The recent resignation of a prominent pastor from a parachurch organization raises questions about the role such organizations can and should play within evangelicalism.
James MacDonald, pastor of the six-campus Harvest Bible Chapel, abruptly resigned from the Gospel Coalition on January 24 because of "methodological differences." MacDonald told Christianity Today his resignation was partly prompted by an invitation he extended to popular black preacher T. D. Jakes to appear in a debate event MacDonald sponsors.
Many evangelicals have accused Jakes of heretical views of the Trinity and of preaching a prosperity gospel theology. Observers questioned his planned appearance at MacDonald's conference, the Elephant Room, when MacDonald extended an invitation to Jakes last fall.
"I think what it really came down to was, I felt that what I was doing was right," said MacDonald, who said he wasn't expecting the backlash. "I wasn't going to be pressured into uninviting [Jakes] under any circumstances."
MacDonald said he wants to help Jakes approach an orthodox view of the Trinity.
"I don't think that throwing grenades in his lap as he seeks to ascend the hill of biblical orthodoxy represents the behavior ethic of Christ," he said. "I believe that face-to-face conversation between people in the family of God is a way of advancing the mission of unity that Christ gave to us."
The Elephant Room is a day-long event where pastors discuss theological beliefs. Jakes said at the January gathering that he has moved away from a "Oneness" view of the Godhead and embraces an orthodox definition of the Trinity.
In a statement a week after MacDonald resigned, Gospel Coalition leaders Tim Keller and D. A. Carson disagreed with MacDonald's approach to the Elephant Room invitation.
"There is always a place for a Paul to reason with pagan philosophers in the Areopagus," the statement said. "That is a bit different from trying to reform another's theology in a public setting where the trappings and attitudes largely suggest everyone is already on the same side." Keller declined interview requests for this article. Carson did not return calls for comment.
The disagreement over how to relate to church leaders with different beliefs points to a deeper problem the Gospel Coalition faces, said Carl Trueman, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Though Gospel Coalition leaders say the organization is not intended to be a church, the organization has church-like functions with a confessional statement, a network of regional chapters, and an online church directory.
"When you're allowing churches to be listed as Gospel Coalition churches, when you start issuing statements of faith, you start on the road of looking like a church," he said. "[The Gospel Coalition] is the kind of organization that could rapidly morph at the functional level into a new denomination."
The problem with functioning like a denomination is that the self-appointed coalition board of the Gospel Coalition does not have a church-like accountability structure to manage disagreements, Trueman said.
The fact that the Gospel Coalition is not a church and does not have any formal membership makes it difficult to respond to Jakes and MacDonald, said Owen Strachan, a church history professor at Boyce College who blogs for the Gospel Coalition.
The Gospel Coalition can remove people from its council, but people who connect with the coalition do not join the same way they might become a member of a church. MacDonald said his church will stay on the congregation list on the Gospel Coalition website.
"This is almost a perfect storm of evangelical confusion. It fits in with our historic identity," said Strachan, who thought MacDonald should not have asked Jakes to the Elephant Room, or MacDonald should have asked more pointed questions at the January 25 event. "We sort of rush in where angels fear to tread and then we're left to sort everything out in public."
Part of the solution to the perfect storm is for groups like the Gospel Coalition to clearly limit their mission, Trueman said. Clearly defined parachurch groups such as missions organizations and campus ministries avoid the need for church-like order, he said.
"Trans-denominational organizations should set their ambitions very low. Be a group that puts on a great conference every two years. Be a group that runs a super website," Trueman said. "Never, ever try to make yourself anything that looks vaguely like a church or like a denomination, because then you're starting to tread into territory where it's not going to be good enough to have a self-appointed leadership."
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Previous coverage related to the Elephant Room and the Gospel Coalition includes:
T. D. Jakes Embraces Doctrine of the Trinity, Moves Away from 'Oneness' View | (January 27, 2012)
What's Next for The Gospel Coalition | Co-founder Don Carson on the organization's growth. (May 12, 2009)
Tethered to the Center | The Gospel Coalition is committed to core evangelical beliefs and wide-ranging cultural engagement. (October 17, 2007)