The Gospel Coalition’s “Theological Famine”

About 2 months ago, I posted an article entitled, “That vs. The Gospel Coalition: An Unopened Letter to TGC.” In it I explained my frustration and disappointment in the use of this picture by The Gospel Coalition which was displayed to promote their project to see theological resources shared around the world. I also displayed an email I had sent explaining my thoughts and request for them to reconsider the implications of this image and to take it down. Little did I know what would happen next.

TGC Expansionism

After posting the blog post, on July 22nd of this year, I was contacted by the Executive Director of TGC. He and I actually were in grad school together and have had a few brief encounters. In all my encounters with him, I have always sensed a genuine spirit and then in our conversation I could tell that he desired for good things to come from his work at TGC. We definitely disagreed on aspects of the Gospel among other things, but their was a shared concern for good things to come from the work we are both doing and are going to do. He expressed a desire to connect again and we hung up.

Vinoth RamachandraSince then, I haven’t heard from him. Yet, with all that said, I continued to follow TGC’s desire to distribute their theological resources to other parts of the world. Then it happened – I actually saw the title of this project – “Theological Famine Relief.” I was again frustrated and disheartened. I asked a few friends and colleagues about their impression of this project and the disconcerting use of the word “Famine” and was led to a blog post entitled, “Reformed Amnesia” by Vinoth Ramachandra.

Vinoth is from Sri Lanka and returned to minister there with IFES after earning a bachelor’s and doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the University of London. Among his many published works are, The Recovery of Mission, Subverting Global Myths, & Faiths in Conflict? These are just a few that stand out. Interestingly enough, Timothy Keller, one of the founders of TGC, quotes Vinoth in his book, Generous Justice (pg. 6). In a blog post from March 2013, Vinoth articulated my concerns more aptly than I could formulate regarding TGC’s so called “Theological Famine Relief” project. So I leave you with this,

How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation. Pastors are exhorted to “contend for the faith” (which usually amounts to contending with other pastors, and damning all who disagree with them), and “the faith” is taken to be a set of timeless “doctrines” rather than any distinctive Christian way of living.

But perhaps not so strange, once we recall that our personal experiences, social and political contexts, profoundly shape the way we read both Scripture and the world. That is one reason why we need to listen to each other in the global Body of Christ. Authentic Christian witness has to be ecumenical and trans-cultural.

We have a long way to go in developing such theological maturity despite all the deceptive language of “partnership” and “equipping”. Below is one example of the huge obstacles we face.

A group of North American pastors calling themselves The Gospel Coalition of International Outreach is engaged in what they call “a mission of Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church”. They state on their website: “We are partnering with translators, publishers, and missions networks to provide new access to biblical resources, in digital and physical formats. Our goal is to strengthen thousands of congregations by helping to equip the pastors and elders who are called to shepherd them.”

Sounds loving, until one asks: who decides who is theologically famished and who is not? who selects what “resources” to send the famished? who decides what constitutes “equipping” and who should be doing it? The answer is always the same. A small group of white, well-to-do American or British males. We have experienced such paternalistic, colonial “mission” before- others deciding what is the “Good News” for us, what is “sound doctrine”, which authors to read and whom to avoid, etc. They have exported their theological blind-spots and sectarian rivalries, reproducing carbon-copies of themselves in the global South rather than nurturing real leaders. The learning and theological traffic is all one-way.

Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from north America.

For an extremely helpful and more detailed critique of the make-up of TGC resources and their contributors, visit Multivocality’s reblogged post about Vinoth’s critique. There, the author researches the background and resource list that TGC is exporting and the results are nothing short of disconcerting. It’s a short read and well worth your time to understand this issue more fully.

One thing we shouldn’t worry about is the white man’s burden to protect the Indigenous at all times. This conversation has thrust me into realizing my own paternalistic desire to protect indigenous communities overseas from the sectarian rivalries that influence the formation of organizations like TGC and their base of resources from the West. These communities need as much help being protected from TGC as they need organizations like TGC deciding for them what they should and shouldn’t read. We can trust that whatever comes of these efforts, the church universal has the resources and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to delineate for themselves whether a theological resource from the West is helpful, sectarian, factional or not. I only wish they didn’t have to.

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  • Absolutely infuriating. Wow. Thanks for sharing all this.

    • For sure. If you haven’t check out the Multivocality reblog of Ramachandra’s post – it’s a harrowing critique with in-depth detail. Well worth the read.

  • Dan_Lowe

    Hey bro, I would agree that indigenous communities probably don’t need our “protection,” but your heart behind the intention is still good. Have you considered sending an email to friends in the global south and asking what part you can play in acting as an advocate? Although possibly not in the part of protector, it is still vital to shed light on the colonial practices still in play by folks like the TGC. And, like I’m about to post on your Facebook page, it may be time for you to get back on the phone. Have you considered the possibility of using your resources (friendships) to connect your friend at TGC with one of the indigenous leaders in North America? Or with a visiting friend from the global south? Putting people like the TGC folks face to face with those who they (arrogantly) think are experiencing a famine might go a long way to changing their thoughts.

  • Anastasios

    This is one reason why the Coptic church has been experiencing such missionary success in Africa lately….it’s an indigenous African church, with an impressive theological heritage of its own that makes the Reformed world look like IT has a famine problem. It also has no ties to colonialism, and the fact that so many Copts have kept the faith even while enduring martyrdom in recent years shows that they have a level of devotion to Christ stronger than probably almost all Westerners. Most first world Christians (Reformed or not) are very lukewarm in comparison. But of course, the TGC folks probably view the Copts as heretics or merely “nominal” Christians or some other such tommyrot.

    Someone above made a comment about “bankrolling”, and I think they might be right on the money (so to speak); the recent “Reformed resurgence” going on in the US seems very astroturfy to me, and I suspect Howard Ahmanson Jr. is behind most of the organizations promoting this agenda. In contrast, there is a genuine grassroots (i. e., not driven by big money-backed organizations like TGC) movement among younger American Christians toward….NOT Calvinism, but rather a more Eastern expression of the faith (see the listener-supported success of Ancient Faith Radio, for example). The contrast is like night and day; theological self-proclaimed elites like Ahmanson want to force us all into their image, but ultimately I have a feeling those attempts will fail because no matter how hard they try, attempts to use money to influence people’s faith are rarely successful in the long run.

    P. S: Here’s more information on the growth of Coptic missions in sub-Saharan Africa. Truly, the Lord is using this ancient church to accomplish great things even as it faces incredible persecution in its home country.

    • thanks for your feed back Anastasios – I would love to learn more about the African coptic church.

  • gordonhackman

    I really like Vinoth. His book “Gods That Fail,” is a favorite of mine.

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  • RtRDH

    Nathan, a friend lead me to this post. As a Black USian and postcolonial Christian, thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you for visiting the site. We hope to continue to “encourage” people and organizations like TGC and ourselves to be cognizant of and active in cultural intelligence.

  • JT

    “Perhaps a day spent with leaders like Pope Francis or Desmond Tutu
    may be more useful for African pastors than all the “resources” from
    north America.” — or perhaps not.

  • Beth

    Hi Nathan, Beth Barnett from Multivocality here, just stopping by to say I appreciate seeing this conversation – your contribution as well as Vinoth’s, which of course I respect greatly and which prompted my own post. There is lots of damage done already (I have just been in Eastern Europe and seen the fruits of ‘imported’ theologies as well as some humbling examples of integrated, authentic engagement), and thus a need for repentance and self-examination, and I am not exempt from this either.
    I hope there is the capacity in all of us to engage in reflective listening and creative thinking. Let’s be seeking equal partnerships (something the complementarian TGC might explore in more ways than one) not paternalism and pre-packaged spiritual goods, exploiting a perceived ‘ready market’.

    • Beth, Good words. Thank you and wow – what an experience to see the effects of the good and bad of global church show and tell. I would love to post an excerpt from you piece to send more people over there as it was very helpful and needs a wider readership.

  • pack3

    But what if the theological “famine”, and I don’t like that term either, was partly caused by flawed North American protestant missionary efforts? I’m currently living with a family in Nicaragua and the books in their home are translated copies from Joyce Meyer and other prosperity gospel-promoting North American evangelicals. On TV, they watch people like Cash Luna and Guillermo Maldonado who may be Latino themselves, but the content of their messages closely resemble Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. The sad thing is that from what I’ve seen, this is currently the most popular form of protestant Christianity in Latin America.

    To say the least, I’ve had a difficult time navigating the tension of wanting to help undo some of the “theological damage” of my fellow North Americans without participating in neo-colonial practices as well. I’m not Calvinist myself, but do you think that a little bit of Tim Keller and co. might help pastors and lay people in the Global South who are promoting harmful North American based theology but would never listen to a Desmond Tutu or Pope Francis because they aren’t “evangelical”?

    • pack3 – I really liked this comment and the questions. Hearing from someone in the middle of this issue is very helpful. I agree, reading Tim Keller is a great idea. He’s very helpful, careful and thoughtful. I disagree with a number of things he teaches, but the way he carries himself is definitely commendable and exemplary. If TGC as an organization were to follow his lead and practice their faith with as much care and intent as he does, Vinoth’s and my own critique would definitely need to be altered. TGC as an organization seems that they desire to move in that direction.

      That being said, Tim Keller is the exception not the rule. Authors, pastors & speakers within the TGC line up form somewhat of an opposite problem to those who promulgate health and wealth, name it an claim it, etc. From my experience, TGC and organizations like them promote personalities that are sectarian within evangelicalism. Other faithful traditions within Evangelicalism as well as faithful orthodox authors and pastors are deemed dangerous or unorthodox and then demonized by this group of pastors and others like them. When it comes down to it, they not only won’t work with you if they disagree on a secondary issue, but have been known to dissuade others from doing so as well. Non-Calvinist traditions are shown to the door and this shows up in their speaking, their teaching and most importantly for Vinoth’s critique – their resources. As such, they draw the circle a little too tight. You would be hard pressed to have them send you a book by faithful evangelical authors who are not like them, such as N.T. Wright, Roger Olson, or Gregory Boyd. Members of TGC have even questioned these men’s commitment to Christ based upon their writings and wondered if they could be Christians at all.

      Frankly that’s just ludicrous and the if they were to export that kind of thinking without context or qualification, that’s ingredients for a lot of damage to the church. As far as I know – they will do so. The wide sweep of the Christian tradition is not welcome in TGC. Even more problematic, the sweep of evangelicalism not like is also not welcome. They would exclude, castigate even and hold resources written by faithful evangelicals who are not from their Calvinist tradition. The problem is that secondary theological issues become primary for their ultimate borders – not just the borders of their tradition – but even what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ. This is highly problematic and for me, just as dangerous as prosperity gospel issues in the global church.

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