Saturday, October 19, 2013

MacArthur & Strange Fire; Driscoll & Strange Stunt

This past week, John MacArthur and "Grace To You" (his broadcast and publishing ministry) hosted a conference at Grace Community Church called "Strange Fire."  Drawing from the story in Leviticus 10 where two of Aaron's sons are struck dead for bringing unauthorized incense offerings before the Lord, the conference presented a three day critique of charismatic and Pentecostal theology and practice relating to the continuing use of miraculous spiritual gifts, or sign gifts, that appeared in the early church.  MacArthur's view, called "cessationism" holds that all such miraculous gifts (as spiritual endowments to the church) ended with the completion of the canon and the end of the apostolic era.  The conference was a robust defense of this view, along with a call for discernment and rebuke of false teaching masquerading as "charismatic" phenomena.

News of the conference had some charismatic and Pentecostal leaders calling on MacArthur to cancel, saying it was a divisive move and hurtful to other Christians.  MacArthur responded that it was not directed at all charismatics (even though he disagrees with their theology) but with the growing stream of extremists and error-prone popular speakers and movements leading people into heresy.  

The conference featured Joni Eareckson Tada, who spoke out of her own difficulties of the need to move beyond the idea of physical healing and blessing as God's best for us.  Conrad Mbewe, a Baptist pastor from Zambia, spoke on the heavy damage done by charismatic claims and language within the African mindset, culture, and church.  R.C. Sproul lectured on the real meaning of Pentecost.  Other pastors also spoke, along with MacArthur, outlining a traditional cessationist view and showing the errors of continuationist/charismatic thinking.  If you have read Charismatic Chaos, then you will know MacArthur's main points.

Never one to shy away from a controversy, Mark Driscoll, pastor Mars Hill Church in Seattle (and elsewhere through satellite campuses) was in southern California for his own event and showed up at Grace Community with a supply of books offering his own view of the matter.  Driscoll, a continuationist who holds to the availability today of all the gifts, began to give copies of his books to attendees as gifts.  Unsurprisingly, the conference staff said that all books given away had to be cleared by the leadership.  Driscoll then agreed not to do so, but gave the books to the conference organizers so that they could give them away.  Driscoll had the whole matter on Instagram (and apparently elsewhere).  

The result of all of this?  "Strange Fire" is now concluding.  The 3,000 who attended (most of them already cessationists), will leave firmer in their thinking.  Those who were opposed and didn't attend will not be happy.  MacArthur will be seen as promoting controversy.  Driscoll will have gotten into the controversy and be seen as either a defender of truth or a publicity seeking pastor.

I'm left bothered by lots of concerns.  If you want to promote an idea that isn't the majority view
(such as cessationism in the American church) and you really want to get people who have not held it to at least think about it, perhaps you would title your conference (and book) with something a little less prejudicial and "inflammatory" than Strange Fire.  As it is, the conference becomes "preaching to the choir" and the book may sell well only among those who want to say to all charismatics, "See, I told you so!"  There is much that MacArthur says on this issue that is not only true, but could be a great corrective for many.  But they won't hear it because he started the conversation with a conference title that equates them with the disobedient and dead sons of Aaron.

Mark Driscoll has lots of venues from which to share his own teaching on the subject, and has done so.  Why be provocative?  He would not allow others to show up at Mars Hill and offer material contradictory to his own teaching to all the people there.  If he did, he wouldn't be a faithful shepherd, protecting the flock from what he would perceive as error.  Driscoll has, on many occasions (including right afterward in an interview) praised MacArthur for his teaching and ministry, even though MacArthur has often been less charitable in his remarks about Driscoll.  I'm sad to see this kind of stunt pulled which makes Driscoll look less like a voice of reason and more like someone who saw an opportunity to create a contest with someone who has attacked him in the past.  

I don't happen to hold either man's view.  While I am no "charismatic" (surprise!), neither can I find in Scripture any clear statement that all miraculous sign gifts have forever disappeared from the church since the time of the apostles.  I readily agree that they seem to have done so, and beyond the age of the apostles there is much testimony from the early church fathers that the sign gifts, including both the miraculous (healing) and the revelatory (prophecy), were no longer around.  Acts recounts four major occurrences, and gifts are referenced in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4 (the offices of apostle and prophet are mentioned), and 1 Peter 4:10-11.  In Ephesians, Colossians, and the pastoral epistles (where lots of instructions are given to the church on how to operate and function) teaching on miraculous gifts and their use is missing.  Even as time went on in the apostolic period, miraculous gifts seem to become less prominent, at least as the second half of the New Testament was written.

Thus, I teach that the appearance of such gifts is not "normative" (what we would normally expect and experience) in the life of the church today.  However, the Scriptures tell us that it is the Holy Spirit who decides what gifts are given and to whom and when for the good of the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12).  So, I leave it at that.  If the Spirit chooses to give any gift, including a miraculous one, anywhere within the Body for a particular good to be done for the Body, that is his prerogative and we should rejoice.  We also should be able to recognize it as such a gift by comparing it to what we see in the New Testament (that is my greatest reason for rejecting the common phenomena identified as "speaking in tongues"--it's not what the Bible presents).

So two pastors who have national and international followings who fall well within the part of evangelical thought that I find "home" have managed to inflame constituencies without engaging each other on a theological issue that deserves consideration and where even most charismatics agree that great harm is being done in parts of the church around the world.  Strange fire, indeed.