It is awfully hard to write a blog expressing disagreement. I particularly have trouble when it comes to naming names. I am not saying it is necessarily wrong, I am just saying I don’t do it well. I would rather keep things generic. On top of all this, it is really hard to write criticism about someone whom I respect so much. John MacArthur, the pastor, teacher, author, and Christian spokesman, is a man of God who has brought so much growth in my life in so many ways. He is an incredible Bible teacher who has changed many people’s lives for the better.
(Of course, when something starts this way, nothing before the “but” really matters, does it?)
But . . .
In his “Strange Fire” conference (that starts today), book (upcoming), and ensuing promotions, John MacArthur has, I believe, acted very irresponsibly and is doing incredible damage to the body of Christ.
It is no secret that John MacArthur pushes the polemic line and causes many of us to be uncomfortable. This is just who he is and I don’t really expect him to change. But this conference is an excessively eristic and unnecessarily divisive crusade against charismatics. And, to be frank, it is even over the top for him.
Now, let me make sure you know: I have not seen the conference or read his book. But I have been reading reviews of the book and viewing the promotional videos, created by John MacArthur, for this anti-charismatic campaign. You can see some of the videos here. It is quite the production. And this is not some passing slip of the tongue that may be excused (as is sometimes the case). This is a full-blown, all-out war he has declared.
Please understand that I am not charismatic. I have often expressed myself as the most “wannabe charismatic” non-charismatic you will ever meet. As well, I used to be as anti-charismatic as anyone you would ever meet. Frankly, charismatics made me angry. I attributed all that went on in charismatic circles to the work of Satan. I called, pleaded, and prayed that charismatics would “convert” to cessationism. And my arguments were, at least to me, persuasive.
However, I changed. God put way too many flies in my ointment for me to remain in this excessively polemic position. I suppose the first fly was “what’s his name” that sat next to me in undergrad. He was a charismatic. Worse than that, he spoke in tongues. I practically had a demon next to me! However, all semester long I observed this guy. I came to realize that though he knew everything I knew, he was still charismatic. What gave? I thought the right answers dispatched would bring home the booty of change. But he remained charismatic and continued to speak in tongues (though not in front of me). On top of this, he seemed to love the same Jesus I loved. On top of that, he seemed to follow the Lord better than me. I came to realize he was a better, more devoted Christian than I was. How could that be, if he had a demon? He was the first fly and this fly worked me over.
Eventually, I began to realize there was a whole other world of charismatics I had never met. My primary exposure to charismatics had been through crazy people on television and a highly controversial local pastor. Crazy church services, uninterpreted tongues, being “drunk” in the Holy Spirit, erratic prophecies left unchecked, people barking in the Spirit, and people howling at the moon was all I had known. John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos and Hank Hanegraaff’s writings increased my faulty views. But, this one fly — “what’s his name” — disturbed it all and introduced me to something different. This new exposure was filled with intellectual heroes. J. P. Moreland and Wayne Grudem were the next flies. How could these guys who were so theologically astute, thoughtful, balanced, and godly be charismatic? After all, they were thinkers. Charismatics are not supposed to be thinkers!
Soon, the flies became so many that I had to throw out the ointment altogether. Gordon Fee, John Piper, Sam Storms, Craig Keener, C.J. Mahaney, Stanley Horton, and many other scholars made me rethink my position and return to the Scriptures. I now have a relationship with many of these guys and call them friends (one, I call pastor). Of course I have not been convinced by them (as I am not charismatic), but I have changed. No longer am I anti-charismatic. I am a non-charismatic wanna charismatic.
The reason I changed is because I quit characterizing all charismatics by their red-headed ugly stepchildren.
But for some reason John MacArthur hasn’t followed this same path. His criticism of the charismatic movement is more intense than ever. In fact, I would say that it is sinfully irresponsible. (Oh, that hurt to write . . . forgive me, Lord, if I am wrong.) He unnecessarily and continually lumps all charismatics together with practically no distinction. He says that the charismatic “offers to God unacceptable worship – distorted worship.” He calls it “strange fire.” He says they are “Satan’s false teachers, marching to the beat of their own illicit desires, gladly propagat[ing] his errors. They are spiritual swindlers, con men, crooks, and charlatans.”
Now, of course, many who claim to be charismatic do fit this description. I don’t think anyone would disagree.
One of the problems I have observed over the years is that the beginning of a movement is always the easiest to criticize. Many Christian movements in theology and piety are, at their beginning, very unrefined. Sometimes they contain some heretical elements. But over the years, they begin to change, adjust, mature, and sand down the rough edges. Think about dispensationalism for a moment. When someone criticizes dispensationalism, they almost never criticize it as it stands today. Criticism is made of Darby and Scofield. But so much has changed!
It is irresponsible to criticize a movement in a form that has already faded or is fading. Like dispensationalism, the charismatic movement has gone through many maturations. We talk about it in waves: the first wave, Pentacostalism; the second, the Charismatics; the third, led by John Wimber and the “Signs and Wonders Movement.” I think we are in a fourth wave where we have the rise of the “intellectual charismatics.” Either way, things have changed.
More than this, it is irresponsible to criticize the easy targets within a movement. We call this a “straw man” argument. It is when you choose the worst representative you can and argue against him. Of course, with charismatics in popular culture, the easy targets are the “crazies” who get all the air time. Why do they get the air time? Well, it is entertaining for many to watch. And the sensationalism that can come from these abuses is also easy for the non-charismatic to look at and discredit. But think of all the movements which are part of the Christian fold today that could be picked apart because of some abuses and excesses within. The first two that come to mind would be Calvinism and Pretribulationalism. Certainly conferences could be done about both, characterizing each by the worst-of. But how responsible and godly is that? Yes, you may make a qualification at the beginning and the end saying, “Look, I realize that not all Calvinists are arrogant SOBs, but the movement is dangerous. It is filled with monsters who believe God hates unbelievers.” Or, concerning Pretribulationalism, “I know that not all Pretribulationalists are date setters, but the theology is dangerous and produces an unbiblical mentality. It is filled with date-setting and causes people to be unconcerned with this present world.” Of course, these criticisms can be true, but they are not the necessary outcome of their beliefs and, more importantly, they don’t deal honestly with the arguments.
But it is not simply this issue that has compelled me to write this post. If this was the first time John MacArthur had irresponsibly characterized a movement he is against, that would be one thing. But, unfortunately, this is what he is becoming known for. MacArthur is already seen by many as a divisive heresy-hunter.
The worst of it all is that John MacArthur knows of Gordon Fee, Sam Storms, John Piper, and all the others. Yet he does not seem to acknowledge their influence. Why doesn’t he have some of these guys join his conference? They all speak against the same excesses within their own movement. A unified voice would actually be more effective in helping people guard against these abuses.
Because of all this, John MacArthur is losing his voice, and I don’t want him to. His reputation dismantles his platform to speak at just about any conference. He has worked himself into a corner where every time he writes a book or opens his mouth, many of us say, “Oh no!” before anything else. His radio program is called “Grace to You” and we are often left thinking “grace to who?”
John MacArthur says the charismatic movement “blasphemes the Holy Spirit” and “attributes to the Holy Spirit even the work of Satan.” Maybe he should think about who is actually attributing the work of the Spirit to Satan. I am not a charismatic, but such a statement really scares me. And because of this it would seem (even though the conference is sold out) that John MacArthur may be losing his voice.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]