Too much ink has already been spilled, and much more promises to be spilled, on the Elephant Room and it’s ramifications for the wider world of North American evangelicalism, particularly by those who represent and/or are affiliated with The Gospel Coalition. Nevertheless, I’ll add my perspective, as one who stands somewhat outside both of those worlds but is still interested, for reasons which will become clear in a second.
I was raised in an independent, non-denominational charismatic church in central Wisconsin which my parents helped plant with some friends of theirs in the late 70s. Growing up, I don’t recall being very aware of the non-charismatic evangelical scene, outside of perhaps Billy Graham. The “titans” in my world were guys like Oral Roberts, a couple fellas named Kenneth, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, and to a lesser extent folks like T. D. Jakes. You get the idea.
Whatever your opinion of those folks, I was confident in the theological heritage that I had been given. We believed deeply in the authority and truth of Scripture (and read it voraciously!), celebrated the Trinity, embraced the “now” power of the Holy Spirit to help and deliver, and loved Jesus with all our hearts. By late high school, I was certainly aware that there were holes and flaws in our theology, but I never doubted our basic orthodoxy. In fact, when I became old enough to realize it, I remember saying to my parents, “You guys were good charismatics because you were good Lutherans first.” There was a substructure of basic Christian teaching that undergirded our way of life.
My sense, however, of some of those flaws and holes was magnified when I went off to college at Oral Roberts University. As much as I self-identified as a charismatic, I started to become outrageously frustrated with much of the teaching I saw and heard – in particular, what I saw as the diminishment of the person and work of Christ and the overweening (and often misguided emphasis) on particular “sign gifts”, miraculous healings, and prosperity. I started to get pretty disillusioned.
It was my frustration with that whole scene that led to my enrolling at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, in the Fall of 2003 for the Master of Divinity program. It was not at all clear to me at that time what, if anything, of my charismatic heritage could be salvaged, and so I was really eager to get away to a more or less “non-charismatic”, straightforwardly evangelical environment where I could simply read and study the Bible, and figure out where I fell with all of that stuff. In fact, I knew I was in the right place when one day in the cafeteria, I used the name of a prominent Charismatic leader as the punch line of a joke. No one at the table knew who I was talking about. It was a strangely gratifying feeling.
Our first year at Trinity was wonderful. We settled into the church pastored by James MacDonald, Harvest Bible Chapel, and instantly fell in love. I had never heard someone preach verse-by-verse through the Bible before with such compelling clarity. Listening to Pastor James’ messages was SO refreshing. And my classes at Trinity – my goodness, how thoroughly I enjoyed them. The exegesis and canon classes, studying the Bible in the original languages, church history and theology… I loved it all. I first encountered “Reformed Theology” there, and though it seemed strange to my ears, I grew to really love and appreciate the faith of my Reformed brothers and sisters as I wrestled with my own sense of theological identity.
It was sometime towards the end of my first year of seminary when, as I was wrestling with the charismatic question, it suddenly occurred to me that the Biblical argument AGAINST the charismatic experience (and for the cessation of the gifts) was an outrageous example of drummed-up, reactionary, defensive eisegesis. In a single moment, like slipping on an old comfortable coat, I felt myself reclaiming the basic intuition of my charismatic heritage; that is, that the Holy Spirit is “now”, and with that, anything is bound to happen. I was still frustrated with many of the abuses, excesses, and flaws of the charismatic movement, but at the very least I felt I could say “That’s my family.”
Which put me in a really weird position, since I was also coming to feel that my “non-charismatic” evangelical brothers and sisters were my family too. So I often found myself feeling like a fish out of water. To my charismatic kinfolk I constantly had to say, “No, you don’t see it… these people are simply FULL of the Holy Spirit and love Jesus just like you do!”, and to my non-charismatic family, “Stop treating the charismatics like sub-Christians… they worship the same Jesus you do!” I felt that both had a lot to teach each other, and to learn from each other, and that unless they stopped acting out of the presupposition that each fell outside of the bounds of historical Christian orthodoxy, those lessons, that sharpening, would never occur.
I say all of that to say, I have a soft spot in my heart for the tradition in which I was raised, for TEDS, and for Harvest Bible Chapel. So when James MacDonald announced last September that he was inviting T. D. Jakes to this year’s Elephant Room, you can understand why my heart simply lept with joy. What a neat opportunity to build bridges between worlds that have typically not interacted… to learn… to clarify… to demystify… and hopefully to sharpen and strengthen each other… for the glory of God and the good of the world.
And I was grieved, though I suppose not surprised, to learn of the hullabaloo that decision created within The Gospel Coalition (which has strong ties to TEDS). Apparently the move caused enough of a stir that MacDonald felt it wise to resign from the council of TGC immediately prior to the Elephant Room. And now that the Elephant Room is over, reaction from TGC is well underway, with recent posts by Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor expressing disappointment and sadness over the decision to include Bishop Jakes in the Elephant Room conversation. Says DeYoung (a little melodramatically in my opinion), “Let’s pray [God] brings good out of these hard times.”
Seriously? Hard times? I can hardly think of a worse description of what has transpired. These may be “hard times” in TGC-ville, and probably the next few weeks are not going to be altogether fun at Harvest Bible Chapel, but seriously… brothers previously divided come together, T.D. affirms the basic, essential contours of Christian orthodoxy, and this is supposed to be a SAD DAY? I think that this is a good day.
What is sad, to me, is that the TGC folks and many of their ilk seem a priori convinced NOT JUST that T.D.’s theology could use some clarification, but that he is a heretic and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Says one writer, as quoted by Justin Taylor:
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.
Wow. Talk about assuming the absolute worse.
I think that this attitude is profoundly destructive to the Body of Christ. Paul tells us to “Make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). That is, ASSUME THE UNITY and then FIGHT FOR IT. The attitude currently being expressed by TGC, to my ears, is exactly the opposite.
And in truth, it is the attitude of the fundamentalist. The fundamentalist wants to divide, and then further divides with those who don’t divide. I distinctly remember the day in Church History class in which we talked about Billy Graham losing his “credentials” with the fundamentalists in the mid 20-th century because he worked with Catholics (God forbid) and mainliners in the attempt to put on his crusades in places like Boston and New York City, going so far as to have some of their leaders sit on the stage with him while he preached. Is this not what we’re seeing at TGC? Someone show me where I’m wrong.
My fear – and sadness – is that TGC represents the new fundamentalism. David Fitch, in this post back in 2009, astutely asked the question of TGC whether it would be a “coalition” (describing the “coalescing of a group of people or nations to agree on some understandings in order to defend some boundary or prepare for war”) or an “expedition” (“the organizing of a group to adequately prepare for an exploration/adventure into unknown territory”). He writes:
Will TGC be a coalition for the hardening of some doctrinal lines in order to defend boundaries and/or launch an attack of some kind (say against others who don’t agree with its take on Reformed theology)? Or will TGC be a force for the preparation of missionaries (in doctrine and practice) to engage the unknown territories of the new cultures of post Christendom? Will TGC be a coalition or an expedition?
I think that is right on the money. Say what you will about the Elephant Room, I’m proud of Pastor James and glad for the trajectory the conference represents. TGC’s response is sad to me.
It’s as sad and silly as it is tragically unnecessary. The reactive, defensive posture of TGC suggests to me they feel as though they are LOSING something. But what do they feel they are losing? Their grip on Christianity? Dear Lord (and thank goodness) they never had it! Still less do they have it now! The shift of global Christianity away from the Western hemisphere and to the South and East has been well-documented, along with the predominance of Pentecostalism among those places where Christianity is growing most rapidly. Old (mostly white) Reformed guys (along with Young, Restless Reformed guys) HAVE NEVER BEEN THE GATEKEEPERS OF CHRISTIANITY. Why don’t they seem to see this? Why, instead of seeing themselves as SIMPLY ONE MORE VOICE AT THE TABLE OF THE “ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC, AND APOSTOLIC CHURCH” which is looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, do they behave as though they held the gavel on who belongs at that table?
Whence comes the myopic perspective? Do they not realize that in the kingdom, MOST of the people there will be non-white, non-Reformed types? Do they not realize that the kingdom will PACKED FULL of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants of every stripe? Why do they not simply feel PRIVILEGED THAT THEY HAVE ANY VOICE AT ALL AT THE TABLE?
That’s what baffles me. The limited, myopic perspective.
I remember last year when the Rob Bell brew ha ha was in full force. This was right after John Piper had famously bid Rob “Farewell” on Twitter without specifying from what Rob had been bid farewell from. A lady from our old church in Tulsa emailed me to ask me my “opinion” on the situation. My response went like this:
…I can guarantee you this: right now, there are probably not any Christians in China wringing their hands over this matter. Nor is the Vatican commissioning a task force to investigate this incredibly serious squabble between a bunch of North American evangelicals. When the Church History books are rewritten 150 years from now, there is a good chance that neither John Piper nor Rob Bell is going to get much more than a line, if that. So my advice to you would be to read the book, make your judgment, and get back to your post, serving Jesus. There are far more important matters at hand than evangelicals excommunicating each other…
I’m not saying that these matters aren’t important. They are. At Bloom every week, we declare the Nicene Creed before we preach, because we think that it matters, and because we want our preaching to submit itself to the faith of the Church. I want a clearer Trinitarianism from Jakes. I also want him to give us a more robust theology of suffering, and to back off of the prosperity teaching because it simply does not work. But I also want my Reformed brothers to see, for instance, that those of us who hold different views of sovereignty are equally as faithful to the Bible as them.
And at the very least, we worship the same Jesus – died, risen, and coming again. So I choose to embrace a posture that acknowledges that both I and they, and Jakes, and everyone else, simply represents one more voice at the table. I think we’re better together. We have a common enemy – Sin and Death. Why on earth are we shooting at each other?
In conclusion, I’ll just say that if these are “hard times” for anyone, they are hard times for TGC. They are not hard times for the global church. They are hard times for a group of folks who seem to believe they own Christianity and are feeling their grip slipping and are now having to face tough questions about their future and self-identity as a group.
It would be better for them if they simply acknowledged that what they feel is slipping, they never really “owned” at all. The Church is so much bigger than them.