Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The State of the Conservative Christian Union


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Let's be open and honest, here. Evangelicalism is a complex world. It's a sub-culture of what has been called "Christendom," and it has diverse definitions. Furthermore, there are sub-sub-cultures that exist within Evangelicalism and, as they are studied, the more confusing everything seems to get.

One of the sub-sub-cultures of Evangelicalism is conservative Christianity and, today, the conservative Christian network can be difficult for people to navigate, especially as denominations become less important to the average Christian. This article exists to give an overview of that flavor of Christianity, providing an up-to-date analysis of what exactly is going on. It's a bit sad that things are so political in the church, yet we do well to be aware.

Disclaimers: This article is primarily informational, kind of like a reference sheet. I love to attempt to take big concepts and put them in perspective -- that's what I'm attempting to do here. When I make reference to conservative Christianity, I have in mind a faith that is based on a high view of Scripture, presupposing its inspiration and authority. The conclusions drawn here are my own. Some generalizations have been made and if there is any proof that contradicts what I have said here, I'm very much willing to accept it and adjust the article accordingly.


Ready to jump in?


Swings and Misses

Over the past couple of decades, three interesting alliances have formed with the goal of bringing biblical Christians together for the sake of the gospel. Two of these groups are quite well-known: The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Together for the Gospel (T4G). Interestingly (yet, as any student of church history would say, "not surprisingly"), these two groups have suffered some splinters as arguments have arisen.

TGC maintains a robust Board and Council of notable names: Kevin DeYoung, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, Tim Keller, John Piper, H.B. Charles, Jr., Alistair Begg, and David Platt to name a few. However, as a whole, the organization does not have association with (and never has had association with) a long list of other notable names. These partnerships fail to exist for multiple reasons, but most prominent among them is TGC's partial embrace of some social justice thinking. This drift has been noted by other writers, and there's much to read on the subject.

The T4G story is a little different. Starting in 2006 as a biannual conference, the inaugural stage featured Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, and John MacArthur. For those of you studied in contemporary theology, you know that those names are both famous and diverse. Since that time, other speakers have joined the conference and one speaker broke rank. Duncan, Mohler, and Piper have remained involved. MacArthur opted to leave. Sproul departed for heaven, and we should all envy him. Christians who have cut ties (or never made ties) with T4G have done so for reasons that are perhaps not quite as obvious as the issues at TGC. But those issues will be examined below.

For the moment, it's sufficient enough to note the long-term shortcomings of these two conservative Christian organizations regarding their ability to coalesce or be "together." They are still chugging along, though, evolved as they are, serving a purpose in the Christian culture. Yet, at the same time, there is a third, fresh, growing alliance within conservative Christianity that not only exists apart from TGC and T4G -- it exists with little to no overlap with the present-day forms of TGC and T4G. It exists as its own train, that may or may not be coasting down the same track as the other locomotives (depending on how you interpret the metaphor).


None of These Things Are Just Like the Others

This new group could essentially be called the G3 movement (or G3 Ministries as it will soon be known), because the ministries I am about to list are all quite directly tied to the G3 Conference. The G's stand for Gospel, Glory, and Grace and the annual conference began in 2013. The speakers at that first conference immediately stood out in contrast to TGC and T4G. Paul Washer, Voddie Baucham, Tim Challies, and Steven Lawson were the big names featured that first year and their messages were all focused on the gospel itself -- its unchanging nature and the importance of getting it right.

Why would that conference launch in 2013? Many conservative Christians who observed TGC and T4G at that time would have said that they were booming, successful ministries that brought people together. Yet, Josh Buice, the founder of G3, saw it differently. It was his desire to start a new movement without any political or denominational ties that lead to a fear of man and a shying away from the hard topics. The new G3 Podcast offers an explanation of their history and purpose in the first episode.

Since 2013, the conference has grown to feature a variety of men and ministries and it's important that they be recognized together. The names I'm about to drop here do not come together to form a monolith, and that will be obvious. However, they do hold to some of the same secondary doctrinal positions that they all collectively value above other issues. I'll discuss those doctrines, as those are what have given them unity. So let's think through this together and name names. I'll start on the West Coast and move Eastward, sharing a bit of their ecclesiology and eschatology along the way.

  • Grace to You (Los Angeles, CA) - John MacArthur, Phil Johnson
Baptist and Premillennial (Dispensational). There's hardly a Christian in America who does not know the name John MacArthur. This ministry is one of the most influential in the world and the seminary (Master's Seminary) has produced a vast network of MacArthurites who are scattered all over the globe.
  • Crosspolitic and DougWils.com (Moscow, ID) - Doug Wilson, Toby Sumpter, David Shannon (aka Chocolate Knox), Gabriel Rench, Rachel Jankovic, Rebekah Merkle
Presbyterian and Postmillennial. It's hard to know what to say about Doug Wilson and his Moscow army. I'd say "Just Google it," but you may not return from that black hole. From the radio-style Crosspolitic show to the podcast network to the provocative dougwils.com and Wilson's daughters' newfound fame (Rachel and Rebekah), there's plenty to explore here.
  • Apologia Studios (Phoenix, AZ) - Jeff Durbin, James White, Summer White, Marcus Pittman
Baptist and Postmillennial. Apologia has been exemplary in their use of the internet to reach the world. Apologia Church, where James White now serves as an elder, is constantly confronting the culture. If you're unaware of what they've got going on, I suggest checking out their YouTube channel and their podcasts Sheologians and Cultish. It's worth noting that though the church is largely postmillennial, it appears as though Dr. White is amillennial.
Baptist and Premillennial (Dispensational). Dr. Lawson is a Teaching Fellow and Board member for Ligonier. He also serves as a Professor of Preaching and D.Min chair at Master's Seminary. He's held in high regard by these different ministries because of his fierce commitment to expository preaching.
Baptist and Premillennial (Dispensational). It's been exciting to see this once not-so-big radio program grow through its YouTube reach. Friel is good friends with Phil Johnson and Living Waters (Ray Comfort's ministry).
Baptist and Amillennial. Founders has grown quite a bit in recent days as its President, Tom Ascol, has led a charge to confront his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Check out "By What Standard?" and appreciate his efforts. Tom Buck is an important part of this ministry as well.
  • Challies (Toronto, ON) - Tim Challies
Baptist and Amillennial. When it comes to Christian discernment websites, Tim Challies has proven to be the most trustworthy source. His consistency and biblical convictions make him one of the most trusted names in analysis and reviews. He's also known to share the best Christian music review at the end of each calendar year.
Baptist and Seemingly Amillennial. Washer will likely always be best known for his shocking youth message. His preaching style hasn't changed (many will often be convicted by his messages), but his ministry is certainly larger than that one video. HeartCry is a vibrant ministry that takes seriously the work of God in the world.
Baptist and Amillennial. Mbewe has made various trips to the U.S. to speak at conferences hosted by the ministries above, as he is known by some as the Spurgeon of Africa. Baucham lived and served in Texas for quite some time before moving his family to Zambia a few years ago. He's also a sought-after international speaker.

The G3 movement is not without its scholars. The following ministries seem to make up the intellectual team of the movement. It is important to note that three of the four (the bottom three) are Presbyterian.



Four Ties That Bind

Highlighted to an extent above, there exists a wide variety of doctrinal positions among these ministries. Many would think that the differences would keep them apart, yet they've found agreements that are more important than their disagreements. Pinning down these particularly cherished doctrines can be difficult, but it seems to me that there are four main tenants of this movement.

1. These ministries are led by Calvinists. An embrace of Calvinism is the minimalistic definition of what it means to be Reformed, so all of these men are quite comfortable with that term. Some are Dispensational Reformed, some are London Baptist Confession (1689) Reformed, and some are so Reformed that they really hesitate to call the other Reformed guys Reformed.
2. These ministries hold to presuppositional apologetics. There's much to be said about this approach to gospel proclamation and, to me, there's no other way to do it. If you're curious about this approach to confronting the culture, you can check out the works of Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, or Sye Ten Bruggencate. Wretched has also made a great resource on the topic. (Note: Ligonier is an exception to this rule.)
3. These ministries are anti-social justice and anti-critical theory. This fact is perhaps the most relevant. The cracks that have formed over at TGC and T4G have largely been due to social justice and critical theory making their way to the leadership's teaching. This group of ministries approaches the issues of racism, feminism, and LGBT-ism from a Reformed and presuppositional perspective. In fact, many of the people listed above came together to agree on a statement regarding Social Justice and the Gospel -- and the importance of that document cannot be overstated. Many divisions took place upon the release of that statement and there is an unavoidable long-term impact.
Side note: Just as this movement addresses modern, psychological approaches to social justice with purely biblical retorts, it is likely that they would all take a nouthetic approach to counseling. The topic of biblical counseling is quite broad and deserves its own article, so I won't say more about it here.
4. These ministries are led by cessationists. No members of this movement believe that God is still inspiring people to speak new revelation from Him today. They each hold firmly to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture and, therefore, believe that the supernatural sign gifts that God gave to the church during the apostolic era have ceased. This is important to note because certain members of this movement (Costi Hinn, Justin Peters, and the creators of the American Gospel series, for instance) have ministries that are very much focused on helping the church discern the charismatic movement.

Understanding these four ties is critical to understanding the movement. TGC and T4G never put together a group of men or ministries that had these things in common, with the exception of a slight emphasis on Calvinism. Over the past decade, debates about apologetics, critical theory, and charismatic gifts have arisen and the two groups have been unwilling to take a strong enough stand to appease a certain sect of Christians. Thus, the G3 movement now exists.


On the Outside

I stated in the introduction that conservative Christianity is essentially a sub-sub-culture. With this in mind, it is important to note that this G3 movement is not the be-all, end-all of conservative Christianity. In fact, there are some conservative Christians who are downright opposed to this movement, though they may agree with most or all of the four major tenants of the movement. Other conservative Christians are not vocal about their opinions of this movement, but rather seem to favor silence instead of weighing in with their opinions. It's important that these two groups be kept distinct.


Those Opposed


There are three main groups who can be considered both conservative Christians as well as antagonists to the G3 movement. For their own reasons, these groups reject the alliances being made among the ministries listed above.

  • Fundamental Baptists. This group opposes the G3 movement simply because the G3 movement is not just like them. This group opposes most other things for the same reason. In fact, this group is often found opposing itself!
  • Associationalist Alarmists. Related to the Fundamental Baptist group, Associationalist Alarmists are not so much concerned about you as much as they are concerned about your friends. Their approach to discerning these issues is primarily based upon guilt-by-association reasoning. Figuring out their thought processes is a challenge, as it's hard to know just when they'll be bothered by an association. 
Here's an example: The Crosspolitic guys drink and smoke cigars and some people think that's unwise. Phil Johnson has appeared on the Crosspolitic show multiple times. Phil Johnson is the director of John MacArthur's ministry. Therefore, John MacArthur is unwise. Pulpit and Pen and YouTube personality Servus Christi are great examples of this kind of thinking.
  • Reformed Purists. Coming from a completely different perspective than the two aforementioned groups is the seriously Reformed crowd, mostly made up of through-and-through Presbyterians. These purists can't stand some of the other Presbyterians, and don't even get them started on the Baptists. The prominent names in this group include R. Scott Clark and the Mortification of Spin group (Todd Pruitt, Carl Trueman, and Aimee Byrd). Michael Horton appears to prefer to stay away from the G3 associations as well. These guys don't seem to like MacArthur that much (due to his emphasis on Lordship Salvation) and they tend to view Doug Wilson as the man of lawlessness himself.


Absentees


Also on the outside of the G3 movement is a long list of people who would fit the category of conservative Christians, yet are nearly completely silent regarding the G3 movement. The reasons for separation vary and cannot be fully understood because so many of these people keep silent about their supposed disagreements. It can be presumed, however, that the names below stay away from the G3 guys primarily due to the straight-forward and punchy nature of the ministries. The Moscowites, Apologia, Founders Ministires -- these guys aren't softies. Their approach to ministry is loud in a variety of ways.

  • TGC peeps. As previously noted, there are some major names in Evangicalism listed on TGC's Board and Council. The vast majority of them do not associate with those found in the G3 movement. The Presbyterians in the group seem to be particularly wary of G3. Nevertheless, it will be very interesting to see how this group evolves (or does not evolve) in the coming years.
  • T4G peeps. The T4G conference is essentially a whittled-down list of TGC Council and Board members. Dever, Piper, and Platt are all speaking at the 2020 conference. Interestingly, they all spoke at G3 in January 2019 and none of them returned for the January 2020 conference. 
  • Dispensationalists. Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (IFCA) are organizations that may not mean much to you; but they mean a great deal to me. Though I have never been a member of either organization, they are both pillars of my Christian heritage and I owe a great deal to their historic existence. Yet, DTS is making interesting doctrinal decisions these days and the IFCA is, well, doing the same things it's always done. Neither one of these groups are on the G3 movement radar at all. The distance that separates them is likely due to issues with Calvinism and the bold confrontation of the culture.

What's At Stake? 

So, what's the point of all of this anyway? If you've made it this far, it's likely that you're experiencing something akin to a brain freeze. Was it worth it? Let me encourage you that it was.

As I wrote at the start, it's indeed a sad thing that it's all so political in God's church. However, we are fallen, sinful people who are limited in our abilities to understand and relate to one another and, therefore, it should be expected that we'll struggle with these things until the coming of our Lord. In the meantime we do well to pay attention to our brothers and sisters and keep track of what is capturing the attention of God's people.

It can all be quite complicated when you consider what Christian conference you want to go to. Or what Christian book endorsement means something and which one means nothing. Or when you hear that so-and-so listens to such-and-such and you don't know if you should care. My hope is that this article has helped to clear some of that air.

It is my humble opinion that the G3 movement is helpful and needed. TGC and T4G have, at times, failed the conservative Christian community by allowing a level of diversity that can be perceived to encroach upon primary doctrines. Maybe it's the fundamentalist in me, or perhaps it's a subconscious flare for contention, but I find the G3 alliance to be a worthy cause. Its longevity is uncertain, though, as disagreements over ecclesiology and eschatology may only be postponed for so long. For instance, some in the G3 movement are passionately dispensational, though many men associated with the G3 movement are passionately not dispensational. Yet, in this moment at least, 2020 Christianity is blessed by the movement.

Perhaps the most important contribution that the G3 gang is making to Christianity today is a fearless emphasis on the sufficiency of Scripture. This emphasis is most clearly seen in the conversations surrounding critical theory in the social justice movement. The way that, say, James White approaches the issue varies greatly from the way TGC-connected Presbyterian churches approach the issue. The G3 movement preaches Scripture as it is, without apology, believing heartily that God uses it to fully equip the church for all ministry.

If you'd like some more help figuring out these types of doctrinal things, please consider subscribing to my new podcast, co-hosted with my friend Kenn Chipchase. The podcast is called Do Theology and you can find it on all major podcasting platforms. You can also listen to or read through a series I preached on the social justice movement.

The waters of Evangelicalism are vast and choppy. Seek to discern what is most important as you walk in a manner worthy of your calling. 

6 comments:

  1. I too appreciate G3 but am not a cessationist but 1-3 I strongly agree with. I also tend to appreciate people like Paul Tripp, Elise Fitzpatrick, Horton, Theocast... but I'm not sure they fit in the groups above but they would in conservative christianity

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  2. Glad that you were able yo summarize what I've also noticed. Thank you! Except Doug Wilson is definitely dangerous, though I don't fall into the alarmist or purist camp.

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  3. Acts 20:28-35 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
    For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.
    Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.
    Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.

    So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
    I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel.
    Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me.
    I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' "

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  4. Pulpit & Pen has never criticized Justin Peters, Paul Washer, Voddie Baucham, Conrad Mbewe, Todd Friel, or the majority of the ministries menitioned here. Likewise, we have traditionally been the strongest advocates of Dr. MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Paul Washer and the others. The only criticism we have given toward G3 whatsoever is their inclusion of the Social Justice advocates in 2019, and the only time we have criticized Dr. MacArthur was for their inclusion at the 2019 ShepCon (we think both sides, in retrosepect, would agree with us).

    Meanwhile, we have consistently opposed "Servetus Christi" more than any other online figure and have repeatedly advocated for only one degree of separation. We have never - ever - urged separation over something like cigar smoking and have never criticized CrossPolitic and other than a few articles on Federal Vision, have not positioned ourselves contrary to Douglas Wilson.

    In fact, on Sundays you will regularly see sermons featured on our website from all the above men, with exceptions of James White and Jeff Durbin notwithstanding.

    Including Pulpit & Pen in the same breath as Servetus Christi is wrong-headed. We are not opposed in any way to the bulk of these ministries, even though we have spoke LIGHT disagreement regarding some of their inclusion of the pro-Social Justice guild at previous events. We think history will judge us well in those specific matters (in fact, given the state of evangelicalism, the present judges us well).

    Rethink putting Pulpit & Pen in the same category as an anti-church heretic like Servetus Christi. Every single one of our writers and volunteers is a member of a New Testament church in right standing and for the bulk of those men mentioned, we have been their biggest supporters.

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  5. For the record, though Founders does not have an official stance on eschatology (except for a denial of dispensationalism), Tom and Jared are both postmillenial. Also, Ligonier would be horrified to find that they are associated with presuppositional apologetics.

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  6. Servus Christi just exposes false teachings.....lol like the ones from about half of the people listed here.

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