More ‘Elephant Room’ Noise

Was it right to put T.D. Jakes and his beliefs on the spot at the Elephant Room 2 gathering? Our resident theologian examines further questions and lessons from the heavily debated evangelical summit.

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.

About the author, Dr. Vincent Bacote

Vincent E. Bacote (Ph.D., Drew University) is an Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He is the author of The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper and the editor of Precepts for Living, Urban Ministries Inc.'s annual Bible commentary.
  1. Morning Vince. Great to hear your voice on this issue. As you know, I have written on Bryan Loritt’s comments; and if I may be so bold, I don’t think he was necessarily off in suggesting that *some* black pastor/theologians *may* be trying “to be in the white evangelical world.” The problem is: he didn’t identify these pastors by name. Thus, he planted a subtle seed that implicitly condemns any African American pastor/theologian who condemned Jakes’ participation. Now the burden of proof lies on the black pastor to demonstrate that he is not trying to “get in” with the white majority. Furthermore, Loritts issued these comments in a context in which it was being argued that one must be in relationship with someone before we can critique their theology. Why is it acceptable for Loritts to cast doubt on other’s theology without being in relationship with them, but it is not acceptable for others (black or white) to question Jakes?

    Even more troubling still is the ever-shifting ground beneath our feet. Consider this interview (http://www.moodyradio.org/radioplayer.aspx?episode=82623&hour=1) that MacDonald gave to Moody radio. At the 34 minute mark, someone asks MacDonald about race, and he argues that race plays no role in this. If that is true, why did MacDonald post two videos on his blog, in which he surrounded himself with three black pastors and talked about nothing but race and this issue. The whole things smacks of political “spin,” and I fear that the fallout is going to hit the African American community the hardest.

    http://bloodstainedink.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/how-steep-the-decline-james-macdonald-bryant-loritts-and-sycophantic-uncle-toms/

    • Hey Scott,

      Interesting comments. As I suggested in the article, I think Lorrits may be partially correct regarding the aim of some African-Americans to participate/find approval in the “white evangelical world” but as I also say, that world happens to be predominantly white so it is a complicated matter to determine why people made their critiques. Maybe someone should ask those who made the criticism about their motives and let them speak for themselves.

      In terms of fallout, I’m not sure how big a deal it will be in the end – time will tell. There have been other things like this in the past where it soon faded into the background. I hope that what happens is that it will actually create opportunity for more conversation about race and about how we interact with those we disagree with biblically/theologically and otherwise.