The Strange Fire Controversy: John MacArthur, Charismatics, and What Really Matters
If you’ve kept up with the latest Christian buzz, you’ve probably heard about John MacArthur, Strange Fire, and the uproar of the Charismatics. As with any internecine tiff within the Christian community, insults have been hurled, personalities have been maligned, and blogs and Twitter feeds have rolled out an incessant verbiage — some helpful and some not so much.
What can we learn from the controversy and its fallout? Are there any takeaways? Let’s take an objective look at the issue, and then discuss some responses.
The Spark that Started the Fire
The imbroglio began during a pastor’s conference in California. The conference, Strange Fire, was hosted by Grace Community Church and keynoted by John MacArthur. According to the Grace to You blog, “Strange Fire was a response to a tidal wave of dangerous, damning lies that are leading hundreds of millions of people to hell.” In the teaching and preaching of the conference, speakers were “trying to identify the body of Christ,” as John MacArthur explained in a tweet. Accompanying the conference was the announcement of John MacArthur’s latest book of the same name. Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship is released today, November 12.
What is “Strange Fire?”
The term “Strange Fire” comes from the Old Testament story of Nadab and Abihu. These two sons of Aaron defied God’s instructions in their administration of temple ceremonies. As a result, God punished them with death. In borrowing the term, MacArthur draws a connection between today’s Charismatic Christians and the priests who spurned God’s holiness. As MacArthur explains in the book, “This is a sobering and terrifying account, and it has obvious implications for the church in our time.”
MacArthur’s Position against the Charismatic Movement
MacArthur believes that the miraculous gifts recorded in the New Testament no longer occur, in contradiction to other Christians who claim to witness and practice such gifts as healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. MacArthur rightly identifies some in the Charismatic movement whose overemphasis upon this doctrine have created unscriptural excesses. Trevin Wax, a reformed cessationist blogger sums up MacArthur’s position: “The continualist position…necessarily reaps a harvest of aberration and false teaching.” Another supporter of the conference, Tim Challies, wrote after blogging the conference, “I find myself grateful for it.”
MacArthur presumably anticipated the backlash, and offered a few disclaimers, “Do some in the movement believe the truth? Yes. Do some hold to sound theology on some issues? Yes. But none of those true understandings have come to them through that movement.” MacArthur’s conclusion is clear: “Nothing coming from the Charismatic movement has provided recovery or strengthening of the biblical Gospel. Nothing has preserved truth and sound doctrine. It has only produced distortion, confusion, and error.” In contrast to Charismatism, MacArthur offers the reformed position as the locus of biblical faithfulness and practice. In his keynote, he stated, “By contrast, Reformed theology, sound doctrine, is not a haven for false teachers.”
Charismatic Believers Respond to John MacArthur
Those who remain convinced of the legitimacy of the continuationist position have expressed their disagreement. Adrian Warnack, himself a reformed Christian and a continuationist, tweeted to MacArthur, “Am I, & my reformed brothers not a part of the body of Christ?” More directly, David Hayward erupted with his article, “John MacArthur Sends 500,000,000 Charismatics to Hell.” There are others who summed up their objection to MacArthur’s arguments in the following way: “So Pastor @JohnMacArthur has decided, apparently, that I am not a follower of Jesus. Why? Because I am not a cessationist.”
Others like Samuel Rodriguez, leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a Pentecostal minister, told Christian Post that MacArthur is “ignorant of the [Charismatic] community’s unbridled commitment to biblical orthodoxy.
Most of whom rallied to the support of MacArthur are those of the cessionationst reformed camp including many others who are decidedly cessationist. Those who object to MacArthur’s strong position include presumably, the Charismatic movement en masse, continuationists, and those who are cessationist yet sensitive to the acceptability of differing viewpoints.
Personalities and Movements behind the Controversy
There are several key positions in play — cessationism and continuationism. Additionally, several influential names have become part of the controversy. MacArthur identified individuals (including T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen) as representatives of aberrant Charismatism. Here is a list of the people and positions that are involved:
- Charismatics – The worldwide “Charismatic” movement, includes as many as 500 million Christians. The largest growth of the Charismatics has been in Africa and Asia. It is a nondenominational movement whose “charismatic” identity refers to their belief that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit continue today. (The Greek word “charisma” means “gift.) This theological position is called “continuationist” as opposed to “cessationist.” Many Pentecostal denominations identify as Charismatic.
- Cessationists – Those who believe that the sign gifts of the Spirit ceased in the early days of the Church (1st century A.D.) are called “cessationist.” John MacArthur and others at the Strange Fire conference made a case for the cessationist position, arguing against the position of the charismatics.
- John MacArthur is the pastor and teacher of Grace Community Church. He is well-known for his “Grace to You” radio broadcast, books, commentaries, and involvement in the Master’s Seminary and Master’s College. MacArthur led the Strange Fire conference and wrote the book, Strange Fire.
- Mark Driscoll is a reformed megachurch pastor based in Seattle, Washington. Driscoll is a continuationist, and although he was not invited to the Strange Fire conference, nonetheless made a brief appearance and handed out several copies of his new book onsite at the event. According to Driscoll, “things got confusing” while he was there, and the books which Driscoll was distributing were relocated to a vehicle. Driscoll stated that the conference’s security personnel confiscated his books, though conference representatives denied the allegation. In an open letter to MacArthur after the incident, Driscoll invited MacArthur to his Seattle conference to discuss the theological issues over which they disagree. (MacArthur did not accept the invitation.)
- Bishop T.D. Jakes is a well-known Christian leader, pastor, and author who is also a Charismatic. He was identified during the conference as one who, due to his Charismatic emphasis, marginalizes doctrine due to his belief in the continuation of miraculous gifts.
- Joel Osteen, also an influential Christian pastor, was another target of comments during the Strange Fire conference. Osteen and others, MacArthur claims, are engaged in a “war on truth.”
What Really Matters?
So that’s a summary of the controversy. With the publication of the book, Strange Fire, the disagreement is likely to deepen as the book is purchased, read, and reviewed.
This is nothing new. The controversy over miraculous gifts has raged ever since the emergence of Charismatics into mainstream Christianity. MacArthur himself authored the book, Charismatic Chaos in 1992. But the controversy goes much farther back in time. As early as the 2nd century, a Christian sect “went Charismatic,” and experienced persecution. Even in the apostles’ day when the miraculous gifts were unarguably in place, there was confusion and disagreement over their place and purpose.
This latest flare-up provides another opportunity to take a good, hard look at the issue. Here is how we might respond:
1. Defining one’s position.
Perhaps you can define your position on the issue. There is nothing wrong or arrogant about holding a position, so long as it is done charitably, humbly, and graciously. Since this issue has been raised anew, perhaps you may wish to engage in a close and careful study of what Scripture says or does not say, and draw your own conclusions.
2. Being confused or undecided.
Is it okay to be undecided on the issue? Is it appropriate to postpone a hard-and-fast decision? Yes. Just as you can humbly hold a position, so you can humbly remain undecided. That is acceptable. Salvation and Christian growth do not require you to dot every theological “i” and cross every theological “t.” There’s something comforting about possessing the capability to eloquently defend one’s position, but, realistically, that is not always possible for everyone of us on every single issue.
3. Yearning for unity.
Though we may not be virulently defensive about a particular position regarding gifts, we should be bold in our commitment to Christ, to truth, to love, and to unity. When within the arena of conflict, it’s hard to see beyond the dust of the fight to the larger issues of the Christian life. But there are more foundational issues than whether one is continuationist or cessationist.
The Grace to You blog mentions unity: “Unity through silence has not held back that tidal wave [of “dangerous, damning lies that are leading hundreds of millions of people to hell”]… Truth does matter, and it’s worth fighting for.” Yes. And is unity worth fighting for? Is it possible to “fight” for unity?
Jesus prayed that believers “may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). In other words, he wanted Christians to have the same kind of unity that he enjoyed with the Father and Spirit. Such a unity blows our minds. What’s the purpose of such unity? “That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17:23). Unity is for evangelism. Unity is for mission. Unity is worth fighting for.
4. Pursuing mission.
When you feel yourself losing touch in a controversy, getting overly focused, or getting altogether consumed with it, it’s time to take a step back and put it in its proper place.
Look into the faces of people who do not know Christ. Gaze at a map and let your eyes wander over the millions of square miles where people live who have never heard his name. Do some research on the number of people who are needlessly dying every day due to lack of sanitary water, food, or health care. Find out how many people do not have the Bible in their language.
Then, armed with this background information, go back to your study of the controversy. Allow it to shape your perspective and passion.It may not change your position, but maybe it will change how you consider the issue.
Tell Us What You Think
What is your position? How has the discussion and controversy affected you?
Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.