The Gospel Coalition Council Members don’t agree on all theological issues. When it comes to baptism, for example, some restrict it to professing believers, while others baptize infants. Even in areas where they do agree, like complementarianism, the way theological implications play out in their churches and contexts differs significantly.
In the end, though, TGC Council Members come together as allies. “An ally,” Francis Schaeffer explained, “is a person who is a born-again Christian with whom I can go a long way down the road . . . now I don’t say to the very end, because I’m a Presbyterian and I might not be able to form a church with a strong Baptist . . . but we can go a long way down the road.” As allies, TGC Council Members come together to accomplish the same fundamental goal—to keep the gospel central in preaching, teaching, and living. (See TGC’s Foundation Documents.)
There was another term important to Schaeffer and his work—co-belligerent. “A co-belligerent,” he said, “is a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position, but takes the right position on a single issue. And 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.”
As individual Christians, we act as co-belligerents all the time, especially in our work outside the church and home. Most of us have colleagues with whom we work toward a common organizational goal, but with whom we disagree about issues of faith. (See, for example, Joseph in Gen. 41 and Daniel in Dan. 2.) The church, too, can work with co-belligerents who are committed—knowingly or not—to certain kingdom purposes. As TGC Council Member Albert Mohler writes,
We must be ready to stand together in cultural co-belligerence, rooted in a common core of philosophical and theological principles, without demanding confessional agreement or pretending that this has been achieved.
Co-belligerence, then, is a way of working with others—even those with whom we radically disagree—against a common enemy. It allows otherwise questionable partnerships in order to further a particular social, political, economic, or cultural cause for the common good and human flourishing.
There are, of course, limits to co-belligerence, because there are fundamental differences between darkness and light, blindness and sight, death and life. As Mohler exhorts, “We indeed need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves to know how to contend for Christian truth.” (See Matt. 10:16, 2 Cor. 6:14.) Similarly, Daniel Strange cautions in his excellent essay, “Co-Belligerence and Common Grace: Can the Enemy of My Enemy Be My Friend?”:
We must be careful though that we do not become a stumbling block for other Christians, and that our co-belligerence does not communicate to a watching world the possibility of neutrality and the dilution of the exclusivity of Christ and the gospel.
These warnings, though, don’t invalidate the theological foundation of co-belligerence—the doctrine of common grace. Unlike particular grace, which relates to God’s sovereignty in salvation for believers, common grace relates to God’s care for his creation. It’s “common” because it’s universal and “grace” because it’s an unmerited gift of God. (See Matt. 5:45.)
Common grace gives Christians the platform on which to engage culture. When we know that the fall didn’t completely annihilate God’s created order, we can work with people of different faith commitments toward good purposes. As Abraham Kuyper writes,
If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit. . . . God’s sovereignty is great and all-dominating in the life of that unbaptized world as well. Therefore, Christ’s church on earth and God’s child in this world cannot simply retreat from this life.
Justice and Mercy
In our modern context, justice is one issue on which the church can pursue co-belligerance. Throughout the Scriptures—from Isaiah's tsedaqah call to Jesus’s inaugural sermon—it’s clear that Christ-followers are to be people who, like him, “proclaim liberty to the captives” (Lk. 2:18).
Who are the captives? First and foremost, they are people enslaved by sin (Jn. 8:31-38, Rom. 6:15-23). But they’re also people enslaved by systems, including race-based prejudicial ones. For Christ died to break down “the dividing wall of hostility”—not only between us and God, but also between the races (Eph. 2:11-22). When we work toward racial reconciliation, then, we are eschatological signposts “on earth as it is in heaven” of the coming kingdom (Matt. 6:10).
In this spirit, we’ve curated a diverse set of voices for a panel discussion about justice and race at The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference. On Tuesday, April 14, at 6 p.m., in the Gatlin Ballroom, I’ll moderate “Seeking Justice and Mercy from Ferguson to New York” with these panelists:
- Ed Copeland is a TGC Council Member, former criminal defense attorney, and pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois. Ed is an independent consultant for the Bureau of Justice and for MSU’s College of Criminal Justice. Alongside David Kennedy, Ed sits on the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.
- David Kennedy is a criminologist, professor, and author, whose award-winning work focuses on reducing violence, minimizing arrest and incarceration, and strengthening relationships between law enforcement and distressed communities. He is the director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College in New York City. His latest book, Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, features the work of two other panelists, Ed Copeland and Robert Lang.
- Robert Lang is the assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, where he has been a prosecutor since 1997. He also serves as the office’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, Anti-Gang and Reentry coordinator.
- Alex Medina is a music producer and art director at Reach Records. Alex emerged as a leading voice on social media in the wake of the events in Ferguson and New York.
- Cecil Smith is the chief of police for the Sanford Police Department in Florida, a position for which he was selected in the wake of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman incident.
Not everyone on the panel is an ally—that is, a born-again Christian with whom we can go “a long way down the road.” All, though, are co-belligerents—that is, people committed to promoting justice in our neighborhoods, building trust between law enforcement and our communities, and finding a place for local churches to play a role in racial reconciliation efforts.
In Orlando, we hope to come together for a lively conversation about how local church leaders can best engage their communities for the common good and human flourishing when it comes to justice, mercy, and racial reconciliation. There are, of course, no easy answers, but we hope you’ll join us as we stretch our imaginations about what might be possible when we come alongside our neighbors. You can also watch the panel at live.tgc.org.