The Elephant Room and The Gospel Coalition :: A Perspective from an Interested semi-Outsider

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.

Peace…

Andrew

27 thoughts on “The Elephant Room and The Gospel Coalition :: A Perspective from an Interested semi-Outsider

  1. This post reminded me of something you said to me right before coming back to Fort Wayne: You’re not as big a deal as you think you are.

    I think most pastors and evangelical leaders would do well to understand that.

      • You’re not as big a deal as you think you are, Andrew. You’re BIGGER. You’re the elephant in the blogosphere. You’re a 5 prosperity pointer, a slain in the Holy Sp…er…Bible, a charismatic reformational liturgical post-iconoclastic, futuristic traditionalist. And I love you for it.

        What’s more, I agree with your post, but will take it further. What is being revealed in the fall out (that you briefly detail above) is more interesting to me than what actually happened. It’s in the flood that our foundation is revealed, yes? Crisis reveals character. I’m disheartened by the character that is often revealed among us when our ecclesial relationships hit the fan. Do we defend, posture, pull out our resume? Do we listen in humility, seek truth together, mutually submit, clothe ourselves in humility toward each other and by some awesome miracle of audacious grace find a way to repent and bring unity? Do we justify, explain, argue, divide?

        I want to be a part of an expedition (HT Fitchster) that is concerned as much with character as it is confession. A character that oozes the fruit of the Spirit. Lord knows I need to be around and encouraged by people with the character and competencies to make this gospel believable, livable, and preachable to people who aren’t insiders fighting among themselves.

        I never get to rant on my blog. This was therapeutic for me. Blessings brother.

  2. This was a really good post. I’m so saddened by the staunch lines of division that are being perpetrated by Christians right now.

    I really liked how you reminded us to get back to our post, after we have read these books or heard these positions. This is so important!

    I’m glad Paul shared this on Facebook.

  3. Thanks AA. I so appreciate your perspective on stuff, and a willingness to be comfortable with the tension I think the Bible and Christianity demands we live with. I am going to share this on my page too. Thanks for your thoughts and time on this, and know there are brothers like me, somewhere in the melee with you.

  4. well said drew….its amazing how similar our paths have been. Well, probably because we grew up at the same church, and then both found ourselves at Harvest. But yeah, this really resonated with me, and how my heart as been wrestling with some of these topics for a while.

      • That would be so great if you guys could make it! would love to see you get your groove on on the dance floor!

  5. Once again you have graced us with delightful perspective. Although, I don’t know if I can find the redeeming qualities of what happened in the room containing an elephant (when I hear elephant room I think of a themed birthday party room at a laser tag place or skating rink, or something like that).

    I know this is going a little of subject from your blogs intent, so if you ignore it that is fine, but I wanted to hear back from you on some of these points.

    I love Bishop Jakes and consider him an amazing CHRISTIAN leader. BUT….
    I do think we should probably be slower to say that Jakes affirmed the basic contours of Christian orthodoxy, unless we are willing to say that about Tommy Tenney, Phil and Steve Muncey, and the rest of the worlds millions of oneness Pentecostals.

    I know it sounds like he embraced trinitarian ideas, but he did nothing close to that. Everything he said is consistent with the oneness position. For instance, someone quoted this line at me from Jakes during the event, “He is the one God who manifests Himself in a plurality of ways.” This is almost straight out of the UPC articles of faith.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that people keep saying that oneness theology is modalism. This is fundamentally untrue. It is close to a form of modal monarchianism but is more like dynamic monarchianism. So when they hear him saying something other than modalism they think he is embracing the trinity. Simply not true. The oneness heresy (that’s a soft heresy) has more to do with Christology than anything else.

    • Colten: Thanks for the helpful comment and insights. Are there some particularly good primary sources that show Onenness proponents advocating adoptionism over modalism?

  6. Ha. Colten – you’re a stud. Love you bro.

    You would know more about this than me, given your background, but when this exchange takes place…

    Driscoll: “So you believe there’s one God, three Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?”

    Jakes: “Absolutely.”

    Driscoll: “You believe He died on the cross in our place for our sins?”

    Jakes: “Absolutely.”

    Driscoll: “You believe He bodily rose from death?”

    Jakes: “Absolutely.”

    Driscoll: “You believe that He is the judge of the living and the dead?”

    Jakes: “Yes.”

    Driscoll: “And you believe that apart from Jesus there is no salvation?”

    Jakes: “Absolutely.”

    …I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to do. That first statement passes both Nicene and Calcedonian orthodoxy test in one fell swoop, unless there’s something we’re missing here.

    Maybe then you’re saying that Jakes simply SAID this while hanging on to his heresy secretly? You’re welcome to say that, as everyone else is. I’m just not sure I could say it without assuming something about Jakes’ real motives… something I don’t have access to.

    Seriously… talk to me. Reaction?

  7. This is the problem with the church, and its why non believers want nothing to do with it. There is too much bickering about who is denomanation is right, when we should be showing the love of Christ. This “Religious Spirit” is cripiling the body of Christ. The Lord is coming back for a spottless and blameless bride, a fully functioning body. I can’t wait to se the day when we all come together as one body under Christ, and what will be accomplished in that time. Great post!

  8. Well, I don’t know much about his motives, although I would never suggest that he was lying. My dad has spoken with him since this, as well as have many other oneness ministers and he has made it clear that he is NOT a trinitarian. He wasn’t lying, I do think he was being a little political, which I understand.

    My dad, for instance, would also agree with that entire statement, except maybe the part about admitting God is three “persons”. But notice that before Jakes agrees to the term “persons,” as you showed above, that he makes it clear that he does not like that term; he says “manifestations.” This is where he draws the clear line.

    Talking to my dad about his opinion he said that if he had made clear that when they say “persons” he is interpreting it as “manifestations” that he would have also agreed to the question, “So you believe there’s one God, three Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?”

    Not throwing stones at Bishop Jakes at all. I think all of the oneness guys are Christian. Again, I think a lot of confusion comes from a lack of understanding. For instance, Jakes admits that oneness theology is modalism. It isn’t!

    Also, I discovered before I became a trinitarian, that when I talked about the issue with most “trinitarians” we would come out thinking, “Oh, well what we believe isn’t very different at all.” I know now that that was due to a poverty of understanding about the trinity on both of our behalves. I question if Driscoll actually knows what he means by “trinity” other than affirming statements in the creed. I doubt that he could talk about actual trinitarian doctrine and not just recite the creeds. Pair that with Jakes who doesn’t seem to accurately understand either the oneness or trinitarian perspectives and this is what you get.

  9. Basically, I don’t think he’s lying, I just don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. Which only becomes worse when the moderator also has no idea what he is talking about. So it seems like they came to a middle ground, or that they concurred on the idea but just not the semantics, when the truth is that they don’t actually agree on the ideas either.

  10. Andrew, thanks for your great perspective. Blending Bri’s Catholic background and my non-denom protestant background has been a beautiful and enriching thing for each of us. There’s a great book out there called “Streams of Living Water” by Richard Foster that beautifully goes through the many streams (spiritual disciplines, which can almost be a proxy for different churches) of God’s church and really shows the beauty and diversity of the faith, while holding on to those historical orthodox roots. There is such a tendency and temptation for man to establish himself as a gatekeeper and define the “other” as outside the bounds. We’ve got to cling to the foundations of the faith, but there is freedom in the many beautiful movements of the church. Love it man.

    • Dude I love SoLW by Foster. Totally resonated with it.

      Oh and dude I got your message last night! Sorry I forgot to call you back… Thursday next week is no good but maybe Tuesday? Call/text me. Peace.

  11. Great post bro. Don’t know how you feel about this, but in my opinion this ‘mess’ is just another by product of Sola Scriptura.

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