ON THE HOT SEAT: Last month, Bishop T.D. Jakes discussed his views on the Trinity with Elephant Room leaders James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll. (Photo: The Elephant Room)
There has been considerable discussion regarding the Elephant Room 2 in light of T.D. Jakes’ invitation and appearance. For those unfamiliar with the controversy, check out UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller’s roundup of reactions to the event. In short, the Elephant Room is a gathering of evangelical megachurch pastors who discuss the theological and ecclesiological “elephants in the room.” The second convening of the event took place on January 25, and the headlining “elephant” was Bishop T.D. Jakes and his beliefs regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.
Much has been written about the strange interrogation Jakes endured and the wisdom of inviting such a polarizing figure in the first place. Here are a few more thoughts:
1. While there is admittedly something intriguing about the concept of the Elephant Room, where prominent church leaders with significantly different approaches to ministry come together and speak frankly with each other, I wonder how much all of this plays into the problems of celebrity evangelicalism. It is good to get successful leaders together in settings like this, but do these events also run the risk of suggesting that certain forms of success in ministry also equate with the highest levels of biblical and theological expertise? I don’t know the various educational backgrounds of all the participants, so I can’t make any claims about their theological backgrounds, but it is worth asking how we grant authority to the opinions of successful church leaders, particularly given the populism of evangelicalism.
2. I don’t know the circumstances of Jakes’ invitation, but some of the controversy relates to whether his presence at the Elephant Room 2 was a tacit endorsement of his ministry and whether he truly preaches the gospel. I wonder what would have been the kind of circumstance where his invitation would have been okay with everyone and where there could have been not only a conversation about the Trinity but also the other elephant that lingers — Jakes modified, marketable, and therapeutic version of the prosperity gospel. The conversation needs to happen, but how does that occur? What event could have been created to have this conversation without the cloud of controversy?
3. Race and evangelicalism remains massively complex. Some applaud Bryan Lorrits’ comments on his blog and on a video regarding the centrality of white leaders in this movement that tacitly claims to speak for all evangelicals and (for some) the apparent desire of the approval of such leaders in the critique of Jakes. While there may be truth to Lorrits’ comments, here is why this is difficult. Any African American who comes into evangelicalism and attends seminary will be primarily taught by white professors, and if they embrace what they are teaching and then have some critique of the black church (not that there is one tradition, because there are many), of course it will seem like their critique is one that gets “approved” by white leaders. It is certainly possible that some desire this approval, but it is also true that some bring their critique on the basis of convictions that they fully embrace apart from any affinity for white approval (this is not only about Reformed theology — it can happen with Arminian theology or other traditions as well).
What makes this so complicated is the fact that the ripple effects remain from centuries of racism, and the issues of power, respect, and control all hover around situations like this one, making it difficult to see where this is simply about disagreements about correct doctrine/practice or about participation in contexts that remain largely white (whether it is the Gospel Coalition or any other evangelical institution/group).
Perhaps there is opportunity in this to look more closely at these complexities and then make some real progress on issues of race — we may have taken some steps forward but we have miles to go.
I hope constructive conversation lies ahead.
Bishop T.D. Jakes
Bishop T.D. Jakes has embraced an orthodox view of the Trinity and no longer holds a “Oneness” view of the Godhead (as noted in our interview with theologian Estrelda Alexander), that says the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three aspects of one God rather than three distinct persons, Baptist Press reported.
A Room Full of Elephants
Jakes was interviewed by Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll and pastor James MacDonald at MacDonald’s suburban-Chicago church during the second annual Elephant Room conference, where evangelical Christian leaders gathered to discuss potentially divisive topics.
Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, told Christianity Today he takes the bishop at his word about his newfound orthodoxy, but apparently wasn’t all that impressed, saying, “A Christian pastor affirming least-common-denominator Christian doctrine should hardly be news, much less an elephant in the room. This can only happen in an American evangelicalism that values success, novelty and celebrity more than church accountability.”
What Jakes believes matters a whole lot to The Gospel Coalition, a theologically conservative group whose leaders “allegedly began pressuring MacDonald to ‘pull the plug’ on Bishop Jakes’ appearance at the Elephant Room conference, which eventually led MacDonald to resign as a TGC council member,” according to The Christian Post.
Texas pastor Voddie Bauchman said in a blog post that he was invited to participate in the conference after another pastor pulled out over Jakes’ inclusion. Bauchman ultimately declined, in part because he views the Word of Faith gospel that Jakes preaches as “heterodox” and “harmful” and he says Jakes’ influence in the Dallas area has been “negative, at best.” Bauchman, who is African American, also was concerned that his invitation would be viewed as tokenism.
Loving Issues More Than People
At the event, MacDonald said hosting Jakes had cost him relationships, The Christian Post reported. Jakes said affirming belief in the Trinity had cost him relationships with Oneness Pentecostals, who now apparently view him as a heretic.
Calling theologically Reformed critics of the discussion to repent of their love of issues over people, Memphis Pastor Bryan Crawford Loritts highlighted a race angle in the controversy, writing on his blog that “the implicit message that is being sent is that the varsity section of the kingdom of heaven in 2012 is white, middle aged and Reformed.” He finds this “disheartening.”
Humbly Stepping Into the Firestorm
Loritts also noted Bishop Jakes’ humilty in response to Driscoll, who is himself under scrutiny for alleged spiritual abuse. “This is the man that’s been on the cover of Time Magazine, and yet he steps into the firestorm and is willing to be questioned and opened up for ridicule,” Loritts said of Jakes.
Texas pastor Brandon Smith also noted Jakes’ humility in an open letter to the bishop that was published at the SBC Voices blog. Smith went to college at Dallas Baptist University, near Jakes’ The Potter’s House, and expressed regret for having previously judged the bishop harshly.
At his Lifeway Research blog, Ed Stetzer noted that Jakes said much the same thing about his evolving Trinitarian views on a 2010 Australian radio program. Apparently few American evangelicals heard him.
Speaking ‘Undignified’ Truth
Credo House Ministries founder C. Michael Patton was cautiously optimistic about Jakes’ newfound orthodoxy in a post at his Parchment & Pen blog, saying he appreciated the Bishops’ reminder that “none of our books on the Godhead will be on sale in heaven.” He noted, however, that among his peers it would be “undignified” for him to quote T.D. Jakes.
What do you think?
Are you glad to hear Bishop Jakes affirming orthodox beliefs about the Godhead?
Dr. Estrelda Y. Alexander grew up in the Pentecostal movement, but didn’t know much about the black roots of that movement until she was a seminary student. In her groundbreaking new book, Black Fire: 100 Years of African American Pentecostalism, the Regent University visiting professor traces those roots back to the Azusa Street Revival and beyond. Alexander was so influenced by what she learned that she’s spearheading the launch of William Seymour College in Washington, D.C., to continue the progressive Pentecostal legacy of one of the movement’s most important founders. Our interview with Alexander has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: I was introduced to Rev. William Seymour through your book. What was his significance in Pentecostal history and why was it ignored for so long?
ESTRELDA Y. ALEXANDER: I grew up Pentecostal but don’t remember hearing about Seymour until I went to seminary. In my church history class, as they began to talk about the history of Pentecostalism, they mentioned this person who led this major revival, and I’m sitting in class going, “I’ve never heard of him.” I would say part of it was the broad definition of Pentecostalism, which is this emphasis on speaking in tongues, and that wasn’t Seymour’s emphasis. So, even though he’s at the forefront of this revival, he’s out of step with a lot of the people who are around him. Then again, he’s black in a culture that was racist. For him to be the leader would have been problematic, and so he gets overshadowed. I think his demeanor was rather humble, so he gets overshadowed by a lot of more forceful personalities. He doesn’t try to make a name for himself and so no name is made for him. He gets shuffled off to the back of the story for 70 years, then there’s this push to reclaim him with the Civil Rights Movement. As African American scholars start to write, he’s part of the uncovering of the story of early black history in the country.
What was his role specifically in the Azusa Street Revival?
He was the pastor of the church where the revival was held, so these were his people and he stood at the forefront of that congregation. The revival unfolds under his leadership.
The revival initially began with breaking barriers of race, class, and gender, but quickly reverted to societal norms. Why?
They began as this multi-racial congregation, though I think it still was largely black. Certainly there were people there of every race and from all over the world, and women had prominent roles. That was unheard of in the early twentieth century. They were derided not only for their racial mixing, but also for the fact that women did play prominent roles. But within 10 years, much of that had been erased. As the denominations started to form, which they did within 10 years of the revival, they started to form along racial lines. Sociologist Max Weber talks about the routinizing of charisma, that all new religious movements start with this freedom and openness to new ways of being, but as movements crystallize, they begin to form the customary patterns of other religious movements. You see that happen over and over again. That’s not just Azusa Street; that’s a process that is pretty well documented.
Is there still more racial integration in Pentecostal churches than in the wider of body of churches?
There has been an attempt to recapture the racial openness with certain movements. There’s what we call the Memphis Miracle, an episode where the divided denominations came together and consciously made an effort to tear down some of those barriers. It’s been more or less successful. There’s still quite a bit of division. It’s not on paper. On paper, there’s this idea that we’ve all come together, but the practicality of it doesn’t always get worked out.
Some of the division was about doctrine, in particular in regard to the nature of the Trinity. Was that interconnected with the racial issues, or are those two separate things?
They’re not interconnected. There are certainly some racial overtones in the discussion, but that doctrine gets permeated throughout black and white Pentecostal bodies. One of the interesting things, though, is that one of the longest-running experiments in racial unity was within the Oneness movement, which reformulated the doctrine of the Godhead. The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has tried very hard to remain inter-racial, and adopted specific steps making sure that when there was elections that the leadership reflected both races. If, for instance, the top person elected was white, then the second person in place would be black. It would go back and forth. It’s now predominantly a black denomination, though.
Does Pentecostal theology make it more hospitable to alternative views of the Trinity?
Oh no. In Pentecostalism there is a major divide over the nature of the Godhead, and so the break over that issue wasn’t hospitable. I was a member of a Oneness denomination for a while, but I’m a theologian, so I’ve come to a more nuanced understanding of the Godhead. But in conversations with others, the language that gets used when they talk about each other’s camps is very strong. They are quick to call each other heretics. Among scholars, we tend to be more accepting of other ways of seeing things, but within the local churches, especially among pastors, that is a real intense issue.
In the book, you say Rev. T.D. Jakes views the Godhead as “manifestations” of three personalities and that he successfully straddles theological fences. How has he been able to do that?
For a lot of the people in the pews, what they see is Jakes’ success, so they don’t even pay attention to or understand that there is a difference. You’ll see people who, if they understood what Jakes was saying, they would not accept it. I’m not saying what Jakes is saying is wrong. I think the Godhead is a mystery and anybody that says they can explain it is not telling the truth.
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