EVERY one and therefore – would you not have to receive everyone in “good faith”. So potentially anyone who does not fight against you might be a “co-defendant” in the Last Judgment, wouldn’t they?

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