The Elephant in the Room
This past week a firestorm erupted over the recent “Elephant Room 2.” The controversy centers around the decision to invite Bishop T.D. Jakes to participate in the event. The central questions in the debate are 1) whether or not Bishop Jakes holds to the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, 2) whether it was appropriate to invite (and feature) him without first having clarified his position on this cardinal doctrine, and 3) whether he cleared up the matter.
I was scheduled to speak at Harvest Bible Chapel on the weekend following ER2 which raised significant questions about my stance on the matter. While I do not consider it my responsibility to comment on every controversy, I do recognize my duty to clarify matters with which I am involved directly, and/or those that impact the congregation I am called to shepherd. Hence, my explanation now.
My Invitation to ER2
In October of 2011, I was invited to participate in The Elephant Room 2. The invitation followed Mark Dever’s decision to pull out. James MacDonald called me and asked me to take his place. He also informed me of the controversy at that time surrounding the invitation to Jakes and Dever’s decision to pull out, and that Crawford Loritts had agreed to fill in. I knew James MacDonald only indirectly, and I had only recently heard of the Elephant Room.
Initially, it sounded like a very good idea to “pin Jakes down” on the Trinity. My area of emphasis in my theological training is Evangelism/Apologetics. Moreover, I addressed Jakes’s modalism in my first book in 2004, so I am well aware of the issues in question, and believed I could make a contribution. Also, to my delight, James indicated that Jakes had abandoned Oneness Pentecostalism, rejected Modalism, and, he believed, Jakes would make that clear at ER2.
I called my fellow elders to make them aware of the invitation (we usually meet monthly to review and consider invitations, but this was an urgent matter, and MacDonald had asked for a decision by the next day). We agreed that I should 1) find out more about the Elephant Room (specifically, was this an apologetics forum, or a forum that would assume Jakes’s orthodoxy), and 2) find out why Dever had backed out.
After investigating the matter, I decided to decline the invitation. My decision was based on four major areas of concern (Note: I voiced these four concerns to James MacDonald during our phone conversation the next day):
- T.D. Jakes has a history of holding to, teaching, and associating with modalism, and ER2 was a forum wherein he would be assumed to be a “brother”.
I was already on record concerning Bishop Jakes’s modalism (see: The Ever Loving Truth, LifeWay, 2004), and I have kept up with the matter. Jakes had never repudiated Oneness Pentecostalism. Nor had he come out with an unambiguous, credal/confessional statement on the doctrine of the Trinity. There was absolutely no basis for me to assume that Jakes was suddenly orthodox, and therefore, no basis for me to welcome him as a brother.
- The “Word of Faith” gospel he preaches is heterodox and harmful.
Even if Jakes had come out with a statement on the doctrine of the Trinity, it would not have done anything to change the fact that he preaches “another gospel.” (Gal 1:8–9) Having studied the “Word of Faith” movement, and seen the devastation it leaves in its wake, I was disinclined to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the man who has been this country’s most popular purveyor of this heresy in the past two decades (Note: James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll had both preached against the Word of Faith movement and called it heresy, so I did not believe I was informing James of anything he did not know already).
- Jakes’s influence in the Dallas Metroplex has been negative, at best.
My wife is from Dallas, and my in-laws still live there (her parents and five siblings). I have preached in Dallas on many occasions, and at numerous churches, and have many acquaintances in the city. I know firsthand what kind of influence T.D. Jakes has had on the evangelical community, and broader Christian witness there. Suffice to say that he has not brought greater gospel clarity and fidelity. He has, however, brought a charismatic, theatrical, excessive, “Word of Faith” flavor to the city that permeates many churches (especially black churches).
- Bishop Jakes is an example of the worst the black church has to offer.
One of the goals of ER2 was to address the issue of “racial” unity. Thus, Bishop Jakes was there (at least in part) as a representative of the “black church.” In light of the aforementioned issues, I was disinclined to participate in such an event. You see, Jakes was an invited guest; an invited ‘black’ guest. If he were mistreated, he had the race card; if he was accepted, he had entree into a new audience. It was a win-win for Jakes, and a lose-lose for evangelicalism. Obviously, he was not going to spout unadulterated modalism. Nor was he going to repudiate his roots (remember, this is his “heritage,” both ethnically and theologically). He had a perfect opportunity to find a middle ground and show “humility” in an environment that would be portrayed as “hostile” even though hostility was forbidden in light of the unwritten rules surrounding his blackness. Thus, his opponents had to choose between outright defeat and pyrrhic victory.
Moreover, I rejected the invitation because I did not want to give even the appearance of tokenism. The participants in the Elephant Room (and ER2), though they disagree methodologically on how we “get there,” are all virtually identical in their general profile. They are all successful mega-church pastors who have leveraged innovative and/or controversial methodologies to grow their churches, media empires, and/or pare-church ministries. I, on the other hand, am a pastor serving at a church with less than five hundred members; I’m not on television or radio; and my books aren’t best sellers. I don’t fit the profile! Whether MacDonald meant to or not, he was painting a picture of tokenism. If he meant it, I didn’t want to be used, and if he didn’t mean it, I didn’t want to be the source of misunderstanding.
While Pastor MacDonald said he “respected” my decision, he made it clear that he did not agree with me. We agreed to disagree and he moved on. At this time, I made two important decisions. First, I decided not to get involved in the public furor over ER2. I had spoken my piece to James, and saw no advantage in getting involved any further. There were others who were making many of the same points, and I did not want to pile on (James White, Phil Johnson, Thabiti Anyabwile, Anthony Carter, and others were pressing the issue, and bringing the pertinent points to light). I do not regret this decision. My second decision, however, is another story altogether. My second decision was to move forward with the scheduled Men’s Conference. That was unwise.
The Men’s Conference
I was naive to think that there would be no fallout if I decided to go forward with the Men’s Conference. The Men’s Conference was scheduled to take place two days after ER2. Once my worst fears were realized at ER2 (i.e., Jakes equivocated on modalism, was not even challenged on WOF gospel, etc. see here for a detailed analysis), there was no way for me to 1) keep silent on this growing controversy, and 2) attend the Men’s Conference, without giving tacit approval to ER2. The decision to go public was inevitable. The only question was how.
I have a regular practice of posting notices of upcoming events in my monthly newsletter, and on my Facebook fan page. These have been invaluable tools that keep people apprised of when I’m coming to their area (or the area of friends and family whom they’d like to invite to one of our events), how they can pray for me, and what kind of doors the Lord is opening for the ministry.
As per my practice, I posted a link to the Men’s Conference and asked, “Any fan page members planning to attend...” As you can imagine, there were more than a few questions about my position on ER2, my relationship with James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel, and a whole host of other things. I answered those questions as honestly as I could. I made it clear that I opposed the decision to invite Bishop Jakes; pointed out what I saw as his masterful ‘dodge’ on the trinitarian question (and subsequent affirmation of modalist language), and gave a brief explanation of my reasoning for keeping this prior commitment (see here for a recap).
This did not go over well with James MacDonald. Upon my arrival at the church the next day, he and I sat down (along with my assistant and several members of his staff) and had a candid conversation about my decision to answer questions in a public forum. Ultimately, we agreed that it was not a good idea for me to speak at the conference. We prayed, shook hands, embraced, and ended the meeting as brothers. James also insisted on paying the agreed honorarium (Added 1/31/12). MacDonald had already made arrangements for a replacement speaker. My assistant and I were escorted to a waiting car and taken back to the airport.
Looking back on the incident, I realize that I put myself in an untenable position. As I see it, I had three choices once ER2 went down the way it did. I could remain silent indefinitely, which would have given tacit approval of Jakes, etc.. I could have held my comments until after the Men’s Conference, which would have been deceptive to James MacDonald, HBC, and those who showed up to hear me. Or I could answer the questions honestly ahead of time leaving no doubt as to both my decision to honor my commitment to the Men’s Conference, and my disapproval of ER2. Obviously, I chose the latter.
In hindsight, I should have canceled the event when I declined the ER2 invitation. But remember, there were many ‘moving parts’ at that time. There were private, internal discussions within The Gospel Coalition. There was public pressure from all corners of the evangelical community, and there were private conversations (I’ve already alluded to my own discussion, and that of Mark Dever, but there were others). There was also a possibility that Jakes had truly repented, and these guys (specifically MacDonald, Driscoll, and Jack Graham) were privy to things the rest of us simply didn’t, or couldn’t know at the time.
As I look ahead, I think two things are very important. First, I believe T.D. Jakes is wrong on the doctrine of the Trinity, and wrong on the gospel. I am also involved directly in a matter (the ER2 controversy) that has brought discussion of those facts to light. Consequently, my mandate to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9) obligates me to be on record in the matter. I have done that.
Second, the racial overtones of this matter have gotten out of hand (see here, for example), and must be addressed. The ER2 controversy is now pitting black evangelicals against white evangelicals, and against each other with T.D. Jakes as the centerpiece. This is an opportunity to pull back the curtain on the awkward racial dynamic in evangelical circles. Race is a convenient ‘dodge’ for those with weak arguments, and an inconvenient truth for those who harbor prejudice. Beyond that, it is an absolutely confusing subject for myriad evangelicals who simply love Christ, love his church, and want desperately not to offend their brothers and sisters in the Lord by using “black” when they should have used “African American,” or vice versa!
The irony is that this issue is most pronounced when heterodoxy is in play. For example, when a white evangelical disagrees with a solid, Reformed, black pastor on a technical theological issue, there is rarely a charge of racism. However, let that black brother be part of a heterodox or heretical group (i.e., Oneness Pentecostalism, Word of Faith, Black Liberation Theology, etc.), and suddenly the white brother who makes the argument against him faces charges of racism! Why? Partly because of... RACISM!
You see, some of this boils down to what has sometimes been called, “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.” Asking black people to adopt orthodox theology (when Lord knows they don’t have access to the same schools, books, opportunities, and, in the minds of some... lack sufficient intelligence) is asking them to negate their blackness. While, on the other hand, the solid, Reformed, well-educated black pastor is NOT REALLY BLACK. Therefore, he’s fair game. Irony of Ironies... that is racist! And that’s what has to be dragged out of the shadows.
I’m not angry with James MacDonald. He’s my brother, and I love him. We disagree. We both understand that. Ironically, that’s what The Elephant Room is supposedly all about. Brothers should be able to disagree with one another and still be brothers. There’s just one problem: Embracing Jakes while rejecting others because we question his history of modalism and Word of Faith teaching... that’s the real “Elephant in the Room”?