The elephant is in OUR room: Shaking hands with Sabellius in the Southern Baptist Convention

[UPDATE THURS JAN 9, 2014 – 8:06PM: In light of new developments in this story, I have chosen to keep this posted but also point you to my new post — A cause for careful celebration?: On Phillips, Craig and Dean and Trinitarian Christianity. Please read it.]

Is the doctrine of the Trinity something worth standing resolute on anymore in the Southern Baptist Convention? The question, seemingly obvious among the people who turned back the liberal tide and fought for the inerrancy of Scripture 35 years ago, must be asked in the early days of 2014 when one looks at the schedule for the 2014 Empower Conference, an evangelism conference put on by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC).

Go ahead. Take a minute to look and then come back.

Let me just touch on a few of those names.

Alvin Reid got his M.Div. and Ph.D. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) and now teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS).

Ed Stetzer is President of Lifeway Research, a Visiting Professor at SEBTS, and Pastor of Grace Church in Hendersonville, TN.

Johnny Hunt is a former President of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Pastor of First Baptist Woodstock in Woodstock, GA.

Russell Moore is the former Dean of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and is now President of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

Fred Luter is Pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, LA, and is currently serving his second term as the  President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Phillips, Craig and Dean is a musical trio comprised of Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean which has won two Dove Awards and been nominated for nine. And they are modalists who deny the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Wait… WHAT?

The fact Phillips, Craig and Dean deny the orthodox Christian doctrine is not news. Their modalist doctrines are well known and well established. For those who have never heard the word modalist before, it is essentially a teaching that states that the one true God manifests Himself in three different Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God is the Father He is not manifesting Himself as the Son. When God is the Son He is not manifesting Himself as the Spirit. He is one God who uses different modes to manifest Himself.

Now that is a crude and unnuanced way to describe the doctrine, but it’s the correct way to understand it, and it falls well short of true Christian doctrine.

Historic Christian doctrine on the Trinity is that there is one God who eternally exists in three distinct Persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are co-equal and co-substantial — one in essence, substance, and nature.

Christians have for centuries recognized that an orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is a first-tier essential doctrine (i.e., necessary as to salvation), because an abandonment of this teaching denies what the Bible reveals about God Himself. Thus, to not hold to the Trinity as it has been defined here is not truly worship Yahweh, the God of the Bible.

Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in the early fourth century, was the chief defender of Trinitarian church when the false teaching of modalism seriously infected the church due to the teachings of a man named Arius. Eventually, the Council of Nicea was convened in 325 over the Arian Controversy and the doctrine of the Trinity was codified, so to speak, in the Nicene Creed (although the controversy did not completely go away by any means).

In fact, modalism is alive and well today in Christendom, in spheres like “oneness Pentecostalism,” to which Phillips, Craig and Dean subscribe, and it was perhaps seen most clearly in early 2013 when pastors and evangelical leaders such as James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll welcomed modalist proponent and prosperity gospel teacher T.D. Jakes into MacDonald’s “Elephant Room 2.” Jakes was questioned very lightly on his beliefs regarding the Trinity. He never disavowed modalist teachings, and in the end MacDonald, Driscoll, and everyone else who participated in that event abdicated their God-given responsibility in Titus 1:9 to “Hold fast to sound doctrine” and “Refute those who contradict.”

But now the harsh reality that this modalistic elephant is alive and kicking in the Southern Baptist Convention is staring us in the face, as the President of our Convention, the President of another of our Convention’s entities, a former President of the Convention, two other employees of Convention entities (one of whom, Stetzer, is extremely influential at Lifeway), and numerous other pastors are locking arms with Phillips, Craig and Dean for the purpose of “evangelism.” Yes, Athanasius is no longer rebuking Arius [or Sabellius even — see the addendum below], refuting his false teaching. He’s shaking his hand and calling him, “Brother.”

I hope the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention rescinds their invitation to Phillips, Craig and Dean immediately and publicly admits to this horrible mistake. Either that or I hope every single Southern Baptist leader on that schedule, many of whom are paid by Cooperative Program dollars, cancels their part in the engagement and admits their mistake. Skeptically, I will not hold my breath.

One must wonder how deep the theological downgrade in the SBC is when our leaders, who all affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and the Baptist Faith and Message, are willing to look the other way ON THE TRINITY!!! In a conference purporting to promote the proclamation of the gospel, one must wonder how that can really happen when the singers at this conference do not even affirm the doctrine of God.

It can’t. We cannot enlarge Christendom by diminishing the Christ.

AUTHOR’S ADDENDUM [MON JAN 6, 2014 – 11:55 AM]: This post was originally subtitled “Athanasius shakes hands with Arius in the Southern Baptist Convention.” I posted this very late last night (or very early this morning depending on your perspective). That’s no excuse for me misthinking, mistyping, misspeaking — however you want to put it. The Arian Controversy had to do with Arius’s teaching that the Son was subordinate to the Father in essence, not merely in the sense that Jesus submitted to the Father on earth. Modalism, otherwise known as Sabellianism, gets the latter name from the third century heretic Sabellius, who taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are merely the three ways God manifests Himself. I apologize for the error and regret any distraction it might pose from what I believe to be an important post for a very important issue.

Author: Matt Privett

Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor.

30 thoughts on “The elephant is in OUR room: Shaking hands with Sabellius in the Southern Baptist Convention”

  1. Hey Matt,

    Don’t know if you remember me from college, but I think we had a few classes together.

    I wanted to make a couple remarks about your post, then ask about a question behind the questions you raise.

    1. Did you watch the Elephant Room 2? I did, and I felt like Jakes was directly asked about his belief in modalism. He didn’t disavow it, but he did clearly state that he does not align with it anymore. I would submit that as probably the most well-known pastor in his denomination, that’s a huge step!

    2. Here’s what I read into your post as a question behind the question: How far do we, as the SBC, reach in ecumenical involvement? I know that this is not an ecumenical event, as it is designed for Texas Southern Baptists, but when you bring in a speaker or, in this case, musical act, that is not your denomination it becomes ecumenical.

    I had a situation where I had a guest worship leader at our church where I serve as the Worship Pastor. He was from another denomination (UMC). Great and talented guy, really did a great job at leading the people. After the fact, we found out he is gay. In the UMC church that is fine. In the SBC, obviously not. So we decided as a staff that we would no longer share a platform of leadership on ecumenical events with this church.

    I think that you raise a good argument about PCD being the worship leaders at an event where they are supposed to be leading worship of a God whose identity is different than theirs.

    But I think I heard the thump thump of the bus wheels right over the top of TD Jakes when you brought him into the conversation. It felt a little like a red herring argument.

    1. Chuck,

      Good to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. I did see the applicable parts of the Elephant Room 2. Many, including myself, were far less than satisfied by what we felt were “softball” questions to Jakes. I believe Driscoll was the one doing most of that questioning. It felt to me that, knowing this criticism of Jakes was already out there, they both in their questions and answers tried to get through that issue as quickly as possible within really digging into it so that they could move on. Jakes’s affirmation of the Trinity, if that’s what someone wants to call it, was not really anything he hasn’t said in the past, but it was far from a repudiation of his much more clearly espoused modalism. Jakes isn’t a red herring because, like PCD, he is a modalist who (through what I would call a serious, negligent lack of discernment) is being welcomed into the fold as orthodox when he (and they) should not be.

      As far as ecumenism goes, I’m not one of these guys who feel that Southern Baptists should not be dealing with not Southern Baptists. There are a few of those out there and they’re vocal. But if you had to have a musical act at your evangelism conference, surely the organizers could have picked someone different. Surely the people in charge of this were not ignorant to the fact PCD are modalists. I can’t speak for every speaker knowing PCD would be there. I would hope that if they don’t know they do now and will cancel, as I write in the post. Our ecumenism can go only as far as the necessary doctrines go. Mohler’s theological triage is not a perfect model, but I’m sure he would agree the Trinity is a first-tier doctrine (I’m starting to wonder about how former Dean and VP).

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I know this might seem picky, but Arius was not a modalist. He was an Arian (the doctrine was named after him). There’s actually a big difference between Modalism and Arianism, though both undermine trinitarianism.

    1. Jeff, you are absolutely right about that. I was typing this up late last night (too late) and shouldn’t have missed that. I’m going to add an addendum and change the title of this post.

    2. I saw that too. Arius was not a modalist at all. He taught that the Son was not God like God the Father is God – he was a created being.

  3. This type of silliness is a large part of why I left the Reformed Baptist church to be a part of a OPC work – I want to be part of a presbytery of sound churches, not part of a vanilla, debatable SBC.

  4. “Surely the people in charge of this were not ignorant to the fact PCD are modalists.”

    Awesome question. Hard to imagine their refusal to answer it when you posed it to them.

    1. As a matter of fact the coordinator of the conference has been asked. He said PCD signed a statement affirming “Southern Baptist theology,” and then the one asking the question was rebuked for asking the question in the first place, being told he should’ve gone to PCD first, as if they placed themselves on the program.

      Follow up questions were a non starter, but one would be… If they did sign such a statement, and that statement was a clear affirmation of the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, knowing their beliefs on the Trinity have been public for almost twenty years now, why would that fact not then be made public as a celebration of truth triumphing over error?

      Another… Are we to understand that each speaker at this conference has been made aware of this signing of a statement that has not been made public?

      Because while there many things I do not know, I’m sure a public repudiation of modalism by a group as well known as PCD would be something I would not have missed.

      1. How could they sign the BFM statement and be honest in their signing? There beliefs are not a secret and has been known for years.

  5. This issue confuses me. Would you be concerned if PCD’s music was used at the conference, or is it the fact that PCD is physically at this conference? The lyrics in PCD’s music do not communicate their modalist beliefs, so does that fact that they ascribe to modalism make their music unusable in a setting like this? If the lyrics they are singing are orthodox, I don’t see the problem. I do understand that if they are physically there they share equal standing as a face of the SBC as Stetzer, Moore, etc., and that would be a concern.

    1. I used to enjoy their music before I became aware of their beliefs. In fact, after thinking about this situation a lot about all of this today I found myself humming “Favorite Song of All” off of I think their first album. An examination of their lyrics will reveal that several of their songs are good. But here’s the deal: Given that their beliefs have been public for almost as long as they’ve been public figures, and given that there has been no clear repudiation of any kind of those beliefs, I see their presence and the use of their music as a de facto excusing of their purporting one of the ancient heresies. If there’s one thing we have to start with being clear on it’s the nature of God. Regrettably they appear to fail that test right now, and several Southern Baptist leaders seem willing to overlook that and extend the hand of partnership. I can go there.

  6. Can we have a citation of something reputable that proves they still hold to heretical beliefs? Their wikipedia entry says they are no longer modalists, but you can’t really trust everything you read off the internet can you?

    1. That they released a letter in 1999 addressing this is old news. In that letter, linked to on Wikipedia, they cite the Apostles Creed, yet that Creed itself isn’t explicitly Trinitarian. An orthodox Christian or a modalist can cite it because both “believe” in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The key is in language the churches these men minister continue to use in their doctrinal statements, such as believing that God is “revealed” as the Father, Son, and Spirit, or that He is “Triune in His manifestation.”

      Wikipedia aside (and anyone can edit that so it’s hardly a reputable source of information), the burden of proof lies on Phillips, Craig and Dean here; and, the burden of proof also lies on those putting out and participating in this conference. PCD’s modalism is well attested to over two decades. If they no longer hold those beliefs, why are they still in churches that do? Why has there been no clear cut statement from them or the conference?

  7. Thank you – you make a good point that given all that was known about their background, if they had repented of their previous position they ought to have made that crystal clear with no room for misunderstanding.

  8. This is sad but not surprising however. As to the TD Jakes thing, I saw the ER where James and Mark “confronted” him. He danced everywhere, after reviewing over and over I still do not see him repenting in anyway of that unbiblical doctrine. As to him not agreeing with it now, he has not left the Oneness Pentacostal church he pastors which has a staement of faith which upholds the oneness view of the trinity. IF he turned from it he certainly is not uncomfortable pastoring a church with a staement fo faith that is totally different than he holds as pastor. However it seems apparent he has not turned from it and he is welcome as a peach at some Southern Baptist Churches and is the “favorite Pastor/Preacher” of Southern Baptist darling Steven Furtick so having PCD on stage for Southern baptist these days should not surprise us, really I am surprised any Southern baptist Pastor IS surprised by this. We carry Beth Moore in the LifeWay stores with the claim she is Southern baptist but many of her teachings are not Southern baptist and she no longer belongs to a church that is a member of the SBC (at least when one checks the SBC web site and the church web site) they are an “affiliate church” with the liberal convention in Texas but make absolutely no claim to anything Baptist on their web site and hold to the sign gifts as applicable to the church today “especially the gift of prophecy” according to her churches statement of faith. Also she is now praising female pastors and going to hear at least one at Lakewood (need I say more)
    Anyways, with this as a sampling why are we surprised that oneness pentecostal music is welcomed and affirmed by their presence and contribution. I do not know their songs but have a hard time believing that many of their songs would not contain at least pentecostal doctrine as does Mike Specks, which is used by a host of Southern Baptist churches who evidentialy have no moorings.
    Alan Davis

  9. [Note from Matt: The name of this poster has been edited for a vulgarity and the fake email address removed. That is all that has been edited. I remind all reading this to take a moment to read the Comments Policy for this site. I have let things like “first and last name” slide on this post since a) This site doesn’t get many comments so I forgot about it and b) This particular post has been widely read so I’ve been eager to interact. Please abide by the simple rules, though. Thank you.]

    I used to be SBC. Then, finally, I realized that they treated anyone who couldn’t act exactly like them, inside or outside the Church, with a complete lack of Biblical love. SBC has been around less than 200 years. It took me 20+ years to come to grips with the reality that they are not the god they puff themselves up to be. If you believe the musicians do not have a relationship with Christ because they do not attend a Southern Baptist Church, then you should probably suck it up and send them an email instead of talking smack about them on a blog on the internet for everyone to read. You should probably also spend your time figuring out how to show Christ’s love to people instead of being big fat turd head.

    1. Hello You’reAn,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post, although I have to wonder if you bothered to actually read it. I’m not sure how you could’ve arrived at the conclusion I said one must attend a Southern Baptist church to have a relationship with Christ. In fact, if you read the post you would know I was highly critical of some Southern Baptists, and I’m the Pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, and I have been a Southern Baptist for almost all of my 37 years on this earth.

      And while I am thankful you felt passionate enough to interact on my site, I’d be negligent if I did not tell you it may not be the best idea to tell someone they ought to show Christ’s love, then in the next phrase label them a “big fat turd head.” I have not personally attacked anyone in this post. I have criticized and called for errors to be corrected. There’s a ocean’s worth of difference between those two things.

      Also, one not need have a potty mouth or potty keyboard to make a point. You might want to read something I often need to be reminded of myself…

      Ephesians 4:29-32: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth [or your keyboard, I’d add], but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”

      Have a nice evening.

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