There is a heated controversy brewing in the evangelical world – one that has the power to fundamentally alter the shape of one of the most influential churches in the Chicagoland area. The roots of the controversy stretch back to 2011 and the birth of an idea called The Elephant Room. Put simply, the premise behind this event was to gather various leaders both from within the church and from outside of it to discuss “the most Christ honoring ways of building a church.” The event was recorded, simulcast and eventually sold in the interest of reaching and influencing the widest possible array of Christian leaders around the globe.
In a session entitled “Can’t We All Just Get Along vs. My Way or the Highway,” Pastors James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel and Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church engaged in a discussion about the boundaries of Christian associations. The dialog was kick-started with a vigorous debate over a recent blog post by Furtick, in which he had named T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyers and Joel Osteen as pastors that he greatly admired. At the time, Pastor Furtick attempted to defend his admiration of these leaders by arguing that he was a “big boy” who knew how to eat the fish while leaving the bones. But Pastor MacDonald would have none of it. Looking right at Furtick, he said,
The implication here, of course, was that while Furtick might be able to separate that which was edifying from that which was not, his congregation might not be so selective in their ability to discern. What is critical to understand from this exchange is that Pastor MacDonald doubted a congregation’s ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, and thus rebuked Furtick for his decision to openly endorse Jakes, Meyers and Osteen.
Now, fast forward to the early days of January 2012. As Harvest Bible Chapel worked to finalize the preparations for The Elephant Room 2, various online discernment ministries began to take MacDonald to task. For less than 12 months after rebuking Pastor Furtick for his endorsements of T.D. Jakes, Pastor MacDonald was preparing to host Bishop Jakes at this year’s conference. As the pressure began to mount, certain members of The Gospel Coalition, a voluntary association of reformed pastors and leaders, began to confront MacDonald over his decision to bring Jakes into the discussion. At stake were two critical theological issues upon which Jakes deviates from orthodox Christianity.
First, Bishop Jakes was ordained in a Oneness Pentecostal movement, a movement that denies the historical formulations of Trinitarian doctrine that date all the way back to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Put simply, Oneness theology suggests that God is not One in three Persons, but One that simply “manifests” Himself in different ways at different times. Thus, if you read Scripture from a Modalist perspective, you are forced to allegorize and deny the historicity of certain key events in the Gospels, such as Christ praying to the Father and the appearance of the Trinity at the Christ’s baptism.
Secondly, and almost equally troubling, is the fact that Bishop Jakes has been alleged to preach a “Prosperity Gospel.” Broadly speaking, the “Prosperity Gospel” is an errant preaching, which claims that the Bible promises financial blessings to all that follow Jesus the Christ. It teaches that positive thinking, positive speech, faith and donations to Christian ministries will almost certainly lead to the increase of one’s material wealth in this world. Conversely, it also implicitly suggests that Christians who are not experiencing material wealth may lack faith or have serious patterns of sin in their lives.
Now, what needs to be said at this moment, in the most straight forward way possible, is that Pastor MacDonald was not necessarily wrong for inviting Bishop Jakes to The Elephant Room 2 conference. For the very mission statement of the conference states:
“Our goal is unity, however a true unity cannot be fashioned in pretense or denial of truth nor can it be won among those who prefer sectarianism to the unity Jesus prayed for. To advance Christ’s call to unity we must do what men have always done, we must push and prod and challenge and sharpen each other’s beliefs and methods.”
In other words, if Pastor MacDonald wanted to invite Bishop Jakes to the conference for the purpose of hashing out differences over Trinitarian theology and the preaching of a “Prosperity Gospel,” he could have provided a genuine service to the global Christian community. But unfortunately, that is not what happened.
When Pastor MacDonald began to receive pushback from The Gospel Coalition, he made the choice to publicly resign on his blog. The most troubling aspect of this resignation is the wording he used to defend his decision to disassociate himself from the group. In arguing that he was separating from the Coalition because of “all that God has called [him] to do,” MacDonald very unwisely rooted his argument in God’s “calling.” Stop and think about it. When someone roots their actions in the language of a “calling,” they are explicitly stating that God Himself has spoken in such as way as to direct their actions. To challenge that is to challenge God Himself, and to do that is to act in a sinful manner. So when Pastor MacDonald says that he is “called” to lead in a certain fashion, he implicitly suggests that anyone who disagrees with his leading is acting in a sinful manner.
Following Pastor MacDonald’s resignation, plans for The Elephant Room 2 went forward as intended. Unfortunately, as the surrounding drama continued to unfold, matters only got worse. According to multiple online sources, when two Christian bloggers, who have been openly critical of Jakes’ participation, arrived at the Rolling Meadows campus to attend the conference, they were allegedly pulled aside and told that they would have to leave the premises. The irony here, of course, is that the conference is supposed to be a venue for modeling how Christians ought to engage in open dialog over differing theological opinions. These two bloggers had paid to attend the conference, but according to their own testimony and the testimony of another individual who overheard the exchange, they were threatened with arrest if they did not leave the property immediately.
But all of that is nothing more than the sideshow. The real question is: what happened at the main event?
As you can see from this nearly word-for-word transcription of the event, Pastor MacDonald, Pastor Driscoll and Bishop Jakes engaged in a free-flowing discussion related to Trinitarian doctrine. Now the point here is not to debate whether Jakes’ current understanding of the nature of God falls within orthodox boundaries. In fact, for the sake of this argument, I am going to concede that perhaps he is moving in the right direction and I am going to set it aside. The point of this discussion is to call your attention to the fact that not a single thing was said about Jakes’ association with the “Prosperity Gospel” movement. Indeed, Bryan Crawford Loritts, a fellow pastor and open supporter of Pastor MacDonald’s decision to invite Jakes, said that such an omission was “disappointing.”
Disappointing? Is that it? That’s all that he has to say after Pastor MacDonald openly chastised Furtick just 12 months ago for his lack of wisdom in publicly endorsing Jakes’ ministry. With all due respect, that represents a serious lack of discernment on the part of Pastor Loritts, a man whom I typically hold in high regard. When the issue is a categorical failure to challenge a man on allegations that he preaches the “Prosperity Gospel,” a one-word dismissive assessment is simply unacceptable. And MacDonald, himself, would have likely agreed with me at one point in time. Consider his own words when he preached on this very subject of “four false Gospels” several years ago:
Did you hear what he said beginning at the 2:35 mark in the video above?
“… And pastors with these massive, massive homes. And preaching a “Prosperity Gospel” where Jesus wants you wealthy. It’s sickening! That is a distortion of the Gospel that was unheard of through the entire history of the church, but in the last 50 years, it is front and center stage in the Western World. You go try to preach that in the Third World. Those little people will laugh you right off the stage. What are you talking about? Only here, where we have no tolerance for truth and embrace the messages that bless our hearts … We’re gonna get to this passage in a few moments. It says right at the end of Second Timothy: ‘Preach the word in season and out of season. The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled they will accumulate teachers for themselves and will turn their ears away from the truth and will be turned aside to myths.’ We’re in that time, people.”
So in the not-so-distant past, we have Pastor James MacDonald on public record suggesting that the “Prosperity Gospel” is a “false gospel” that is “unheard of through the entire history of the church.” He is openly mocking pastors with expensive watches, cars and homes and declares that it’s “sickening!”
But fast-forward just a few years, and the times have really changed. MacDonald now owns a massive home and is known to drive luxury automobiles. And whereas he was once ready to denounce the “Prosperity Gospel” as a “false gospel,” he now sits at a table next to one of the most influential men to allegedly preach a “Prosperity Gospel” in the United States and says absolutely nothing.
Perhaps this is because he is no longer as concerned about wealthy pastors as he once was. Consider, if you will, this exchange between Pastor MacDonald and Pastor David Platt at last year’s Elephant Room. Slated to discuss the issue of “prosperity vs. poverty,” the conversation was kicked off by Platt who was arguing that we, in the West, live in a context of extreme self-indulgence. This, without question, flies in the face of Christ’s call to radical abandonment. While Platt conceded the fact that asceticism is wrong, he also challenged people to consider the trap of materialism. Ultimately, his thesis revolved around the idea that there is an urgency to eternity and that we, in the West, need to invest more in eternity and less in the comforts of the here and now. To that end, Platt’s church cut 83% of its operational budgets to recommit itself to missions. What follows are some of the various responses that MacDonald offered:
“Missions is so broken, it’s just flat out broken. Why do we have to keep hearing about 1,000 people groups who haven’t heard the gospel? We’ve given enough over the years that that should be addressed by now.”
In one sense, this may be true. It is quite possible that a lack of accountability over the past century has lead to little demonstratable progress in missions. But does that mean we’ve given enough? Is the proper response to simply cut it off and focus the resources on our own churches?
“It’s pathetic that you cut Cheez-its from kids. The people in your congregation have enough to provide snacks and missions.”
How is teaching children the virtue of sacrificial giving, for the sake of the Kingdom, pathetic?
“It’s the cheap mentality.”
What’s cheap? Sacrificial giving? Bear in mind, the children in Platt’s church are there each Sunday for 2 to 3 hours. Is the hunger they experience so great after such a short period of time that they need refreshment?
“None of Jesus parables were about giving. It was about stewarding.”
If stewarding is defined by the wise management of money so that one can provide for his or her material needs, then this statement is simply indefensible. Was the woman dropping her last coin into the Temple coffers wisely stewarding her money? She had nothing left for herself!
“You’re not supposed to divest your money. You’re supposed to multiply it … The idea of immediate divesting of money is not healthy.”
If this is true, than I would love know how MacDonald would teach on the passage of Jesus and His encounter with the Rich Young Ruler. Because a face-value reading of that text seems to suggest that there was an immediate call for the Ruler to willfully surrender his wealth. Was Christ calling for him to be “unhealthy?”
Are you starting to see where the problem may lay? Not only has MacDonald embraced much of the lifestyle that he once openly described as “sickening,” his theology of wealth seems to be fundamentally shifting as well. Consider this final quotation taken from the “notes” that are posted on The Gospel Coalitions website:
“We’re supposed to multiply and enjoy money … There is a theology of joy that isn’t fully developed yet … I’ve seen what it looks like for kids to grow up in poverty theology. I really fear the stingy, cheap—the wives have to work because the church doesn’t pay the pastors enough. You [David Platt] don’t yet understand the toll that ministry takes on your family. I want you to understand that some of the abundance that comes from writing a best-selling book, don’t cut your kids off from the rewards that come from faithful ministry. Don’t feel guilty about giving your family some joy and enjoying the abundance God gives you.”
Earlier this week, Pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel sat down with Bishop T.D. Jakes for stated purpose of hashing out theological differences. But when it came time speak out – when it came time to stand up address “Prosperity preaching,” something that he once called a “false gospel” – he said nothing. The question is: why? Why did he say nothing? Does he no longer feel that the “Prosperity Gospel” is problematic? If so, I would imagine that a great many people at Harvest would like an answer as to why not. On the other hand, if he wants to stand by his previous condemnations of this “false gospel “, than he just did the very thing that he chastised Pastor Furtick for just one year ago. He put a man with a serious theological problem in front of the camera, said nothing about the issue, and asked his sheep to swallow the fish without the bones.
It is time to ask some serious questions about what is happening at Harvest Bible Chapel under the leadership of Pastor James MacDonald. Why, in the last few years, have three prominent elders stepped off of the elder board and left the church, one of whom was the chairman for more than 20 years? Might it have something to do with Pastor MacDonald’s post-2008 decision to lessen the board’s oversight of day-to-day activities? And why have so many significant, high-level staff members departed in the last three years? I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but from the outside looking in, it would seem that something is seriously amiss in the halls of Harvest – something so wrong that churches in the Fellowship are beginning to leave. and highly-regarded pastors scheduled to speak at Harvest events are mutually deciding that their participation in the event may no longer be wise.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Additional articles on James MacDonald and the Elephant Room 2 can be found at:
 All quotes in this post are taken from publicly posted notes taken during the live events. These live notes are available through The Gospel Coalition website. These quotes may or may not represent verbatim transcriptions of the live event. Nevertheless, Harvest Bible Chapel has not publicly disavowed these notes as being fair representations of the content of the dicussions. This quote can be found at: http://thejakers.tumblr.com/post/4238313122/elephant-room-conversation-4-unity-vs-discernment. An alternative quote, which records: “I wish you would grow up.” can be found at: http://renewedmess.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/a-day-in-the-elephant-room/.
 If the reader is interested, the vast majority of James MacDonald’s sermons are available through Walk in the Word ministries and through Harvest Bible Chapel.
 The reported account of this incident, along with links to other accounts, can be found at: http://apprising.org/2012/01/25/chris-rosebrough-and-erin-benziger-not-allowed-into-elephant-room-2/
 2 Timothy 4:2-3.
 All of these quotes are taken directly from the following site. Having said that, this is not a word-for-word transcription of the event. Therefore, if MacDonald feels that these quotes do not accurately represent the content of the interview, he needs to make either the video or a word-for-word transcription available for review. In the end, I stand by The Gospel Coalition who felt that this was an accurate rendering of the content fo the interview. http://thejakers.tumblr.com/post/4241156478/elephant-room-conversation-6-prosperity-vs-poverty