I noticed Tim Challies posted an article on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference the other day so I check it out. MacArthur’s church hosted the Strange Fire conference last weekend, a conference devoted to the critique of the charismatic movement. I read Challies’ post as well as watched John MacArthur’s address that opened the event and set its condemning tone.
When I read Challies’ notes at first I didn’t believe them. Challies doesn’t interject his opinion, but neither does he criticize MacArthur’s. So I watched the video of MacArthur’s actual address. Sadly, Challies’ notes are an accurate representation of MacArthur’s argument.
I am familiar with Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement including the Vineyard movement’s particular flavor of it. I spent many years in the charismatic movement, serving it in various capacities, even attending a Pentecostal Bible College. In seminary I studied under my mentor, Dr. Gordon Fee, a Pentecostal and one of the most respected text critics and biblical scholars in the world. In Charisma News you can read Michael Brown’s “final appeal” to MacArthur which I thought was direct, clear and fair.
I’m also familiar with the Reformed movement. During my religion and ministry program at Presbyterian College at McGill University in Montreal I joyously immersed myself in reformed studies. When I graduated I was surprised but pleased to receive the prize in Reformed Theology. It was no big deal but I appreciated the fact that my seriousness about reformed theology was recognized. Then I was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in Canada and spent many years serving reformed churches. Karl Barth is my favorite theologian and probably will remain so for the rest of my life, hands down.
I’m sharing this is to show that I’m not just talking from the sidelines as a bystander but as someone who has had a lot of experience and education in both traditions and still embraces a respect for each while feeling free to critique both.
As I watched the video I felt a growing anger as well as a disgust for what MacArthur was saying and how he was saying it. His speech is as lofty as his demeanor. His criticism of charismatics is as old as the charismatic movement itself. So it’s nothing new. It is a familiar flame. What I found dismaying is his complete dismissal of the movement and all its adherents in a single one hour dignified gesture. With one speech he purged the rolls of salvation of over 500 million believers.
Basically his argument is that charismatics dishonor God. Since they are therefore not in Christ, their theology is demonic. So since they are serving Satan and promoting him, there is a hotter hell reserved for them. He claims that the charismatic movement has done nothing to advance sound doctrine or biblical theology but in fact has caused more damage than anything else ever has because it has only delivered confusion, distortion and error to the church. He questions the church: You have always defended God. You have always defended Jesus Christ. Why do you not defend the Holy Spirit? Instead, the church opens the gates to the charismatics and they have taken over the city of God and set up an idol in its center. He doesn’t understand why God doesn’t just strike all these people down. He sadly supposes his ways aren’t our ways.
Here’s my response to MacArthur in defense of the charismatic movement and its adherents.
I suggest that the charismatic movement is a subversion of the very theology MacArthur espouses. It possesses a socio-political power that is devastating to those who would control the church and her members. The spiritual gift at the center of the charismatic movement is speaking in tongues which is an act of defiance against the principalities and powers because it is a secret language, like a code, that cannot be controlled or censored. This is a frustration to the powers who would like to see tighter regulations upon the church in how it should think, speak and act. The more MacArthur talked the more defiant I became, sensing my own spirit crying out, “If I worship I will worship the way I want to worship!”
- The spiritual gifts level the playing field. I was disturbed by how smug and arrogant MacArthur came across, easily condemning 500,000,000 people to hell. And it was all done with such finesse, dignity and aplomb, padded by PhDs and suits and fine speech and a luxurious church full of violins and operatic voices. Along come the spiritual gifts that usurp all of this. Anybody can play! The charismatic movement is gaining speed, especially in developing nations, I think for this very reason. It is empowering and accessible and available to every single living person regardless of race, sex, status, economics, influence, education or power. It can’t be regulated, and this baffles the tightly run reformed ship that MacArthur pilots.
- Several times MacArthur used scripture against the charismatics that could be applied to him. For example, when Jesus cautioned his listeners to not dismiss what’s happening as not of the Spirit and that this is tantamount to blaspheming the Spirit, MacArthur turned it around to say that the charismatic do the opposite by claiming that what they are doing is of the Spirit. While he was saying this I thought, “John! Why not just leave the verse as it is and apply it to yourself? Aren’t you afraid of the possibility that you denying what is happening is of the Spirit is blaspheming the Spirit?” For someone with his level of intelligence, you’d think that he would realize that every scripture can be used like a bullet in anyone’s gun. A bullet is neutral, but he made it fatal by sliding it into his reformed gun’s chamber, firing away like a drive-by shooting of his charismatic brothers and sisters. He could turn the same bullet on himself. But for some reason he doesn’t see the scriptures as a corrective for himself or the reformed movement which he obviously elevates above all others.
- He went on and on about how injurious the charismatic movement has been to the church. I agree there have been a lot of abuses and misuses within the charismatic church. I’ve seen it and experienced it first hand. I’ve also seen it and experienced it first hand in reformed churches. This is because it’s not rooted in theology but in the greed, ignorance and cruelty of our hearts. Theology only comes along to justify and vindicate our inhumanity. The response to MacArthur by the church is so overwhelming because, in fact, he is the one who is hurting his brothers and sisters. As a man with such clout in the theological and ecclesiastical world, how injurious was just this one hour of spiteful speech? In one fell swoop he not only disassociated himself from half a billion believers, but he called them “of Satan” and consigned them to a “hotter hell” reserved for such people who dishonor God. In all my life I’ve rarely been so assaulted with such blatant and mindless cruelty dressed up as theological astuteness.
- MacArthur wonders why God hasn’t struck down the movement and its adherents. He wonders why the church universal hasn’t condemned it. Speaking from a theological perspective, is it possible that what we are witnessing is actually the movement of the Spirit? Jesus said that the Spirit comes and goes as it wills, like the wind, beyond our control and understanding and even sometimes beyond our observation. Is it possible that this movement that MacArthur can’t control, can’t understand, and can’t even explain is the very wind of the Spirit he desires? Is it possible that this movement that he and his fellow theocrats can’t harness is the Spirit that won’t and can’t be contained? Is it possible that the maverick Spirit is acting in a very unreformed manner, thanks be to God?!
I’m not just angry. I’m not just disappointed. I’m sad. After watching MacArthur I was tempted to throw in the towel. Even though many people would distance themselves from MacArthur and his position on charismatics, it’s still a sign that the church and its leaders may use anything at their disposal to elevate themselves above their brothers and sisters, even if it means separating themselves from them forever.
I thought we were better than this.