The Elephant Room: What Really Happened, and How Things Could Have Been Different
This is going to be a long post.
If you’re a critic of the Gospel Coalition’s response—or seeming lack of response—to the Elephant Room controversy, or if you’re a critic of the Elephant Room and its repercussions, I hope you’ll slow down and read the whole thing. I am under no illusions that it will answer all the questions or satisfy everyone—I’m sure it won’t—but perhaps it will clarify at least a few things.
(For other points and complementary analysis, see also this post from Kevin DeYoung.)
Two Preliminary Points
Before I try to highlight a few of the key things that happened (and didn’t happen), I think it’s important to put two points front and center.
1. Leaders don’t just pontificate and discuss and analyze, but eventually have to make a choice between two imperfect options.
I have seen these countless times in the context of the gloriously messy world of church life. Two options are before a leader: A and B. Both have pros and cons. Both could produce benefits, and both could have unintended consequences. The decision is complicated by competing principles at play, and in light of the fact that some of the consequences have to do with how people will act and react in light of them—which cannot be known with certainty in advance. And so a leader must weigh the options in light of God’s word, in light of the gift of wisdom and discernment, and in light of wise counsel. Then choose. Criticism is often inevitable, especially if those negative consequences result from choosing one path over another. And often times the criticism is valid, so far as it goes—but just as often, the critic doesn’t consider the alternatives. Millard Erickson makes this point in his Christian Theology:
In criticism it is not sufficient to find flaws in a given view. One must always ask, “What is the alternative?” and, “Does the alternative have fewer difficulties?” John Baillie tells of writing a paper in which he severely criticized a particular view. His professor commented, “Every theory has its difficulties, but you have not considered whether any other theory has less difficulties than the one you have criticized.” (p. 61)
Thus far I am simply identifying a principle at play in virtually all criticisms of major decisions. I think it has some relevance here, for both those who criticized the Elephant Room and its defense—and for those who criticized the Gospel Coalition’s relative lack of public response.
2. The new version of the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” is “If a conversation happens in private and there’s no one there to blog or tweet it, does it still count?”
All of us—me included—want the inside scoop, the down low on who said what to whom in what tone and where. Sometimes the impulse is busybody gossip; but sometimes knowing this can chasten our conclusions, provide context, nuance, correction, etc. Socrates was expressing the humility that comes from common grace when he repeatedly said, “I do not think that I know what I do not know.” Most of us do not know all that was said to T.D. Jakes before and after the event. Most of us do not know all of the conversations between the Gospel Coalition and James MacDonald prior to the event—or how he responded. But some critics have assumed that since they haven’t read a public statement on the web about X, then there are not hours of conversations—some winsome and careful, and some neither of those—happening behind the scenes.
Let’s understand that the world clamors for the simultaneous strength and weakness of this medium: insta-responses. Sometimes people go the extra mile to have behind-the-scenes private conversations, waiting to see how things turn out. Sometimes they get burned for doing so. Sometimes patience will be interpreted as cowardice. Sometimes taking a risk for a relationship will be seen only as recklessness. It’s not always easy to get the balance right. TGC was criticized for saying too much too soon about Rob Bell, and criticized for saying too little too late about T.D. Jakes. Perhaps both sets of critics have a point.
Elephant Room Timeline
I cannot attempt an exhaustive timeline, but with multiple issues on the table, sometimes it’s important to review where we’ve been. Let me try to highlight some key events, with key points.
The initial participants for the Elephant Room: Round 2 were announced in late September, 2011. The event was planned for late January, 2012.
Bishop Jakes, of course, stood out on the list—not because he was the best known of the group (he was), but because of what he was known for.
The two most controversial aspects of inviting Bishop Jakes have to do with modalism with regard to the Godhead, and prosperity teaching with regard to the gospel.
Jakes on Modalism and Trinitarianism
Bishop Jakes, who was spiritually nurtured in the Oneness Pentecostal tradition, had never given a clear affirmation of Trinitarian orthodoxy, even though he had been pressed on this from Christian apologists (most notably 12 years ago in the year 2000). The issue is important because modalism—the idea that there is one God, not in three eternal persons, but in three manifestations or forms—is historically considered to be a heretical teaching in the church. This issue is intimately tied to the gospel, for the god of modalism is incompatible with propitiation (among other aspects of salvation). In other words, modalism can save no one.
If you read Bishop Jakes response to criticism in 2000, you’ll note several themes, which are very important to note for when we later turn to the question of whether or not he has changed his mind or is saying something new.
First, he wants to distance himself (though not deny his historical association with) Onenness Pentecostalism. “My association with Oneness people does not constitute assimilation into their ranks any more than my association with the homeless in our city makes me one of them.”
Second, he wants to distance himself from modalism while maintaining the language of “manifestations.” Specifically, he says that the use of “manifestations” in his church’s doctrinal statement “does not derive from modalism.”
Third, he believes that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have “distinct and separate functions . . . each has individual attributes.”
Fourth, he appeals to mystery, referring to this discussion as “splitting hairs” and “semantics” and saying that no one is dying in the world for “lack of theology,” but for “lack of love.”
Jakes on the Prosperity Gospel
With respect to the prosperity gospel, the idea is an over-realized eschatology—over-promising the end-time blessings in the here and now, with the implication that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and happy, as evidenced by material prosperity. (For a recent description and critique, see Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? by David Jones and Russell Woodbridge.)
Whereas the old-school health-and-wealthers spent their time guaranteeing all of these benefits if you just had enough faith and shilling for donations, the newer generation of such teachers (represented by Jakes and Osteen and Myers) still focus inordinately on the earthly benefits ostensibly promised by God. This can be seen in many YouTube clips of Jakes preaching, but also as a theme in his writings.
Two Types of Onenness Preachers
It’s important to pause at this point to observe that not all Onenness Pentecostals are created equal. An interview with a former Onenness pastor (now turned evangelical) draws a distinction between the hardcore and the seeker-sensitive:
There are two types of Oneness Pentecostals. There are the hardcore, doctrinally dogmatic types who care nothing for popularity or mega-church growth. These openly assert Oneness theology and declare the doctrine of the Trinity as heresy (from their viewpoint) and an aberration of the apostles’ doctrine. They are not out to make friends but win people over to what they see as the true gospel. They are genuine and sincere though totally wrong and if ever converted they would make great Trinitarians.
The other type (like Jakes) have adopted the seeker-sensitive approach which really guides all that they do. They are out to be successful, sell books, buy TBN time slots, and gain a national following. They see success as the end-game which justifies any and all means. That model is above all things, including truth or doctrinal purity. They see their small Oneness church pastor colleagues and know that it is precisely Oneness doctrine that keeps their congregations from growing and decide to abandon theology altogether. Anything that divides people they avoid no matter how central a tenet of Christian doctrine it is. They become de facto prosperity preachers because weak Christians enjoy hearing man-centered sermons that speak to their itching ears.
If you want to see an example of the hardcore kind, see this piece by a Onenness pastor in reaction to Jakes and the Elephant Room.
The Elephant Room Pre-Game
In late September of 2011, after announcing the ER2 participants, James MacDonald wrote a blog post seeking to address a number of questions that were being raised about the issues of association, endorsement, and separation.
Although MacDonald has been a strong critic of the “health-and-wealth gospel” from his pulpit, he seemed eager for us to hear Jakes’s perspective. He wrote, “I am also excited to hear him state his views on money, which may be closer to Scripture than the monasticism currently touring reformed world.” (The latter was a reference to those like David Platt, Francis Chan, John Piper, and Randy Alcorn’s arguments for a “wartime lifestyle.”)
MacDonald addressed the issue of modalism. He later updated his post with new wording, but originally he wrote:
I do not agree that T.D. Jakes is a Modalist.
I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as I find it in Scripture. I believe it is clearly presented but not detailed or nuanced. I believe God is very happy with His Word as given to us and does not wish to update or clarify anything that He has purposefully left opaque. Somethings are stark and immensely clear, such as the deity of Jesus Christ; others are taught but shrouded in mystery, such as the Trinity. I do not trace my beliefs to creedal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T.D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might. His [Jakes's] website states clearly that he believes God has existed eternally in three manifestations.
This comment was very surprising, in a number of ways. MacDonald indicated he did not believe Jakes was a modalist, but to prove that he quotes Jakes’s statement that uses the classical modalistic language of “manifestations!” (As Driscoll put it in a subsequent blog post on this, “In its simplest form, this is the language of Modalism.”) Further, MacDonald seemed to denigrate the purpose and function of creedal statements as trying to be more clear than the Bible. Finally, he stress the intentional opaqueness of the biblical doctrine, and discouraged people from insisting on defining the details of Trinitarianism.
The damage had been done: What could have been a call for a discussion between a trinitarian and a modalist became a pre-announcement that Jakes is not a modalist and that it doesn’t really matter that much anyway.
A couple of days later Driscoll followed this up with a post defining modalism and the Trinity, and giving a historical and biblical sketch of the doctrine. He affirmed that as a staunch Trinitarian he regards the Trinity as “a closed-handed issue that is necessary for Christian orthodoxy.” With regard to Jakes, his main point was that we should listen to what he has to say:
Regarding Bishop Jakes, my preference is to simply let the man speak for himself and see what he says. As moderator, I assure you, I don’t want to do anything but let the men speak for themselves without being disrespected, set-up, or pushed into an unfair position—and I know this is MacDonald’s stance too. The Bible is clear about loving people and truth telling. Our plan is to have both.
He warned against pre-judging how this would turn out:
I want to encourage folks to wait until the event before making any final judgments about anyone or anything.
Is This a Conversation among Gospel-Loving Brothers?
It’s important to note that the Elephant Room’s purpose/vision page were changed at least three times during the course of the controversy. When the Elephant Room: Round 1 took place in the spring of 2011, the whole purpose was to unite brothers in the gospel who agreed on the essentials (gospel, Trinity, authority of Scripture) but disagreed on the non-essentials (ministry philosophy, methodology, music, etc.). To use Driscoll’s helpful analogy, there are “national” and “state” borders. You fight wars over the national borders, not state borders. State borders provide distinctions and even separation, but we’ll all a part of the same country.
But note very carefully the original purpose for the Elephant Room: Room 2:
Getting brothers together who believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone but normally don’t interact, is what the Elephant Room is all about. (my emphasis)
In other words, the clear message was that everyone of the participants is united in the gospel as brothers—despite the fact that one of the participants has historically held to modalism, which is inherently incompatible with the gospel as presented in the Bible. Also despite the fact of health-and-wealth themes, incompatible with a theology of the cross. In other words, this became not just a conversation with someone from a different “tribe,” but a public conversation under the banner of “We Are United in the Gospel.”
Unless you understand this, you won’t get a sense of why this was so controversial. The issue simply was not whether or not we should talk face to face with those who have different theological convictions than we do. Let me say that again: it was not about whether or not you should love, respect, listen to, and interact with those outside of our so-called tribe. The problem was in how the entire thing was set up, and the assurances that were offered.
(MacDonald at some point in the controversy removed this statement from the purpose statement and sought to broaden the purpose statement to include conversations among anyone—though it still says that they want to be “a tribe that holds the essential tenets of the faith with a ferocious intensity and is open handed with everything else.”)
Pre-Game Predictions: What Would Bishop Jakes Say? What Would Be the Result?
Virtually everyone I talked to prior to the event had the same prediction: Bishop Jakes would not be asked difficult questions, but would vaguely affirm Trinitarianism, say something against modalism, and also be careful not to say that modalism was unorthodox—and that in the end, the Elephant Room would feel vindicated against the mounting criticism and encouraged that their forum allowed for Bishop Jakes to come out as a Trinitarian once and for all.
Anthony Carter, writing three months before the event, put it like this:
Jakes is no dummy. He will be careful not to say anything that would indict him as a false teacher. He is a smart man. You don’t get to his position being stupid. Therefore, I fear that by the end of the discussion, when all the rounds have been fired, and the dust has settled, the elephant in the room will be Mr. Jakes himself. He will be standing tall shaking everyone’s hand and thanking them for giving him another platform on which to promote himself. No matter what is said, unless Jakes denounces his previous teachings or is exposed as a false teacher, it’s a win for team Jakes and a loss for those of us left to clean up after the elephant has done his business.
Thabiti Anyabwile predicted something similar:
If Jakes could be won over and would publicly teach orthodox Trinitarian views, that could be huge. If the discussion turns warm and fuzzy, “aren’t we all brothers in the end,” the damage could be irreparable—to everyone.
So What Did Bishop Jakes Say?
You can read here the full transcript of the conversation between MacDonald, Jakes, and Driscoll.
It is encouraging on one level, and and discouraging on another.
It seems that Bishop Jakes now prefers the language of Trinitarianism, though he doesn’t want to functionally abandon the language of modalism (in particular, “manifestations” over “persons”). Furthermore, if you go back to the response he wrote 12 years ago (linked and summarized above), you will find the exact same points reiterated at the Elephant Room.
Now some critics of Bishop Jakes would be satisfied no matter what he did. He could have revealed a tattoo of the Nicene Creed in Latin while holding a dog-earred copy of Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity in one hand and Fred Sanders’s The Deep Things of God: Why the Trinity Changes Everything in the other—and some people would still say that he doesn’t mean it.
But here’s the problem, as I see it: at the end of the day, we just don’t know precisely what he believes. This should chasten both sides. For those who say “he’s still a full-fledged modalist”—I’m not sure. For those who are convinced “he has come out as an orthodox Trinitarian”—I’m not sure. As Trevin Wax points out, the proof will not be in whether Jakes can check a certain number of boxes, but in what he will teach his people.
Questions such as the following would have been more illuminating: Did God the Son preexist before the incarnation? How do you define Modalism? Is it false teaching? Can someone preach the biblical gospel if they affirm Modalism? When it comes to the doctrine of God, what would be some false teachings that you need to protect your flock from?
Without questions like these, the discussion did not genuinely advance beyond what Bishop Jakes wrote 12 years ago. And as many have pointed out, the issue of the prosperity gospel did not come up, so we do not have a better sense of his stance on that crucial issue, either.
Elephant Room: The Post-Game
The event is now over. James MacDonald voluntarily resigned from the council of the Gospel Coalition, after several private conversations. The race issue has been played against African American critics of the Elephant Room, in deeply disturbing ways. And it’s easy in the blogosphere for “both sides” to assume the worst about one another.
But I think the whole thing could have been better if conceived in a different way.
The Elephant Room could have achieved virtually of the same results, perhaps better ones, without any of the negative relational repercussions and doctrinal confusion.
How? By holding the conversations offline.
Very few would have objected if a couple of brothers arranged a day or two to spend with Bishop Jakes, getting to know one other, listening to each other, searching the Scriptures together. Outside of a controlled environment with limited time-frames and an event-setup and public pressure, who knows what the results might have been? On one level, the Elephant Room might encourage local pastors to get together and talk through some differences, so the public event may inspire some people to do that. But why not instead choose a more efficient and effective route without the confusion to the church and the relational fallout?
The criticism of the critics has largely been framed in binary terms: courage vs. cowardliness; truth vs. love; talking vs. shouting. The missing item from the discussion? Wisdom.
My final thought (for an already long post): We should not assume that these discussions are over. Perhaps the public-event conversation—whether it should have happened or not—will lead to private conversations, where theology can be explored, where questions can be asked, and where answers can be given.
Let’s pray toward this end. Who knows what God might do?