On not throwing people under the bus -why you need to give that TGC article a second look

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The other day, this article was posted on The Gospel Coalition website.  The article drew quite some ire. In fact, some of the responses on twitter may even ironically have been of the exact kind that the article has in its sights. 

I understand that there are some reasons why some people may have struggled with the article because of associations they have with TGC, however, I personally am strongly in agreement with what was written and think this is an important article to read. So, shortly I’m going to engage with some of the critique that has occurred to try and show why the article needs to be read on its own terms. I’ll then say a bit more about why I think it’s on the money.

Before that though I also wanted to highlight another article talking about the kinds of challenges that pastors face.  This article was published by the Pastors Academy (part of London Seminary) and was written by experienced pastor and former Evangelicals Now editor, John Benton.  The article describes how pastors can find themselves told to “clear your desk” and dismissed from office in a manner that we might associate with the secular world.

Sadly, some of the stories I’m aware of regarding how pastors have been treated go beyond what the world would consider acceptable.  Pastors are not even told that they are no longer wanted but instead are placed in a situation where their day to day experience is so toxic and where such constraints are put on what they can do that their position becomes untenable. This is referred to under employment law as “constructive dismissal.” 

I share both articles to set a little bit of context.  You see, there’s been much discussion in recent years of high-profile abuse and bullying cases.  It is right that we respond to such appalling examples of egregious sin.  However, the story does not stop at one or two high profile cases. Nor, is it just about bullying leaders.  There are too many examples of horrendous things happening within churches and among believers. This includes the kind of culture that we see on social media.  Indeed, if we think of abuse and bullying, purely in terms of people in power causing harm and distress to those they have power over then what we are describing is perhaps not best described as abuse.

The vast majority of Christian leaders are not bullies, are not abusers, are not seeking to cause harm to others.  Yet, we find ourselves in situations where people experience deep hurt with negative affects on their spiritual walk.  My personal view is that this arises because too often, the culture of evangelical Christianity takes on a legalistic form rather than being shaped by and saturated by grace. As Ray Ortlund has helpfully observed, it is no good having the doctrines of grace without a culture of grace.

This lack of grace in our culture, in our behaviours seeps into all the different ways in which we relate with one another as believers, both in the church and in how we relate online.  That’s why I think the TGC article is pertinent. Online behaviours mirror, amplify and encourage in person behaviours.

So, why the problem with the TGC article? Well, first of all it may be worth offering some general background. The Gospel Coalition was founded in the US by Tim Keller and Don Carson. Primarily Reformed, it’s aims were primarily to encourage reformation and renewal as well as creating a platform which united reformed evangelicals from across a spectrum.  This means that they have had speakers and writers from quite a diverse range.

This is important for three reasons. First of all, I suspect that it gives reason for the editor published this particular article.  Tim Keller as the founding member has taken a stance of trying not to get over engaged in culture war type controversies.  His priority has been on how we effectively share the gospel and disciple people and so he’s tended not t align with specific tribes.  Over the years and increasingly vocally -even at a point where his own health is not good and that restricts him – he has been under serious attack. Because he does not state things in the terms some people would like and does not get drawn into the kinds of debates they would like him to, he has frequently been falsely accused of being liberal. Given that such attacks have been particularly intense and particularly unpleasant in recent months, I suspect that this is what the article was immediately responding to. 

Secondly, it means that some high-profile people have fallen in serious ways have been associated with The Gospel Coalition. In particular, Mark Driscoll was one of the founding members. Driscoll famously was recorded saying that he was happy to throw people under the bus and have a pile of bodies behind the bus when he described how he dealt with opposition at his church, Mars Hill.

Some people have read this article’s talk about staying on the bus and not throwing your pastor under the bus as a reference back to Driscoll. However, if it is a reference then it should be seen as rebuke rather than an endorsement of his methods. The point is that you are not meant to throw people under the bus. However, the concept of getting people on the bus is one widely used and the saying about “throwing people under the bus” is also prominent enough for it to be highly unlikely that the article was intending to reference any specific person. 

Thirdly, TGC have drawn on a wide range of authors for their website and there are differences of opinion.  The result of this is that there’s plenty to disagree with.  Over the years I’ve really enjoyed reading some articles and reacted strongly to others. Some seem to have picked up on some of those authors and concluded that TGC does not get the problem of abuse and has even been on the side of abusers.

It is worth therefore noting that high profile authors and articles on the site have included Thabite Anyabwile who has written robustly there about racism and the church.  Then in terms of the problem of abuse within the church, you will find a whole section here of articles dealing with the problem. This includes articles from victims and advocates such as Jennifer Greenberg as well as positive reviews of books such as Rachel Denhollander’s “What is a girl worth” and this positive review of Chuck Degroat’s When narcissism comes to church” in Themelios, a journal published by TGC.

So, where has the idea come from that TGC have a problematic relationship with the issue of abuse. From what I can tell, it comes down to some articles by authors that readers haven’t felt have handled the issue well and have even presented victims as being part of the culture war and an attack on the church.

I’m not sure that this is an entirely fair reading of what TGC have published. From what I can tell, it seems to arise from a few articles associated with one particular author, Kevin DeYoung.  In this article he is extremely cautious about identifying anything that doesn’t involved physical or sexual harm as abuse.  The implication is that he is reluctant to identify things as emotional or spiritual abuse.

In this article, he sets out four different approaches to cultural and political issues in the church.  He describes one approach to abuse as being:

“It’s about time the church owned this scandal, believes victims, and calls out perpetrators and their friends”

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-reformed-evangelicalism-has-splintered-four-approaches-to-race-politics-and-gender/

As that particular statement is linked to a position different to the one he owns, I think some people have read him as treating that negatively. However, a re-read of the article shows that he seeks to label each of the four positions positively as follows “Contrite, compassionate, cautious and courageous.”  His point seems to be that we need to be alert to where we are coming from and both the positives and challenges with each position.

Thirdly, there was recently quitter a strong debate over whether empathy was a legitimate and appropriate emotional response to the struggles of others. DeYoung entered that debate and was seen as being on the “empathy sceptic” side of things. I’ve written and engaged with him on this here.

So, I think here is the problem. DeYoung, as one example of an author has reached different conclusions to some issues and takes a different stance and different tone to the one some passionate campaigners would be.  This then is being read back as a “he doesn’t believe/doesn’t care” position on abuse.  I don’t think that is fair to De Young. However, it certainly does not build a case to label the whole of TGC with the same problem.

However, I think that there is a challenge for some people reading articles like the ones I’ve shared here – both the TGC one and the Pastors Academy one. Why? Well because there are people whose primary experience of sinful and abusive behaviour has sadly been at the hands of church leaders including pastors, parachurch leaders, youth workers etc.  If an article and if an organisation is seen to be coming from a position that gives the benefit of doubt to the leaders then it is going to be very difficult for them to hear it.

The TGC article isn’t in fact to do with abuse and if anything, it is a defence of those pastors who aren’t seen as vocal enough on those issues that the Christian Right in the US seem to think they should be. If anything it is a defence of pastors who aren’t writing in support of Donald Trump and Christian Nationalism. It’s defending those who are not regularly denouncing CRT.   

I can understand though why some people will find it hard to read the article and will hear a different message and a different tone to the one that I believe the author intended.  It’s important that we give space to those who struggle with it.  We need to appreciate the different ways that people react.

All I ask in return is that a similar courtesy is offered first to TGC itself, that the platform and its contributors are not unfairly tarred with a particular brush merely because they haven’t always agreed with everything we want them to or sad things in the way we would prefer.  Please don’t try to stop people reading fantastic and helpful writers such as Rebecca MacLaughlin, Jennifer Greenburg and Sam Allbery.

And then that this courtesy is afforded to those who read the TGC article and the Pastor’s Academy article and found that the writers spoke for them and their experience.  You see, if someone speaks for where your heart is and someone them tramples on what they’ve said to pursue their own agenda, it can feel as though your own heart has been trampled on.

We need to find ways to listen well to each other. But even more than this I think we need to do better at listening to what God says to all of us, together through his word.

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