John MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference
Dr. Jeff VanGoethem
Well known California pastor John MacArthur recently hosted a large conference evaluating the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic movement (you can listen to the messages here, http://www.tmstrangefire.org). The conference coincides with the release of a new book, with the same title. I have not read the book yet but I have listened to a good number of the conference messages (from a variety of preachers). Pastor Rex and I have been discussing them. I hope to listen to the rest also in order to gain a full understanding of just what the conference was saying.
This conference continued MacArthur’s long standing opposition to the charismatic movement. Previously he has also published two books on the subject, one called “Charismatic Chaos” which I read about twenty years ago and another called “The Charismatics” which I read I believe back in the 1970’s. The stakes in this matter are high, one blogger summarized it this way:
“Here’s the fact of the matter – the continualist who believes MacArthur is wrong and the cessationist who believes MacArthur is right are closer to each other than the person who says this debate doesn’t matter or cannot be decided. Why? Because both the committed continualist and the committed cessationist believe God has revealed Himself on this issue and that we are accountable to live according to God’s revealed truth.
If MacArthur is wrong, he is in the frightening position of attributing the work of the Spirit to satanic deception. If MacArthur is right, charismatics should repent of false belief and practice.”[i]
The conference is not making Dr. MacArthur many friends. Many believe it is badly damaging the unity of the church, while MacAuthur states he is merely correcting unsound doctrine. For example he calls the “prosperity gospel” the “most deceitful false teaching that history has ever seen” [ii] which I would say is pretty close to the truth. It is serious business. He sees the entire charistmatic/Pentecostal movement as plagued by aberrant doctrine. Others are lashing out at the conference, seeing it as an attack upon others in the body of Christ. Here is a typical example of some of the blow back that has come from some:
“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.”[iii]
However another Pentecostal worte this:
“I recognize the value of unity, but a unity not grounded in and centered on the truth is merely a superficial unity. If we Pentecostals want John MacArthur to make distinctions when he calls out the Charismatic movement for its abuses, then maybe we should be the first ones making distinctions and calling out heresy and excess where we find it . . . We Pentecostals and Charismatics needed to be offended. I’m afraid it may be the only thing that will make us think critically and Biblically about ourselves as a movement. And for this offense I want to thank John MacArthur and the participants in the Strange Fire Conference. The most hurtful thing about that conference is not the broad generalizations, sweeping condemnations, or lack of distinctions. For me as a Pentecostal the most hurtful thing about the Strange Fire Conference is my knowledge that far too many of the criticisms are true.”[iv]
Wow. That is quite an admission. Actually, I think the conference did make many “distinctions.” For example, distinctions between deceivers and the deceived; between some in the movement who desire to worship God in the truth and those who do not; some who have biblical clarity on the true gospel and some who do not, etc. Rather, in MacArthur’s view, the movement as a whole does not make a contribution to biblical clarity but tends to be characterized by confusion and chaos. That’s how he (and others) see it. Now, let’s set out the terms a bit.
MacArthur is a “cessationist” believing that the miraculous gifts of the spirit like tongues and prophecy passed away with the New Testament era. The basis for this is found in “what, when, why.” What – the modern charismatic practices are not the same practices we see in the New Testament, but are counterfeits. When – the miraculous gifts ceased with the Apostolic foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). Why – the Apostolic generation used miraculous gifts and signs to attest to or authenticate the gospel in absence of the written scripture (Hebrews 2:1-4). Once the New Testament was completed and the apostolic generation passed from the scene, such miraculous gifts are no longer normative in the church. This view has a long history in the church, although in fairness, it has not been universally held.
So much of what is happening in the charismatic movement is seen by cessationists as unscriptural and prone to lead to abuses of doctrine and practice within the church. That there are many abuses in the charismatic movement is beyond question. That the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were largely given to the transitional era between Israel and the church, in order that the “new” gospel of our Lord Jesus might be authenticated by apostolic signs and wonders, remains a matter of debate in the modern church.
I am also a cessationist. Our Scofield doctrinal statement asserts this position as well. It is also the position of Dallas Seminary, every faculty and board member holds to it. Of course there are different “degrees” of “cessationism.” Some are more adamant that nothing miraculous is normative for the church; others, like myself, agree that God can break in and do the unexpected, although we do not see any necessity of “signs and wonders” to authenticate the message of scripture. We now have the written New Testament. Every human being everywhere in the world is required to receive the written word as sufficient authentication of the preaching of the gospel. No other sign is needed (Luke 16:29).
Another question: is God working through dreams and visions in various gospel-destitute areas to reveal Himself? I always receive such things with a degree of skepticism, but I grant it certainly seems to happen. MacArthur seems to deny the possibility of this. I would not go that far. However, such phenomena are not related to gifts of the spirit, since it is largely people who are unbelievers at the time who receive such experiences. So it really does not relate to what is normative for the practicing church.
I also grant the experience of the presence of God in prayer and worship, such things as God’s burden and a sense of breakthrough in prayer, which are admittedly subjective experiences (although we always test our experience by Scripture, and never go beyond Scripture). I see such things throughout scripture. In my view MacArthur comes dangerously close to denying any kind of subjective experience with God. This point also, however, has little to do with the larger issues of charismatic practice. If this is all the debate is about, then it isn’t much of anything. The real crux of the debate goes well beyond this.
The real debates lie elsewhere, like the long standing controversy over the place of the gift of tongues. The idea that the gift of tongues is a necessary sign of salvation or regeneration or the baptism of the Spirit is a horribly unscriptural and misleading doctrine, that has let to untold confusion and division. This doctrine is a staple of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. Or the idea that modern prophets can come to us and give “fresh revelation” is equally unscriptural and has led again to countless abuses. One cannot count the number of so-called prophecies and prophets that have been discredited in the modern church. Additionally the idea that we need “signs and wonders” to carry on gospel work flies in the face of the history of revival and all the previous centuries of gospel preaching.
I think we owe MacArthur some gratitude for having the courage to take this on and sounding his trumpet. He has decided to “call out” the abuses of the charismatic movement and also to call on the more mature and scripturally inclined leadership of that movement to “police” their own. He wants a debate about these questions. Has he gone too far? You can listen and see for yourself, or read his book. At times I believe he has gone too far. However, I think the conference and book will lead to profitable conversation and helpful change.
It is helpful to always make “distinctions.” The charismatic movement is a “continuum.” Not all have the same views or are inclined to the same practices. I don’t want to always be saying “The Charismatic movement does this or that.” It is much better to say, “some in the charismatic movement do this or that.” I am a Calvinist. But I do not like the methodology some use when they say, “Calvinists do not believe in the preaching of the gospel” since some “hypercalvinists” have advocated this notion. The hypercalvinist view and practice comes out of “our” camp. But it is not sound or fair to argue that every person in a large, broad movement is guilty of all the errors and abuses of that movement. Can we at least agree on this point?
Some in the Strange Fire conference seem to say, in fact, it was explicitly stated by one that “there is no baby in the bathwater of the charismatic movement.” This I cannot agree to. Many have been saved within this movement worldwide which is why we hunger so desperately for more soundness and less doctrinal error within the ranks. I have met Pentecostals around the world, quite frankly, who were hardly different at all in their approach to life and ministry than myself and who are winning more people to Christ than I am.
But on this point of fingering the abuses of this movement and pointing out unsound doctrine and practice, MacArthur has done a helpful thing. I would be satisfied if the Charistmatic/Pentecostal/Word of Faith movements would just deal with abusers and abuses. As it stands now the prosperity gospel and the signs and wonders gospel seem to be more prevalent than ever. Clearly it is running amok. MacArthur makes a powerful point when he aks “why are the charismatics not dealing with the abuses and abusers in their midst?”
There are many charismatic charlatans and heretics on TV, giving a distorted “face” of Christianity to the watching world, and no one seems to say anything about it. Large stadiums and “churches” are filled to the brim to hear such gospel heretics as Joel Osteen and Ken Copeland and others like them here and round the world. All of this is more than appalling. We have prominent charismatic mega church pastors living lavish lifestyles and divorcing their spouses and taking up with each other and each other’s wives and husbands, meanwhile onward with the “ministries.” All of this is more than appalling. So MacArthur has spoken. Good for him, it is a needed word.
Not that we are against serious, born again, gospel preaching charismatics. We love them. They are part of the body of Christ. But this movement needs to be cleaned up. I have been in Africa where Pentecostalism has come to a point that the local pastor is not treated that much differently than the local witch doctor. You don’t go to church to hear the Word, grow in grace, and learn to serve the Lord; you go there to get “your healing” and “your miracle.” This is witch doctor-ism. In some meetings in the U.S., it is not much different is it? This sordid business falls down upon the poor and uneducated in multiple disillusioning blows. That this brand of doctrine and practice originated in the US and has been exported all around the world, and is now mutating into many abusive and gospel corrupting practices, is absolutely and utterly appalling. It cries out to be called out.
MacArthur even takes to task his so called “continuationist” friends in the Reformed movement, who are sound on the gospel but believe in the charismatic gifts. Although many of them do not practice the gifts, they seem to affirm them, which is an oddity. MacArthur asks such well known theologians like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who affirm miraculous gifts, do you believe in the gifts or not? Why are you so agnostic? If you believe in them, why don’t you accentuate their practice in your churches and schools? Are why are you unwilling to “call out” the abuses? Do you clearly break ranks with such charismatic hucksters as Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer? What’s it going to be? It is a timely challenge to our “continuationist” friends to think through how they approach this issue. Well done again.
You can hear John Piper’s answer to this here: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/john-macarthur-and-strange-fire. In my humble opinion it is not a very good answer, one would expect more from the great John Piper.
I am willing to fellowship with some Charismatics and Pentecostals and have done so many times. I admire some Pentecostal leaders greatly like Jim Cymbala and David Wilkerson. These are men of the Word and prayer and the gospel. Their view of the gifts of the Spirit differs from mine, but we have so much in common. I have met many humble charismatic and Pentecostal believers in various parts of the world. I long to see them soundly instructed in faith which is why I keep an open door to them. But I do not appreciate at all those charismatics and Pentecostals who abuse the Word of God and mislead people. With Peter we say they are following “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16) and are “false prophets” who bring in “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). With such we have no fellowship.
Many have assailed MacArthur’s conference saying it is dividing the body of Christ and denying the power of the Spirit. The blow back has been strong. MacArthur is saying he is teaching others to be discerning and holding to God’s Word. It is for each of us to decide which it is. The broader church today is anything but discerning. The Word has taken a back seat to any and all kinds of aberrant experiences. This has to change. So if the conference helps all to think more about this and to become more discerning, it will prove to be a good thing.
We must, as we are exhorted in scripture, “test the spirits.” Gospel-corrupting, Word-ignoring, scripture-distorting, hucksterism, with all the sheep fleecing, and falsehood that goes on, must be called out. It ruins souls and abuses the sheep. We cannot stand by and just allow that to happen without attempting to assist the sheep everywhere in grasping and holding sound doctrine and practice. Hopefully MacArthur’s conference will spark such a movement.