Google ‘Gospel-centered’ and you will find thousands of churches and Christians who have adopted this nick as descriptive of themselves. No one wants to be law-centered, I assume, or gospel-peripheral, and so we find that gospel-centered has become something of a new Shibboleth in evangelical circles.
In previous posts, I’ve already expressed solidarity with the truth of the gospel’s relevance for Christian living. While a renewed emphasis on the importance of the gospel is something to applaud, we must beware lest this virtue becomes a vice. There is sometimes an unhealthy under-current in what some mean by gospel-centered. For some, it is an abbreviation for doctrinal minimalism. That is, such people believe that the Christian faith is equivalent to the gospel, making all teaching not essential to the gospel extraneous. They want Christians to be less concerned with such doctrinal matters as angelology, eschatology, polity, or cessationism, if such do not touch directly on the gospel. For many, the gospel alone should become the measuring instrument for doctrinal importance.
To a certain degree, I agree that the gospel is a very reliable guide for determining doctrinal weight. However, I disagree that the gospel is the center of Christian doctrine from which all else radiates.
Rather, the gospel is the boundary which allows one into the Christian faith. The center of the Christian faith is where Jesus said it was: to love God ultimately and supremely (Mk 12:28-29). Therefore, we must beware lest our love for the gospel become a too-vicious pruning tool on Christian doctrine. There is much more to Christianity than the gospel.
Christianity is concerned with more than the question of how to become a Christian. It is concerned with the question of what it is to be a Christian. Since all Scripture is given to that end (2 Tim 3:17), Christianity worth conserving will conserve and pass on all that Scripture teaches. This is the second mark of a conservative Christian church: it will understand, defend and teach biblical, systematic, historical and practical Christian theology as comprehensively and cohesively as possible.
By contrast, much in modern Christianity tends to be eclectic and faddish in its approach to Christian teaching. Rare is the shepherd who is not pulled by the tide of clerical opinion in his time, who is not swept up by trends, fashions, and double-barreled buzz words. Scarce are the pastors not influenced by the personality and celebrity cults in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Uncommon is the kind of independence needed in a faddish age. This causes many a church leader to fall short of the goal of a comprehensive and consistent articulation of Christian doctrine. Too often he’s pulled by man-pleasing forces more than the desire to properly harmonize his system of faith. A bit chosen from the hot new book, a bit from Coalesced for the Gospel 2016, a copy-‘n-paste from GoodBlog, a deferring reference to Pastor Bigname, and a resulting quilt-work of theology that is consistent only in the mind of the pastor (if there).
Now, this is not to say that we must accept our theology in non-negotiable package-deals, or that we are not responsible to test and examine the theological tradition we are in. This we must do. However, our goal is to understand and teach Christian doctrine as cohesively and comprehensively as we can. A conservative Christian Methodist must teach his Methodism uniformly and thoroughly. A conservative Christian Presbyterian must set out a Presbyterian understanding of biblical, systematic, historical and practical theology. A covenant theologian must apply and teach his system of faith as consistently as he is able. Such is the integrity of Christian character; such should be our respect for the Word of God.
In fact, it is this kind of attention to doctrinal detail that will actually promote Christian unity. When differences are properly articulated, conservative Christians will quickly be able to see where fellowship is possible and where it is not. It is when differences are blurred through garbled articulations of doctrine that real tensions may later arise. Feigned unity built upon doctrinal agnosticism will inevitably crumble, or else be held together with the Scotch tape of good intentions.
Conservative Christians want the whole Christian faith, not just the door. Conservative Christianity wants all inspired Scripture taught and explained for life and godliness. In the next post, I would like to suggest several practical ways to grow this comprehensive approach to Christian doctrine within the local church.