John MacArthur’s recent Strange Fire conference was a hot topic around the Christian blogosphere last week, and not just because Mark Driscoll mixed it up with a few conference organizers. We spent years worshipping in fundy circles, where John MacArthur functions as a sort of ad hoc pope. Of course, no one in these circles would ever elevate MacArthur with a title like this, but his radio programs, writing and Bible school certainly give him a platform of great quotable authority in his particular stream of Christendom.
We also spent years in the very circles which John MacArthur has declared are filled with deluded people who are not true Christians. Guess what? We discovered unbelievable excesses and terrible theology flourished in both camps, proving Newton’s Law Of Motion that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, we humans have a very tough time figuring out how to stay on the narrow path together.
There are many who are generating thoughtful responses to MacArthur’s poor theology and thug-like approach. (There are dozens, nay, perhaps even hundreds of bloggers who have thrown their words into the fray, but with a book deadline creeping ever closer each day, I don’t have time to compile a full list of the best.)
Instead of a fancy theological response, I have a true story I’d like to share with you. Names and some details have been changed, but it illustrates the work of the Holy Spirit – a work, like the wind, that is not contained by humanity’s boundaries. And that includes our tidy theological categories.
No Swimming Allowed
Dave pulled into his driveway, and punched his radio off. Even in the quiet, the atmosphere in the car still carried the adrenaline charge from the uncompromising words from “God’s Agenda Today”, the radio show to which everyone at church religiously listened. This afternoon’s topic, “How Hollywood distorts the gospel”, didn’t even affect Dave personally. With four young kids in his household, he hadn’t even seen anything other than cartoons on DVD the last few years. He didn’t really know much about the movies to which GAT host Larry O’Brien referred, but by the time Dave pulled into his driveway, Larry had him convinced that evil had a California zip code.
His entire right arm started to throb, and he realized that his hand had been clenched into a fist the whole time he was listening to the show.
He shook his hand loose as he walked into the house. The decibel level today was one setting above “Boisterous”. Seven year-old Matthew was slouched in a chair in the living room, holding a bag of organic frozen green beans against the side of his head. His wife Christy was in the kitchen lecturing Jesse, nearly six, and holding nine-month old Lizzie on one hip. Christy looked ten years older than she had when he left the house that morning.
He kissed her on the cheek, and took Lizzie from her. “Looks like you’ve had a fun afternoon.”
She continued to glare at Jesse. “We were at the Tisdean’s house for lunch today, and Matthew and Jesse ganged up on Jeremiah Tisdean, going from one fight to the next. Both of them were very rude during lunch…and I could tell that Donna wasn’t too happy with the chaos. I got us out of there so I could discipline them, and then when we got home…”
Dave’s mind wandered while Christy continued to give a blow by blow description of the afternoon’s drama. Why did his kids always act up at the Tisdean’s house? The Tisdeans were spiritual giants at Covenant Bible Chapel, and seemed to have their ideal brood functioning with an eerie military precision. When Christy took the now-fussing Lizzie from his arms, she said, “So what are you going to do about Sarah?”
Her question jerked him back to earth. “What? Sarah? Why is Matthew icing his head?”
“Were you paying attention, Dave? The boys had another fight in the yard just before you came home, but that’s really not the problem. I was telling you that I discovered that Sarah stole a doll from Charity Tisdean while we were there. And then she lied to me about it. She’s up in her room. I told her to stay there until you got home and could deal with her.”Dave found himself wishing he could steal something from the Tisdeans, too. Like a little of their perfection, maybe. “God forgive me,” he whispered as he trudged up the stairs to Sarah. “I don’t need their perfection. I need Your wisdom.”
+ + + + + + +
Jerry Tisdean was really revved this morning in Sunday School. His class was the place to be at 9 AM Sunday mornings among the faithful of Covenant Bible Chapel. After a brief prayer, Jerry launched into it. “Did any of you get a chance to listen to God’s Agenda Today on Friday?” Several men nodded. “That discussion about the way that the modern psychology movement has infiltrated the church never gets old, does it? Can’t preach the good, old-fashioned gospel if they’re using the world’s methods. These are dark days…”
The balance of the hour was spent rehashing the radio program’s contents. Always quiet, Dave willed himself to listen to the discussion, trying not to think about the argument he and Christy had in the car on the way to church. The discussion wasn’t really much of a discussion, since everyone in the class seemed to agree with every word that Jerry said. Various people weighed in with their own third-hand tidbits about the worldly tactics used by well-known parachurch ministries and churches, gleaned from the internet and various newsletters from fundamentalist “discernment” ministries.
The discussion was so heated that the group nearly missed the beginning of the service. Jerry’s tribe filed into the dim 1960’s-era sanctuary as the first flat notes of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” thundered from an ancient upright piano. No big deal if they missed worship, Dave thought. Most people at Covenant felt that the musical portion of their worship was an aural endurance course they had to run in order to get to the main course of the morning: the red meat of God’s Word – the sermon.
He slid into the pew next to Christy, who sang with the voice of an angel. If she was pondering the ugly words he’d spoken in the van on the way to church, she wasn’t showing it. She’d told the bickering Matthew and Jesse, “Listen, boys…if you don’t zip it, we’re going to turn around and go home.”
Dave had smirked, “You’re scheduled for nursery duty today during Sunday School.” He might as well have told the boys that they won this battle, because they understood that mom’s nursery duty meant they wouldn’t be going home, no matter how naughty they were. Christy glared icily at him, and was silent the rest of the way to church.
During verse 3 of the second hymn of the morning, Dave wondered if any of the rest of the congregations ever said stupid things to each other on the way to church. He suspected so, but never heard many of them talk about their own failures since most of them were too busy analyzing the failures of others. Dave and Christy had always felt that that the strong opinions from the others who attended Covenant Bible Chapel were a sign of their spiritual commitment and maturity. Lately, though, he found himself asking why their ‘maturity’ made him feel like a hopeless adolescent.
He reached for Christy’s hand, and she squeezed his in return. It was a splash of grace, and allowed Dave to focus on the sermon. Dave had always admired Pastor Johnson’s verse-by-verse teaching. He spoke today about the importance of doctrinal purity, from the only approved Bible in their circles, the KJV. By the time the sermon was over, Pastor Johnson had aimed his cannon at the ACLU, MTV, the contemporary Christian music industry, Hollywood and the Juniors department of the local Wal-Mart.
Though Dave shared Pastor Johnson’s concerns about purity, he wasn’t quite sure how all of those offenders got roped into the sermon, especially as he pondered what the biblical text had to say.
But there was no questioning that Pastor Johnson was on his game today. He had to be, every week. Dave knew that most of the armchair preachers in the congregation would analyze his message with the gusto of sports fans. Post-game sermon analysis was entertainment to them. Some of them even collected and traded sermon tapes they’d obtained from fundamentalist ministers promoted by Larry O’Brien of “God’s Agenda Today” or Pastor Johnson. It reminded Dave of the way he used to collect and trade baseball cards when he was a kid.
He looked at Christy’s hand, so small in his own. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong somewhere. “Where are you in all of this, Lord Jesus?”
It was the prayer that snuck out of Dave’s lips more and more often these days.
To be continued…