Seven Thoughts on the Elephant Room and T.D. Jakes
The second round of the Elephant Room has come and gone. But as avid blog readers know, the debate surrounding the wisdom or folly of the event continues. This one may have bigger ramifications that most quick-a-minute Christian controversies.
I won’t recap all the posts out there. Justin Taylor, as usual, has a good round up of the events and a sharp analysis. Thabiti’s post from several months ago was courageous and worth reading again, as is Voddie’s piece from a few days ago. D.A. Carson is working on some reflections for later this week. Be sure to look for those too.
I have hesitated to write about the Elephant Room for several reasons: (1) I know James MacDonald and have always had good interactions withhim in the past. Until recently, we were both TGC council members. (2) Many others have already commented on the event and more commentary continues to pour out. I don’t need to say something about everything. (3) I have not been eager to keep this controversy going. Like many others, I was hoping this would blow over, like yesterday.
But it hasn’t. Perhaps, then, yet another set of reflections is warranted. I’m not writing to pile on. I’m not writing because controversy is fun. I don’t think I’ve ever dared to be critical just for kicks. In every instance over the past years when I’ve weighed in on some book or blog post or poem or doctrine, it’s been because people around me are struggling with or are confused about these things. As someone who has entered into the fray from time to time I now worry that my silence on any particular controversy says to some people that I have no problem with whatever the latest problem is. The reality is I simply don’t have time to write on everything, nor do I even know about all the issues out there. And if I did, it would not be good for my soul or yours if I commented on every one of them. I skip over most things and only weigh in when it seems like people I know would be helped to hear from me or if my position suggests that I should.
I believe the Elephant Room fits into that second category. As you can imagine, this has been a difficult situation for TGC. As one of their bloggers and as a council member I think saying nothing at this point makes things worse instead of better. It can give the impression of tacit consent or fumbling acquiescence.
So here are my thoughts on ER2, in no particular order and with no particular effort to be original.
1. The event was not framed in the right way. There have been several iterations of the event’s stated purpose, but at various stages the Elephant Room was described as brothers getting together in a spirit of unity. It was originally billed as an opportunity for Christian leaders who agree on the gospel to get in the same room and talk about the things that threaten to divide us. I think it’s fair to say one of the aims all along has been to show how Christians are too quick to separate and too slow to listen to each other and learn from each other. The set up from the get go presumed a certain level of agreement and camaraderie that seemed unwise to many of us. If the conference had been pitched as religious leaders talking about hard questions, that would have been great. Bring in Mormons and Muslims and Liberals and everyone else. But that’s not the train that left the station several months ago.
2. Private discussion would have been better than public. I don’t have any problem with conservative Christians befriending those outside our circles. We ought to do it more often. Go share a meal. Pick up the phone. Try to learn. Try to influence. That’s fantastic. We should all hope that Jakes is won over to better and deeper theology. We should be thankful for all the private conversations that may proliferate as a result of this get together. I sympathize with those who want face-to-face conversation, unity in the church, and the allowance for people to change. But this doesn’t mean a hyped-up conference was the best way to kick things off. The discussion didn’t have to begin under the bright lights with promo videos and registration fees and all the rest. I think the intent was honorable, but prudence was lacking.
3. Why didn’t anybody talk to T.D. Jakes about his prosperity gospel? His views on the subject are well known. You can find them with little trouble by picking up his books or watching his sermons on You Tube. I know people can point to good things Jakes has done-almost everyone has done some good things. But the health-wealth-blessing theology is unbiblical and anti-gospel. It has deceived many. True, in starting a relationship with someone you probably won’t venture into the most controversial topics at the first meeting. But then the first meeting (or close to the first) shouldn’t have been hosted in this way. The failure to bring up this critical issue undermined the whole stated purpose of the event. And if the topic was too sensitive to bring up when you are still building the relationship, then that relationship wasn’t ready to be advertised and televised for the public to see. Again, working up to that in private would be wise. Avoiding the topic in a public forum like this was a big misfire.
4. The questions on the Trinity were not strong enough or careful enough. People can continue to debate whether Jakes is or is not a Modalist, but the fact that we don’t know what he now believes underscores the problem. He was not pressed to make his language and commitments precise. On the one hand, we should not assume the worst about people, even about their theology. On the other hand, surely those of us who rightly care about robust orthodoxy are interested in more than checking off the right boxes. I’m not at all convinced Jakes understands or affirms orthodox Trinitarianism. But even if he meant to do so at the Elephant Room, the issue was not pressed far enough. Saying yes to the right formulations is one thing, but on something as fundamental as the Trinity, we ought to be concerned that a pastor celebrates and promotes the doctrine with passion and joy. We want to know that these core doctrines animate, infuse, and inform our pastoral ministry. We want to see that brothers understand the negation of what they affirm and are willing to guard the flock against these errors. And if someone is espousing a new position or a fuller understanding of the truth, it’s fair to know how they intend to correct previous mistakes and how their ministry will change as a result. These aren’t egghead, nitpicking questions. They get to the heart of the Christian faith and the essence of pastoral ministry.
5. While the efforts of James and the others may have been to correct Jakes or draw him out, I fear that the result of his participation is to make his ministry seem safer than it is. For those who think we need more of the preaching and theology and influence of T.D. Jakes, you will simply disagree with this point. But for those who believe his influence has been detrimental to the church, we should not want to give the impression that Jakes is basically pretty solid. If he’s changed his approach and his theology on a whole bunch of things, or if he can be influenced for good, then let’s wait and see if the gold pans out. Surely caution is in order. Though the desire to build a relationship is good, we underestimate the effect that celebrating this event, and Jakes’ contribution in it, has in giving an implicit “all clear” to someone whose influence until now has been far from salutary.
6. There is a painful racial dimension to the Jakes controversy that is difficult to untangle. I’m not going to wade into all the discussion of motivation and what perspective more closely represents the African American church. But I will say this, and with deep regret: I was taken aback when one African American brother graciously pointed out to me, and a number of other whites, that he was sad to see so many of us quick to criticize Rob Bell (and rightly so he said) but silent on the devastating ministry of T.D. Jakes. It felt like a lack of concern for the many African American brothers who—out of love for the gospel and for the Lord Jesus—are laboring faithfully to lay a better theological foundation in the black church than men like T.D. Jakes have given. My friend was right. I wrote about Rob Bell because literally almost every person I knew was asking about it (which wouldn’t be true in an African American context). I didn’t think to talk about Jakes because I don’t know people in my circles who pay him any attention. Looking back, I regret that I did not do more to speak more directly about the Elephant Room and the serious mistake in inviting T.D Jakes to share the platform in this way. Granted, the situation was more complicated because James was hosting it and I consider him a friend and a brother on the same team. The situation seemed to call for private conversations more than public statements. There were many of the former, which was right and proper. But I see now more of the latter were also necessary.
7. We need a more careful theology of criticism. There are several observations all Christians should be able to agree on, even if they sometimes pull us in opposite directions. (1) Let’s not assume the worst about people. (2) Let’s not shame those who aren’t immediately credulous when someone with a history of bad thinking says something that could be construed as maybe okay. (3) Let’s be very cautious in assigning motive. (4) Let’s not take everything personally or make everything personal. (5) Let’s not get our kicks from criticizing others and mucking around in controversy. (6) Let’s avoid facile condemnations of all criticism, realizing that the statement itself is a criticism and the Bible is full of heroes who had a lot of bones to pick. (7) Let’s accept that in this fallen world only the Lord can fully sort some things out and we don’t have go twelve rounds in every conflict.
So praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three persons—for loving me despite so many mistakes, for loving the glory of his name above all things, and for loving the church even more than we do. Let’s pray he brings good out of these hard times.