The Problem with Being “Gospel-Centered”

the gospel

Over the past decade or so, many churches in America have been espousing that they are “gospel-centered.” Just as in culture, there are many buzzwords within the church: missional, organic, intentional, etc. And another one happens to be gospel-centered.

But what’s the problem with being gospel-centered? That’s a good thing, right?

Let me go ahead and say up front that being gospel-centered is not necessarily a problem. One the one hand, being gospel-centered is important, just as being kingdom-centered, Jesus-centered, even church-centered is important. However, identifying as gospel-centered becomes problematic when it stringently runs the gospel through one particular (and narrow) set of theological lenses.

You see, particular groups have, in one way or another, hijacked the word gospel and strictly applied it to their own theological view. I find this typically happens within a new reformed, Calvinist setting. The problem is not so much reformed theology – by this I mean the problem is not with a more historic, robust reformed theology. Rather it’s with the particular new Calvinism that has arisen in the past couple of decades.

How has the word gospel been hijacked by certain groups?

I see it as having happened primarily in two ways.

1) The adding of many peripheral doctrines into this “gospel-centered” view.

In my engagement with many groups championing a gospel-centered faith, they also tie in other secondary issues to the gospel. Perhaps not outright, but there is a kind of sleight of hand to make secondary issues more central to the gospel than they should be. One of the great “add-ons” is that of complementarianism – the belief that men and men alone are to be the leaders in the home and church. Here’s an example of how this is done, this one coming from, Denny Burk, now the Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

In the article, Burk says complementarianism is a secondary issue. But he then works really hard to show the dangers of being egalitarian – the belief that both men and women can be leaders in the home and church. His third and final point even uses the scare tactic of the slippery slope. Anyone who knows a basic knowledge of rhetoric would be aware that the slippery slope is an invalid argument. Burk notes a couple of egalitarians who have not gone down the path of liberalism (Millard Erickson and Roger Nicole). But he then uses anecdotal evidence as to how the slippery path is real.

So, let’s be clear: just because one is an egalitarian does not mean he or she will become liberal, not to mention that our understanding of the role of men and women in leadership is not a gospel issue!

Connecting complementarianism to the gospel is problematic.

Others raise similar issues by saying we must hold to such views as:

a) A literal reading of Genesis – because to deny a historical Adam puts a wrench in the cog of a specific view regarding Romans 5.

b) A reformed view of justification – which espouses a particular view of penal substitutionary atonement.

c) An Augustinian view of original sin – though they may say it’s a “biblical” view of original sin, not an Augustinian view.

Let me go ahead and say that none of these are gospel issues. To not realize this is to show one is not aware of the breadth of views on these issues across church history.

Let me say the opposite as well: holding to these specific secondary issues (complementarianism, literal reading of Genesis, etc) does not inherently make one gospel-centered.

The gospel (or evangel) is centered in the proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near, God is doing what he said he would always do, and he has done that in and through Jesus the Messiah. This is good news within the biblical story. And this is what it truly means to be evangelical – to be centered in the evangel, the gospel, the good news.

Secondary and tertiary issues do not determine whether one is gospel-centered.

2) Gospel-centered folk primarily center their theology of the gospel in Paul.

Now, before we jump into this point, let me note that I am not against Paul – not at all! – nor am I for pitting Jesus and Paul against one another (as some critical scholarship has done). Paul is important, indeed. Jesus and Paul were working from the same framework, both being first-century Jews who explained how the story of Israel was coming to completion through God’s Messiah, that Messiah being Jesus.

Paul good.

Jesus and Paul were together.

Alright.

What I find from these same gospel-centered folk is that they spend their predominant time forming their perspectives from Paul, particularly the letters of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Paul has the meat and potatoes of the gospel, they conclude. Everything else, including the gospels themselves, feed into Paul’s theology of the gospel. However, folk like Scot McKnight (e.g., in The King Jesus Gospel) and NT Wright (e.g., in How God Became King and others) have done well to expose this problem. And, yes, it is a problem.

The trouble lies in the fact that most gospel-centered groups jump straight over the gospels themselves. But, as McKnight notes:

If you want to read the gospel,
hear the gospel,
or preach the gospel,
read, listen to, and preach the Gospels. (loc.1255)

He goes on to note that these four accounts of Jesus were identified as gospels because, well, they tell us the gospel. It’s an innovative thought for some, but it’s deep truth that could revolutionize our theology if we’ll grasp it.

Yet so many see the gospel as a four point list of what to believe, centered in the good ol’ meaty theology of Paul. And the gospels are the story behind everything, but they are just that – story, history. And we develop theology from the epistles, not the history portions of Scripture. Hence, Paul easily takes precedence.

I say it’s rubbish.

I would argue that we need to a) start with the gospels (though not pitting Jesus and Paul against one another) and b) re-envision Paul in light of the gospels, which is to re-understand Paul as connecting into Israel’s long story now being summed up in the Jesus story as told in the gospels.

Therefore, in Romans, Paul is telling a story, one that is a very Jewish story connected deeply into Abraham. Everything he has to say about the gospel, Jesus, justification, the righteousness of God, the Spirit and more is centered in that long story that had been unfolding for centuries upon centuries. And understanding Paul’s details on this journeyed story means we need to understand the Israel story of the Old Testament and the Jesus story of the gospels.

As some have countered the gospel-centered movement, we may better off being gospels-centered.

Is being gospel-centered problematic? Not necessarily. But, if a) we are making secondary and tertiary issues central to our understanding of the gospel and b) if we are setting aside the gospels as telling us the gospel, then the claim that we are gospel-centered becomes problematic. Very problematic. We are missing some very important details on the gospel.

It’s time we become gospels-centered, understanding the gospel in light of the Jesus story, which connects into the long-held Israel story of the Bible.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with Being “Gospel-Centered”

  1. Thank you for this article. I read it first earlier this morning at Internet Monk. I appreciate you succinctly articulating the essence of this problem in the YRR (Baptist) branch of American evangelicals. I would like to ask if you would expandt on what you mean when you write, “So, let’s be clear: just because one is an egalitarian does not mean he or she will become liberal, not to mention that our understanding of the role of men and women in leadership is not a gospel issue!” In particular, what you see as the characteristics of being a liberal Christian.

    • Clay, thanks for the comment and apologies for the delay responding.

      I think the L-word (“liberal”) gets thrown around so easily in evangelical circles. For example, some would see a person who doesn’t hold to a literal interpretation of Gen 1-2 or someone who believes in annihiliationism as liberal. I think that is a FAR CRY from being liberal.

      Typically, I would say “heresy” is denying central tenets of the faith – Christ’s divinity & humanity, the Trinity, Nicean Christianity. “Liberal” theology may deal with more secondary issues, though evangelicals tend to make those issues central (views on marriage, views on abortion, views on the “what” of atonement. Still, I think there is some merging between heresy and liberal theology. It’s a moving target in many ways and I find it challenging to nail it down (I’m not sure I want to nail it down). In the end, I think if evangelicals want to pin someone down as “bad,” but not necessarily question their salvation, they use the word “liberal.” If they want to declare someone is not a Christian, they use the word “heretic.”

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