A Bad Trade?

Here’s the basic fallacy of the ER2 storyline—once you’ve granted to someone good standing as a Christian brother and fellow servant of the gospel, you can’t claim that you’re going to be sitting down to discuss whether he is truly such or not. You’ve already tipped your hand, so the rest of the time it means that you’re just bluffing. And you must think we are all pretty stupid not to recognize this. Especially when the event itself and the post-mortem reports make reference to the wonderful time of fellowship and prayer together the participants enjoyed before the big “showdown” regarding Jakes’ theology.

ER2 was not about theological and ministerial differences. It was about commonalities. Or, to put it another way, it was about minimizing differences in order to highlight commonalities. The end of the day conclusion was supposed to be something like, “Yeah, we’re all different and have our disagreements, but we all love Jesus, want to see people saved, and want to grow big churches. We’re all on the same team.” That might be an acceptable goal for a day of discussion like ER2 if: (1) you are in fact on the same team, and (2) you’re not promoting the event as an opportunity to find out if that is actually true. To promote and prepare for the event with the assumption that you are all on the same team, while talking like you’ll make your conclusion after the event is simply dishonest.

Let’s not kid ourselves about what the real purpose of something like ER2 is, though. James MacDonald (and to a lesser extent, Mark Driscoll) is using it to position himself as a leader, as someone who influences church life in our day. He is building a reputation and a network. Is that a problem? No, I don’t think so. Is he unique in pursuing this purpose? Absolutely not. Our day is full of efforts like this—T4G, the Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, Shepherds Conference, Desiring God. All of these are competing in the marketplace of ministry ideas because they believe they have something to offer and they want to help churches and pastors. I’ve got no principled problem with anybody trying to influence other people.

If James MacDonald wants to help pastors and churches, then creating a platform to do so is a legitimate effort. The problem arises when anybody chooses to build that platform in ways that compromise the gospel or send an uncertain sound about fundamental theological truths. This is the grave danger for all efforts to build movements or coalitions—trying to reach certain constituencies often results in compromising relationships with errant leaders. That danger is only increased by the celebrity culture and obsession with visible success that dominates contemporary Christendom.

Schedule big names and you can draw a big crowd. Gather a big crowd and you’ve opened new avenues for your own influence. It doesn’t make any sense to me to fight the reality, or even legitimacy, of this. Who reading this wouldn’t rather hear a Spurgeon than me (with the one exception of my wife, I hope!)?  My main problem isn’t with big names, with big names getting scheduled for events, or with the fact that people like to hear big name speakers at events. All of that is just the way it is and some of it is completely justifiable—some people have big names because they are serious about God’s Word and have been so for a long time. I’ve given up trying to figure out why some men are more popular than others. Really doesn’t matter to me. It is what it is.

The reality of creating a platform for influence does not, however, mean that we can ignore what the Bible says about false doctrine. It is wrong to form unholy alliances even if it is for the purpose of reaching more people with the truth. The truth always suffers when people start scheming like this. The “greater good” inevitably becomes the club to beat down opposition to compromises. That and the issue seems always to get mired in personal debates that sound more like “I am of…” than whether biblical truth holds the place of functional control in our decisions.

The invitation of T. D. Jakes to the Elephant Room is simply another version of the same problem that has plagued evangelicalism for 60 years. What is the boundary of Christian fellowship? Or, to turn it another way, how unorthodox can a person be before we conclude that he is beyond the boundary of Christian fellowship? There has been a very broad swath of evangelicalism that has been willing to shift the boundary wider and wider if doing so brought the possibility of expanded influence.

How has that worked out for evangelicalism? Maybe one way to answer that would be to wonder whether Ockenga, Henry, and Carnell would have invited someone with the belief system of T. D. Jakes to something like the Elephant Room. I might be wrong, but from what I have read of their writings, I don’t think they would have considered Jakes an evangelical. So, who has been influenced by whom over these past sixty years?

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