Grace and Truth Beyond the Elephant Room
Let me say at the outset that I’m honored and humbled to blog about this event. I realize I’m just a 30-year-old guy who loves Jesus, wants to resource His Bride, and carry His mission forward. And the fact that some of the men involved in the Elephant Room have been serving Christ longer than I’ve been alive gives me tremendous pause. If there’s one thing I learned during my missionary years in Romania, it’s that whenever I was quickest to criticize, it was usually because I lacked a true sense of perspective. I don’t want to make that mistake here.
Instead, I want to lay out a few guidelines for how we go about processing The Elephant Room.
First, we should aim for grace and truth in the way we act toward one another and speak of one another. We need clarity and charity, but too often we choose one at the expense of the other. Either our emphasis on clarity causes us to act uncharitably toward one another or our emphasis on charity leads us to paper over distinctions and leave things muddled rather than clarified. The goal of this post is to push for greater clarity and precision, but with heartfelt charity and good intentions.
Secondly, we should assume the best about people’s motives. That means that we ought to assume the best of motives on the part of James MacDonald in his hosting of this event. Likewise, we ought to assume the best of motives on the part of those who decried the event and the invited guests. Love demands we assume the best of intentions, even if ultimately we disagree with one another.
Third, we ought to consider the effect of this event on the mission of the church. Too often, the conversation about associations and invitations stays in the ivory tower of ideas. Instead, we need to push for more missiological reflection. How does this event equip God’s people to live on mission? How does this event hinder or help the mission?
The missiological dimension allows for the fact that sometimes our best intentions lead to effects we did not anticipate. There have been several times in ministry when when I’ve tried something in order to fix a problem, only to discover down the road that I had created a set of different problems altogether. So, while we might agree with James MacDonald on some of the problems between pastors he has witnessed, it is still beneficial to consider an event’s positive and negative implications.
With those preliminary things out of the way, let’s get on with the conversation about The Elephant Room 2.
1. It is good to celebrate minimal agreement on fundamental doctrines, but even better to pursue a robust affirmation of biblical teaching.
I understand there are multiple issues related to the resignation of James MacDonald from The Gospel Coalition. But at the foundational level, it’s safe to assume that the philosophy of The Elephant Room proposes a different way forward for evangelicalism than The Gospel Coalition does. And the primary differences zero in on the question of minimalism. In other words, what is the minimal number of doctrines and beliefs that must be agreed upon in order for there to be close friendship and fellowship between pastors?
What we have here is two different visions: one contemporary and one confessional.
Contemporary evangelicalism is a big tent that keeps getting bigger. A short list of doctrines must be in place in order for people to cooperate, fellowship, or share a platform together, but there is no consensus regarding how those doctrines should affect one’s ministry philosophy. That’s why contemporary evangelicalism has sometimes been described as encompassing “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”
Confessional evangelicalism seeks to renew the center of the movement by uniting likeminded believers around the gospel and promoting the centrality of the gospel in one’s teaching and preaching. A common theological vision for ministry leads these pastors to take associations very seriously, and even if there are no hard, fast rules in place, they generally refrain from sharing a platform together in a way that leads to a perceived endorsement.
The Elephant Room aligns more with the ethos of contemporary evangelicalism (public platform-sharing with anyone who confesses Christ). The Gospel Coalition aligns more with the ethos of confessional evangelicalism (public platform-sharing with those who share a common theological vision of ministry).
2. It is good to celebrate an affirmation of orthodoxy, but even better to affirm the celebration of orthodoxy.
By far, the session that was most anticipated was the one in which T. D. Jakes was asked to clarify his position on the Trinity. Thankfully, he did so – though perhaps not in a way that would satisfy all of his critics. I believe we should celebrate his affirmation of the truth that there is one God in three Persons.
At the same time we celebrate Jakes’ affirmation of truth, we should also look at what it is that he celebrates in his preaching and teaching. Surely one must ask why we have to discover Jakes’ view of the Trinity in a friendly panel discussion in Chicago instead of in the sermons he delivers to his church in Texas. In other words, the issue is not if Jakes believes in the Trinity, but to what extent Jakes’ belief in the Trinity matters to his ministry? Does the weight of this truth come out in his preaching and teaching?
Here is a question that needs to be asked: Within the realm of orthodoxy, how much does emphasis matter? It is possible to check off the doctrines on a list, and yet not give these truths the weight they deserve, to not let these truths affect what and how we preach. To me at least, the issue at stake here is not the content of one’s theology but the importance of that theology. It’s not merely about what we affirm, but what we celebrate and proclaim.
So yes, we can get a group of pastors in a room and ask them if they affirm the basics of the gospel. Amen and amen! Let’s celebrate those affirmations. But surely we must go beyond mere affirmation of a checklist to a more robust celebration of the gospel and how it affects what we do.
I’ve been listening to Steven Furtick’s preaching recently, and though Furtick assents to the gospel, his preaching ministry lends itself more toward motivational speech than strong celebration of the gospel. Jakes affirms the core message of the gospel too (praise God!), but in watching him preach on television in recent weeks, I’ve seen self-motivation and perseverance celebrated more than the cross. I cannot help but think that if one cannot discern your view of the Godhead from your preaching, perhaps you are not preaching enough about God. (And the disappointing part of the discussions at The Elephant Room 2 was that prosperity teaching went completely under the radar. It discourages me to think of David Platt at Elephant Room 1 getting drilled for urging radical sacrifice while Jakes’ teaching of health and wealth was never even brought up.)
We need to introduce a category related to theological importance that takes us beyond the mere affirmation of a theological point. Jakes believes in the Trinity. Praise God! But now we should ask: Is the Trinity important? How important? How do these truths we affirm affect our view of ministry? Our preaching? Our work in the world? That’s the conversation that still needs to take place.
3. It is good to come together in love, but even better when that love leads us sharpen one another in truth.
The conversation at Elephant Room 2 was much more tame than at the first conference, perhaps because the fireworks took place in the weeks leading up to the event. This one seemed more like a panel discussion with experienced pastors. The tone was quite different. It was refreshing actually to see how warmly all the pastors interacted with one another.
In the first Elephant Room, unity in essentials was assumed and diversity of methods was platformed. In the second Elephant Room, diversity in methods was assumed and unity in essentials was platformed. Because of this difference in tone, there was no substantial debate. What we witnessed was the coming together of several pastors united by their heart for each other and for people.
Several sessions were particularly encouraging – the affirmation of denominations as having value, the admonition to be urgent in our gospel proclamation, the way we ought to restore a minister who has fallen into sin. I thought Wayne Cordeiro’s session on pastoral burn-out was very encouraging. I benefited especially from Cordeiro’s insight that Satan will steal your joy if he can’t destroy you some other way. On these topics, the accumulated wisdom from these pastors was edifying to all who listened in. I highly recommend that pastors read through the notes and glean wisdom from these brothers.
Still, I wish we had seen more sharpening – not in a propped up sense of debating for debate’s sake, but in challenging one another in a way that goes deeper than merely affirming one another’s motives. It is easy to see anyone with a critical view of the Elephant Room as being hopelessly fundamentalist, narrow-minded and uncaring. Certainly some of the critics may fit that description. But there are others who were concerned about this event out of love. Love for people. Love for the organizers. Love for churches that have been damaged by aberrant theology and practice.
It would have been better to see the major distinctions between these participants brought to the table and discussed. Instead, it seemed as if all arguments and debates fade away in light of one’s fruitfulness in terms of numerical growth of the church. The silent assumption seemed to be: We may be different, but as long as God is blessing you (numerically), we can’t really debate.
4. It is good to recognize that we all have errors that need correcting, but even better to pursue the correction of those errors.
The humility of the participants in the Elephant Room was refreshing. Everyone seemed self-aware and open to correction, even if very little correction took place during the event.
I also appreciated the warning given to conservative evangelicals (particularly the Reformed) who appear to celebrate critique. It’s true that in our circles critics are lifted up as courageous, often undeservedly. (And, trust me, the irony that I am offering a critique of the Elephant Room is not lost on me!)
Furthermore, Driscoll was right to admonish his Reformed friends to have a passion for reaching people that exceeds a passion for reviewing books. Still, I don’t want to drive a wedge between reviewing books and reaching people. Instead, I want to say that whenever anyone reviews a book, it ought to be motivated by reaching people. It’s in service to the mission that we debate theological matters. It’s because we recognize that theology is important and that the missional stakes are high that we engage in sharpening one another in gracious critique.
We need to create an atmosphere where we can challenge one another to not only check off boxes on a doctrinal questionnaire, but also to keep the cross and resurrection central to our proclamation. That was my motivation for writing Counterfeit Gospels - to reorient our lives and ministries around the beauty of the biblical gospel that empowers us for mission. We must avoid not only false gospels, but any proclamation that drifts away from the centrality of the cross. Why? Because drifting away from the cross and resurrection of Christ will leave us impoverished instead of enriched, weakened instead of strengthened. And our passion for mission suffers. The discussion in the Elephant Room seemed to assume that as long as someone’s ministry was numerically fruitful, the question of subtle (or not-so-subtle) drifting away from the cross couldn’t possibly be accurate.
One additional thing needs to be said regarding our humility in addressing theological topics. We mustn’t think that standing firm for certain doctrines and truths is dogmatic and arrogant. Our society chafes against an absolutist approach to virtually anything (except the absolute belief that there are no absolutes). To equate firmness with pride is a deadly error.
In contrast, as Christians, we believe that standing firm can be an act of humility. It is not a stubborn, arrogant dogmatism that leads us to insist on the traditional view of the Trinity. It’s a humble reverence for the Scriptures, interpreted by the church fathers and embraced by Christians for 2000 years. I understand, of course, that God is beyond our full comprehension. (I wrote just this week about the mystery of the Trinity and how we study this doctrine out of love.) But surely we ought to desire to grow mentally into more definite convictions on these matters. As Chesterton said, “The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close on something solid.” It is not arrogant to close one’s mind on something as solid as Trinitarian truth.
In the end, I admire James MacDonald’s intention to bring about more civil discourse between believers. We need charity and clarity. But civility is not a love-fest. We will disagree – strongly at times. Why? Because theology matters. The stakes are high. Bad theology hurts people.
Bad conflict in the Christian church is caused by ego and pride. Good conflict ought to flow from love and compassion. We need less “bad conflict” and more “good, sharpening conflict.”
Weak unity in the Christian church is caused by minimizing the importance of theology. Strong unity flows from affirmation and celebration of the essential truths of Christianity and how they impact our lives and ministries. We need less “weak unity” and more “strong unity.”
So when we engage in conflict, let’s make sure it is out of love for the truth, love for Jesus, love for one another, and love for the people we shepherd. Sometimes we may even stand against a brother on a certain issue, but even when we take an adversarial stance, it ought always to be for the good of that brother and the glory of King Jesus. Let’s take the goal of The Elephant Room seriously and be people who are full of grace and truth.