Gospel Partnerships – A Strange Evangelical Twist
By J.P. Thackway
The emergence of the Gospel Partnerships over the past decade or so has been amongst the most significant developments in British evangelicalism, as conservative evangelicals from Anglicanism and the Free Church have joined together to serve the cause of Christ. 1
So writes the supporter of a growing movement throughout the UK. To what is he referring? Gospel Partnerships (GPs) are found in eleven regions of the country, where evangelical churches of different affiliations work together in evangelism (in some cases, training) and church planting. The regions so far are: East Anglia GP, East of Scotland GP, Midlands GP, North East GP, North West GP, Peninsula GP (Devon and Cornwall), Solent GP (Southampton, Portsmouth, Isle of Wight), South East GP, South West GP, Sussex GP, and Yorkshire GP.
This is reminiscent of Affinity, which we covered in a previous issue of the Quarterly2. The similarity is not coincidental, since two of the Gospel Partnerships (Midlands and Yorkshire) are corporate partners of Affinity. This movement also has echoes of The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, and it is because this body is also involved with Gospel Partnerships. In fact, the writer above makes the point, “In many ways the vision of the Gospel Partnerships is uncannily similar to that of FIEC.”3
Included in the Partnerships are a number of Church of England congregations. Take, for instance, the North West Gospel Partnership. Of the eighty-two churches involved, twenty-three are Anglican churches. It is true that the proportion varies between regions, but nevertheless the involvement of Anglicans is something new and significant. This is a surprising, even strange, alignment within evangelicalism. In fact, given the sizable Anglican presence, the writer quoted above felt it necessary to add this qualification,
I was privileged on Monday to be at a meeting of representatives of the various regional Gospel Partnerships from around the country … There has been something of a perception that (Gospel Partnerships) are an essentially Anglican initiative, with an Anglican character, but this is not the case. Around the table on Monday there were 7 Anglicans, 6 FIEC leaders and 1 Church of Scotland minister. FIEC pastors serve on the committees of all of the English GPs, and of the partnerships that have paid employees at least 3 are FIEC pastors. In some parts of the country, where conservative evangelical Anglicanism is thin on the ground, FIEC churches are taking a lead in developing partnerships.4
Quoting our writer again, the reasons for the Anglican dimension of GPs is twofold. “The first ‘Partnership’ was established in the North West of England, in the aftermath of a tour of the UK in 2003 by Archbishop (of Sidney) Peter Jensen to encourage Anglicans who were beleaguered in their denominational struggles. The success of this model of fostering gospel co-operation and extending gospel ministry has led to similar Partnerships being established around the country.” And the other is that they, “grew out of existing gospel friendships between church leaders that had already been fostered through the Proclamation Trust” (an Anglican organisation that seeks to train men in expository preaching – Ed).
GPs are likely to grow, as more regions of the UK form themselves into these networks. In time they may even become international. How should we view this growing movement? Is it an encouraging sign of the Lord working among us and building His church – or is it yet another symptom of the slide of evangelicalism into compromise and defeat? Sadly, when examined scripturally, we have to say it is the latter. Why do we conclude this?
1. The partnerships seem averse to biblical separatism.
The GPs publicity talk up the range of church denominations that are coming together for the gospel and church planting. The official web site has an article entitled “What is Partnership?”5 While some Scripture is quoted, what is absent is any mention of necessary separation for the Truth’s sake. This omission speaks volumes.
In his recent Bible League booklet, F.J. Harris summarises our scriptural duty to separate from teachers of error,
“Mark them … and avoid them” (Romans 16:17)
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
“Have no fellowship with” (Ephesians 5:11)
“Come out from among them” (2 Corinthians 6:17)
“Withdraw thyself” (1 Timothy 6:5)
“Shun” (2 Timothy 2:16)
“From such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:5)
“Reject” (Titus 3:10)
“Receive him not into your house neither bid him Godspeed” (2 John 10)
Separation is a wall of protection against spiritual danger. Failure to separate from error leaves one open to the influence of error (1 Corinthians 15:33).
It is profoundly regrettable that there is no reference to any of this in the GP statement. The nearest is this admission: “Sadly there are plenty of people in our denominations who don’t hold to apostolic truth. It means we are not in partnership with them. It can be confusing when we give the impression that we are in partnership with people that we are not!”
Now this illustrates what is wrong with GPs. Concerning theological liberals or even unbelievers, it is rightly said, “we are not in partnership with them.” We are, however, entitled to ask the question, “Then what are you doing forming GPs with denominations that include them in the first place?!” This lack of biblical separation leads to the admission that it is “confusing.” But confusion is the very thing that faithful biblical separation prevents, because it preserves an unambiguous testimony to the gospel. And it will enjoy the favour of God, without which all we do is vain (Acts 2:42-47; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Such a stance would greatly lessen the number of churches signing up to the GPs. If principles of biblical separation were practised, we wonder how big the GPs would then be. We fear that desire for size and influence makes GPs see separation as an obstacle. Dr. Lloyd-Jones once said, “We are not interested in numbers. We are interested in truth and in the living God.” We fear the enthusiasts for GPs do not share this conviction.
2. GPs represent a retrograde step.
The willingness of member churches to unite with evangelical Anglican congregations is to ignore an historic compromise. In the 1960s and 70s, Church of England evangelicals renounced their distinctive witness within their church with statements at the Keele (1967) and Nottingham Conferences (1977). Concerning the former, its chairman John Stott declared,
Keele expressed the formal, public renunciation by evangelical Anglicans of the pietism (i.e. evangelical convictions – Ed) that had too long marred our life and our testimony.
Ten years later at the Nottingham Conference worse came,
Seeing ourselves and Roman Catholics as fellow-Christians, we repent of attitudes that have seemed to deny it … Deeply regretting past attitudes of indifference and ill-will towards Roman Catholics, we renew our commitment to seek with them the truth of God and the unity he wills, in obedience to our common Lord on the basis of Scripture.7
Since then, evangelicals in the Church of England have been tolerated by their new “friends,” but they have not won them to the gospel – why the need to, if liberals and Anglo-Catholics are “fellow Christians”? Moreover, far from reforming the denomination, they have seen liberalism rampant, more moves toward Rome, the ordaining of women clergy and bishops, homosexual clergy, the marrying of same-sex couples, and even a bishop officially blessing a Gay Pride march.8 Yet they remain inside such a body that must now be seen as nigh-apostate.
Back in the 1960s and 70s many saw evangelicals remaining in doctrinally mixed denominations as betraying the gospel. Dr. Lloyd-Jones voiced this when he declared,
… it is (impossible for the evangelical) to be yoked together with others in the church who deny the very elements of the Christian faith, these men who seem to deny the very being of God … who talk about the Lord Jesus Christ as an homosexual! There is no agreement – it’s light and darkness! And that you should desire to hold such groups in one territorial church, my friends, it is a denial of the Christian faith! It is guilt by association!9
And yet, men who remain in Anglicanism and are guilty of such compromise are prominent in GPs – and other evangelicals are happy to co-operate with them! While, as fellow-Christians we may have fellowship privately, officially identifying with them and their churches is another thing. Dr. Lloyd-Jones ended co-operation with J.I. Packer and John Stott because of this, and the pre-Affinity British Evangelical Council would not admit those still in doctrinally mixed denominations unless they were intending to secede.10
GPs in effect are reversing what happened in better and more discerning times. This is not progress but regression. It is co-operation at any price, and a co-operation that cannot have the sanction of Scripture nor should it have the approval of consistent evangelical Christians.
3. GPs represent the lowest common denominator.
Although each regional GP has a statement of faith, in practice the criterion is “the gospel.” More particularly, the gospel in evangelism, training and church planting. This sounds fine on the surface, but we only need to look a little closer to see that this “gospel-heartedness” covers much that raises serious questions.
Defining the parameters of fellowship and co-operation by “the gospel” would have been understood a generation or two ago. But nowadays it tends to be sincerely meant but sadly naïve. With so much confusion and lack of discernment we need to ask about the implications of the gospel. Are these being furthered by the churches participating in the GPs? Implications such as the authority of Scripture, six-day creation, biblically-governed worship, the primacy and centrality of preaching, the fear of the Lord, sanctification and heavenly mindedness?
Look beneath the surface at what these GPs get up to and some of it is very disturbing. For instance, on one GP church web site is an interview with a certain minister concerning “Developing Future Leaders.” The whole thing lacks the seriousness that becomes the Lord’s work. With a quick prayer before it begins, the interviewer asks some “either or” questions as an “ice breaker.” Here is a sample of the questions, with their answers from the minister.
“Little and Large or Chuckle Brothers?” Answer, “Little and Large.”
“Luther or Calvin?” Answer, “Calvin Klein.”
“John Wesley or Elvis Presley?” Answer, “Elvis Wesley.”
“Mega Church or Messy Church?” Answer, “Both.”
“Strictly (Come Dancing) or University Challenge?” Answer, “X Factor.”
“Isaac Watts or Keith Getty” (modern song writer, co-writes with Stuart
Townend). “Keith Getty, because I’m doing a conference with him.”
“Prayer or Twitter?” Answer, “Twitter.”
All this is amidst much laughter and levity. The rest of the interview is no more reassuring. During it, conservative churches are caricatured, along with reverent worship and smart attire. What matters, apparently, is to be contemporary. If this is what “future leaders” are going to emulate, we can only wonder where evangelicalism is going to be in another generation’s time!
Contrast this with Bunyan’s depiction of a gospel minister in his Pilgrim’s Progress (taken partly from Malachi 2:6,7):
Christian saw the picture a very grave person hang up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it: It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.
Christian: Then said Christian, What means this?
Interpreter: The man whose picture this is, is one of a thousand: he can beget children, 1 Corinthians 4:15, travail in birth with children, Galatians 4:19, and nurse them himself when they are born. And whereas thou seest him with his eyes lift up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, and the law of truth writ on his lips: it is to show thee, that his work is to know, and unfold dark things to sinners; even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men. And whereas thou seest the world as cast behind him, and that a crown hangs over his head; that is to show thee, that slighting and despising the things that are present, for the love that he hath to his Master’s service, he is sure in the world that comes next, to have glory for his reward.
What a world away from the trivial and worldly approach on the interview! Whichever GP member church web site one visits it is very much the same contrast. “The Gospel” can seem to justify music bands11, using WEST12 for distance learning, evangelistic methods which uses books by the New Calvinist Tim Keller13 Sabbath desecration with “Sunday Funday,”14 and a host of other deplorable activities.
With a comprehensiveness like this, it is inevitable that “the gospel” is going to justify a range of views and practices that take their cue from the world and not from God’s word. What God-fearing and biblically-thinking Christian or church would want to be part of this?
4. A case study: St. Mark’s, New Ferry.
As a sample of a church included in the GPs, this evangelical Anglican church makes for a revealing case study. All the details are from the church web site15 and therefore public information. Situated in the town of New Ferry on the Wirral peninsula, St. Mark’s is an Anglican church that dates from 1866. It says, “we stand in the Reformed tradition of the Church of England; taking the Bible as the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”
St. Mark’s was “a founding member of the North West Partnership of Churches.” It is also part of “the Wirral Gospel Partnership, working together to strengthen local ministry” – this is the smaller area within the North West region partnership. This church, therefore, is an important member of the GPs in the North West of England.
St. Mark’s says its contribution reflects, “our commitment to the evangelical faith (which is the historic foundation of our Church of England) and the desire to see Biblical Christianity thrive in our region.” All these claims to being “Reformed,” the Bible as our “supreme authority,” and “commitment to the evangelical faith” encourage us to expect a God-fearing church, biblically regulated as to its worship and practice, and humbly walking in obedience to His word.
Undoubtedly the vicar, his team, and the members are sincere people. There are, however, the usual signs that this church represents the concerns mentioned in the points above. For instance, the web site homepage features an interior view of the church, and to the side is a full drum kit and electric guitars. Also, a projector screen for the inevitable modern worship songs. This is worship in a style borrowed from the world and not taught by Scripture.
The vicar is described as “a keen musician,” and someone who “still manages to get around the football pitch on a Sunday evening, albeit at a slightly slower pace than he once enjoyed!” The mention of football is explained on the web site: “A few years ago we started a bit of a kick about. This turned into a weekly fixture! We play on a Sunday evening, for fun, in the Village Hall at 7.30pm for an hour.” In addition, there is only one main service each Lord’s Day, but this is sometimes followed by a BBQ at 12.30pm.
Here is Sabbath desecration just as the world does with its football. How can a church that professes to be “evangelical” and “reformed” behave like this in the face of these Scriptures,
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8).
If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD… (Isaiah 58:13,14).
This is not untypical of the kinds of churches who make up the GPs. Fifty years or so ago, evangelicals would have been horrified at this kind of behaviour, including evangelical Anglicans. Any protests made today are greeted with the claim that such things as worship and what one does on Sunday are “secondary issues.” This term is conveniently used to cover (literally and wrongly) a multitude of sins. It is a solemn thing to answer for on the Great Day. Albert Barnes commenting on Hebrews 13:17 regarding ministers, “As they that must give account,” makes this solemn point,
The ministers of religion must give account to God for their fidelity, for all that they teach, and for every measure which they adopt – for these they must soon be called into judgment. Therefore, for their best security, under the influence of this solemn truth, they will pursue only that course which will be for your good.
Quite frankly, what church that is serious about honouring God according to His holy word would want “partnership” with churches like this?
5. GPs will accomplish nothing of future or eternal value.
This is because they are partnerships of churches that are a hotchpotch. Anything from near-charismatic to more conservative, from those led by jeans-wearing and guitar-playing contemporary leaders to those more soberly dressed, from those who tremble at the word to those who deny six-day Creation – it is so broad and mixed as to only increase the confusion and weakness of the church in our day.
Yet, this variety and latitude is actually acknowledged as a good feature. The writer we have quoted puts it thus, “The formalisation of such informal gospel relationships has opened the way for the Partnerships to embrace a wider range of churches with differing cultures but the same gospel convictions.”16 If by “cultures” he means variety of unscriptural practices mentioned above, this is not to be welcomed but to be deplored.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. He will only be graciously present where there is reverent regard for the word of God and an overriding concern to do God’s work in God’s way (Isaiah 66:2). Truly like-minded, reformed churches may be smaller in number, but their fellowship is deep and their usefulness is great. They do not need to be corralled into “partnerships” to express what they have in common. The distinctives they hold already constitute the most fruitful of fellowship and co-operation. To enter these GPs would be to see their distinctives diluted and virtually lost amidst the contemporary downgrade. It is a strange twist to see any professed evangelical and reformed church in GPs.
The Puritan John Trapp once wrote, “Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy.” And let the Welshman William Erbery (1604-1654) have the last word,
But never shall all the saints unite, and come to one in love, till wrath be poured forth on all their forms and flesh. Then the Spirit shall come from on high, and gather up all the saints and men in God.
1. John Stevens, (http://www.john-stevens.com/2012/11/anglican-free-church-rejoicing-in.html). John Stevens is the National Director of FIEC.
2. See Bible League Quarterly, April-June 2005, pages 61-71. Or on the Bible League web site (http://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/category/addressing-error/page/5/).
6. Stand Fast for Authentic Evangelicalism, page 16.
7. The Nottingham Statement, Falcon, pages 44,77.
9. BEC address, Luther and His Message for Today, 1967. Quoted in They Have Forgotten, Ruth Palgrave, page 18.
10. See They Have Forgotten, R.E. Palgrave, pages 21-27.
12. See the severely compromised nature of Wales Evangelical School of Theology in Bible League Quarterly January-March 2013, pages 330-352.
13. See http://northwestpartnership.com/church-planting/how-to-plant
and The New Calvinists by E.S. Williams, pages 17-29.
14. Church by the Bay, Morecambe, http://www.churchbythebay.org.uk/news/post/sunday-funday