Elephant Room invite undermines black evangelicals

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, October 5, 2011, at 5:09 pm

If I wanted to turn thousands of African-Americans and Hispanics away from churches committed to the Reformation doctrines of grace I would create a public event where a couple of white Calvinist pastors publicly argue against a well-known and respected black pastor in Pentecostal circles. This is exactly what could happen on Jan. 25, as James MacDonald, along with his co-moderator Mark Driscoll, will host pastor T.D. Jakes for a public conversation in The Elephant Room.

According to the website, "The Elephant Room features blunt conversations between seven influential pastors who take differing approaches to ministry." MacDonald, a council member of The Gospel Coalition, organized the event as a way for people to hear from church leaders like Jakes. Conversation and dialogue are always good and can help bring about discernment, but that's not the problem here. There's more to this situation than theology. What baffles many evangelical leaders is why MacDonald chose, as his first African-American guest, a pastor that many consider to be a heretic because of his views of the Trinity.

Carl Trueman, who teaches church history at Westminster Theology Seminary, has raised questions about MacDonald's understanding and commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed because of the way he seems OK with Jakes' view of the Trinity not as "persons" but as "manifestations"-a view often associated with a heresy called modalism. Trueman also raised concerns about whether there's any accountability for MacDonald.

What is even more devastating, some argue, is that MacDonald's invitation to Jakes undermines decades of work by black evangelical leaders and pastors to steer their congregations away from such theological beliefs. For example, an incensed Thabiti Anyabwile, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Gospel Coalition council member, wrote that the Jakes invitation is the equivalent to "Augustine inviting Muhammed." Anyabwile continued:

"The news of T.D. Jakes' invitation to The Elephant Room is widespread and rightly lamented by many. I'm just adding a perspective that hasn't yet been stated: This kind of invitation undermines that long, hard battle many of us have been waging in a community often neglected by many of our peers. And because we've often been attempting to introduce African-American Christians to the wider Evangelical and Reformed world as an alternative to the heresy and blasphemy so commonplace in some African-American churches and on popular television outlets, the invitation of Jakes to perform in 'our circles' simply feels like a swift tug of the rug from beneath our feet and our efforts to bring health to a sick church."

Reddit Andrews III, senior pastor of Soaring Oaks Presbyterian (PCA) Church in Elk Grove, Calif., and a Gospel Coalition council member, lamented:

"I must admit my heart sank a bit when I learned of the issue. I felt as though, in the context of the Coalition itself, to provide T.D. Jakes any significant evangelical (let alone Reformed) platform is a slap in the face of many African-American preachers who have made significant sacrifices to partner with Anglo ministers. We have often embraced issues that-if truth be told-have minimal import for our own communities in hopes that eventually we'll get significant engagement in our native communities. It feels like an unnecessary and uncalled for setback to we who passionately hope to see a return to orthodox views in the black community-along with every other community."

Anthony Carter, pastor of East Point Church near Atlanta and a council member of The Gospel Coalition, added:

"I agree with Thabiti, that the invitation to Jakes sends a mixed message and carries the potential of validating one the most pronounced purveyors of false teaching in the world. I would hope The Elephant Room (James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll, in particular) would reconsider this invitation."

The entire situation is such a punch in the stomach to blacks who have suffered to affiliate with gospel-centered evangelicalism that it now "raises association, separation, and accountability concerns for me that I did not have to the same degree before now," wrote Anyabwile. "It raises significant questions about how members of The Gospel Coalition associate and endorse beyond the Coalition meetings themselves."

MacDonald could have chosen from dozens of black pastors who have differing views but instead choose Jakes to display, before a mostly white audience, a de facto representative of the black church. Even worse, tens-of-thousands of Jakes' black and Hispanic followers could easily racialize the conversation if MacDonald or Driscoll seem to be attacking him in any way. One could say that this entire debacle undermines the racial unity and reconciliation sought by The Gospel Coalition and by men like John Piper through his book Bloodlines.

So far there is little expectation that the concerns of Anyabwile, Andrews, and Carter will be addressed so, in solidarity, I plan not to pay to watch the event, either. And should MacDonald move forward, black Gospel Coalition members and evangelicals might be justified in concluding that mainstream leaders like him find their concerns irrelevant and not worthy of consideration.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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