“That” vs. “The” Gospel Coalition: An UnOpened Letter to TGC

One month ago yesterday, I wrote an email to the facebook page run by The Gospel Coalition. During the 2007 national conference, TGC co-founder, D.A. Carson gave two inaugural addresses, entitled, “Plans and Purposes of the Gospel Coalition” and “What is the Gospel.” In these, he reported the 2 main reasons that they chose to bring their organization into existence;

1. To define and protect the Gospel from those who would distort it (postmoderns).

2. To reverse the fragmentation of Evangelicalism and shore up its boundaries.

Because I was a student at the grad school that shouldered much of the start up energy for TGC and hosted many of their earlier events, I got to see some of the first days of this organization’s existence as well as volunteering for two TGC conferences.  As such, I’ve followed them since then and have been both thankful and concerned for the work they’ve done – though I would confess, mostly concerned.

One month ago, I became more than concerned, I became angry.  After following a Facebook post to their Facebook page, I saw this banner photo donned at the top of their page;

TGC Expansionism

Instantly, I felt something was wrong with this photo and the implicit hegemonic messages it sent. I immediately wanted to expose what I thought lacked wisdom, cultural intelligence and inter-cultural sensitivity. After pondering on it for awhile, I decided to hold onto my initial angst, write them a letter and then wait for some dialogue.  To this day, I haven’t received anything back from them and so with a month passed, I decided with some encouragement to post the letter I sent.

Conversation started June 21

To Whom It May Concern:

I recently came across your new banner photo while checking out another post. To keep it simple, I am sincerely disappointed and even angry at seeing the TGC logo spread across the globe. Each of us can do what we want with our globes and maps, but this picture saddened me when I first saw it.

It may have been posted with different intentions than to offend anyone, but if you will allow me, I would like to mention some reasons why it is not helpful to the church.

1. It seems to suggest an expansionism of the ideas and influence of TGC. It is not wrong to seek to bless the world with the resources that you have as I understand TGC has been doing as of late, but this picture provokes something beyond that. It suggests a monopolizing, expansionist agenda as much as anything else. Whether that is the intention or not, it can be communicated by the picture.

2. There are numerous global organizations and indigenous communities of faith that TGC will have to work with in order to bless the world with your resources. This picture ignores those relationships and at worst demeans those whom TGC will need to depend upon. I have worked for an international organization, Operation Mobilization, which is present in more than 110 countries. While working with them, I traveled to nearly 40 countries, served in a number of churches and ministries started and funded by indigenous leadership. Some enjoyed being a part of the OM network and would proudly display the OM logo because of the resources OM had helped to give them. OM has made many mistakes but I can assure you that the leadership there would never think of donning a photo like this, especially on a public forum for the reasons stated among others.

3. The reputation that TGC has garnered as struggling with being exclusive to Reformed type circles is not helped by this photo. I would hope for TGC’s sake that they would seek to honor the nature of the Church’s universal diversity and understand that TGC is not for everyone. Good intentions aside, this photo could suggest that TGC really does believe that their tradition/expression/theological vision ends up being “better” than everyone else’s.

There are many other reasons that I could go into as to why this picture is damaging, but I’ll end with the fact that this was painful to see because there are so many other traditions and theological visions present within the global church that are needed for the Gospel to go forth, some much larger and with more influence than TGC has or will ever have. This picture suggests that those traditions are not needed or at least the relationships and partnerships that we need are not required for TCG resources to spread around the globe.

Again, I’m addressing what this photo suggests, not what the original intentions were.

My suggestion is to take down the photo and to not use TGC’s logo in any capacity that suggests expansionism, exclusivity, solo ministry efforts, etc. I believe this photo suggests all of those problems and more and will be painful for some and angering for others.

Nathan Smith

As stated, I haven’t heard from anyone yet representing The Gospel Coalition. I do desire to dialogue with someone representing their interests and their choice for this photo. It seems it would help them to reach out to people with similar concerns. If they are unwilling to do so, well then there may be a myriad of legitimate reasons – I tend to think there aren’t enough.

It was only three years ago, that I wrote an open letter to Dr. Al Mohler, president of the Souther Baptist Theological Seminary and a strong proponent for Neo-Calvinism and The Gospel Coalition, encouraging him to reconsider or change comments he made on a TGC video. I didn’t expect a response then, but his conclusions about how we all should end up being neo-Calvinists…or will be regardless of our consent, were shocking and distasteful. This hegemonic sentiment does make its way around the neo-calvinist world and photos like the one being discussed do not help. They hinder.

So, until I hear back from someone, I am more inclined to think that the definite article in their title should be changed to “That” rendering them, “That Gospel Coalition” or with the indefinite article –  “A Gospel Coalition.”  As they represent only a faction of the voices who express what it means to live out the Gospel, it makes more sense for them to be a “That” or an “A” versus “The.

My question: Does this photo elicit anything similar or same to the reaction that I experienced for you? If so, what would you have done, if anything?

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  • Confused

    This photo did not elicit any type of similar reaction at all to yours. Even after reading the reasons to your reaction, I don’t understand why you reacted that way. It seems like you are overreacting.

    The photo seems to just be a clever way of showing TCG’s initials. Its a pretty big stretch to say that such a simple photo defines their agenda as an expansionist agenda. Also to say that this photo ignores the other organizations that TCG works with or would need to work with is odd. Is TCG supposed to list every organization they would work with if they post a photo of their name? Or do they only list all those organizations if their name happens to be over a map where that organization works?

    Perhaps the photo was simply a way of saying that the Gospel Coalition wishes to do good all over the world, rather than just in North America or Deerfield, IL, rather than a message saying that only TCG can affect the world for good as it seems you think it says.

    • NathanSmith79


      Thank you for your thoughts. You are not the only one that I’ve asked that has had similar thoughts. I have thought seriously about your comments (as well as others) and my reply is simply that, at least for now, I think my concern still stands. The primary reason is the precedent that TGC as an organization has set regarding other traditions in the “global” church. As far as I cant tell, TGC seeks to equip with local churches with their resources – resources that have a very particular reading of Scripture and cultural engagement. As such, TGC cannot and will not endorse ministries or Gospel efforts that fall outside of their convictional setting. That isn’t a problem except that they claim otherwise,

      “We want to generate a unified effort among all peoples—an effort that is zealous to honor Christ and multiply his disciples, joining in a true coalition for Jesus.”

      This coalition at the end of the day is a coalition of like-minded people who fall within the bounds of a very particular reading of Scripture that is Calvinistic/Reformed, Complementarian (only men as pastors), Western and Evangelical. There is much more to the church and to its global identity than these signifiers allow, so it is misleading to claim that they, “want to generate a unified effort among all peoples…joining in a true coalition for Jesus.”

      In reality, they have a specific agenda to export a Western dominated theological vision that places Calvinism at the center and denies women access to leadership roles in the church and seeks to undermine theological visions from within Evangelicalism that are unlike them or disagree with them, thereby regarding them as non-evangelical. There is also a desire to define the gospel over and agains what other Christians believe the gospel to be. By creating a partisan battle within Christianity, they end up doing more to politic rather than preach the gospel and draw sharp and distinct lines between brothers and sisters that don’t allow for true coalitions and united efforts across belief systems and theological traditions.

      This is the backdrop for a photo like the one they have on their facebook page. Hopefully that provides some context.

  • mikefast

    To be honest, when I saw the logo I didn’t think the things you did but after having heard your comments I think you hit the nail right on the head. I think that the crux of the issue is the same as your comments to Dr Mohler — theology is not necessarily the static thing that we think it is today. Unfortunately I think that it is an uphill battle.

    • NathanSmith79

      Mikefast – after asking a number of people in person, I’ve had mixed reactions – yours being one of them. So, thank you for sharing. I do want to hear if what I wrote was off the mark or as you wrote, a nail on the head. So far I’ve heard mostly what you wrote with a few detractors and a number of supporters, but the reactions are definitely not uniform. I think my contention is what you point out – the theological vision of the Reformation and its resurgence in the 21st century won’t really deliver on what many want it to – and that’s ok.

  • NathanSmith79

    As a follow up to the letter I wrote to The Gospel Coalition, their executive director contacted me directly yesterday (Tuesday, the 23rd) and we ended up having a good conversation for about 2 hours. The conversation was generous and charitable and we ended with a desire to connect again and discuss the things we touched on more. I will post more about this in a follow up post.

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