Collateral Damage in the Invitation of T.D. Jakes to the Elephant Room
In 2007, the Lord granted me the privilege of publishing The Decline of African-American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (IVP). The book was a labor of sorrow and love–sorrow because of how sharp and deep theological decline has been since the first writing African Americans of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and love because I ache to see my kinsmen according to the flesh brought into the gracious realms of God’s salvation. For me, the book was an attempt to (a) accurately trace the history of African-American theology using available primary source material, and (b) fulfill a pastoral obligation to advance the gospel and refute error (Titus 1:9).
Because the book “breaks rank” and “the party line,” I expected to be alone against an avalanche of criticism and angry protest. But the Lord has a people who have not bowed the knee to the baals of theological heresy, a people who want to know the truth and who instinctively if not explicitly knew something had gone wrong in the African-American church. Jesus’ sheep hear and know His voice, and they follow Him. Instead of an avalanche of criticism, I’ve pretty much heard a chorus of “Finally” and “It’s about time!”
When theologically conservative, Evangelical or Reformed African Americans call for reform in the African-American church, they feel like midgets facing the titans and juggernauts of a word-faith, charismatic pantheon. The task can seem so daunting and isolating. Internally, there’s the constant fight with unbelief and resignation. There’s wrestling with questions like “Can the African-American church be reformed?” ”Is the church essentially apostate?” Sometimes these questions have more to do with us than they have to do with the church. But the questions illustrate how intense and serious a battle this is.
That’s why it’s difficult to see larger-than-life heretics given a platform in circles of pastors and leaders we respect and we regard as co-laborers in defense and confirmation of the truth. I’m breaking no stories here. The news of T.D. Jakes’ invitation to the Elephant Room is widespread and rightly lamented by many. I’m just adding a perspective that hasn’t yet been stated: This kind of invitation undermines that long, hard battle many of us have been waging in a community often neglected by many of our peers. And because we’ve often been attempting to introduce African-American Christians to the wider Evangelical and Reformed world as an alternative to the heresy and blasphemy so commonplace in some African-American churches and on popular television outlets, the invitation of Jakes to perform in “our circles” simply feels like a swift tug of the rug from beneath our feet and our efforts to bring health to a sick church.
MacDonald and Driscoll can moderate discussions with anyone they wish. But we kid ourselves if we think inviting someone so recalcitrant about fundamental biblical teaching as Jakes can result in anything positive. MacDonald, Driscoll and others will not be the first to privately and publicly exhort, admonish, instruct and challenge Jakes on this vital issue–to no avail thus far. And we kid ourselves if we think the Elephant Room invitation itself isn’t an endorsement of sorts. We can’t downplay the associations by calling for people to suspend judgment and responding ad hominem against “discernment bloggers.” We certainly can’t do that while simultaneously pointing to our association at The Gospel Coalition as a happy certification of orthodoxy and good practice, as Driscoll seems to do here with MacDonald.
This isn’t on the scale of Piper inviting Warren. This is more akin to Augustine inviting Muhammad. This invitation gives a platform to a heretic. It’s imprudent and counter-productive–witness already the Trinity-related confusions and obfuscations happening since announcing Jakes’ involvement.
Can the Lord squeeze lemonade out of this lemon? Absolutely. I pray He does. Is it likely? We’ll see.
What should MacDonald do now? I’m not even sure. There’s an argument to be made for confrontation. There’s also an argument to be made for separation. 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. It’s easy to play “Should of, Could of, Would of.” Monday morning quarterbacking always leaves fewer bruises than taking Sunday morning snaps. I don’t envy MacDonald one bit. I pray for his courage and the Lord’s grace whichever way it goes. I hope you do, too.
But this I do know, the entire situation raises association, separation, and accountability concerns for me that I did not have to the same degree before now. It raises significant questions about how members of The Gospel Coalition associate and endorse beyond the Coalition meetings themselves. For me, it tests the bounds of cooperation. I’m no Fundamentalist with well-established separation doctrines. But as one attempting to draw lines–cardinal biblical lines, mind you!–in a community flooded with heresy, this is no easy relationship to balance. Can I really endorse or remain quiet on an event that features a heretic I’m committed to opposing in writing? I don’t think so. That decision is easy for me. More difficult: Can I really endorse or support a brother who willingly associates with such a heretic and extends them a platform? Painful. Sobering.
I don’t even know if I’ll watch the Elephant Room this time around. But there are three things I re-double my efforts to watch: my life, my doctrine, and the sheep the Lord entrusts to me.
In The Decline, I included a section on T.D. Jakes’ view of God. For any interested, I’ve reprinted it below. Now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us both now and forever. Amen.
Reviving old heresies: Bishop T. D. Jakes and the Oneness controversy.
Perhaps the most significant conflict regarding the doctrine of God among African Americans at the close of the twentieth century coincides with the rise and prominence of Bishop Thomas Dexter (T. D.) Jakes (1958-) of the Dallas, Texas-based Potter’s House Ministries. Writers at The New York Times speculate that Bishop Jakes may be the “next Billy Graham,” while journalists at Time Magazine dub him “the best preacher in America” and one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America. His influence extends to millions worldwide through his television outreach, speaking tours and popular books. Regrettably, his doctrine of God is taken from doctrinal errors roundly rejected by many modern Pentecostal and Evangelical churches as well as the early Christian church.
Bishop Jakes subscribes to a Oneness Pentecostal doctrine of God. Oneness Pentecostalism is a branch of Pentecostalism with its modern roots extending to the Azusa Street revival of 1906 and revival meetings featuring Canadian preacher R. E. McAlister (1880-1953) and evangelist Frank Ewart (1876-1947) between 1913 and 1915. McAlister and Ewart departed from traditional and orthodox trinitarian views of the Godhead and taught the radical unity of God by denying that God existed in three Persons. They held that the one God appeared in three distinct “modes” or “manifestations”—as Father in creation, as the Son in redemption, and as Holy Spirit in regeneration and indwelling—but that there was only one real Person in the Godhead, namely Jesus. Also known as “Modalism,” Ewart’s teachings spread rapidly through Pentecostal denominations. At its 1916 General Assembly, the Assemblies of God, a major branch of Pentecostalism, rejected the Oneness doctrine of God and required adherence to trinitarian theology. Following that decision, nearly 160 Oneness ministers formed their own denominations and alliances. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World formed in 1918 as a multi-racial denomination, but split in 1924 along racial lines to become a predominantly African American organization.
Bishop T. D. Jakes stands as a contemporary, though reluctant, representative of Oneness theology. Jakes tends to eschew doctrinal disputes and offers an apathetic defense of his theology by saying, “Christians have always had diversity in their theology and will continue to do so.” Nonetheless, historically orthodox churches condemn or exclude heretical views as misrepresentations of biblical faith—including the Oneness doctrine of God for its denial of the Trinity.
The Potter’s House “Doctrinal Statement” reads:
THREE DIMENSIONS OF GOD (I John 5:7; Matthew 28:19; I Timothy 3:16)
We believe in one God who is eternal in His existence, Triune in His manifestation, being both Father, Son and Holy Ghost AND that He is Sovereign and Absolute in His authority.
The very title of the section, emphasizing dimensions of God, signals Jakes’s heretical doctrinal stance. The brief exposition that follows uses typical Modalist or Oneness language referring to God as “Triune in his manifestations” but not in his Person.
Outside of this doctrinal statement, Jakes rarely explicates the theology informing his ministry. In one place, he writes, “One of the greatest controversies in all the Bible concerns the Godhead.” He explains his sense of the controversy with rhetorical questions intended to undermine the credibility of trinitarian doctrine: “If there is one God, as Scripture teaches, how can there be a Son who says that He and His Father are one? If there is only one God, how can there be ‘three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one’?” Aside from the fact that the biblical writers did not record any intra-Christian “controversy” involving the trinitarian nature of God, Jakes’s own admission of the “mystery” involved in understanding the Trinity should steer him away from attacking orthodox theological positions. However, intrepid in his conclusions, Jakes’s error revives and popularizes the ancient, denounced heretical opinions of Sabellius in the third century A.D. And in doing so, he does more than merely depart from tradition; Bishop T. D. Jakes’s Oneness doctrine of God “indirectly undermines the Christian view of God’s character, God’s revelation, and God’s salvation by grace.” Millions of people are influenced by Jakes’s subtle representation of aberrant theology. And given the importance the Bible attaches to accurately knowing God, his revival of heresy is no small matter.
1. Gustav Niebuhr and Laurie Goodstein, “The Preachers: A Special Report—New Wave of Evangelists Vying for National Pulpit,” The New York Times, January 1, 1999; David Van Biema, “Spirit Raiser,” Time Magazine, 27 September 2001; “Time Magazine 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” Time Magazine, February 7, 2005.
2. ”Oneness Pentecostalism,” Interfaith Belief Bulletin (Alpharetta, GA: North American Mission Board, 1999).
3. Downloaded from the Potter’s House website May 17, 2005; available at www.thepottershouse.org.
5. T. D. Jakes, Anointing Fall on Me: Accessing the Power of the Holy Spirit (Lanham, MD: Pneuma Life Publishing, 1997), p. 7.
7. For good treatments of Sabellianism or Modalist theology in the early church, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine—Volume 1: The Catholic Tradition, 100-600 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 176-80; for a brief discussion of the effect of Sabellianism on more contemporary theologians, see, John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), pp. 77-79, 98, 100.
8. Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), p. 12; as cited in Jerry L. Buckner, “The Man, His Ministry, and His Movement: Concerns About the Teachings of T.D. Jakes,” Christian Research Journal, 22, no. 2 (1999).