It’s easy to lose your balance when you’re standing on one foot. The strongest posture is one of balance between both feet: one of poise. Hence boxers putting so much care into their footwork.
In our intellectual and spiritual life also, we need poise. Interposed within the character of the gospel is an intricate balance of truth and grace, mercy and righteousness, glory and condescension, courage and caution, firmness and flexibility. Only Jesus is the perfect blend of all these qualities, summed up and bound together by love. Most of us tend to tilt one way or the other, depending on our temperament and circumstances and various other factors. In fact, we often lean into one error right while trying to avoid another—as Martin Luther put it, human reason is like a drunken man on horseback who, propped up on one side, will tumble over on the other.
The Gospel Coalition ethos is, like that of the evangelical tradition it inherits and seeks to extend, one of balance and poise between opposing errors. Our Theological Vision for Ministry speaks of the rarity of a “full, integrative gospel balance.” Just as evangelical identity was forged through a balanced tension between liberalism and fundamentalism, TGC identity is balanced between the twin dangers of withdrawal from, and accommodation to, our current cultural milieu. According to our Theological Vision for Ministry, the errors of compromise and retreat, though opposite from one another, both reflect a similar lack of trust in the gospel:
If we overcontextualize, it suggests that we want too much the approval of the receiving culture. This betrays a lack of confidence in the gospel. If we undercontextualize, it suggests that we want the trappings of our own subculture too much. This betrays a lack of gospel humility and a lack of love for our neighbor.
In our overall ministry ethos, most of us will be tempted toward overcontextualization on the one side or undercontextualization on the other. That means that faithfulness to the gospel requires self-awareness, balance, poise.
So what might it look to intentionally seek poise? Here are three reflections amid this ongoing conversation.
1. Sound theology is not the ultimate goal.
If you’ve spent a significant amount of emotional energy opposing theological liberalism and cultural compromise in your life and/or ministry, and if your personal predilection is instinctively toward a conservative mindset, you will probably more naturally resonate with the conservative aspects of a TGC ethos.
Let me just mention one particular temptation those of us in this corner may be particularly liable to: equating doctrinal fidelity with spiritual vitality. This can be especially easy to do when we’ve had experiences in which we’ve observed the insidious effects of bad theology. In the midst of our genuine and noble reaction to the (real) problems we have seen, it is easy (like Luther’s drunken rider) to forget the goal of doctrinal fidelity, at the end of the day, is not “faith holding the line versus unfaith” but “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 6:5).
In fact, in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 Paul says that without love, superlative gifting, knowledge, faith, and sacrifice are not only deficient: they are nothing. We often fail to think through the implications of this amazing assertion. We could paraphrase Paul’s point into our modern-day setting like this:
If I oppose gender confusion with brilliant lucidity, vie against revisionist atonement theologies with all my might, and ruthlessly hold the line against biblical minimalism in my congregation, but have not love, I am nothing.
Or as Francis Schaeffer put it, “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.”
If we see doctrinal fidelity as the goal of our ministries, rather than an essential and noble means for the larger goal of the knowledge and kingdom of Christ, we are probably insufficiently sensitive to the dangers of under-contextualization. We are not well poised.
2. Our methods are part of our message.
In the opposite direction, if our passion to reach the culture sometimes tempts us to soften or over-nuance the sharp edges of biblical teaching, or if we sometimes look down on those evangelicals who are more theologically tight as unenlightened and out of touch, we are equally in danger of a lack of poise. One of the great temptations for those of us in this corner may be becoming so eager to advance the gospel that we adopt strategies that are themselves inconsistent with the gospel.
I once heard a wise pastor (Mark Dever) say this, and I probably think about it every week (and some weeks every day!): what you win them with is what you win them to. Those of us who resonate more with the emphasis on contextualization and mission in TGC’s ethos may in particular need to consider the danger here. Whenever we are tempted to evaluate kingdom advance through worldly metrics of judgment, whenever we seek human applause or use human techniques despite proclaiming a gospel that is “not of human origin” (Gal. 1:11), we must remember that our message should determine our methods. And our message is a crucified, rejected, abandoned, cursed Messiah who, apart from the eyes of faith, looked like an utter failure.
As my brother Dane put it:
Whom does God use? The young, the outsider, the Gentile, the barren, the rejected, the crucified. How does God use them? Through their failure, their weakness, their seeming worthlessness, their unimpressiveness, their ignominy, their rejection on a cross. Had he lived today, Jesus Christ would have died with every last Twitter follower unfollowing him.
3. We all need each other.
When we’re seeing our own hearts clearly, we may at times wonder how we can possibly be faithful to a balanced, gospel ethos. The truth is, in our own strength, we cannot. To function in that beautiful blend of loving outreach and holy distinctness, we need the Holy Spirit’s moment-by-moment help. Schaeffer used to say that we can hold to truth in the flesh, and we can experience grace in the flesh, but to combine both truth and grace takes the Spirit. So with a TGC ethos: we need his constant help so that we don’t veer off track.
But the Holy Spirit has also given us another gift in the process: each other. One of the wonderful blessings of TGC is that it is large and diverse enough to hold together people who lean differently than we do within a broadly Reformed and classical evangelical framework. Within this framework, we need those Christians who lean in a different direction than we do to help us see our blind spots and grow in our weak areas, so that we can respond to the culture around with the delicate poise of both truth and grace. As my friend Collin Hansen puts it in his book Blind Spots: “If we can appreciate how God has gifted others, together we can accomplish great good against all odds in a way that makes much of our King.”
As we stand together, we stand in the strength and balance of poise.