By Tom Chantry, pastor of Christ Reformed Baptist Church, used with permission.
This is a repost of an original article on CRBC Pastoral blog
A few weeks ago there was a conference. Way back when the participants were announced, concerns were voiced about one of them being a modalistic heretic and word-of-faith shill. Those who expressed this concern were dismissed as haters who never want to listen to a man before they decide what he believes. They were told that it was wrong to oppose his being called a “brother” because, after all, he’s an American. Nevertheless, they insisted that since everyone knows what “brother” means in a Christian context this was still something of a problem. The purpose statement was adjusted accordingly; the invitation list was not.
The conference went on as scheduled. Twenty-six minutes were set aside to discuss the Trinity, which is twenty-six more than were reserved to address the prosperity gospel. Most of those minutes were spent mocking the very idea of theological clarity. The heretic answered “yes” to a list of easy questions – all the while reserving the right to clarify his answers with the old heretical terminology – and then his two purportedly orthodox questioners declared his answers sufficient and proceeded to explain that what the church needs now is love sweet love.
As bad as the conference was, it proved tame in comparison to the defense offered after the fact. When Christendom failed to confirm the proclamation of orthodoxy which had been made, the host of the conference, together with a few of his friends, said: Hey, you’re all racists – except those of you who happen to be black, you’re sell-outs.
While you let that sink in, contemplate this: we’re the haters!
Are you stunned? Taken by surprise? Are you left breathlessly asking, “Wh…wha…what just happened?” How could men whom we thought were trustworthy and doctrinally sound have perpetrated such a crime upon the church? How did it ever come to this? Why would they choose this particularly destructive course of action? I realize that as soon as that last question is asked, some will say that we are wrong to judge motives. This would be true if we were guessing, but in this case no guesswork is required. We’ll just stick to the documented evidence.
In order to explain this sad, ugly train-wreck, let me take you back to the beginning and ask – again – a question which has thus far been ignored. When my attention was first directed to the Elephant Room, I noticed an odd detail in the Purpose Statement – and yes, this is one of the bits that never got edited out. The curious words were, “Fidelity and fruitfulness, both matter.”
Now as soon as I saw that I began to wonder about it. It’s a catchy, alliterative statement, but it seems to suggest that fidelity and fruitfulness don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. If you aren’t careful, your pursuit of the one might drive out the other. In other words this is a matter of balance: don’t love fidelity too much, lest you lose fruitfulness, and vice versa. Now in order for that to be true, either “fruitfulness” or “fidelity” must be defined in some extra-biblical way. Biblical fruit always results from biblical fidelity. Any sort of fruit which even could be in opposition to true fidelity is not real fruit.
I went so far as to ask James MacDonald what “fruitfulness” means in an Open Letter. I wrote:
The Elephant Room Purpose Statement speaks of fidelity and fruitfulness; do you understand “fruitfulness” to be something judged by the size of a congregation, or does that concept mean more? Are fidelity and fruitfulness opposing poles between which we must find “a new center,” or is fruitfulness defined and determined by fidelity?
To be fair, that question appeared in a longer post calling into question the youth ministry at Harvest Bible Chapel, a ministry which I know (I’m going to use the word biblically now) by its fruit. What happened next was that dozens of employees of Harvest and its satellites created blogger profiles and swamped the comment thread with assertions that I was not telling the truth. (So no, I wasn’t surprised when Ken Silva revealed that HBC sends out talking-points memos!) In the midst of the ensuing firestorm, the question was never answered. What exactly are the parameters of “fruitfulness”?
In the absence of any attempt to define terms, I was left to speculate that “fruitful” was being used to describe anyone with an astonishingly huge church. This conclusion was not reached in a vacuum; the guest-list at the Elephant Room II seemed to bear it out. “Fruit” appeared to mean “followers.” If you are a massive, multi-site ministerial mogul, you’re quite “fruitful.”
Now that the conference has played out we may ask two questions.
First, was this understanding of what James MacDonald means by “fruitful” born out in the Elephant Room? And second, how far does this misconception go toward explaining the entire debacle? The transcript of the event supplies us with the answers to both questions.
Let’s begin here:
Driscoll: [to Jakes] I want to say a couple of things. Thank you for joining us. You don’t have to be there. You were on the cover of Time magazine. You have options of where you go.
MacDonald: This isn’t your biggest gig ever?
Driscoll: It takes a lot of courage and humility to put yourself in an unscripted situation and to be outside of your normal crowd. And the fact you showed up to dinner last night, I was shocked. I was like, “T.D. Jakes is coming for dinner?” I loved you. I enjoyed you. I really appreciated hearing the story of your context, your family. And I walked away going, “I appreciate meeting and knowing and enjoying that man.” Thank you for being gracious; thank you for being courageous; thank you for being humble. [emphasis added]
Now the end of that may have been laying it on a bit thick, but to some degree I understand what Driscoll and MacDonald were saying. Jakes didn’t have to come. However, in light of what MacDonald saidlater in the day – words that are suggestive, at least, of the possibility that his primary means of testing orthodoxy is to hang out with big-name preachers and see whether he enjoys their company – given that, it was a little disconcerting all the same. But there was more:
MacDonald: Just, that was crazy! I’ve just got to say, I am so weary of people thinking they know – they don’t know! I think you honor us and you humble us, a man of your stature and commitment to the gospel and fruitfulness would come and sit with us in this room, let you and me ask him what he believes? Like he’s getting baptized or something? We got a one-A battery [indicates self], a two-A battery [indicates Driscoll] and a whole…
Driscoll: A nuclear power plant?
MacDonald: Thank you. I just want to say this, I think you’ve honored us, and you’ve shown incredible humility, and I want to be in the world where I believe that Jesus Christ stands. [emphasis added]
This is the money quote. Much attention has been paid to it, and for good reason. MacDonald’s enthusiasm here follows Jakes assertion of anemic, minimalist theological bullet-points which in no way revised his previous statements. What interests me, though, is the reason why MacDonald is so excited.
He mentions three things about Jakes here. First, his “stature.” That’s right, Jakes was on the cover of Time, and MacDonald is thrilled to have him there – as though somehow his stature in the eyes of the world renders him exempt from theological questioning. Second, his “commitment to the gospel.” This is an intriguing category to bring up, given that absolutely no attention was paid to the preaching of T.D. Jakes during the Elephant Room. One wonders exactly how Jakes’ pleas for seed offerings demonstrate “commitment to the gospel.” But then, finally, MacDonald returns to one of his favorite words: “fruitfulness.”
The meaning of this is at last fleshed out for us. When it comes to fruitfulness, Macdonald and Driscoll are to Jakes as a couple of small batteries are to a nuclear power plant. I think I’m on solid ground when I speculate that MacDonald isn’t presuming to talk about fruits of holiness or fruits of repentance here. There are only two things he can reasonably be assumed to mean: personal income or size of ministry – and we should charitably assume he means the latter. In fact, his summation of this session demonstrates exactly that:
I’d just like to reiterate the theme that you’ve talked about, the theme that you’ve talked about, and here’s a couple of things. 6000 churches in North America close their doors every year. 3500 Americans leave the church every day. I don’t mean leave the church to go across town to the other church. I mean, “I’m done with this.” Alright? Less than 20% of Americans attend church regularly. Only 15% of churches in the US are growing numerically. Only 15%, and only 2% of those are growing by conversion. We have a massive problem. The church of Jesus Christ in North America is hemorrhaging. It is in a freefall. We will be – and some of these successful churches can cause us to be confused about the true state of things. Steven Furtick’s baptizing a lot of people; that’s not going on in a lot of places. The church is hemorrhaging massively; it’s in a freefall. We need to wake up and figure out that the constant negative, destructive rhetoric is hurting the church; it’s not helping it. [emphasis added]
So there you have it. Everyone needs to shut up about needless stuff like doctrinal precision because the church is shrinking. Thank goodness for fruitful guys like Steven Furtick! It’s all about the numbers. Only those with massive ministries can possibly be big enough and fruitful enough to admonish the likes of MacDonald and his co-host, Mark Driscoll. Think I’m being unfair? Consider what Driscoll saidhe learned from the Elephant Room:
I did not grow up in an evangelical church. I was saved at 19 and planted a church at 25, which was too early, as I was not ready. The church I pastor is the only church of which I’ve ever been a member. Mars Hill has grown by 5,000 in a recent two-week time period, and we are now 15,000 people a week!
I say that not to brag, but to show how wonderfully complex it is to try and steward so much of God’s grace and so many people. Nothing changes until the leader changes, and I have a lot to learn. While I can and do learn a lot theologically from my tribe, the truth is there are not many evangelistically fruitful churches in my tribe and there are not any churches larger than ours I can learn from. So, I have to go outside of my theological tribe to learn certain things.
Go away, little people. You’re not fruitful enough to tell me about certain things.
Astounding, isn’t it? But then, even more than MacDonald, Driscoll is not known for his reserve. If he thinks something absolutely outrageous, he’ll eventually come right out and say it.
So now we understand “fruitful” – it means you win lots of converts. Two quick observations are in order if we would evaluate this biblically. First, you can search high and low for this usage of “fruit” in Scripture. The Bible talks about the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of righteousness, and fruit in keeping with repentance, but never about the fruit of enormous ecclesiastical empires.
Second, the Bible expressly warns us against assuming that large numbers are indicative of true fruitfulness. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus warned that only some apparent converts will ever produce fruit – many will fall away at the first trial while others will be choked by worldliness. No sooner had He explained this parable than He told the Parable of the Weeds, in which we learn that genuine fruitful Christians are not always easily distinguishable from false, hypocritical children of the world.
It would seem, then, that Scripture warns us to have a sober caution about large numbers. This is a warning which Driscoll and MacDonald simply ignore. MacDonald speaks of Jakes’ “commitment to the gospel” without inquiring at all into what the man actually preaches. Such questions seem to be immaterial; apparently you just don’t ask how “a nuclear power plant” produces all that energy.
The conclusion is clear: whatever MacDonald once was, however Driscoll presents himself – these men have become obsessed with large numbers. Having enormous congregations themselves, they will not admit any other criteria for the evaluation of ministries. They are not willing to listen to the reproof and admonition of anyone with a smaller ministry. They are willing to embrace a rank heretic and snake-oil salesmen and to cover his doctrinal nakedness with the cloak of evangelical respectability, provided only that they get to sit on stage with someone – anyone, it would appear – who has a larger church than their own.
So, what happened? Simply put: this elephant died from an acute case of idolatry – specifically the very modern form of idolatry which worships crowds, energy, and supposed influence. Its rotting carcass is a cautionary tale to us all: be careful not to love success more than truth.
That misplaced love is not only unwise; it runs headlong against all of Scripture’s warnings. It is not only uncharitable; it demonstrates a heartless disregard for the confused souls who have been misled by false teaching. It is not only distressing; it is disqualifying. These men should no longer be considered faithful ministers of the gospel. They simply cannot be trusted.
The original appears complete with a comments section for you to join the discussion right here.