John MacArthur’s recent conference was supposed to call out the “Strange Fire” among the Charismatic movement, but was instead filled with MacArthur flaming his brothers and sisters indiscriminately. Whatever good did or could have come out of highlighting and isolating the extreme elements of the movement was lost by MacArthur-and-company’s broad strokes of damnation against the movement as a whole and against associated ideas.
As I posted on AV’s Facebook page during the conference:
In case you wondered whether John MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference intends to address only the fringe elements of the charismatic movement, consider the closing comments from Todd Friel at last night’s panel discussion:
He said this is not a fringe activity, but pertains to millions of people in the USA and millions more worldwide. He said the teachers ought to be rebuked, and then made very clear that those millions of “followers” are “slaves to sin, slaves to Satan,” and are lost.
MacArthur made it clear that these people don’t have Christ, are not brothers and sisters in Christ, are not part of the body of Christ, don’t know the Gospel, and don’t understand the Gospel. Yes, I know, he qualified somewhat in his opening discussion, but this condemnation is the prevailing sentiment, and is made consistently without distinction or qualification.
There was also a condemning discussion of “Dominionism” in which no distinctions between forms of that view were made. MacArthur said that dominionists have a false eschatology, but that their dominionism really derived from an “egotistical madness” and “crazy megalomania.”
Let me be clear in agreeing at the outset that there are indeed extravagances in the charismatic movement. They are extreme, not found in the Bible, and unreasonable and inexcusable by any biblical standard. There are abuses. They are widespread within the charismatic movement, and they need to be addressed and corrected rather than made centerpieces of worship.
I agree with the sentiment of one commenter who said that if the charismatic movement would have had its own “Strange Fire” conference, MacArthur’s would never have been necessary. “Necessary” may be somewhat of a stretch, for there are better ways to deal with such problems. But I believe the reason it hasn’t been dealt with in-house is that the charismatic theology of spiritual gifts will not allow it to draw lines and condemn manifestations that are only slightly different from what has been tolerated historically—say, since Azusa, or the previous Great Awakenings, even under the Reformed Jonathan Edwards. Who am I to say what the Spirit can and can’t do? This is the question that keeps charismatic leaders from drawing lines. The result is an ever-creeping standard in which novelty manifestations are accepted constantly—seemingly in which the latest is slightly more bizarre than the last.
Pentecostals once justified tongues speaking by pointing to tongues speaking in Scripture, and justified vibrant dancing and singing by pointing to Scriptural examples. We can scriptural debates over such things. But suddenly we wake up one day twitching, or giggling uncontrollably, or “falling out” in the Spirit, and we have to acknowledge ourselves a long way from David dancing before the Ark. At least the old practices had some mooring in God’s revealed standards for life and worship.
And I do believe there is strange fire within the movement. The history of Christian Science and New Thought metaphysical cult influence through E. W. Kenyon in the “Word of Faith” movement is clear, and has been thoroughly documented by D. R. McConnell in A Different Gospel, and by Hank Hanegraaff in Christianity in Crisis. (Even with McConnell’s title, however, there were no blanket condemnations of everyone involved.)
So, it’s about time someone started a broader public discussion and issued an open challenge to some of this theology. But what we got instead was a reckless condemnation of half a billion Christians with little distinction maintained throughout. MacArthur did put in a little qualifier in his opening discussion, but did not maintain it at all later. Indeed, he did the opposite. When Friel, for example, would bring up extreme cases as examples for discussion, MacArthur seemed to use them as a launching point to speak in broad generalities, and with sweeping condemnation of “these people” to hell.
With his careless rhetoric, MacArthur locked charismatics and anyone who could be associated with them all in the same building, and then burned the place down, standing proudly in righteous self-justification as he tossed the match.
As I mentioned above, “dominionism” got swept up in this condemnation. Todd Friel entered it in the discussion as a generality, which means he implicated all of us—despite the fact that he has been informed differently.
There are clear distinctions among dominionists. A few misguided and ill-informed leaders do speak of dominion and envision it is a top-down seizure of power. It is dangerous theologically and socially. To be honest, however, even these are dwindling in number as they begin to learn a more biblical and consistent view of postmillennialism and dominion from those who have thought it through much more carefully. The truth is, most “dominionists” believe in greater political freedom and decentralized power fueled at first by widespread gospel preaching. Even many of the former “Seven Mountains” types I previously criticized are amending their views, as I have said before.
The “Seven Mountains” image is even being abandoned as unhelpful and inaccurate by some of the very guys who created it originally to be a helpful explanatory tool. Few leaders identify with it, and some who have been labeled with it never accepted it to begin with.
From our previous interactions, Todd Friel knows there are clear and important distinctions, and yet chose in this panel discussion to use “Seven Mountains” as the representative of “they”—that is, “dominionists” in general. What followed was a general condemnation of “postmillennialism” by Steve Lawson, and a wildly insulting series of personal attacks on dominionists from MacArthur.
Lawson said postmillennialism is a “false eschatology,” “contrary to what we read in the Word of God.” But he wrongly defines postmillennialism as the belief that “we’re going to usher in the kingdom by making the world a better place.” This statement is simply false and does not bespeak the level of education that I know Lawson has. It is careless. His consequent reasons why postmillennialism in general is wrong are also facile, have been refuted for a long time, and don’t need to take up further space here.
But then MacArthur blazed out of control. He denied that dominion theology is the result of mere false eschatology. Instead, he stated, “It starts with a madness, an egotistical madness . . . . that you actually think you have the kind of power that could pull that off.” He argued that we’re deluded egotists who deceive young people with appeals to social justice, and do so “with a kind of crazy megalomania.”
And just to make sure he wasn’t misunderstood, he concluded: “I don’t think it comes from studying the Bible and coming up with a postmillennial view. I think it comes from egotism gone mad, and it may be aided and abetted by Satan himself.”
First, not a single postmillennialist or dominionist I know believes that we ourselves have the power to pull this off. This is nonsense. It is uniformed and frankly refusing-to-be-informed blindness leading the blind.
Second, every postmillennialist and dominionist I know reached that position by studying the Bible and coming up with the postmillennial view.
Third, here we see the great hypocrisy in action. We dominionists are always accused of personal attacks and spiteful rhetoric—mainly because we issue open challenges to our opponents. We’re angry and mean, they say. But then those who dismiss us for alleged ad hominem get up on stage in front of thousands of people, without quoting us, knowing us, talking to us, asking for our input, or attempting to outline our positions accurately, and denounce us collectively as “egotism gone mad” and “crazy megalomania” “abetted by Satan.”
Does someone see a disconnect here? Can some of you fans of Todd Friel and John MacArthur see the disparity and dishonesty involved in this behavior?
Let me be clear: there is a great need of these men to repent for this behavior.
Now these men will all be able to back up and say, “Oh we weren’t talking about all you domininists; only about this small fringe group.” But their use of broad terms and labels makes this claim indefensible. If that was their intention, they should have made the distinction very clear and made it clear that their condemnations of hell and Satan, and the lostness of the proponents of these views, do not apply to most of the people who would use the broad labels they are condemning.
MacArthur’s handling of the charismatic problem and such theological discussions is beyond uncharitable. It is irresponsible, dishonest, and vengeful. It is defamatory of the body of Christ.
Worse yet, as the charismatic author Michael Brown’s “Appeal to John MacArthur,” published well in advance of this conference, shows, MacArthur is also incorrigible in these respects. Brown lamented: “For the last several months, I have requested a face-to-face meeting with Pastor MacArthur to discuss our differences, but that request has been denied.”
This behavior is not becoming of any Christian leader. It speaks very poorly of MacArthur’s ministry, as well as Friel’s.
I was encouraged by the roundtable held by John Piper, inviting Doug Wilson and others to sit down at a table with opposing views of eschatology, put anything on the table, and discuss it like men. This is how public theology should be done. It is honest, it is courageous, it is clear, it is open to correction and challenge. It does not appear to me that MacArthur is interested in such things.
What we’ve got here is a wheat field with tares in it. We should then be patient to identify which is which, mark them clearly, avoid the tares, but let God judge them in the end. MacArthur decided to take out the whole field with a flamethrower. Not only is this rash and harsh judgment, it is playing the role of God as judge. In the end, MacArthur is the one in danger of offering strange fire: his own fire of judgment in place of God’s.
That be what it may, this type of reckless attack speaks of a certain type of weakness in a ministry. There is no confidence or love here. I heard appeals from conference speakers and spectators alike concerning the need for discernment. Ironically, that seems to be the one thing conspicuously absent in much of MacArthur’s treatment. Instead there is fear, and fear brings torment (1 John 4:18).