The Gospel Coalition’s Titanic Problem

The Gospel Coalition’s Titanic Problem August 7, 2022

By now, it’s become something of a cliché in certain Twitter spaces to dunk on The Gospel Coalition. Over time, an enterprise that began with good intentions and strong convictions has increasingly come to be seen as synonymous with “squishy” centrist compromise. If it’s not Christianity Today yet, people have complained that it’s listing in that direction.

There are a number of factors motivating this evaluation. Speaking as someone who remembers the outlet’s earlier years, I think concern is warranted. That doesn’t mean I’ve found nothing helpful in TGC’s recent contributions to the discourse. For example, I commend to everyone this excellent investigative report on an autistic girl with Christian parents who nearly underwent a sex change, then thankfully changed her mind. Reporter Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra deserves all the credit she can get for this thorough, harrowing, and vital piece of work. However, that way of highlighting good work—by naming individual writers—is how I’ve increasingly tended to approach my recommendations when it comes to TGC. While it may still be furnishing a platform for some talented and insightful voices like Sarah, TGC qua brand is increasingly losing credibility, and for some good reasons.

Because of the broadsword tactics sometimes used to lodge those concerns, they’re often brushed aside as trollish or over-inflated. And, truthfully, some of TGC’s critics might fairly be described as tunnel-visioned, seemingly investing every ounce of their online energy into criticizing the brand. Whether or not they’re right, I often advise people not to fall into the trap of converting all their energy into political watchdogging. Life is too short, and watchdogging is not a day job. And to the degree that criticism has been clumsy or genuinely nasty—and I’ve seen bona fide examples of the latter, especially directed towards women—it’s been worse than useless.

But none of this means there are no legitimate concerns. Some of these have been recently stirred up for another round of Discourse, focused on a particularly unhelpful piece that TGC itself resurrected from last summer on its Instagram page. This provides an opportunity for a little stock-taking of the brand writ large: where it’s come from, where it is, and where it might be going.

The piece came from a “mailbag” column answering reader questions. The author is Charlie Self, a pastor, professor, author and speaker. The question for this column is “How Should I Respond to a Colleague’s Same-Sex Wedding?”  I do want to speak to the substance of the piece, but it’s worth pausing first for a little meta-perspective on how this sort of content is generated and circulated. To begin with, it’s worth asking why this kind of advice is being outsourced to a parachurch magazine columnist. Does this questioner not have any trusted pastors or friends with whom he can discuss his delicate dilemma in person? I can understand this sort of thing a little better in contexts where someone is struggling with questions he has trouble broaching with anyone IRL. This doesn’t fall into that category. Moreover, there’s something odd in the way Instagram brought back “the undead shadow” of this forgotten piece for clicks (as one follower of mine memorably put it). Could we say, mission accomplished? Where exactly is the line between “church resource” and “content farm”? These questions are worth thinking about for brands on TGC’s scale.

Now to the piece itself. I don’t know the gender of the questioner, so I’ll use the generic “he.” This person is working in a corporate setting where a colleague has gotten “engaged,” and his boss keeps passing around a congratulations card for everyone to sign. If he were to “object on religious grounds,” he could be accused of harassment based on his company’s protocol. This is, sadly, an increasingly common dilemma for Christians in corporate America, and it starkly highlights the zero-sum game of progressive social causes like gay marriage. The illusion that people on opposite sides of such an issue could all co-exist in a peaceful pluralistic utopia was always just that—an illusion. There were always going to be places where the legal rubber met the road, and the corporate workplace has proven to be one of them.

Which makes it all the more baffling and unhelpful that Dr. Self proceeds to answer the question as if he’s oblivious to this fact. Here’s a paragraph which was highlighted on the Instagram post:

Every culture and nation must find common consent in public ethics, specifically on what is prohibited, permitted, and promoted for the common good. True toleration must include living peaceably with deep differences. Most Western nations have extended marital status to arrangements other than heterosexual monogamy. The wise Christian will affirm the legal right of consenting adults to order their lives without fear; yet that right doesn’t entail affirming the goodness of these arrangements. Believers can be good neighbors to all while diverging on some moral issues. This is the heart of a peaceful and pluralistic society.

The phrase “without fear” is especially misleading in the context of gay marriage. Pre-Obergefell, police weren’t going to break down the door if two gay lovers decided to couple up. The government simply wasn’t going to call it a “marriage” either.

Of course, the buzz has mainly revolved around the word “affirm” here, which is, at best, a colossally bad word choice. Self repeats it again later: “When directly confronted with affirming the goodness of the union, though, the only posture is to affirm their legal right to marry and one’s own right to disagree. Disagreement is not intolerance. A disciple of Jesus is promised blessing when persecuted for obedience, not obnoxiousness (Matt. 5:3–12).”

Striving for maximal charity, we could translate Self this way: “Christians can acknowledge that many people believe gay couples have a constitutional right to have their relationships recognized as ‘marriage,’ and that law has been adjusted accordingly.” It would have been vastly more clarifying and helpful for Dr. Self to just say this, instead of what he did say, which is so vague that it could be taken any number of different unhelpful ways. For instance, it could be read as saying Christians should defer to the judgment of SCOTUS that this “right” really does “exist” somewhere in our Constitution, but Christians can still object on “religious grounds.” But as the questioner has already made clear, he doesn’t even have that recourse in his workplace, where he’ll be hounded for harassment if he tries to act like we still live in a pluralistic society. It also comes across as rather condescending for Self to throw in a reminder not to be “obnoxious” and “intolerant,” when all the intolerance in this scenario is very clearly going one way.

Self goes on to say, “When it comes to human-resource policies, it is incumbent on companies to foster an environment of mutual respect, not compel violations of conscience. As long as Christians aren’t waging public campaigns against co-workers’ choices, they’re on reasonable legal ground. The real intolerance is with those who refuse the truth in favor of their feelings.” This sends mixed messages. On the one hand, Self seems to be chastising Big Corporate for creating the kind of scenario that prompted the original question. On the other hand, it’s not clear what’s even meant by “waging public campaigns against co-workers’ choices.” What if a Christian believes there doesn’t exist and never has existed a legal “right” to gay “marriage”? What if some day Obergefell found itself vulnerable to a reevaluation by SCOTUS, similar to Roe vs. Wade (which will never happen, but let’s pretend for the hypothetical)? Should Christians not “publicly” voice their hope that it’s overturned?

Finally, in the penultimate paragraph, we get an acknowledgement of this actual person’s actual situation, when Self says, “Practically speaking, you can decline the card by saying, perhaps privately to the organizer, ‘I can’t sign without violating my conscience.’ Or you may choose to avoid conflict by saying, ‘I’d like to recognize the event in my own way.'” The latter advice is meaningless, and the former seems to ignore or forget that the questioner has just explained he’ll be accused of harassment if he claims a conscience violation. The question is, given that, what should he do? Only in the very last paragraph do we finally get an admission that this person could be perfectly polite, professional, and Christ-like, and still be fired. It seems like Dr. Self could have saved a lot of time by getting to that point right away.

In short, this piece isn’t wise, helpful, or even legally canny. This is not meant as a personal swipe at the author, who seems well-intentioned. Presumably it was TGC’s idea to have him write an advice column for them in the first place, not his. And, interestingly, he seems to have a bolder tone when he writes material for his own website. It’s not clear why an editorial team didn’t work with him to turn this piece into something that would actually be constructive and apt, rather than sloppy and generic.

Misfires like this rightly invite questions about TGC’s trajectory, particularly when placed in a broader context of dubiously helpful content. TGC editors and writers have repeatedly and increasingly shown a clear lack of discernment when it comes to who they either platform or enable. For example, they published a gentle, largely positive review of Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care, offering some criticism but still handling Johnson as a good-faith Christian brother and interlocutor, rather than the manipulative fifth columnist that he is. The outlet has also platformed voices like Rachel Gilson, who is not sound and has openly partnered with toxic heterodox brands like Revoice and Posture Shift. The latter publishes a curriculum for “guiding families of LGBT+ loved ones” that Gilson enthusiastically plugs at every opportunity. (I bought my own copy, and you see some of my findings in this thread from my old Twitter account. Spoilers: It’s really bad.) In an advice video for TGC, Gilson also frames the issue of transgender pronouns as a “weak brother/strong brother” issue where thoughtful, biblically discerning Christians could disagree, rather than clearly training all Christian consciences to live not by lies.

Gilson is one especially egregious example, but examples could be multiplied here. Suffice it to say, one can trace a clear arc of change from an earlier phase where TGC was willing to run pieces like this—a bold statement that there was a legitimate place for disgust when discussing homosexual acts. One wonders whether the author, Thabiti Anyabwile, has himself undergone enough of a phase shift that he would disavow this piece in hindsight. Meanwhile, this piece demanding “repentance” from his “white Christian brethren” for the murder of MLK, Jr. is just one representative example of his output on racial issues.

Examples could likewise be multiplied of problematic content in the area of race. One of the stranger recent episodes in the TGC saga was the complete scrubbing of Dante Stewart’s byline on the site, after the young black writer announced on Twitter that he embraced queer theory. Within hours, it was impossible to find anything he had ever written for TGC. It was all simply vanished, without a trace or a warning. Nobody knows who initiated the purge, if it was TGC or Stewart himself. Either way, there was no public statement on the matter. At the time, I said that TGC should have seen what was coming much earlier, given Stewart’s self-evidently clouded judgment on racial justice, which was apparent for years prior to his full intersectional meltdown. Said meltdown did not spring up in a vacuum. Critical race theory and critical gender theory share roots. Just because the latter has only recently cropped up in Stewart’s public profile doesn’t mean there were no early warning signs that he was writing commentary through a critical theory lens. I still stand by that evaluation.

The plain fact is that Stewart was one of many writers TGC has naively platformed in a rush to appear sensitive to “minority voices,” both racial and sexual, simply because they are minorities. Some, like Stewart or Jemar Tisby, have gone on to emerge as popular hucksters (Tisby worked for Ibram Kendi for a time, a job he no longer holds, but he’s clearly aligned with a Kendi-esque vision of “racial justice”). One could also point to articles like this unconscionable piece on Kyle Rittenhouse, by a black pastor who initially called Rittenhouse a “mass shooter.” This was only tweaked months later, with a terse note at the bottom apologizing for “editorial oversights.” It was much too little, much too late, refusing to acknowledge the quiet part out loud: The pastor was allowed to spew the way he did because he was a black man holding forth About Race. Who was going to ax his content?

Here one could say, “Yes, but didn’t they also publish this Kevin DeYoung review of a book calling for reparations, which earned him and them a lot of backlash?” This is true. Perhaps it could be seen as part of a broader pattern where TGC offers a range of views on a subject “within the bounds of orthodoxy.” Their “Good Faith Debates” series makes this explicit with dialogues where some more conservative voices have been allowed to air their concerns. But it’s interesting to observe what’s considered worthy of a platform and what’s considered wholly beyond the pale. One needn’t even ask whether TGC would ever invite white writers to push the racial envelope the way some of their black writers have. Nobody is suggesting they should do so, of course. However, it’s completely legitimate to note the clear double standard.

One might also note that Kevin DeYoung is no longer a regular TGC contributor. It’s possible that this is at least partly because he saw the direction TGC was listing and quietly chose to abandon ship. I don’t know Kevin personally, so I won’t speculate more, but based on private conversations, I can attest that this has been the thought process for other formerly “hot” TGC collaborators who shall remain nameless.

This is not to accuse everyone who continues to stay and contribute of being compromisers. As long as there’s a willingness to showcase content like Sarah Zylstra’s report on transgenderism, I don’t see why writers like her, or Trevin Wax, or other thoughtful voices shouldn’t go on improving the site with their work. It doesn’t even quite feel accurate to think of the site as a “site,” given all it encompasses. It’s more like a giant aggregator, with multiple sub-domains gathered underneath it.

Still, to the extent that “TGC” is a unified entity, the fact remains that it has a problem. I call it a Titanic problem, because I see the TGC a bit like the doomed ocean liner: so big, so disorganized, and so reluctant to own its mistakes that it is inevitably going to crash on an iceberg, or icebergs plural. There may well be good people still on the editorial team who want TGC to be the kind of resource it was intended to be from the beginning. But at this point, the signals being sent are so mixed that it’s not clear the right hand is fully aware what the left hand is doing—pun intended.

Sometimes even a single self-contained resource can be of mixed value. For example, some good things were said at various points in a panel discussion with Trevin Wax, Sam Allberry, and Brett McCracken, yet it also yielded head-scratching quotables like Allberry’s recently circulated line that we don’t live in a “moralistic age” where people need to be shown that they’re sinners, rather we live in “an anxious age” where they need to be shown they have worth. I feel like I’m on Jeopardy: What is a false dichotomy? Anyone who’s engaged at all extensively with lost people will tell you this is very much a both/and proposition. All of us can think of people we know who are both vulnerable and willfully unrepentant for their sin. Sound bites like this really cause one to ask what exactly TGC is for anymore. I don’t doubt anyone’s earnest good intentions here (though Allberry does have a terrible track record when it comes to enabling fifth columnists on sexuality issues, but that’s its own topic). It simply seems like ordinary Christians could get by just as well or better on their own practical wisdom, with the guidance of a good pastor and some solid local community.

I’ve been candid in my criticisms here, but I really don’t take pleasure in this conclusion. I’ve appreciated TGC in the past, and I still appreciate select things they put out. But I couldn’t say what the future holds for TGC as a brand, nor what exactly it would take for them to adjust course, given the massive scope of their operation. Massive size in and of itself is arguably part of the problem. Some self-reflection on the consequences of parachurch outsourcing writ large wouldn’t come amiss in this cultural moment. Truthfully, that conversation extends beyond TGC to any large Christian brand taking on a role that is better left to the local church, particularly when the relevant analysis doesn’t involve special subject matter expertise.

One thing is for sure: When the ship starts going down, it is unwise to ignore the people raising the alarm. They may be loud, but they may have a point.

Browse Our Archives