For more than a decade, Pentecostal Bishop T.D. Jakes has lived in the shadow of a Time magazine cover that asked, "Is this man the next Billy Graham?" That was a loaded question, because of tensions behind the scenes between the multi-media Dallas superstar and many mainstream Christian leaders.
Now, this legendary preacher -- often listed as one of America's most powerful evangelicals -- has taken a big step toward convincing his critics that he is, in fact, an evangelical. Jakes has, after years of rumors about private assurances, publicly affirmed that he believes in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Rev. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle asked the question directly, during the recent Elephant Room conference at the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. This annual event brings together Christian leaders from a variety of backgrounds to discuss tough subjects. Baptist Press has circulated the interview transcript nationwide.
"So you believe," said Driscoll, that "there's one God, three Persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?"
Jakes didn't flinch: "Absolutely."
That one word represents a significant change for Jakes, the leader of The Potter's House, a 30,000-member megachurch that serves as the base for his thriving work in books, Gospel music, social-justice causes and a host of other ministries. While the church is nondenominational, the preacher has long been associated with an unorthodox stream of faith known as "Oneness" Pentecostalism.
The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is one God, yet this God has been revealed in history as three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a core doctrine that unites Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians worldwide -- including most who embrace Pentecostal and "charismatic" Christianity, the world's fastest growing Christian movement.
The split between Trinitarian and the "Oneness" Pentecostals occurred in stages early in the 20th Century, soon after the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. That famous spiritual earthquake ignited the interracial Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing and "speaking in tongues."
"Oneness" leaders denied the reality of the Trinity, saying there is one God -- period. Thus, they continue to baptize in the name of Jesus, alone, rather than using references to "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Critics call this approach "modalism."
In the Elephant Room interview, Jakes noted that his father was Methodist and his mother was Baptist. However, he stressed that he made his own decision to become a Christian in a "Oneness" Pentecostal church. Thus, he said, "I ended up Metha-Bapti-Costal, in a way."
Several scripture passages influenced his change of mind on this issue, he said, especially the account of the baptism of Jesus.
"Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, for example, coming up out of the water [and] the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, the Father speaks from heaven and we see all three of them on one occasion," said Jakes. This and other references "began to make me rethink some of my ideas and some of the things that I was taught.
"I got kind of quiet about it for a while. Because when you are a leader and you are in a position of authority, sometimes you have to back up and ponder for a minute, and really think things through."
"Oneness" churches represent a relatively small piece of the global Pentecostal movement -- about 5 percent of an estimated 640 million believers. Nevertheless, Jakes has clearly been trying to find a way to keep expanding his work into the evangelical, "charismatic" mainstream without cutting his ties to his past, said historian Vinson Synan of Regent University, author of numerous books on Pentecostalism.
"The reality is that he had to address this issue sooner or later because he has all kinds of followers, including lots of Trinitarians," said Synan. "This man sells millions of books, makes movies and is an award-winning Gospel singer. He's a major force in Christian culture in this land. ...
"Well, he might not be able to keep doing all of that if millions of evangelicals think he is some kind of heretic. So he makes this one statement and he's cleared with most evangelicals and charismatics, most of the time. He's on his way to being more acceptable to just about everybody. That's big, in the post-denominational world in which we live."