In the world of Christian ministry, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a towering, thundering goliath. Co-founded by popular New York City pastor Tim Keller, it hosts a slate of blogs by conservative Christians and has produced more than 50 live events. The TGC website generates an estimated 65 million annual page views and includes thousands of posts on a range of topics. The TGC church network boasts nearly 8,000 congregations nationwide.
TGC’s brand of Christianity is both conservative and Calvinist, but according to its tagline, they feel called to promote “cultural transformation.” Numerous articles address how and why Christians should engage culture. The “About” page on its website says they desire to help Christians “truly speak and live for [Christ] in a way that clearly communicates to our age.”
Given all this, one might assume that TGC is an authoritative resource on cultural engagement. But pop the hood, and you’ll find that its modus operandi combines harsh critiques of those outside it tribe with a bunker mentality that silences any who dare to question their thinking. While it presents itself as a resource for believers seeking to live their faith in a post-modern context, TGC is more like a case study in how not to engage culture.
I sifted through the thousands of posts on the TGC website one afternoon, trying to identify a common thread. Article length, format, and writing style, varied widely. The subject matter was diverse, with posts addressing theological, political, and cultural topics. The only commonality I could discern was that many, if not most, had an air of rebuke about them.
The website’s archives read like a how-to handbook for criticizing. TGC managing editor Matt Smethhurst tackles how to criticize fellow Christians. Blogger Jared Wilson lays out when you should criticize your pastor. Popular blogger Justin Taylor explains how to criticize your non-Christian friends and how to criticize another person’s theology and how to criticize the evangelical movement at-large.
Their rebukes are not always theoretical. TGC bloggers regularly express sharp disapproval of theologians, pastors, authors, and politicians using strong language. When writer Thabiti Anyabwile wanted to criticize homosexuality, for example, he encouraged readers to recover their “gag reflex” and focus on the “yuck factor.” Setting aside the many–and I mean many–problems with this way of thinking, Anyabwile’s approach is not exactly a silver-plated conversation starter in a non-Christian culture. You can’t transform a culture while you’re browbeating, rebuking, name-calling and gagging. That’s not a recipe for cultural engagement, but rather cultural enragement.
Criticism isn’t inherently bad, of course. But when a Christian ministry assumes a posture of constant critique, it compromises its ability to connect with the non-believing world it hopes to reach. John Gottman lists “criticism” as the #1 characteristic in his famous “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a framework he has used to predict divorce with more than 90 percent accuracy. When prominent Christian organizations like TGC take such a combative posture, should we be surprised our relationship with the broader culture is strained or severed?
Interestingly, Gottman’s fourth horseman is “stonewalling” or the process of withdrawing from interaction when conflict arises. That leads us to the next counterproductive tactic employed by TGC …
LACK OF LISTENING
A friend of mine once told me that God gave humans two ears but only one mouth for a reason: to help us talk less and listen more. In terms of sheer content, few Christian websites that do more talk-talk-talk-talking than The Gospel Coalition. Yet the organization seems uninterested in listening to dissenters.
Over the course of the past year or more, TGC has been on a social media blocking spree. Those who dare to criticize them are being shut down and shut out.
To be clear, blocking on social media can be warranted. I’ve taken this action against people who use racial slurs or harmful sexist language or homophobic hate speech and those who repeatedly use personal attacks to harass others. But rather than ward off internet trolls, TGC is simply silencing those who challenge them. The ministry has even taken punitive action against well-known Christian leaders.
You may not agree with popular blogger Rachel Held Evans, for example, but she is no troll. She’s a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books and more than 100,000 people follow her on Twitter and Facebook. But Evans was blocked by TGC when she questioned a post on their site that used rather alarming language to discuss sexual intercourse.
The article quoted controversial pastor Douglas Wilson: “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” Evans countered that the statement was offensive and degrading to women and triggered images of rape and sexual violence. Later, prominent theologian Scot McKnight called on TGC to remove the post, arguing it “inculcates justified violence” against women.
TGC’s leaders would have done well to listen to her. She was expressing legitimate concerns and Douglas Wilson has also praised the “unexpected blessings of slavery” and admitted that he believes LGBT people could be executed in certain circumstances. Instead of listen, TGC blocked her on social media. (The original link to the article is now disabled. The author later apologized for posting the quote, but the link to the apology is also now disabled.)
Evans was not the first person to be stiff-armed for speaking up. Not by a long shot. Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.
TGC’s blocking spree has swept in countless pastors, seminary professors, bloggers, and others. One person told me they were blocked for challenging their comments about transgender people, while another said they were punished for questioning their stance on “biblical masculinity.” Several told me they were blocked for retweeting someone else’s critique, while others — like Northern Seminary professor Geoff Holsclaw — said they had no idea why TGC blocked them. Parody accounts like @TheGospelCorp have been blocked. And one person told me they got blocked for commenting about how many people TGC were blocking. A selection of these have been posted at the bottom of this article.
“I’m blocked by @TGC,” California-based blogger Tim Fall said. “They don’t want me to read what they say about God? Odd for a group with ‘Gospel’ in its name.”
Odd, indeed. A pattern of offering criticism while not being able to receive it, according to Dr. Leon Seltzer of Psychology Today, is a characteristic trait of narcissism. As Seltzer writes, “Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, [narcissists are] compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”
The kid who thinks he is the smartest in the room is often the last one to accept advice. But the Bible speaks often about the wisdom of broad accountability.
TGC has established a system where in order to be a part of the network, one has to believe a set of doctrines that are more specific than some denominations. Basically, you have to be a conservative Calvinist protestant who holds particular views about gender roles, reads the Bible in a certain way, understands human sexuality like they do, etc. If you don’t agree to these positions, you’re out. And those who add their church to the directory of TGC-approved congregations are encouraged to police others. The site asks members to “report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents.”
The word “coalition” is defined as “a combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc.” But the structure of TGC allows for almost no diversity among its members–certainly none that would be noticeable to anyone who is not a Christian insider. So, technically-speaking, The Gospel Coalition is not a coalition at all; they are a club.
There is nothing wrong with being a club, of course. But if your club is Christian, you still have to reckon with the Bible’s teachings on the wisdom of a broad range of counselors for the purpose of accountability.
The Gospel Coalition purports to ground all they do and say in the Bible’s teachings, but what do they make of the Scripture’s statement that there is wisdom in many counselors? Will they only listen to advice from those who affirm their preconceptions? And how does TGC understand the Apostle James’s encouragement for Christians to be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak?” Their behavior seems to do the opposite.
Unfortunately, we can only speculate how the organization’s leaders would answer these questions. They won’t respond to questions.
After I became aware of these tactics and patterns, I decided to check into the matter. I first emailed TGC editorial director Collin Hansen, asking him about their blocking policy. I received no reply. I sent two follow-up emails asking Collin if he received my first note. Again, I received no reply.
I then spoke with several TGC employees off-the-record who told me there was no official social media policy and that several people have access to their accounts. Another TGC employee requested an interview with the person they believed was responsible for managing their social media, but informed me that no one at TGC wanted to speak with me. No one is required to speak to a particular journalist. But several of my colleagues also report similar treatment when they’ve contacted TGC.
A ministry that blocks dissenters and ignores journalists who might ask difficult questions is not engaging culture; they are evading culture. Christian isolation will not lead to cultural transformation.
HOW (NOT) TO ENGAGE CULTURE
People often ask me what I think is a good strategy for Christian cultural engagement. I usually refer them to books written by those who have articulated comprehensive answers better than I. Books like James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” Gabe Lyon’s “The Next Christians,” Andy Crouch’s “Culture Making,” and Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s “The World Is Not Ours to Save.”
But we can also learn about something by providing negative answers, rather than positive ones. We can get at how one might do something by describing how not to do it. Here’s a start:
- Constantly criticizing outsiders while only listening to insiders … is how not to engage culture.
- Shutting out dissenters who challenge your beliefs, content, or ideas … is how not to engage culture.
- Operating in a pattern of isolationism, tribalism, and egotism … is how not to engage culture.
- Refusing to answer difficult questions about your organization’s practices … is how not to engage culture.
TGC blogger Kevin DeYoung writes that there are two kinds of Christians: “those who like to rebuke and do it often and those who are scared to rebuke and never do it.” Considering TGC’s behavior, perhaps DeYoung should add a third: Christians who love rebuking others but can’t handle it themselves. And in a world where society is watching Christians carefully, the last one may be the most damaging of all.