This is a helpful, clarifying, insightful statement from D. A. Carson and Tim Keller with regard to The Gospel Coalition, The Elephant Room, and the broader issues of confessionalism, boundaries, and accountability. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I’ve taken the liberty of outlining the main points below.
Recent discussion, mostly in blogs, regarding the forthcoming Elephant Room conference, sponsored by James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll, provides an opportunity to write a few clarifying paragraphs on confessionalism, boundaries, and discipline.
Whatever else The Gospel Coalition has or has not done, it has not prohibited mutual criticism among Council members. We disagree not only on some historic dogmatic matters (e.g., baptism, church governance) but also on an array of pastoral judgments (e.g., multi-site churches, approaches to evangelism)—which are of course themselves grounded in our respective understandings of theological issues. On some matters where all Council members are on the same “side” (e.g., complementarianism), we find ourselves in somewhat different places when it comes to implementing our shared theological commitments. At the same time, the richness and detail of our Confessional Statement and our Theological Vision of Ministry demonstrate that we wish to avoid lowest-common-denominator theology. But how do we negotiate the difficult occasions when our foundation documents appear to be skirted, or where boundaries become too porous?
Carson and Keller offer seven reflections:
- “From the beginning TGC has distinguished between a boundary-bounded set and a center-bounded set. . . . For TGC, the center is defined by our Confessional Statement (CS) and Theological Vision of Ministry (TVM) and sustained by the Council members. There we expect unreserved commitment to these foundation documents.”
- “If someone on our Council espouses something not in line with our CS and TVM, that person is challenged. . . . In other words, at the center there is unqualified accountability.”
- “The kind of allegiance to the gospel and the Scriptures we expect at the center, expressed in our CS and TVM, extends beyond mere personal allegiance. . . . The most recent kerfuffle in TGC was initially precipitated when James MacDonald (as he has acknowledged), though he espoused the doctrine of the Trinity classically understood, gave the impression that other formulations might be acceptable—formulations that sounded a great deal like modalism (Sabellianism). James has turned away from some of what he wrote: a modalist God, he has told some of us repeatedly, cannot save. James was not the first to be challenged on something he said, and will doubtless not be the last. So far as our CS and TVM are concerned, Council members must not be ‘in process of re-thinking’ fundamental matters: for us, they are settled.”
- “Within these bounds, Council members discharge ministries that are highly diverse, with their own networks, specific aims, and relationships with many people outside the Council. . . . But those are judgment calls.”
- “One of the things that brought James MacDonald’s associations in the Elephant Room into dispute was another factor that cannot be ignored. . . . The problem with the Elephant Room was that as initially envisaged it was designed to bring together Christian brothers. To invite someone to such a gathering where that person has not, at the very least, distanced himself from the modalism in which he was reared and which is at odds with Christian convictions in every branch and corner of orthodox Christendom, seemed not only to lack wisdom but to allow tolerance levels to rise to the point where confessionalism is being swamped (see our third point, above). In fact, the design and purposes of the Elephant Room changed at a rate of speed that eclipsed its mission statement. James has in recent days tried to set the record straight. Many, we suspect, will now wait and see how the hosts of the Elephant Room handle themselves and interact with their guests in the sessions ahead. If they do so with understanding of the truths they discuss, coupled with firmness on the one hand and courtesy on the other, they will go a long way toward stilling doubts. If (God forbid) they were to give the impression that foundational Christian truths do not matter, inevitably serious questions will be raised, and rightly so.”
- “We suspect that some of the blog exchanges on this subject have slipped past one another in indignant disarray because one party was calling for gospel cohesion and the other was calling for a charitable answer to the question of who may be saved.”
- “The blogosphere encourages very rapid responses. Sometimes that enables Christians to address challenges in a timely way. . . . But the blogosphere’s very speed sometimes encourages polarized or intemperate responses before enough time has elapsed for faithful and mature thought to put things in perspective.”