Here is a loose collection of thoughts about the Elephant Room imbroglio. I don’t pretend to comment as an insider at all, but I can say that my perspective and sympathies are basically the same as Justin Taylor’s. If anybody wants what I consider to be a fair and judicious take on the whole thing, I would refer you there.
So what’s for me to talk about then? I want us to consider some of the larger issues that I think are in play out here in the wider world, and boy, are they in play.
First, the whole initial point of the Elephant Room was to demonstrate how to have manly disagreements between brothers, and the result of this attempt has been a very unsightly fracas between brothers. It is has struck me as being beyond ironic that the prototype model for irenic disagreement has turned into a fireball. It reminds of those old film reels with a guy standing on a barn with batman wings, with a large crowd below in response to the publicity, gathered there to see him fly. And then something else happens.
I am not saying anything yet about what T.D. Jakes believes — more on that in a bit. Modalism is a big deal, rejecting one of the primaries of the faith. But before we get there, this controversy is about something else — the center of this disagreement is between those who trust Jakes when he says he is not a modalist and those who don’t trust him. For various reasons — even though it is very important — this question is not one of the primaries of the faith. It is a judgment call, not a doctrinal call, and the people who are differing over it are very close doctrinally. This therefore needs to be processed very carefully.
For example, I take it that John Mark left Paul’s first missionary journey because he was of the circumcision party, and was distressed that Paul had preached the gospel to the first Gentile out in his native Gentile habitat. Those Gentiles who heard the Word prior to this had been in the orbit of Jewish life somehow, related to the synagogue. Mark couldn’t handle cold-calling on the Gentiles, and so he left Paul’s entourage at the next stop (Acts 13:13). After this, the Jerusalem Council met, and settled the question for good and all (Acts 15:6-29). Mark apparently accepted the decision of the council, and Barnabas believed that he had accepted it, and Paul didn’t think so (Acts 15:37-39). Now the council had decided the issue of circumcision, with Paul and Barnabas both in agreement. But the council did not decide one way or the other on the issue of whether Mark now “got it.” They said nothing at all about Mark’s trustworthiness. Paul and Barnabas agreed on the doctrinal question before the house; they disagreed on how reliable Mark was.
This situation is at least comparable. James MacDonald thinks that Jakes has honest-and-for-true left modalism. Others, for reasonable reasons, don’t think so, or they think it would be prudent to wait and see a bit longer. When Paul declined to work in ministry with Mark on the very next go-round, he was not anathematizing him forever — later in his life he said that Mark was quite useful to him (2 Tim. 4:11). This need not have been a late admission that Barnabas had been in the right. Paul didn’t want to take Mark on the next trip, which does not have to be a banned-for-life attitude. Mark might have straightened out right away, or it might have happened later. Maybe Barnabas was right, and maybe Paul was. My sympathies in that situation, as in our situation, are with Paul. But in saying this, I am not siding with Paul against Barnabas on circumcision.
So the mistake that can be made here is that of confounding the relative importance of the two issues. If it is confounded, you get the substance matter of the one controversy and the voltage from the other one. Being a naive judge of character is not the same thing as denying the Trinity, and being suspicious in circumstances like this one is not in the least bit pharisaical.
The second big issue here is the racial component. Justin Taylor was quite right to say that the race card has been played in this controversy in some disturbing ways — in ways calculated, as I believe, to paralyze any fruitful work of reconciliation. This, in my view, was poorly done.
I have written elsewhere about how it might someday come to pass that Americans will have an adult conversation about race relations. We are clearly not there yet, but allow me to say just one or two things about it. And I will preface this by acknowledging that I am writing this as a white man. The consolation should be that if what I write is true, then the truth of what I say is not white at all, not even a little bit. I have throughout my adult life spoken as a white man, but I have never managed to say a white truth.
Some might wonder why white Reformed Christians unloaded on Rob Bell right away, but they were much slower to do so with T.D. Jakes. Didn’t this expose the black pastors who were critical of the invitation to Jakes to the charge that they were trying too hard to do acceptable theology in the white man’s world? This could be the result of a double-standard, but it might also have a more honorable basis. Speaking for myself, it is much easier for me to see what Rob Bell and his skinny jeans are up to. As soon as I see the schtick, I know. But when something arises from outside my cultural environment (which is north Idaho, white people, and trees), it takes a bit longer for me to get up to speed. But once you are up to speed, and everything is translated, the response really should be identical. I don’t believe in “ready, fire, aim,” but that doesn’t mean that it is never time to fire.
At the same time, when responsible concerns like this are raised, by someone who doesn’t have to get up to speed like I do, I believe that everyone who on all sides of the controversy should at a minimum treat it with respect. To dismiss such an agonized and heartfelt lament as sucking up to whitey quite frankly took my breath away. That was just not good.
So if the white inner circle guys are delayed in their responses, those playing the race card can say that these black pastors are desperately trying to earn their way into the inner circle. But if the white guys are right there with them, then the same card can still be played — saying that the black critics are just so many hand puppets. This is because the race card is a joker. You can play it whenever and however you feel like it. There are some very good reasons for removing that card from this game.
For some, delayed reaction might also have an understandable but less honorable cause. If the race card was played on some conscientious black pastors who had legit concerns about Jakes, how much more likely would it be played on white Christians who went after Jakes? In short, when people create double-bind, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenarios, the game is called gotcha. When a lack of racial involvement together is called bigotry and engaged involvement is called tokenism, then it seems to me that somebody has a bad case of the cutes. Do that to me a couple of times, and I will just give you my card and ask you to give me a call when you have reached a final decision about what you want us to do.
The third issue is the real elephant in a completely different room. I speak, of course, in my self-appointed role as Girard’s fundamentalist cousin. This is the question of ego, rivalry, mimetic envy, glory, names and numbers. The atmosphere of this controversy fairly crackles with all that stuff. When a controversy escalates in the way that this one has, when something blows up through the ceiling like this, less attention ought to be paid to the burned-out match on the floor, and more attention to the gas leak that filled the room up with fumes.
I am in no way pointing fingers here, but rather asking everybody involved to do a double motive-check, and to do it without any cameras in the room. I would urge all the relevant parties to get into the same room, face-to-face, and hash it out. Again, no cameras. In fact, it would be best if nobody out here in TV land even knew about the meeting/s. And last, I would urge everyone involved to consider any lack of eagerness to do this as a possible indication of their level of responsibility in the whole affair. This controversy exploded in a portion of the church that considers accountability to be a very good word. I hear it extolled at conferences, and lauded in books. But accountability you can just walk away from isn’t accountability. And accountability is not provided by a peanut gallery, or live streaming. “And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain” (Gal. 2:2). This needs to be addressed with no possibility of anybody trying to play to the nickel seats — “but privately.”
And last, T.D. Jakes may be an open modalist, a coy modalist, a modalist-in-transition, or an ex-modalist. Right? If he is on the right path, then he needs a Barnabas to walk him through the thicket of suspicions. That is what Barnabas did for Saul. But the way this happened in the New Testament had nothing in common with our modern practice of rushing to play the victim.
“And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way . . .” (Acts 9:26-27a).
One of the reasons why we know that Saul was truly converted was because verse 27 doesn’t record him as feeling sorry for himself, or have an account of anybody accusing the disciples of verse 26 of having a harsh and critical spirit. The reason they were afraid of him was because of his prior behavior — because he had been killing and jailing them — and Saul’s repentance, being true, knew this. If T.D. Jakes is coming out of modalism, or has come out of it, then praise God. If he is no longer a heretic, that’s great, but he then knows he was one. Coming out would be true repentance, and entirely a good thing. But true repentance would also take full responsibility for the concerns of those who have any remaining suspicions. These suspicions were created, not by the suspicious folks with hearts like beef jerky, but rather by T.D. Jakes in his heretical days. So I am not just looking for Jakes show himself Nicene — which I am perfectly willing to let him do. That would be lovely. But in the meantime I am also looking for him, and for his companions who have adopted the role of Barnabas, to show a deeper understanding of where this whole thing came from.
And I think that’s enough for now.