Strange Fire: Burning the Body of Christ

John MacArthur ignited a firestorm in the evangelical community. His recent conference, “Strange Fire,” was an attempt to call out unsound doctrine in the church—the unsound doctrine being “charismaticism” (is that a word?), the belief that the Holy Spirit still gives people miraculous gifts. Unfortunately, his promotion for the event and forthcoming book by the same title, left people confused and frustrated. He made some harsh, yet vague statements regarding the charismatic movement and labeled it as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, charismatic Christians found this statement offensive, as it indicates that they will go to Hell with no chance for forgiveness. Many of MacArthur’s followers attempted to clarify his statements by explaining that he really just spoke of the “lunatic fringe” of the charismatic movement (i.e. Benny Hinn and the Faith Healers [new band name, I call it!]).

I’ve tried to keep up with the conference and various responses to it. Some of the responses were generous; some were (intentionally) over the top. I assumed some of MacArthur’s statements were taken too far or out of context. Or, perhaps, he really didn’t mean it the way it came out. I figured that he would issue a clarifying statement and everything would settle down. As suspected, he did issue a clarifying statement in one of the messages at the conference. Unfortunately, it only added fuel to the fire. The full transcript of his message (and other messages at the event) can be found here.

He opened by addressing some of the main concerns and criticisms of the conference. One being the lack of consensus on the issue of the “sign gifts” (i.e. tongues, healing, prophesying, etc.). Even among respected, evangelical biblical scholars and pastors there is disagreement as to whether the gifts are for believers today. MacArthur responded,

“if the issue is unclear, as some are claiming, it has only become unclear under the influence of false teachers…In the true and historic stream of sound doctrine this issue has always been crystal clear.”

Later in the message he implied that the charismatic movement spawned from LSD induced hippies in the 1960s.

However, any surface study of the history of miraculous gifts will tell you that they have reportedly cropped up in various times and places for the last two-thousand years. For example, in the 1720s, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf established a commune for Moravian refugees in which they allegedly experienced a movement of the Spirit similar to that of Pentecost.

Zinzendorf preaching

While MacArthur is correct that there is a historical “stream” of doctrine that denies the continuation of the gifts, it is undoubtedly not the only stream of orthodox Christianity.

“Another accusation” MacArthur continues, “has been that we are talking about something that is only true of the extreme lunatic fringe of the movement. That is patently not true. There is error in this movement that sweeps through the entire movement.” (Emphasis mine)

Here, he denies what even his own followers thought he meant. He is not only saying that the Faith Healers are guilty of blasphemy against the Spirit, but the whole movement itself. Furthermore, he states the movement is largely made up of unbelievers.

My jaw was on the floor. As I painstakingly read through the transcript, I remembered that he actually invited charismatics to join the conference and discuss the issue. I can’t imagine a more effective way to close the door to honest, respectful conversation than to tell people that they are unbelievers who commit blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

He went on to explain,

“…the broader charismatic movement has opened the door to more theological error than any other theological aberration in this day. Liberalism, psychology [what?!], ecumenism, pragmatism, mysticism, are all bad. Nothing is as bad as Charismaticism because of its extensive impact. And once that kind of experientialism gets a foothold, there’s no brand of heresy that won’t ride it into the church” (Emphasis mine).

Besides the fact that he considers psychology to be an aberration, he considers charismatic theology to be the entry point for every brand of heresy. To this I ask, “Based on what evidence?”

We then find out what MacArthur believes to be the entry point for the evil of charismaticism: contemporary music.

He states,

“I’m convinced that the contemporary style of charismatic music is the entry point for Charismatic theology into churches. If you buy the music, the theology follows.”

He goes on later to say,

“It grieves me all the time to see these quasi-churches that identify themselves from being isolated from anything in the past. ‘Not your grandfather’s church.’ ‘No organ.’ ‘Come as you are.’”

Once we lose the organ, play contemporary music, and let people come as they are, we have opened the door to heresy. At this point, let me assure you that I am not mocking or twisting his words. These are his actual arguments. This is what he himself invited people to discuss.

Perhaps the biggest inconsistency was his attempt, in a Q&A session, to exonerate his close friends, “reformed charismatics,” John Piper and Wayne Grudem. While he condemns their openness to the gifts, he accepts them as true and faithful brothers because they are “not clear” on the issue of the gifts. On this, Adrian Warnock, a reformed charismatic himself, commented,

“MacArthur doesn’t seem to give any credence to the idea that Piper may think the way he does about the charismatic because he is convinced by biblical arguments.”

MacArthur then concludes his answer by stating that even the openness demonstrated by Piper and Grudem gives credence to the charismatic movement as a whole.

Finally, (in case you were wondering) MacArthur does bring Scripture into the message. In 1 Timothy 6:20 Paul tells young Timothy to guard what has been entrusted to him. (Far from condemning spiritual gifts, Paul is encouraging Timothy to battle the heresy of Gnosticism.) Then, MacArthur jumps to 2 Timothy 2 in which Paul exhorts Timothy to stay true to the faith and continue to teach sound doctrine.

While I don’t really think it applies here, I can understand the reasoning behind using this passage. I can agree to disagree on its application to this issue. But, just when I thought it was over, the charismatic church gets one last, swift kick below the belt.

MacArthur reads 2 Tim 2:20:

“Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor.”

He comments,

“Every house in ancient times had these kind of vessels. It didn’t have the advantage of plumbing to take the waste in or out. So they had vessels of gold and silver, for honorable things. Serve the food on it. Vessels of wood and earthenware were for dishonorable things. You took at the garbage, the waste. What do you want to be? You want to be a privy pot, as it was called? Or do you want to be a golden platter? If you cleanse yourself form the influence of unbiblical things, you’ll be a useful vessel [sic].”

Take a moment and let this sink in. If you believe in the continuation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, you are compared to a privy pot…you know…a bucket of poop.

In discussing and reading about this whole debacle I have heard a variety of different responses. Some say, “This guy just needs to be ignored. That way, people will just forget him.” Others say, “He is completely wrong for saying this stuff, but he’s overreacting and probably doesn’t really believe what he is saying.” Still others think we shouldn’t criticize him because of all the good he has done outside of this.

I do not intend to downplay the good MacArthur has done. Almost every pastor I’ve ever met uses or owns his commentaries. His work is known for being technical yet approachable. According to a Lifeway poll, MacArthur is listed among the top ten most influential preachers of the last 25 years.

However, it is precisely because of his prestige that I believe we should respond. A man of his education should know not to make statements he doesn’t actually believe (if that is, in fact, the case). Whether we are charismatic, cessationist, or unsure, we should stand up for our charismatic brothers and sisters. This is not an issue of bashing MacArthur. I have made every attempt here not to assume or accuse MacArthur of anything outside of what he has said for himself. Rather, this is an issue of speaking out against injustice in the church of the Living God. Even the social leaders of Christianity can cross the line and, according to Scripture, the body of Christ is called to discern the spirits of those who speak. We all have this obligation.

We cannot ignore the fact that over half-a-billion proclaiming Christians have been condemned to Hell with no chance of escape.

We cannot sit idly by and let the unbelieving world think that it is acceptable to cast eternal judgment on others simply for differing interpretations of Scripture.

If you have read any of my blog you know that I am all for asking questions, challenging, and speaking out when we see something wrong. But, that is a far cry from what “Strange Fire” has done. I truly hope MacArthur and co will handle this issue with more grace. I hope they will offer real challenges and criticisms to our charismatic brothers and sisters and open themselves to the same. I hope they can demonstrate, through loving dialogue, the truth that our salvation and our unity are not found in doctrine or in our understanding of Scripture, but in our resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.

More on this issue:

A Final Appeal to Pastor John MacArthur on the Eve of His ‘Strange Fire’ Conference

John MacArthur vs. Mark Driscoll: Megachurch pastors clash over charismatic theology

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