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How the Elephant Room is Redefining the Pastoral Office

By Tim Raymond –

Although I had intended to begin a new series today on virtues to cultivate for better expositional preaching, I feel compelled to write about something that’s been on my mind and heart for the last few days.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be familiar with what happened at last week’s Elephant Room 2.  On January 25, 2012 Pastor James MacDonald held a summit of well-known mega-church pastors for the purpose of frankly discussing various matters related to pastoral ministry.  The round-table discussions were simulcast from MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel to 65 locations around North America and watched by thousands, most of whom are younger evangelical pastors.

Far and away, the session that’s attracted the most attention has been that between MacDonald, Mark Driscoll, and TD Jakes.  The reason this particular session was so scintillating was because Jakes, until relatively recently, had been generally considered outside the bounds of historic, orthodox Christianity.  Both his modalist-sounding statements regarding the Godhead and his unashamed health-and-wealth prosperity “gospel” teaching, ideas he has publicly propounded for years, marked him out as, at best, a seriously confused brother and, at worst, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The purpose of this particular post is not to evaluate the gospel according to Jakes.  Others with brains far larger than my own have already gone to great lengths to do so [see for example here].  Neither is this post intended to address the question of whether or not it was appropriate for MacDonald to invite someone like Jakes to the discussion in the first place [if you’re looking for that sort of thing, read Thabiti Anyabwile’s moving piece here].  Rather, in this post I’d like to consider what I believe is one of the most harmful side-effects the Elephant Room may not even realize it is encouraging.  Allow me to state my point plainly: By lifting up men with minimal theological commitments as examples to pastors, the Elephant Room is proclaiming, perhaps unwittingly, that a rigorous concern for sound doctrine is not essential to the pastoral office.  Let me explain.

TD Jakes may be the most obvious demonstration of this point, so let’s begin there.  Is Jakes an eloquent communicator?  Absolutely.  Is he able to efficiently oversee a massive organization?  Obviously.  Is he a sharp dresser?  No doubt.  But when it comes to a concern for sound doctrine, no sane Christian would ever confuse the man with John Owen or Charles Spurgeon.  Since ER2 went public, the debate has become, “Is Jakes a confused brother or a false teacher?”  But either way you answer that question, all acknowledge the man is not a defender of sound teaching.  And yet he was held up as an example for pastors to emulate.

Something similar holds true for a number of the other individuals bought to the Elephant Room.  While there are certainly some notable exceptions (e.g., Driscoll, author of Doctrine), if you skim over the line-up for the two Elephant Room conferences, a good percentage of the men would be self-consciously a-theological.  By a-theological, I’m certainly not saying that the men are heretics or apostates.  I do not doubt their conversions or sincerity.  Rather, it’s that they do not emphasize sound doctrine in their preaching and teaching, do not have a firm grasp of sound doctrine themselves, and, frankly, do not see this as a problem.  Anyone with any familiarity with the Elephant Room should immediately concede this.  I recently read an article by one of the men present at last year’s Elephant Room (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty) where he derided efforts by churches to emphasize sound doctrine, claiming they hinder outreach.  Again, these men are held forth as examples for pastors to emulate.

Now please do not misunderstand me.  Do not hear what I am not saying.  I am not saying that we do not have much to learn from those with whom we disagree.  I have benefitted enormously from those with theological commitments very different from my own.  A godly Methodist pastor has taught me more about prayer than perhaps any other single individual.  I learned how to preach by listening to the sermons of a community church pastor and I’ve learned much about the character of God and the way of salvation from my Presbyterian brethren.  Lutherans have done much to point me to the objective work of the Cross and some of my favorite authors are Anglicans.  However there is a massive difference between disagreeing over theology and disagreeing that theology is important.  And for the pastor, thinking that sound doctrine is insignificant is simply not an option.

Even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles makes this undeniable.  One of the prerequisites to the pastoral office is that a man be able to teach sound doctrine (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:5-9).  Part of the basic job description of the pastor is to proclaim sound doctrine and refute error (Titus 1:9).  Pastors are charged to train up their entire congregation in sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13-16; Titus 2:1).  Pastors are to preach the Word in season and out since the time is coming when those who do not tolerate sound doctrine will infiltrate the church (2 Timothy 4:1-4 [parallelism indicates that preaching the Word is preaching sound doctrine]; cf. Acts 20:28ff.).  And the Lord’s stamp of approval on a man’s ministry is partially measured by his commitment to sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:6).  Therefore, for any man to say, “I’m not very concerned about sound doctrine,” is simply another way of saying, “I’m not qualified to be a pastor,” let alone an example for pastors to emulate.

So in essence, what both the Elephant Rooms have done is to powerfully communicate to thousands of younger pastors that a rigorous concern for sound doctrine is not essential to pastoral faithfulness or success.  This is not only a radical departure from the biblical definition of the pastoral office, it contradicts the way the church has historically viewed the pastorate, and, I’d venture to bet, the way in which most Christians outside of America view the pastor today.

My prayer (and I’ve been sincerely praying this) is that the damaging effects of the Elephant Room will not last long.  But if they do, I have every hope that the Lord will continue to build His church through pastors and congregations, perhaps in other parts of the world, who understand that the office of pastor means defending the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

“Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God…Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.”John Calvin (1509-1564), Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, p. xii (emphasis added)

Tim Raymond has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, camping, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.

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