Last week I was able to hang with friends at the Elephant Room 2 (ER2) outside of Chicago. There was a lot of hype and heat leading up to it, and there has been a lot commentary following. Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, T.D. Jakes, Jack Graham, Stephen Furtick, Crawford Loritts, and Wayne Cordeiro sat and talked through a variety of issues. Most of the criticism surrounded the inclusion of Bishop T.D. Jakes, whom many accuse of embracing there heresy of "modalism," and James MacDonald's agenda in creating the Elephant Room. My thoughts on ER2, and the surrounding controversy, are connected to the issues of truth, debate, and unity.
Truth matters. Theology matters. That's really too soft an expression. A lot of things "matter," so let me say it a different way to make my point. When the church and Christian leadership reject truth it is a denial that often leads to death. Careless theologians produce sloppy theology which weakens the foundation of local churches and robs Christians of a deep and experiential knowledge of God. Error in some areas of doctrine can negatively impact our piety, error in other areas can lead people to hell. So, yeah, truth really matters.
What makes this even scarier is that no man, this side of the resurrection, will hold a perfect theology, free from all defect. We are not only finite creatures seeking to comprehend the infinite God, we are also sinful people whose minds and hearts remain corrupted even after conversion; and we are seeking to know our Maker and Redeemer. Of course we aren't simply hypothesizing. God has given us his word, a revelation of himself. God's word is big, but it is also accessible. Parts of it are "hard to understand," yet it can be understood. God has not given us an unsolvable puzzle book, he has given us a revelation of himself that makes him, his ways, and his promises plain so that even the simple gain wisdom. Of course, this doesn't mean we have exhuastive knowledge of the infinite God, nor does it erase the place of mystery in our theology. It does mean we can know God (in part) even now, and are called to make him known to others.
Because theology is so critical to the life of God's people, dialog and debate are very necessary components in the life of the church. Most of the debating that happens in the church today seems to be between solid Christian apologists, like James White or William Lane Craig, and those outside of the protestant faith. Good stuff. But it would be good for us to have more of it going on in-house. Debate is good among friends who disagree, and between men on totally different teams. Debate and dialog force us hold up our theology or practice up against another man's with the aim of truth winning out. It's not just a testing of our positions, practices, ideas and arguments, but a public testing of such things that benefits the audience.
Public discourse is hard, and we seem to prefer to talk about one another, rather than to one another. Perhaps it takes too much humility and courage to put yourself out there for debate. Or, maybe it's just too much work. Either way, the church needs to do better at conversing with one another from different families and theologies.
This doesn't mean we should come together to hold hands, striving for unity apart from truth. In fact, it requires that we ask hard questions, confront error, admit where we are, and where we disagree.
While made up of various local churches, denominations, and networks, the church of Jesus Christ is one. Of course, not every gathering that claims to be a "church," or who titles themselves "Christian," make up a part of the true church. Theology (confessed and experienced) determines this. For example, Paul says there is only one gospel of Jesus Christ, and anyone offering an alternate gospel is damned. John says, we do not count a man or his teaching to be of God if his Christology is unorthodox. However we also need to heed John's warning that if we do not love our brothers in Christ, we show ourselves to be heretics of a different sort who can expect God's eternal judgment. To be plain, in another chapter John says, "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother." (1 John 3:10 ESV)
Biblical unity can only be had within certain parameters. I like how Mark Driscoll unpacks "national boundaries" (evangelical faith) and "state boundaries" (your particular affiliation within the nation). This means we have various levels of unity and agreement, disagreement and disassociation. As nice as it may seem, there is no Church without boundaries. It doesn't exist.
The Elephant Room
I really like James MacDonald, and I dig the idea the Elephant Room. I believe what James is trying to do is a very good thing. It's also good to remember that some things start just decent, but improve greatly over time (remember the first season of Seinfeld?) There were problems leading up to ER2, including how it was initially promoted, and confusion concerning the goals. But overall, getting men from "different states" together to discuss and debate is good and important.
Concerning the invitation of T.D. Jakes and his view of the trinity I can only say a few things. I understand why many were uncomfortable with Bishop Jakes' invitation. He has long been associated with Oneness Pentecostalism and has not affirmed the doctrine of the trinity the way church has since the fourth century. That was one of my concerns! At the Elephant Room Bishop Jakes essentially denied modalism, and affirmed something closer to orthodox trinitarianism, without actually getting there. He was honest, admitting that he struggles with how to word it, and seems content to rest in the mystery of the Trinity. All of this now results in some inside Oneness circles concluding he's a heretic, and some in other circles laying the same label on him. I appreciated his honesty and humility, though I do expect pastors to have a much more robustly developed theology proper.
Like I said, I think debate and discussion are important, and I would like to see the Elephant Room happen again. I know James and the elders at Harvest haven't yet decided if there will be another Elephant Room, but I am hoping it happens. However, since I am a man of many opinions here are some things I would love to see develop with the Elephant Room.
Regarding the Conference
1. A clearer and more specific purpose and goal. I like the idea of learning to speak with grace and truth together, but I think included in that should be the idea of pursuing the truth. That's assumed to some degree in Elephant Room, but I would just like to see more of that reflected in a mission statement.
2. 2 Fewer guests, and more debate. I am not looking for a fight, but I think this is one of the selling points of ER. Rigorous thinking and biblical argument from men of differing perspectives is truly beneficial. If done right, this is helpful in seeing what is right and what is wrong in another's (or perhaps even our own) perspective, and can assist the audience in thinking Christianly and critically while discussing things civilly.
Regarding Other Formats
I would love to see a weekly half hour or hour long ER Podcast, featuring just one host and two leaders from opposing perspectives. I can't imagine ever running out of topics to cover.