FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT OF FAITH
WILLIAM DWIGHT MCKISSIC, SR.
A KINGDOM RESPONSE TO THE ELEPHANT ROOM II
Featuring Pastor James MacDonald and Bishop T.D. Jakes
The late Rev. Vernon Johns made a lighthearted, yet loaded comment regarding engaging in ecclesiastical and civic controversy that I believe is applicable to The Elephant Room II controversy. The Johns comment: “If you see a good fight, get in it.” There are significant, substantive, and scriptural issues yet being debated in the aftermath of The Elephant Room that I feel compelled to address in light of Rev. Johns’ admonition and more importantly Kingdom implications.
Parenthetically, Rev. Johns was the predecessor to Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama and as his quote sort of indicates, he was an eccentric and bombastic personality. God used him in the context of the Civil Rights Movement to pave the way for Dr. King, just as He used another eccentric and bombastic personality—John the Baptist—two millenniums earlier in the context of the Kingdom movement, to pave the way for Jesus. Rev. Johns is highly regarded and remembered for his idiosyncrasy, courage, candor, and character, much like John the Baptist. Some would argue that without the preparatory and foundational work of Rev. Johns, there would not have been a Martin Luther King, Jr.
Back to The Elephant Room: At the dawn of this new millennium, there’s a man who has stepped forth in somewhat of an eccentric and bombastic move, reminiscent of Vernon Johns and John the Baptist, named James MacDonald. Pastor MacDonald has cast a vision for The Elephant Room that I believe is Kingdom driven to the core. The vision of the Elephant Room as I see it is simple, yet powerful; to provide a twenty-first century forum for ecclesiastical dialogue based on a first century model that seeks common ground rather than battleground; unity over division; love over indifference and dialogue rather than distance, without compromising truth or biblical integrity. That is a bold, grand and biblical vision unlike any I’ve seen in my fifty five years of observing church life, with the possible exception of the Promise Keepers Movement. The Kingdom of God is relational, and this is a bold kingdom vision. The biggest problem in the body of Christ today is not doctrine, but relational division. Jesus did not say they’ll know we are Christians by our doctrine, but by our love. The world is yet to see the entire body of Christ in love with each other or even willing to dialogue: James MacDonald has plowed new ground in this arena, and I celebrate him for doing so.
How can a born-again, Bible-believing, citizen of the Kingdom of God not applaud, celebrate and appreciate Pastor MacDonald’s vision? The Bible indicates that in the last days we will see an intergenerational, interracial, and in the context of modern times, interdenominational kingdom movement take place (Acts 2:17-18). Could it be that is what we’re seeing in The Elephant Room? Could it be that some of the push-back is because we have not seen a vision or a movement like this, in the history of American Christianity? People are afraid of the unknown and the untried. Yet, a Vernon Johns, John the Baptist and, yes, James MacDonald will come along and prod us to go places we’ve never been before; and prepare us for what we’ve never seen before. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is on a forward advance (Matthew 11:12). God always calls one person to get there first and then beckons for the rest of us to come (Exodus 3:10, Nehemiah 2:5-10, Matthew 1: 3:1-11, Acts 7:1-60); and, that one person usually pays a heavy-heavy price for their voice, vision and venture. I want to say to Pastor MacDonald: BE ENCOURAGED! You’re in good company. They stoned the prophets which were before you.
WHY THE OPPOSITION TO THE ELEPHANT ROOM?
Three words or one name answer that question: Thomas Dexter Jakes, commonly known as Bishop Jakes. Why is there so much opposition to The Elephant Room because of Bishop Jakes? Bishop Jakes came to know Christ and launched his ministry in a Oneness Pentecostal context; and still maintains association, fellowship and a preaching presence in Oneness Pentecostal settings. Because of this one name, one man, one personality, a vision as bold, daring, captivating and kingdom-driven as The Elephant Room, is under major attack; and the founder and architect of this vision, along with his elders, are having to make the tough decision: Do they discontinue The Elephant Room after two incredibly successful gatherings? Obviously, they are meeting a very serious need. Again, this great vision and gathering, is under serious review, because of the participation and inclusion of one man. By the way, Bishop Jakes did not preach at this meeting; he simply sat at a table and humbled himself to answer questions about his beliefs and contributed to other parts of the dialogue as a well-known churchman. But a conversation and input from Bishop Jakes in this forum was anathema to many. The opponents to James MacDonald’s inviting Bishop Jakes simply believe that Bishop Jakes was not or is not an authentic, genuine, born again, orthodox Kingdom citizen—or follower of Christ; therefore, they staunchly opposed him being there, and many still opposed even after he made his beliefs, crystal clear (James White, Voddie Baucham).
Can a person genuinely be born again in a Oneness Pentecostal setting? This question is at the heart of this controversy. In all fairness to the opponents of The Elephant Room and the presence of Bishop T.D. Jakes, I must admit, if one truly believes that anybody who claims that they were saved in a Oneness Pentecostal setting and maintain long-standing affiliation and fellowship with Oneness Pentecostals could not be genuinely saved, because of the modalistic belief system of Oneness Pentecostals, then I agree with them; If that’s your position, Bishop Jakes should not have been invited to the Elephant Room, and Pastor MacDonald, then, would be wrong for having invited him. Absolutely not! You don’t invite a non-Christian, or in my judgment an avowed committed modalist, to sit on a panel like this. Those who hold this position, I believe, are sincere. But the question is: Did Bishop Jakes sit on that panel as a non-Christian and is he a closet or avowed modalist? That, my friend, is the question and controversy surrounding The Elephant Room.
ARE ONENESS PENTECOSTALS CHRISTIANS?
I’m sure some of you are asking, what is a “modalist”? I do not claim to be an expert in modalism, Trinitarianism or theology. However, what I do know is that Oneness Pentecostals generally have a modalistic view of the Trinity; and evangelicals, generally have what is called an ontological view of the Trinity. Let me explain: Oneness Pentecostals and evangelical Christians would all say that they believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. The difference is, Oneness Pentecostals believe that, one God appeared in three modes (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) without remaining distinct personalities. In other words, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are simply designations or names of the God who is one in person. Thus they are called Oneness Pentecostals, or in the Black community they are often called the “Jesus Only” people or Apostolic.
Evangelical Christians believe that there is one God, and yet this one God exists in three distinct Persons, not just modes of the same God, but three persons: The Father, who is distinct from the Son; the Son, who is distinct from the Holy Spirit; and the Father and the Holy Spirit, who is distinct from the Father and the Son. Yet, according to Scripture, these three are one, and they comprise the Godhead (Colossians 2:9).
Some would argue that this is purely a semantical debate; yet there is clearly a distinction as to how oneness Pentecostals view the members of the Godhead and how evangelicals view members of the Godhead. Bishop Jakes admits that at one point he fully embraced modalism and passionately argued in defense of this viewpoint. Long before the Elephant Room, Bishop Jakes had given an evangelical explanation of his Trinitarian beliefs and described the members of the Godhead as persons–something a true modalist never would do; but yet his detractors and opponents, simply won’t take him at his word.
Dr. Daniel Akin addressed the question, “What is Modalism and How Should Christians respond to it?” on his “Between the Times” website on October 12, 2011, in response to the announcement that Bishop Jakes would be a guest in The Elephant Room.
In the comment section, I posed the following questions to Dr. Akin:
Based on your definition of the word “Christian”, and your understanding of T. D. Jakes beliefs(which I believe that you have misrepresented) do you believe that T. D. Jakes is a Christian? Another way to phrase the question is, do you believe a person can be a modalist and also be a Christian?
I have a pastor friend who heard the gospel clearly, he says in a oneness Pentecostal church and was saved. Later, he began to question their view of the trinity and made his way to a Baptist church and embraced an orthodox view of the trinity. He now pastors a Baptist church in southern California. Was his salvation experience in the oneness Pentecostal setting, legitimate? BTW, there is not a leader in SBC life that I respect and appreciate any more than you. I listened to your sermon preached last year at chapel concerning the first American missionary. Great sermon.”
Dr. Akin provided me with an answer that I wholeheartedly believe and agree with every single word:
“Dwight, thank you for writing my brother. I love and appreciate you and your passion for our Lord. A friend wrote me privately saying he believes pastor Jakes no longer affirms classic modalism. That encourages me and perhaps the “Elephant Room” conversation will allow him to clarify this once and for all. And, is it possible to be a Christian and be a modalist? I believe the answer is yes though to do so is theologically erroneous and inconsistent. In fact it is spiritually dangerous. However, Scripture does not say believe in the Trinity and you will be saved. I was saved as a boy and had very little understanding of the Trinity. However, as I grew in my understanding of biblical truth I naturally came to embrace what is clearly the plain teaching of the Bible. Ultimately, the doctrine of the Trinity is deeply embedded in Christology, something the early church understood. And a text like Isaiah 53 and all the “sending” language of the gospel of John makes little sense without a Trinitarian framework. There is so much more we could say about this but I hope this is helpful.”
If Dr. Akin’s answer is accurate (and I believe it is), then it is possible to be a modalist and a Christian. And if it is possible to be a modalist and a Christian, Pastor MacDonald was certainly right to invite Bishop Jakes to The Elephant Room to clarify his beliefs. That’s the vision and purpose of the Elephant Room; therefore, what’s the problem? All Southern Baptists would not agree with Dr. Akin’s answer. Dr. Bart Barber believes Bishop Jakes need to be baptized again and only became a Christian simultaneously with his subsequent Trinitarian profession. (Dr. Barber stated on his website: Statement #3. This is something for all of us to celebrate. When Jakes became a Trinitarian, he became a Christian. His eternal destiny changed at that moment. Now he needs to be baptized. Again, this is something to celebrate.)
A SWBTS professor that I will leave unnamed, and a fellow pastor with a PH.D. in systematic theology that I will also leave unnamed, share Dr. Akin’s public viewpoint, that modalism is incorrect, erroneous and even heretical; but yet, one can be a modalist and a Christian.
The late Jerry Falwell considered Calvinism, heretical; but he did not consider Calvinist, non- Christians. And neither do I consider, Oneness Pentecostals as Non-Christians; Incorrect on the Trinity, yes; Heretical, by not making a distinction in the Godhead—Yes. However, because they believe Jesus is Deity, Divine, Lord and the only begotten of the Father and the only way to salvation, I believe, based on Romans 10:9, they are authentic Christians, with extremely flawed doctrine.
Dr. Bart Barber is correct on this point though: If you’re going to condemn Bishop Jakes for not disavowing modalism at The Elephant Room, you must also condemn everyone else on stage who did not disavow modalism. Asking Bishop Jakes to publicly disavow modalism is like asking a man to disavow his mother. Inherent in Bishop Jakes answers to Mark Driscoll’s questions regarding the Trinity, was a disavowing, of modalism; that’s why many of them consider him a heretic. The only purpose Bishop Jakes would serve in disavowing the modalist that won him to Christ would be attempt to satisfy or be accepted by the Calvinist, Fundamentalist, and cessationist community that reject the Bishop and the few Black Calvinist clergymen that have been heavily influenced by their Anglo associates who also reject Bishop Jakes.
I believe that Bishop Jakes is an authentic, born again Christian, who has shifted from classic modalism to an orthodox Trinitarian view. The only reason that one would believe otherwise, would be to not take Bishop Jakes at his word as articulated in The Elephant Room and even before. James White attempts to prove that Bishop Jakes is still a modalist even after his Elephant Room confession, but he falls woefully short. White simply is straining at gnats, while swallowing the camel of disunity and division.
I was extremely grateful and proud that Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, Dr. Russell Moore, and Dr. Bart Barber, fellow Southern Baptists, all now affirm Bishop Jakes as an evangelical Trinitarian. They all three made what I consider condescending, elitist, false and arrogant misrepresentations and statements about the Bishop otherwise, but for well-known respected Southern Baptist professors and pastors to affirm the evangelical-orthodox Trinitarian posture of Bishop Jakes is HUGE in my opinion. Pastor Dave Miller went a step further and apologized to Pastor Vance Pittman for railing against Bishop Jakes musician performing at the Phoenix SBC Pastor’s conference. Ironically, the musician was preparing to lead the pastors in the “Holy, Holy, Holy” which affirms “God in Three Persons”, blessed Trinity. The best Southern Baptist Convention bloggers who addressed this subject with fairness, fidelity and accuracy were Ed Stetzer and Brandon Smith.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Trevin Wax made an astute observation about the aftermath of The Elephant Room that I believe sums up the matter. He is contrasting the James MacDonald approach to enlarging the tent vs. The Gospel Coalition’s approach:
“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 are 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).”
I’m making a public appeal to Pastor MacDonald, to by all means to continue The Elephant Room. The concept is so powerful, groundbreaking, biblical and Kingdom-centered that I personally pledge moral and monetary support, and wait for an interesting line-up of guests to dialogue, because I want to be in the audience and bring my senior staff members. This is Pastor MacDonald’s second conference and he has broken racial barriers. Interviewing Bryan Loritts, Charles Jenkins and Eric Mason was an incredibly wonderful idea and the imagery of including and affirming the next generation was powerful. One of them needs to be on the platform next year. Bryan Loritts wrote a prophetic courageous and accurate piece about The Elephant Room. I was so, so proud of him.
The attacks on Bishop Jakes being a “prosperity preacher” are baseless and unfounded. The criticism of Bishop Jakes, in this regard, reflects a tremendous ignorance of the Black church. However, to address this issue would require a totally separate post. This one is already too long; so I’m finished.
Finally, The Elephant Room has the potential to bring the entire body of Christ together across racial, doctrinal, denominational and class lines. Pastor MacDonald, maybe God has raised you up to lead the body in answering Christ’s prayer for unity (John 17:21). Again, I urge you to GO FOR IT! The Kingdom needs you for such an hour as this (Esther 4:14b…”Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”)
Thank you Pastor MacDonald! Maybe now the Calvinist and charismatic, the Baptist and Bible church member, the Pentecostal and Presbyterian, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the Black and the White and even proponents of the Gospel Coalition and the Elephant Room can come together on the basis of one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:6). Where else can you go and experience the type of gathering Pastor MacDonald offered at The Elephant Room?