INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I was overwhelmed by the response that I received for my post last week on Red Letter Christians which called out John MacArthur and the speakers at his controversial “Strange Fire” Conference as being divisive and harmful to the body of Christ. Many folks reacted positively to my perspective and felt that my prediction that this conference marked the beginning of the end of an era of Conservative Evangelicalism was right on target. Many others, however, were very offended by my post, which admittedly was a little edgy, and accused me of misrepresenting John MacArthur and some of the other teachers I wrote about in the piece.
One thing that I have learned in my short time as a writer is that listening to the critique and criticism of others, though sometimes hurtful, is always helpful and refining to the one receiving it as much as they may hate hearing it. As Aristotle once said, “Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
I have heard out my critics and after reflecting on the post a bit, I felt compelled to offer a follow-up response.
When I became a Christian at the age of twelve, it was through the faithful ministry of an independent, fundamentalist Baptist Church that was part of the IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America), an organization that John MacArthur was once closely affiliated with. During my years as a fundamentalist, I learned a lot from the ministry of John MacArthur and his colleagues. No one can deny the positive impact that MacArthur and his ministry Grace to You have had on the body of Christ. No one can ignore the gifts that MacArthur has given to Christians worldwide through his books, radio ministry, and Study Bibles. John MacArthur is a deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ and a man of great conviction and boldness- something that is truly lacking in much of the Church today.
However, all of MacArthur’s gifts and the positive impact of his ministry do not give him a “free pass” when he, as a high-profile minister of the Gospel, steps very publicly out of line and begins to divide and destroy the bride of Christ instead of building her up. And that is exactly was Dr. MacArthur and many other big-name Evangelical preachers are doing these days.
The “Strange Fire” Conference was, by MacArthur’s own admission, an attempt to divide the Church. In his closing address, Pastor MacArthur made an appeal to his charismatic friends (like John Piper, C.J. Mahaney, D.A. Carson etc). According to Tim Challies, MacArthur said: “Truth is divisive by nature. Jesus came to bring a sword. Truth, by its very nature, is separated by error. It is more important to be divided by truth than united by error.” When accused of attacking Christians, his response, again according to Challies was: “…this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians that lacks accountability. No one polices this movement. Every faithfully reformed elder, pastor, scholar and teacher of the word should bear the responsibility of policing this movement. People accuse MacArthur of being fixated on this issue, yet in 45 years of ministry he has only held one 3-day conference on this matter. Rather he has devoted his time to preaching the New Testament verse by verse and exalting Christ.”
Now, I believe that we all could agree that Truth is important. The New Testament offers countless sharp warnings to the Church against false teaching and I concur that often these warnings have been made light of by many in modern day Christianity. I also think that a majority of Christians would agree that some of the leaders in the “Pentecostal” movement like Kenneth Copeland, Jimmy Swaggart, Paula White, John Hagee and the like are certainly not faithful teachers of the Gospel. They seem to be the type of people the Apostle Paul was writing about in 1 Timothy 6:5, those “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” These sorts of leaders, who claim the name of Jesus Christ yet clearly deny him with their lives should be condemned and spoken against, even publicly, for the sake of the Church.
But these fringe-teachers are not the only types of people condemned in the Scriptures. In the very same section that talks about those using ministry to gain wealth, Paul also warns us against those who “have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth.” Now I am not at all claiming that this verse sums up the totality of John MacArthur’s ministry, but I do think his most recent actions with this conference do seem to fit squarely in the realm that the Apostle Paul is speaking about here. The fruit of this conference is not the fruit of the Spirit- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Nor is this conference accomplishing the very thing that Jesus prayed for the Church, “that they may be one.” (John 17:21)
Instead, it seems that the Strange Fire conference is bearing fruit that resembles what Paul calls “the works of the flesh” in the versus preceding the fruit of the Spirit: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: …enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions…I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 19-21) and is resulting in a situation similar to that of the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 3. Paul describes their situation by saying that the church was divided by tribes- some claimed to follow Paul, others Apollo’s, and others Christ. These divisions formed over different traditions and doctrinal nuances, as many commentators have noted, and the church split into small factions that were hostile towards one another.
This trend of division based on theological nuances and practices seems to be growing among conservative Evangelicals. Just last year, R.C. Sproul launched a series and published a book called “Are We Together?” which attacked the Roman Catholic Church as being heretical and antichrist despite huge strides towards unity that have been taking place between Evangelicals and Catholics. Or John Piper’s infamous tweet from three years ago during the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins that launched a theological firestorm and pinned much of a younger generation of Evangelicals who resonated with Bell’s ideas and writing against the older Evangelical leadership. Or the very public lashing that many prominent conservative Evangelicals gave my friend Alan Chambers when he apologized for the damage that his ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, had done to many who had gone through their programs. The list of controversies, quarrels, and divisions that this movement seems to be cultivating could go on.
Regardless of where you stand in relation to the examples I have offered, the point is that it is clear in scripture that hostility, friction, and division are among the most destructive sins that can take place within the body of Christ. Yet more and more, pastors like John MacArthur and those in his tribe are criticizing and separating from each other -taking thousands of Christians who “follow them” along with them. For me, the Strange Fire conference was the red flag that signaled that something had really gone awry in Evangelicalism because for the first time on a very public scale, Evangelicalism had turned inward and began to divide and attack itself. Just seven years ago, John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul were both preaching at the first Together for the Gospel conference along with the uber-charismatic founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries (formerly People of Destiny Ministries) C.J. Mahaney and John Piper (who, despite many people challenging the truth of my claim, is openly charismatic). Just a few years ago these men were clearly friends. They were partners in the Gospel- in spite of their theological differences. Now, just a few years later, MacArthur, Sproul and many others seem to have turned in hostility towards those who not so long ago were clearly seen as friends and brothers. As Jesus said and as we all know, “a house divided cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)
It is this growing reality that has caused me to have a great deal of concern and skepticism as a young man preparing for ministry within Evangelical Christianity. To see the leaders that I have admired and even emulated acting in a way that seems so contrary to Scripture in the name of “Truth” and “Rightness” is disheartening to say the least. I write this post not as a judge (for who am I to judge anyone) but as one voice within a growing number of millennial Christians who are looking on at this behavior and finding ourselves confused and disillusioned- not because we don’t seek to know “Truth” or because we’ve accepted a watered down version of the gospel, but because these prominent leaders seem to be abandoning the way of Jesus for the sake of their own ministries, platforms, and positions. It has become very clear that our house is not in order and that our corner of the Church has “forsaken her first love”. (Revelation 2:4)
It is also this growing reality that gives more and more credence to Dr. Phyllis Tickle’s claim that a reformation greater than that of the Protestant Reformation is in order for Christianity today. The first sign of a movement dying is its own adherents turning against each other. But I, for one, firmly believe Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [the Church]” (Matthew 16:18) It is because of my faith in this promise that I believe the end is near for John MacArthur’s brand of Christianity. A brand that values their hermeneutic and understanding of “Truth” over the unity of the Body of Christ and the good of the world cannot remain in power. Once again, this doesn’t negate the tremendous amount of good that has come from this era of Evangelicalism. But all good things must come to an end, and indeed, it seems they have. It’s time for the Church to look forward to the new thing that God is doing in our midst. It’s time for a new generation to rise up and take the reins of Christ’s Church and guide us out of these murky waters of doctrinal division into the fresh streams of living water flowing from Christ for the renewal of the nations (Revelation 22:2) through doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. (Micah 5:8)
It is this concern and this hope that have prompted me to write about John MacArthur and his conference. My intention has never been to slander, misrepresent, or dishonor him or anyone else but rather to shine the spotlight on a deeply troubling trend taking place in Evangelicalism in hopes that conversation and dialogue will be sparked concerning these polarizing issues. Because I believe that through those conversations, God will move to continue in his work of preparing his Bride and ushering in his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven for the glory of his Son and the good of all people.
Are you with me?