The Strange Fire conference closed with a final address from John MacArthur. In this address he responds to seven accusations brought against the conference, follows with eight appeals to his continuationist friends, and concludes by walking through 1 and 2 Timothy, highlighting the need to stand firm in guarding divine revelation against false doctrine.
Before addressing the accusations against the conference, MacArthur charged attendees to carefully read their copy of Strange Fire and to measure it against the Word of God. He is convinced that this book, with its well-documented research and extensive footnotes, will withstand careful scrutiny. He reminds us that this book and conference is intended for the Church. He has no expectation for either one to be helpful to non-believers, which he suspects makes up much of the charismatic movement.
I decided to use this blog post to review not only John MacArthur’s summary of the conference but Tim Challies’ wrap up as well. Essentially, this is how each individual saw what came out of the conference, at least the day it ended and a few days after that.
I think I realized this before, but it was brought home to me that the reason I have “issues” with John MacArthur as a Christian is that he defines himself and his faith by what he’s against, not what he’s for. Sure, he makes a big deal out of “Biblical sufficiency” and “sola scriptura,” but in doing some wider reading about the man and what he’s done, he demonstrates a pattern of someone who has built his reputation on attacking others, whether other individuals or other belief systems.
I know this has been a problem in both the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements and it’s taken me quite a while to reduce this practice in my speech, writing, and thoughts (I suppose I still haven’t quite extinguished it within me). People or institutions that define themselves by what they are against must, because of that self-definition, always be on the attack. If your identity is based on being against something, then you are only “real” when you attack that something (or someone).
This is hardly the first time MacArthur has come out against Pentecostals and Charismatics. In 1993, his book Charismatic Chaos was published and I believe he wrote or made statements critical of Pentecostals/Charismatics before then. Sure, MacArthur has positive qualities attached to him. I commend his dedication to the Word of God and how he continually pushes others to read and study the Bible, but the skewed path he takes to understand the Bible, Jesus, and God is so rigid and occasionally (or more often) hostile to anyone outside of that path, that if I were an unbeliever and had to depend on MacArthur as my only model of what being a Christian was like, I’d never come to faith.
In fact, people like Jimmy Swiggart, Jim Bakker,and James Dobson (I know, an eclectic mix) kept me from even mildly considering Christianity as a path for decades. Outspoken “firebrands” who come across as highly opinionated and confident to the point of appearing arrogant do not represent my understanding of Messiah, Son of David.
MacArthur proved my point in his final appeal by including seven criticisms he and his conference had received:
- Accused of being unloving
- Accused of being divisive
- This is not a clear issue in the Bible
- This issue is only true of the extreme lunatic fringe side of the movement
- They are attacking a movement that has given us rich music
- They are attacking brothers
- MacArthur doesn’t care about offending people
Challies said that “MacArthur then shared from his heart responses to seven accusations against the conference,” which told me that Challies probably wasn’t entirely objective about his assessment of MacArthur (but then again, neither am I).
You can go to the Challies blog post to read MacArthur’s responses as well as the points he wanted to make to continuists, but his response to the last point caught my attention:
He admits that he holds the truth with kindness and love. He does care about peoples’ feelings. He does care about offending them. Just not nearly as much as he cares about not offending God.
Especially on the Internet, but also in other venues, I can’t count the number of times supposedly good-meaning Christians have “told the truth in love” while simultaneously ripping other people to emotional and spiritual shreds. As long as you use words like “truth” and “love,” you can make any insult and rend anyone’s heart with total impunity.
I base the Comments Policy of this blog on the Jewish concept of Lashon Hara or wronging another in speech, which is based on Leviticus 25:17. It says, in part, that if you say something, even if it is truthful and factual, that you know will harm another or cause them embarrassment, you are guilty of wronging them. Based on that standard, John MacArthur would have to revise his presentation considerably.
But then, and I’ve asked this before, what if you have to tell the truth to prevent harm to others and yet, end up harming brothers? I don’t know the absolute answer to that, but I suspect MacArthur might have gotten more mileage if he had given “Strange Fire” another name, and emphasized the positives of what he believed in, rather than the negatives of what he was against (but then again, people are almost always more attracted to a good car crash than an encouraging and uplifting message).
In his blog post Lessons Learned at Strange Fire, Pastor Tim Challies seemed to generally approve of how the conference was offered. Challies called the issues presented at the conference:
This is a worldwide issue and I need to ensure I see it that way. We need to ensure we see it that way. Those who listened to the conference heard again and again just how many charismatics there are in the world—somewhere around 500 million. Conrad Mbewe made it clear that in many places in the world, and especially in the developing world, to be a Christian does not mean that you trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, but that you believe in and practice something akin to the miraculous gifts. Charismatic theology is a North American export that is making a massive impact elsewhere in the world.
The conference and its aftermath also revealed to Challies how intensely polarizing this issue is and sees the critical dichotomy as between feeling and believing through reason. He also defended MacArthur and the other presenters as being confident, not arrogant, and as I mentioned above, there is an exceedingly fine line between the two.
I saw at Strange Fire that we can sometimes confuse confidence with arrogance. And it’s not just we, but me because I suspect that if the tables were turned, I might react in much the same way. I am convinced one of the reasons so many people reacted badly to the event is that MacArthur and the other speakers are so sure of what they believe. They spoke with confidence about their understanding of what the Bible permits and what it forbids. Some of the reaction from those who were offended seems to imply that certainty is incompatible with humility. If this is what they truly believe, they have succumbed to dangerous and worldly thinking.
But a person can be confident and still be wrong. How many people were confident that the Earth was flat, once upon a time? There are untold millions of children worldwide who are confident that Santa Claus exists and will indeed be coming into their homes sometime after they go to bed on December 24th to deliver gift wrapped toys under their Christmas trees. Even Chemists, Astronomers, and Geologists are confident that certain scientific principles and facts related to their fields are true until new evidence convinces them otherwise.
While I can’t defend the abuses attributed to the Pentecostals, I can’t defend MacArthur’s overly generalized attack on them, either. Even when the facts aren’t in question, how they are presented can make a tremendous difference, not only in delivering the desired message, but in communicating where your heart is during and after the delivery.
If you disagree with MacArthur, the best way to engage the conference is not by railing against the man, but by showing specifically the ways you think he caricatured your position and by providing a calm, sober affirmation of continualist claims, backed up by Scripture.”
My form of criticism is to step outside the polarity of the issue, to go “meta” on continualists vs. cessationists, and to invoke, as I have above, the principle of Lashon Hara. Biblical evidence, the desire for truth, and “doing it in love” aside, the ends never justify the means. If they did, then it would be perfectly acceptable to blow up abortion clinics and to shoot abortion doctors in order to save babies (I know, that’s an extreme example, but it brings the point home). “Going after” a people or a movement just because you can is wrong, not necessarily because your research is flawed, but because you can only get your message across by being against something, and not by being for something.
The last thing Challies said was:
Only time will tell of the long-term impact of Strange Fire, but as I think back to the past few days, I find myself grateful for it. I suppose that may be easier to say as a cessationist than a charismatic, but I believe the event and its aftermath will prove beneficial. I continue to pray that God would use it to strengthen His church and to glorify His name.
Conferences come and conferences go, and if “Strange Fire” only existed as a series of events occurring over several days last October, I’m sure it would swiftly fade away. But there’s MacArthur’s book to consider, and I don’t doubt that there will be other “marketing” activities in which MacArthur will be participating to keep the issue alive.
I’m keeping it alive (although only in a very minor way) by writing about it myself. I’m also planning on looking at MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” through the lens of First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ) book Gifts of the Spirit (which I previously mentioned).
Most of what I know about John MacArthur has been through Tim Challis and his liveblogging of the “Strange Fire” conference, so I’m several steps removed from knowing much about him (MacArthur) at all. In the end though, it’s not just what you do for God that matters, but how and why.
I’ll address John MacArthur’s detailed responses to his critics in a subsequent blog post and then start talking about my “Gifts of the Spirit” “re-experience”. Then hopefully, I’ll be done with this stuff.