“Strange Fire?” Fundamentalists and the Holy Spirit

“Strange Fire?” Fundamentalists and the Holy Spirit October 28, 2013

“Strange Fire?” Fundamentalists and the Holy Spirit

Just this month fundamentalist-Calvinist pastor John MacArthur, host of the “Grace to You” radio program and author of numerous books (including Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship [2013]) hosted an anti-Pentecostal, anti-charismatic conference in Southern California called “Strange Fire.” You can check it out by simply googling that phrase and visiting the conference web site.

To be sure there are excesses and aberrations among Pentecostals and charismatics. Some of them deserve the label “strange fire.” When I was growing up in the thick of the Pentecostal movement we sometimes talked about “wild fire” in certain Pentecostal churches. We distinguished between that and the true “fire” of the Holy Spirit that enlivened and energized Christians to live holy lives and witness to the lost. Occasionally, in response to people like MacArthur (who has been bashing Pentecostals and charismatics for decades) we said “Better wild fire than no fire at all.” After visiting some so-called Pentecostal churches and charismatic meetings I’m not so sure about that, but I have deep qualms about conferences like MacArthur’s.

MacArthur talks about the danger of offending the Holy Spirit with “counterfeit worship.” I agree that there is that danger. However, I wonder if MacArthur and others (like R. C. Sproul) who spoke at his conference have considered the danger of offending the Holy Spirit by opposing a worldwide renewal movement that, for all its flaws, has brought millions of people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? And by attributing the Holy Spirit’s gifts to unholy passions and imagination (if not to Satan)?

Frankly, in my considered opinion, cessationism (belief that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the close of the apostolic age and the completion of Scripture) is simply silly. It’s exegesis of its only allegedly supporting biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, is simply tortured. It’s blatant eisegesis.

I can’t help but suspect that there’s more than a bit of God envy going on the fundamentalists’ loud protestations against the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. They doth protest too much and too loudly and on such thin grounds. Every large and widespread religious movement has its extremes and aberrations, including fundamentalism! And yet, to listen to these men (and a few women) you’d think every Pentecostal and charismatic was a religious fraud and/or fanatic worthy of nothing but disdain.

The reason I suspect these fundamentalists of God envy is that their own movement (cessationist) is on the ropes, so to speak, dwindling and fighting for survival, while Pentecostalism and charismatic groups are thriving worldwide. Sociologists of religion inform us that Pentecostalism (in its various forms) is the fastest-growing and largest Christian movement in the world. Protestant Christianity in the Global South is dominated by Pentecostals and charismatics.

One Pentecostal response to the Strange Fire conference has come from the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God George O. Wood. I am including it here. It is a model of generosity of spirit in the face of backstabbing by fellow conservative Christians. I fear I could not be so kind and gentle. In fact, I would like to issue a warning to the Strange Fire folks that they may be in danger of offending the Holy Spirit themselves. Sounding a warning about excesses and aberrations rampant in some Pentecostal and charismatic quarters is one thing; condemning the whole movement as “counterfeit” is simply verging on sinning against the Holy Spirit.

Here is Wood’s response to Strange Fire:

From the General Superintendent’s Office

Statement Regarding Strange Fire Conference


Recently, Dr. John MacArthur and Grace to You Ministries hosted the Strange Fire

Conference at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

Dr. MacArthur believes that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased with the close of the

Apostolic Era and that the Pentecostal and charismatic movements are therefore

theologically aberrant at a foundational level.


By contrast, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians believe that “the promise [i.e., the

gift of the Holy Spirit] is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all

whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). With this promise comes the evidential

sign of speaking in other tongues and power to be witnesses of Jesus Christ “to the

ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, 2:4, cf. Luke 24:49). Consequently, following the Apostle

Paul’s teaching, we “eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:1).


While there have been isolated aberrations of behavior and doctrine over the past

century among those who self-identify as Pentecostal or charismatic, the movement as

a whole has proved a vital force in world evangelization—a fulfillment of the promise

Jesus made to His disciples in Acts 1:8. On behalf of the 66 million adherents and

360,000+ churches in the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, I thank God that the

faith and life of the Acts 2 church are still being believed and experienced today.


The Assemblies of God celebrates 100 years in 2014 and remains committed to the full

authority of God’s Word. As a founding member of the National Association of

Evangelicals, the Assemblies of God has sought to cooperate in the Great Commission

with Christians of like-minded faith, even when they are not Pentecostal and charismatic

and we remain committed to that collaboration.


We trust the time will come when Dr. John MacArthur and those who share his

perspective will acknowledge the great contribution that Pentecostals and Charismatics

are making in the evangelization of individuals without Christ. We pray God’s blessings

on their efforts to share His gospel with a lost and dying world. Pentecostals and

charismatics are their co-laborers in this effort so we ask that they would similarly pray

for God’s blessing on us as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission that God has given

us all.


George O. Wood

General Superintendent, The General Council of the Assemblies of God

Chairman, World Assemblies of God Fellowship


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  • david carlson

    It seems to me that Fundies have replaced the Holy Spirit with the Holy Bible (thus becoming the deniers of the Spirit that they accuse Pentecostals of)

    It is also a means of controling God, and people – after all, the Bible means what they say it means. Thus no role for the HS in peoples lives.

    • Zeke Mulcaghey

      Why must we persist in making sweeping statements about entire groups of people? Whether it’s MacArthur’s dismissal of Charismatics or other’s dismissal of the young Reformed or your dismissal of “Fundies.” I had sort of hoped that this conference would spark constructive dialogue on the whole subject, but so much of what is said has this kind of tit for tat quality. I suppose MacArthur invited that sort of response with his own lack of irenic spirit. I just wish more of the participants to the dialogue could rise above that sort of thing.

      • Roger Olson

        Spark constructive dialogue…by labeling all Pentecostal and charismatic worship “counterfeit?” C’mon. The intention, so far as I can tell, was never to spark constructive dialogue but only to demonize a whole branch of Christianity.

      • Dean

        What surprises me more is if anyone who hosted the conference thought they would get a different reaction. I think this is just another example folks trying to shrink the tent as Dr. Olson has written in the past. I guess it was just a matter of time before the Reformed movement started attacking folks in their own camp, that was a bit of a surprise to me. When I talk to non-Christians about the different schism in American Christianity today they are baffled at why these kinds of things are so divisive and I don’t really have a good answer for them. I think the greatest weakness of the New Calvinists is this insistence that doctrinal purity impacts your salvation. Reasonable folks really need to speak out against that position, it was never taught by Jesus, it’s empirically false, and it fails logically too. I’m not sure how they got this idea, it can proven false fairly easily, (1) there were Christians before the Bible was even written and (2) for most of human history, no one could read. Where are they getting this from?

        • Roger Olson

          I would be very interested to know John Piper’s and Wayne Grudem’s response to the “Strange Fire” conference. So far as I can see neither presented there. Grudem is well known for opposing cessationism (at least with regard to the gift of prophecy if not tongues).

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for the heads up on this Roger. Early in the introductory talk, MacArthur says that a major goal of the conference was to help Christians develop better discernment (presumably spiritual discernment). A laudable goal to be sure, but in light of your comments re ways we can grieve the Spirit (or worse) the irony is palpable.

    It probably is true that there is some kind of envy, jealousy, fear or just plain marketing angst driving this. But another concern is likely the unavoidable ecumenism represented by the pentecostal-charismatic movement. After all, the Holy Spirit is the greatest and most effective ecumenist that we know. It’s hard not to fellowship with all those “other” people when everyone is moved by the same Spirit.

    • Roger Olson

      I can testify to this from personal experience. When the charismatic movement swept through the Catholic and “Mainline” Protestant denominations in the 1960s and 1970s many Pentecostals for the first time became open to “others being Christians too” (equally). Before that most Pentecostals thought Catholics and “mainline” Protestants could not be “real” Christians.

  • Brian A Shealy

    Wow! You couldn’t critique MacArthur and fundamentalists without impugning their motives and accusing them of the sin of envy? Whatever happened to “Love believes all things?” (1 Cor 13:7) I can assure you that the reason that MacArthur and most fundamentalists I know hold the views they do are purely from a desire to honor God and they warn about these things because they truly believe that the Scriptures teach these things and therefore lovingly warn others because they care about them. If you read the book _Strange Fire_ you will see that there is a case made based upon more than one passage of Scripture. You may not agree with it and I respect that. Grace to you and peace, dear brother.

  • Bev Mitchell

    But then I got to thinking, why would discernment be needed if the whole thing is wrong, fundamentally flawed biblically and just a non-starter because the Spirit no longer works like that? “Just listen to and follow your approved cessationist” seems to be the only ‘discernment’ involved. 🙁

  • M85

    I went to a McArthur conference (about 2 years ago) once here in europe and i found it was a truly horrible experience. I basically disagreed with most of what he said: from his calvinism, his stance on women in ministry, his anti-charismatic position and his general dogmatism on about every single subject.
    I can remember being in a constant state of spiritual and mental anguish and i couldn’t wait to leave. Sadly his “study Bible” remains very popular in Italy amongst evangelicals: often it is the only commentary many believers own and shapes their understanding on doctrine. Yes, there is a lot of rubbish going on in the the charismatic/pentecostal world but using that as a pretext to throw mud on the whole movement is a bit much!

  • Gary T. Meadors

    There are plenty of criticisms one can present against any of the various views on whether miraculous gifts are for today (see the now out-dated Zondervan Counterpoints volume edited by Grudem). To be honest, a full cessationist view is the most “creative construct” of the views since it depends on patterns and inuendo / implicational texts more than proof-texts (which charismatics usually claim to support their view of continuity). Cessationism is also driven by a certain understanding of the epistemology of Scripture. BUT to assert that 1 Cor 13:8-13 is the “only allegedly supporting biblical passage” (fourth para in article) for cessationism is totally naive and reflects a lack of knowledge of the valid cessationists’ literature (e.g. Richard Gaffin, R. Fowler White, Ron Nash, J. I. Packer, etc.). While it is true that decades ago there was a very naive use of this text among non-academic cessationists, I do not know an academic cessationist these days who would even think of claiming 1 Cor 13 for cessationism (to do so would actually invalidate their claim to be an academic scholar of the Bible). R. Fower White and others have well clarified this text in relation to the eschaton and not a proof-texts for either cessationism or non-cessationism, but it serves a different contextual purpose within the argument of 1 Cor 13.

    I would clarify that I make these comments in the interest of researched exegesis and theology, and have no interest in supporting MacArthur.

    • Roger Olson

      But neither you nor others who have defended cessationism in this way have mentioned a single biblical passage (other than 1 Cor 13…) that allegedly supports cessationism. What good does it do to come here and accuse me of claiming cessationists have only one passage to claim without mentioning their other ones? I’ve read plenty of cessationist literature and never seen any convincing exegesis there.

  • Dean

    I actually think the Strange Fire conference was good in many ways, but probably not for the reasons John MacAruthur and his acolytes think. The fact that Mark Driscoll crashed the conference reveals that there are real schisms in the New Calvinist movement and I hope it also reveals how personality dependent it is. That can probably be said for the American Church as a whole, but I think the YRR movement in particular. I only watched the Q&A sections of the Strange Fire conference, but what was notable to me was the underlying creepiness at how deferential everyone is to John MacArthur. I have noticed this in JMac’s disciples too, when they talk about him or defend him, it is with some sort of strange reverence. Maybe I’m just reading into these things because of my own biases against the man, but it does seem to fit with the patriarchal, misogynist, hierarchical, authoritarian culture that I think the New Calvinists seem to have an affinity toward. So I found it a little ironic when the panel was talking about how the charismatic movement was full of attention seeking, self-promoting scam artists who prey on disaffected youth. It’s as if JMac is completely oblivious to the power of his own personality and others in his movement. I have encountered many Christians, mostly younger men who had bad relationships with their fathers, take everything JMac says as gospel, pretty much without question. I mean, I met someone recently who’s daughter’s middle name was Piper (after John Piper, yes, I asked). You have the same phenomenon with Mark Driscoll as well. Certainly other Christian leaders have their following, but there is something truly disturbing at how militant and aggressive the YRR are when they defend their leaders and their “tribe”, and this conference was just another manifestation of that. It isn’t enough for them to call out the excesses of other movements, what annoys me is how flippantly they are willing to call into question the salvation of those with whom they disagree, whether it be the emergent church, Catholics or charismatics. Basically, you have Pope JMac excommunicating millions of Christians by way of a conference without having any clue how obnoxious that is, and then to have Mark Driscoll show up uninvited, well that was just gravy. Even Tim Keller tweeted recently, “Bad evangelism says: I’m right, you’re wrong, and I would love to tell you about it”.

    • Roger Olson

      I edited out one sentence that went a bit over the top about MacArthur.

    • I’ve always liked Eph 5:18-21, esp v21:

      And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

      When that submitting is mostly one-way, I get awfully concerned. I get that it might be temporary disciple-rabbi training, but you’re describing something that is more steady-state, as opposed to Eph 4:11-14.

      And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

      Finally, 1 Cor 12:21-26 sticks out at me:

      The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

      I would love to know how John MacArthur does:

           1. “bestow the greater honor”
           2. “treated with greater modesty”
           3. “giving greater honor”

      Something tells me that his answers will appear very ‘flat’ and ‘contrived’. Almost worldly. But I could be surprised—I always like being surprised in the heavenward direction.

  • Charlie Payne

    I know he thinks he’s doing the Lord’s Work when he points out what he feels is heresy but not all that he points out is error; sometimes it’s just disagreement where honest exegetes can and do disagree. John MacArthur is not very gracious with anyone he disagrees with (he preached for 3 HOURS on why drinking is WRONG) and I’m wondering if he’s ever caught the irony in the name of his program “Grace to you” – Since he’s such a strong Calvinist, how can he presume it’s for me?

  • starchy

    I understand that this is a passionate issue. In fact, I didn’t know it was an issue until the recent Strange Fire conference. I think it’s helpful at this point for me to point out, at a very minimum, that cessationists don’t believe that the supernatural has ceased. As for this comment: “The reason I suspect these fundamentalists of God envy is that their own movement (cessationist) is on the ropes, so to speak, dwindling and fighting for survival, while Pentecostalism and charismatic groups are thriving worldwide.” I don’t think that was written in a discerning or even a wise way. To be honest, I’m not concerned about being part of the unpopular minority. In fact, if Scripture is any indication at all, God’s remnant tends to be the unpopular minority. If that is true in this instance, then it really throws a wrench into the comment you made.

    • Roger Olson

      I know they don’t claim the supernatural has ceased. They claim the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased. I count on my readers to already know some things…too much.

  • maria

    And this is where the Pentecostals and Charismatics get it wrong…

    “With this promise comes the evidential

    sign of speaking in other tongues”

    False doctrine ….if it can even be called a doctrine.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Maria,
      Please…if you think it is false, explain why it is false.

      • maria

        First I must clarify my position on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I believe they all exist today as they did in the beginning. No cessation but rather misrepresentation.For the gifts include many spiritual tools for our discipleship with Christ and for the good of the church. The Holy Spirits MAIN function is to lead us in all TRUTH. We can not cherry pick a few here and a few there because we witness the carnal more than we do the spiritual.
        for any flesh driven desire. I believe what Jesus said when He told us the “Comforter”will be sent to us to remind us of all His teachings.

        • Roger Olson

          I don’t think it’s appropriate to publish prayers for others with whom we have disagreement here–as if anyone with whom we disagree needs our prayer. Pray for them as you wish, but I will edit out such prayers before publishing comments.

  • Kyle F

    While Mark Driscoll is sitting in his own stew for his recent post “God is not a pacifist”, he did have time to call out MacArthur towards a more productive conversation

    • Roger Olson

      I rarely allow links in comments here. I just don’t have time to check them all out.

  • Thanks for posting this. I have also been sounding the alarm about MacArthur’s shcizmatic assault on the body of Christ.

    • Roger Olson

      I normally edit out links. People can find your blog using your name, I assume. It’s at patheos everyone.

  • patricklmitchell

    I can’t help but think how non-Christians look on things like this and ask why they’d align themselves with something that seems so fragmented. I always think of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and how people will know we’re his disciples if we have unity. That might mean we focus on the 99% we have in common rather than the 1% we don’t. Good gracious. Other denominations aren’t the enemy!

  • patricklmitchell

    This type of ‘controversy’ saddens me in general as I imagine how non-Christians view us from the outside. Why can we not focus on the 99% we have in common and let the 1% go by way of agreeing to disagree? Jesus’ prayer in John 17 speaks of people knowing we are his disciples by our unity. Where is that unity?

  • “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine” (Acts 2:12-13 NIV).
    What makes me wonder if John MacArthur may have been in that crowd of mockers on the Day of Pentecost? Just askin’

  • Tony Hayes

    Great post.

  • Roger, have you considered posting a bit of history on Cessationism? Jon Mark Ruthven, in his 2011 What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology?, runs through a bit of the history and said it came out as a political doctrinal tool to use against the Roman Catholics who were attempting to use sign gifts to establish their doctrine as Truth. I haven’t done an extensive analysis of this, myself, though.

    • Roger Olson

      I haven’t. The first cessationist book I know of is B. B. Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles. But I’m sure there were cessationists before him.

      • I wonder whether such research would enhance your study of Arminianism. To me, Calvinism smells of giving so much responsibility to God, such that us having [God-given!] abilities like the charismatic gifts would be ‘unacceptable’. In other words, the ‘sovereignty ethos’ of [extant/popular]’ Calvinism might be inherently anti-charismatic. This isn’t to say Calvinists have to be consistent and be cessationist—not all of a person’s stances are necessarily inline with his/her overall ethos.

        • Roger Olson

          Yes, there are exceptions (if that’s even a rule). Wayne Grudem, for example, a major proponent of evangelical Calvinism, has published a book about the presence of prophecy in the church today. It is distinctly non-cessationist and I agree with his approach entirely. John Piper has also confessed that he has charismatic sympathies and is not a cessationist (but I have no idea if he speaks in tongues or anything like that). Don’t ask me for “chapter and verse” on Piper, though. It’s just what I’ve heard from people who have heard him speak on the subject. During my 15 years at Bethel I had many of his students in my classes and several of my colleagues attended his church.

          • If I’m not misstaken you do not allow links on your blog. If you go to youtube and search for John Piper and the gifts of the Spirit you will find…

            Piper says he cant find any reason in the Bible to say that these gifts, including the gift of tounges have ceassed. He even says that he from time to time asks God for the gift of tounges.

  • David Begley

    After reading the comments here I hope you all actually watched the conference and know what you are criticizing. (Especially Joni Eareckson Tada’s talk.)

    • Roger Olson

      In my opinion, anyone who would associate himself or herself with a conference that openly labels all Pentecostalism/charismatic phenomena as “counterfeit worship” risks offending the Holy Spirit and participates in dividing the body of Christ. Just look at the titles of the talks.John MacArthur has been bashing Pentecostals and charismatics for many years. Anyone who attends and speaks at a conference on that subject led by him is risking being associated with his anti-Pentecostal and anti-charismatic biases–whatever they say once they have the microphone. So instead of criticizing us, why don’t you tell us what Joni Eareckson Tada said that you think redeems the conference?

  • Timothy Shrout

    sigh…no words for this silly assault on any spirituality that does not specifically match the judgmental ideologues . I wish we knew what Jesus would say about this, oh wait, he had lots to say about Pharisees.

  • The Rev.

    When we use our Physical mind to Think with and not our Spiritual Mind. We become double Minded and we do not understand with the Mind of the Flesh the things of the Holy Spirit. That is why Paul Says we are double minded. The Spiritual Things do not make sense to the Flesh minded person. They can not comprehend the things of the Holy Spirit, for they are Spiritually Discerned. Also I always wonder in Calvinsim How Aborted babies fare. For if they were brought to life in this world would they have been of the “Elect” or Chosen” but since they died before birth they must all be chosen. So does God throughout the non elected ones. Hmmm

  • Thomas Harkins

    Another passage that can be read to support cessationism is Hebrews 1:1-2 conjoined with Hebrews 2:1-4. It was those who heard Jesus whose message was authenticated by signs, wonders, miracles. That aside, I think Church history supports the cessationist view–where do we see reports of the sometimes wild accounts of miracles in the “charismatic” fellowships during the 1,800 or more years between the close of Revelation and the rise of the Pentecostal movement? Did all those generations have a lack of sufficient faith? Also, many of the miraculous reports I have heard of really do sound outlandish. It is easy to see how someone could become skeptical of the “whole ball of wax” when there are so many “excesses.” I’ve been to charismatic and “healing” services myself on a number of occasions and never witnessed what struck me as an actual miracle. And I lived in the home of a “fast-growing” church field in Korea as a missionary kid and never saw a miracle there either. So, I think jumping on JM so hard for his belief in cessationism is being about as charitable as what many here are being toward him.