With the recent release of John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, and Michael Brown’s forthcoming release of his response to it, Authentic Fire, to which I have contributed an appendix, I will begin a series of articles reflecting on the issues and the debate over cessationism and continuationism.
My response to Strange Fire is twofold: I wish to respond to the errors of the cessationist camp in general and Dr. MacArthur in particular, but I also wish to address the unbiblical, and oftentimes embarrassing beliefs and activities within the Charismatic camp. To do the former without the latter would be a mistake, one I hope my Pentecostal and Charismatic colleagues do not make.
But before addressing Charismatic errors and our failure to bring correction where it is needed, it is necessary to first respond to comments by Macarthur that represent his overall opinion of the Charismatic movement. As the following quotations reveal, his words are so severe that it would be inappropriate to proceed without responding to them. Here is a sampling, taken from page 1 of Authentic Fire:
“The charismatic movement is largely the reason the Church is in the mess it is today.
In virtually every area where Church life is unbiblical you can attribute it
to the charismatic movement. In virtually every area, bad theology,
superficial worship, ego, prosperity gospel, personality elevation.
All of that comes out of the charismatic movement.”
“It is a very destructive movement…In recent history, no other movement has done
more to damage the cause of the gospel, to distort the truth,
and to smother the articulation of sound doctrine,”
Charismatics are “attributing the work of the devil to the Holy Spirit.”
The Charismatic Movement is “the explosive growth of a false church,
as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity.”
“Charismatic theology has made no contribution to true biblical theology
or interpretation; rather, it represents a deviant mutation of truth.”
“By inventing a Holy Spirit of idolatrous imaginations, the modern Charismatic Movement
offers strange fire that has done incalculable harm to the body of Christ.
Claiming to focus on the third member of the Trinity, it has in fact
profaned His name and denigrated His true work.”
If MacArthur were referring only to certain greedy, aberrant preachers he had seen on TV, then many Charismatics might shout Amen! to these words. But MacArthur is not referring only to a few bad apples; he is defining the entire movement with these words, as this eye-opening interview with one of his associates illustrates. Not only does Macarthur include the entire Charismatic movement in his comments, but also the more than 500 million tongue-talking Christians all over the world. If you are a Charismatic or a Pentecostal, if you are part of the Vineyard movement or a tongue-talking member of the underground church in China, MacArthur’s condemning comments are directed at you, as part of the larger group he castigates.
That MacArthur is guilty of the logical fallacy of sweeping generalization should go without saying. Apparently, MacArthur’s hard stance against the entire Charismatic movement comes largely as a result of watching a lot of TBN while recovering from surgery (Brown, Authentic Fire, “Genetic Fallacy,” p. 3). The Pentecostal movement, which began in the first decade of the 20th century, has little to do with the Charismatic movement which was begun in 1960 and even less to do with the Third Wave movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, the vast majority of the more than 500 million tongue-talking Christians worldwide have probably never even heard of Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar, or most of the frequent guests on TBN, and they would be quite surprised to learn that they are going to hell because of what these men preach.
No one with a knowledge of these movements and their expressions in the two-thirds world would dare lump them together and call them all Charismatics. Much less would they ascribe the worst aspects of American Charismatic television preaching to the entire Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement worldwide. For MacArthur to do this does a great disservice to millions of faithful followers of God whose idea of prosperity is eating more than one meal a day, and who have never watched a TBN program.
Charismatic contribution to an irrelevant church
When MacArthur claims the Charismatic movement has contributed nothing of substance to the church, he not only speaks incorrectly, but myopically. When the Pharisees said Jesus’s miracles were the work of Beelzebub and denied that He was the messiah, they could then conclude that the Jesus movement contributed nothing to Judaism. The folly of such a statement is immediately obvious. It is because he categorically rejects all that the movement contributes that he can draw such a conclusion, and that is the sad part of the matter, because the mainline denominations, which are uniformly cessationist, badly need what the Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement offers.
In 1965, former Harvard divinity dean Harvey Cox wrote a highly influential book called, The Secular City. In it he demonstrated that the church would soon disappear from America’s major cities due to irrelevance. When his prediction did not come true, he wrote Fire from Heaven in 1995 to explain why. In short, it was due to the prominence of the Pentecostal church. While all the mainline denominations were on the decline, the Pentecostal church, with its dynamic services and the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit, grew and continued to exert influence in modern urban society. When the churches in decline criticize the church that is growing, one is reminded of the woman who did not practice evangelization but saw fit to criticize D.L. Moody’s methods. His response was, “I prefer my way of doing it to your way of not doing it.”
Cox demonstrated that most of the church’s mainline denominations are in fact dying. If they do not receive something fresh from God, they will lose their relevance in America’s urban centers. But God has already sent his fresh. life-giving Spirit in the form of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Those denominations that steadfastly reject this fresh wave of God’s Spirit may ultimately pay for it with their lives.
That John MacArthur rejects the very move of the Spirit that was sent to revive his dying movement is not ironic; it is pitiable. Like the horse that tries to spit out the pill containing the medicine that will save its life, MacArthur calls the life-giving Spirit of revival in the Charismatic movement blasphemous, and he wants it excised from the body of Christ.
Many navel-gazing denominations cannot see that they are dying, so they reject the divine medicine that is being sent to them. Others, seeing their sickness, seek to concoct a seeker-sensitive potion in the hopes of reviving their relevance. But their man-made medicine comes at the cost of compromising the very power and truth that makes their relevance significant. The world may like them, but they have nothing good left to offer it. They have replaced the life-giving medicine with a sugar pill, thinking they are successful because they got the horse to swallow it.
The traditional mainline churches are losing their relevance in the modern world. Twenty-first century urban Americans are not interested in sleepy services and century-old songs sung from hymnals. They will never darken the doorstep of a church if that is all it has to offer. God has the solution to the problem: the life-giving presence and power of the Holy Spirit. A church that is alive with the presence of God and evidences the Spirit’s power through prophecy and miracles will attract people’s attention. If the American church will embrace the fire of the Holy Spirit it will enjoy relevance and make a difference in this nation. That is why the strange fire movement is so troubling. It rejects the medicine God has sent to save it from extinction and to bring life to a godless society.
John MacArthur and his associates are trying to identify strange fire within the church, but in so doing they are putting out the true fire and hindering others from having a dynamic experience of God’s Holy Spirit. As a result, the group that is accusing the Charismatics of having strange fire is itself guilty of having no fire at all. Now that is ironic.