Friday, January 05, 2007

John MacArthur and the Emergent Critique Won't Go Away For a Long Time

Dave Moorhead (Shiloh Guy) made me consider John MacArthur the other day in a response to the post on synchro-blogging.

For a couple weeks now one of the things which comes up on my Emergent Village RSS updates through Bloglines is the question of whether the Emergent conversation should respond to John MacArthur's critiques of the Emergent Church/conversation/movement/whatever the involved parties call themselves.

Having been Foursquare until recently, and having been involved with Vineyard people over the years, and having lived only about an hour away from John MacArthur most of my life, and through 14 years of my pastoral ministry, I thought, "darn, I guess I'll weigh in. John boy has had something to say about every group I've been connected with."

To put this connection in perspective - I am not sure how emergent I am. I have been reconsidering church life, and mission for 20 years. Many things in the emergent conversation fit my worldview and my missional framework. Some things do not fit my theological framework, and many things do not fit my politics. I tend to see the emergent conversation as a fairly large tent, and hope that it is large enough for a fairly conservative Republican raised in Southern California to find shelter under. I hope that my leanings away from reformed theology, and toward a theology of freedom (or is that free-will-dom?) still make me okay, and I think I'm okay being a Pentecostal/New Mystic kind of guy in the Emergent circles.

My involvement with Emergent is based around my passion for mission in the First World where I live.

So getting back to John MacArthur: Should I/we respond? If so, how? and why? and what are the missional parameters by which we determine the need for responding to these developing critiques. This is not going away. His book is not yet on the shelves. We are not yet smelling the popular response which will occur when we face the fan.

My thoughts are simple. I will throw them out there for consideration, and dialogue. I will not beat around the bush. You may find one of my comments to be quite strong. So get ready. I hope your laptop came with seatbelts.

1. (the easy one to swallow) I believe that our critiques should be based around missional considerations. I follow Jesus as my model in this. His stiffest comments and deepest critiques were against a group of people with whom he had perhaps the closest theological identity. His beliefs were more like those of the Pharisees, than they were the tax collectors and prostitutes. Because this is so, I must believe that there was other criteria besides theology for the stand He took against their system.

Jesus said to them, "But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in [yourselves], neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in." I make the assumption from this and other sayings that Jesus' primary beef with the Pharisees was an evangelistic consideration. They developed a culture, and with it specific detail around their theological construction which kept people from experiencing God. If I should find this problem in the church today, I believe I am called to respond. I also see this issue as a primary reason for the emergence of the Emergent conversation. Many of us have seen good people turned away from Christianity, because of the restrictions or offenses created by peculiar behavior, or hateful theology.

Is this a valid point of view? Does this apply to John MacArthur's attack upon the Emergent movement. Has he developed a far too narrow theology, and a Christian culture which is keeping many people (though certainly not all) from a legitimate experience with God? I'm not sure yet, but this is the first point which would give me freedom to respond critically to his critique - perhaps even necessitate my response.

2. (seatbelt time) As a preface to this point - remember, although I have never identified with popular Pentecostalism, some form of Pentecostal theology has been mine for over 20 years.

Greed, deception, and taking advantage of good, God-loving, church people are reasons for responding, and critiquing ministers today. On that I believe we can just about unanimously agree.

John MacArthur's books have often been critical examinations of significant church developments. The writings are popular rants against popular or growing groups, and theologies - from his critique of decisional regeneration through Lordship Salvation theology in The Gospel According to Jesus, or his blast on Charismatics in Charismatic Chaos. Could it be that good Christians have been led down the path of dissension against other believers, and that they have purchased books and tapes by the millions to learn how to dissent better?

If so, how dare we make fun of Benny Hinn, or Pat Robertson and not do the same toward John MacArthur! I do not often critique these Charismatic famous fellows myself - maybe because I am too whimpy having been considered someone who was theologically in bed with them (though my theology is not much like theirs). But if we can berate Benny's money dealings which are made off the sweat of hopeful individuals desiring healing from Jesus, why do we not berate a man whose writings gravitate toward dissecting, and perhaps hoping to destroy popular and growing church movements? and doing so at the expense of good Christians whose sole desire is to please God, and find fulfillment in serving him with sound doctrine?

If taking advantage of God's people is part of my grid for determining when I can get mad, is this time to get mad? For me the jury is still out, but the consideration is being made.

Well, that was long. So I will leave off with links to more sensible discussions on this subject, but let me know what you think, and rebuke me in capital letters if you like. ;-)

  • Emergent Village asks us how we should respond.

  • Michael Touhey wonders why more don't respond, and has all the links to MacArthur's blogs on the subject.

  • Steven Shields weighs in too.
  • Tall Skinny Kiwi has some thoughts on this, and his thoughts are always good.

  • Shiloh Guy Dave Moorhead responds
  • to this post.


    Jamie said...

    Phil. Great point. I was just posting about a similar issue regarding the response to Sojourners "Red Letter Christians". Sometimes I get so tired of all of this ....

    Shiloh Guy said...


    My comment got too long so I just posted it as a letter to you over at Shilohguy. Would you take a minute to look at it there?


    Webb Kline said...

    It could be that under MacArthur's theology, even he isn't saved.

    Seriously, I once belonged to a fairly fundamental Bible Church that was as close to being the real church as any institution I've ever seen. When The Gospel According to Jesus came out, it virtually destroyed a great 600-member institution and claimed more than a few impassioned servants of Jesus in the process. It was ugly.

    But as I see it, to get caught up in the battle is to be just as bad as anyone is who is a proponent of MacArthur's witch hunts.

    In the end, its not about left or right, liberal or conservative, or any other us-against them vice we devise; it's about a messed up world falling into the arms of a God who loves them unconditionally and who gives them not only eternal life, but who gives them purpose for this life as well. And the only way they are going to find Him is by His church--emergent, institutional or whatever--being His hands and feet and heart to them.

    Robertson McQuilken's "It is easier to go to one consistent extreme or another than to remain in the center of Biblical tension" quote comes into play here.

    Jamie mentioned the Red Letter movement and, as much as I love Tony Campolo, who defined missional Christianity better than just about anyone I've ever known, I think that he and Wallis et al are in danger of taking it to that other "consistent extreme." In my estimation Tony's energies would be much better spent in doing what he has always done best, inspiring the rest of us to radical servant hood, by leading by example.

    Anonymous said...

    Phil, I can feel your heart in this (or at least, for as little as I know you, I think I can), and I appreciate your desire to ask this type of question. May your tribe increase!

    I personally think that your analysis of how Jesus handled these types of situations is fairly accurate and very pertinent.

    Webb wrote above, But as I see it, to get caught up in the battle is to be just as bad as anyone is who is a proponent of MacArthur's witch hunts.

    I disagree, based on what you (Phil) wrote in the post about Jesus. Now, that's not to say definitively that the EC is Jesus and MacArthur is a Pharisee, but I do see some parallels in this context.

    At any rate, just the fact that you are asking this question and looking at it from these angles makes me think that your response (if any) to MacArthur will be Christlike.

    Thanks for this example. I've been encouraged by this today.

    Pastor Phil said...

    Hey Jamie,

    I was looking for that post and couldn't find it. Let me know where it is posted.

    Pastor Phil said...

    Nice post on your site Dave. I am adding it as a link to this story.

    Pastor Phil said...


    I wonder how we can respond and still be gracious? To me this is part of the story of learning to walk redemptively, and still speak truth.

    Paul defending his ministry to the Gentiles, and Jesus responding the Pharisees become models for me living redemptively while still speaking correction or challenging people's ideas. We are also told that teachers are more accountable, and this makes John MacArthur an accountable person extrordinaire.

    Somehow Jesus and Paul could enter the fray but not become like their detractors. Perhaps this is possible because they did not perceive it as a battle response, but a redemptive response.

    I do wonder how to live through such a discussion and do so missionally. I believe we need to learn that delicate balance.

    Pastor Phil said...


    Thanks for responding on this. I love your blog - as long as your posts are ;-) they are deep.

    Hopefully there can be a Christlike dialogue on this issue.

    Webb Kline said...

    Phil, I don't have an answer. My way of dealing with it is like I've said: proving them wrong by my life. I used to spend a lot of time defending myself, and meanwhile my time was being diverted from building relationships and caring for people. I can't do it all, and perhaps you are called to confront these problems. More power to you.

    As I see it, the church sat back and allowed the voices of a few control the Christian media and they built their massive kingdoms on such teaching.

    When I minister to nonbelievers, I am able to connect with them much better from a missional/contextual viewpoint than any of the MacArthurs, Falwell and Dobsons could ever hope to.

    Look at what happened with Chuck Ryrie. He embraced a much more MacArthuristic theology until his life fell apart through a divorce and he had nowhere to turn but to the Grace of a Loving Jesus. Of course he was soon labeled as the champion of easybelievism, but at least he learned what unconditional love was all about. I guess I can relate to that. I was a lot more legalistic until my kingdom crumbled along with a lot of faulty theology that was useless to me in my time of need.

    John's theology is dangerous and it seems he should be taken to task for it, but can you imagine what would be at stake of his legacy if he were to repent? We can look at it and see the great good that could come out of it, but for a man to admit that his entire ministry was heretical? Only God could do that. But again, I do believe in miracles.

    Pastor Phil said...


    I'm with you on this. I am thinking of this whole thing on a corporate level - that WE need to respond. Which may not mean you, or may not mean me, but perhaps someone among us. That person, or group of people have the potential for setting the standard for how we as a group of people respond to these kinds of critiques.

    Wouldn't a response think tank be cool, which was based around grace, and looking for a missional pattern for responding to critical attack. Potentially such a thing could change the course of how church deals with these things redemptively.

    Webb Kline said...


    We have to reach people with the truth. I think we are approaching the time when we get on the level of 700 Club or Focus On the Family, etc. We probably have enough people if we researched it to launch an XM or Sirius Missional/Emergent channel for one thing. Also we could syndicate and get on national AM channels.

    The Christmas music project we are working on, while initiated to subsidize our work in Ukraine, has a parallel mission of promoting missional faith to the masses in a pretty cool and compelling way. We're planning on touring next Christmas season. Our CD/DVDs will introduce people to missional Christianity as well.

    This stuff really resonates with people. You would not believe all the doctors and business leaders who are finding Jesus, or at least have become very open to Him because we are presenting Christianity from a missional perspective. People who would have never even considered going to church are now joining us on mission trips. It's really pretty overwhelming.

    I am big on for-profit ministries as you can see on my site. I'm planning to do some more posts regarding this--pertaining to some business models etc. If we went for-profit with radio broadcasting, I think it would only be a matter of time before Emergent Radio would dwarf traditional Christian radio because it's old wine skins, same old, same old. It's stuff that becomes more irrelevant to our culture every time I listen to it. Besides, it is harder and harder to fund it.

    Additionally, we need to find a publisher and distribution houses that are willing to promote our agendas as well. I know they are out there--probably in some unlikely forms.

    It's really time to stop talking and start doing. Still, I am big on grassroots. If God is with us, we don't need big-name endorsements to get going. In fact, with the state of organized religion, that would probably only hurt us.

    Pastor Phil said...


    We should talk sometime via phone - better face to face! about some of these missions you are doing, and the for-profit element.

    We are establishing missions projects to Pagan festivals, and similar locations for artists, musicians, philosophers, and "new mystics." So, I'm tracking with you bro.

    cindy said...

    Well, I should have stopped to read this post before responding to you and Dave in a previous post.

    I think we're all on the same page.

    Webb Kline said...

    I was thinking the same thing. I do get up to MA occasionally--once a month or so. Maybe if I got up on a Friday when I didn't have to get back right away, we could hook up.

    Pastor Phil said...

    Yes, yes. Let me knwo when you will be making it up here.

    Pastor Phil said...


    Are you kidding!? That was a great post.

    Anonymous said...

    Phil and Webb, where do I sign up to get onboard, too? I have skills and talents I can contribute to the effort as well. Musical as well as other stuff (Computer programming, radio, etc.)

    Jenelle said...

    I think I may be too young or naive to know what all of this is about...I lived through some of that charismania as a kid in a wild pentecostal church, but survived. And now I love the Holy Spirit. Having a foot in both camps of the EC and the Institutional one, I'm concerned about the dissension and lack of appropriate dialogue with each other. It is ugly. I think it is ugly when we have to write books and blogs to each other instead of having actual conversations. I do think perceptive response is necessary.

    But my gut says that before we do anything else we really need to make sure we pray through John 17.

    Pastor Phil said...


    Most definitely. In fact you live in an area where I've beeb wanting to come to do some outreach. Let's talk. I'm not sure I have your personal e-mail.

    Pastor Phil said...


    I am with you on the point of wondering why we have to write books at each other. Unforunately when some starts shooting there is need to determine how to respond redemptively. In some cases we are silent Jesus at trial, and others times like Paul we defend our ministry. Every situation is unique, and so is every preson, and we can only do what God calls us individually to do.

    Webb Kline said...

    John 17 has always been an important part of ministry for me. When you think about it, few churches have been built on that foundation. And if we aren't, one could say we are founded in heresy.

    But, realistically, we've been so far off course for the last 1700 years that unity is mere wishful thinking. But, I agree that it should be our first consideration.

    Anonymous said...


    I have been reading all the comments, and it seems to me that answers to all your questions are right in front of you. I am pretty familiar with John MacArthur's writing and his views on the EC. John isn't too hard to figure out, you just need to one basic thing about him. John sees his duty to be a defender and teacher of the truth. So what is truth?

    Since most people I've read on this post have their own opinion as to what truth is, the best idea IMO is to get to the one truth everyone can live by. Since man is sinful by the definition the Bible gives us, and I'm sure we can all agree - no man is completely trustworthy, we cannot hold to anything a man has written as absolutely authoritative. What can we use then? John MacArthur believes the Bible is without error and is absolutely authoritative. The Bible itself claims to be the absolute truth. If you don't accept that, you will never understand where John MacArthur is coming from. He believes that the Bible is truly divine in origin.

    Based on that premise, he bases all his teaching to the best of his ability on what he has studied from reading the Bible. He has been a traditional Bible scholar (Biblical exposition) from the beginning of his ministry and has been at it for over 40 years. From a Biblical standpoint he is very tough to refute. The controversies that have come up over the years have had at their source the plain teachings of Scripture.

    For those of you who can't accept the Bible as absolutely authoritative, you can try trusting your heart, although I don't think that would be wise as Jeremiah wrote:

    "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

    I hope this helps. Bill

    Pastor Phil said...

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the post. I am not sure I see JM as a scholar in the same way you do - Perhaps as a popular theologian, and a very intelligent one at that. I have disagreed with much of his theology over the years, and yet I too believe in the authoritative power of the Bible.

    May grace follow you wherever you go.