John MacArthur proved once again why his ministry has endured and has the kind of influence that few men ever attain. Last week the folks at Grace held the Strange Fire conference. Unfortunately I was not able to attend and I heard only bits and pieces of the live stream. I hope to listen to the entire conference as I travel to Romania this week for a graduation next Sunday. Some may think that posting a piece on the conference without having heard much of it is premature. But let me say thank you to John and the men and women who endured the opprobrium of the Charismatics to bring some needed criticism to a movement that has created no small amount of international controversy. Most American Christians are only familiar with the Charismatic movement’s American permutations. As pernicious as some of these are, the international manifestations are far worse. For this reason, the conference was a necessary warning. Let me explain.
In recent years, I have made 18 trips abroad to countries as diverse as Zambia, India, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine. Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement have reached all of these places, with some very devastating effects. It should be noted that from a historical standpoint, nearly all world Charismaticism is rooted in early American Pentecostal sources that have been exported around the world. Modern international developments may be indigenous, but most of the early ideas came from early 20th century American Christianity.
On my third and most recent trip to Zambia (summer 2013) I taught for 30 hours on the history of African Christianity. As I read and prepared for this class, I knew I would have to spend a considerable amount of time looking at post-Colonial Christian Africa. The Pentecostal/Azusa Street movement coincided generally with the shift from “Ethiopian” churches (Western Mission Society oriented churches) to African Initiated Churches. These indigenous churches have grown rapidly in the last 75 year or so shifting the center of Christianity away from Europe to Africa and Asia. However, on closer examination, many of these churches bear little resemblance to New Testament Christianity. Many of these movements are anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. The main leader (usually, though not always, a strong male) dominates his followers. There is a strong emphasis on healing and prosperity. Much is made of the “Spirit” but little is made of Jesus Christ.
As I read widely in the literature on these movements, the thought occurred to me that African churches have exchanged one medicine man for another. My first ministry thirty some years ago was among the First Nations people of Canada, many of whom still believe heavily in their traditional shamanistic religions. I have been familiar with the religious medicine man for years and what I was seeing in African Christianity seemed remarkably similar. So I wrote to a veteran missionary and asked if what I was thinking was accurate. He directed me to a post from one of the speakers at MacArthur’s conference, Conrad Mbewe, who had been addressing this very issue in the African Christian world for years. Indeed my thinking was spot on! Conrad made that case again last week in California.
I am glad he did. Africa is not the only continent where American Pentecostalism has penetrated and brought much theological confusion in the last one hundred years. Several years ago, I taught in India and one of the subjects I addressed there was Pentecostalism. I was asked to deal with this specifically as that country is also reeling with the confusion of American aberrant theology. In both India and Africa, Charismaticism is popular because of the “power” that is displayed in an impoverished world. Some of the wealthiest individuals in Africa are Pentecostal-type preachers! Money is power and power attracts!
MacArthur didn’t merely attack the excesses of the movements that are many, but he nailed the fundamental root issue—whether or not the miraculous gifts are for today. This is not a new theme for him. Nor is this a new idea in evangelicalism. Only in relatively recent history has continuationism become mainstream. In some evangelical movements, you can be a continuationist but not a dispensationalist. I find this really odd. Larger-than-life preachers who are continuationists open the door for this kind of unchecked error. Even well-known systematicians whose work may be good in some areas have argued for continuationism and influenced a new generation of young evangelicals that, in today’s world, the gifts cannot be denied. I am glad MacArthur has called the Church to reconsider this new view. Church history doesn’t tell a story where the gifts are a major part of ancient orthodox traditions. Not in the early church, not in the medieval church, not in the Reformation church and not in the Great Awakening church. This stuff is 20th century stuff except for very rare earlier aberrations.
I am also glad John MacArthur brought in Joni Erickson Tada to speak. We have a son with a disability almost as severe as Joni and we too have experienced well-meaning Pentecostal friends who wanted to pray for us and him. When Joshua was born twenty-three years ago, we lived two doors away from the local Pentecostal pastor. He offered to pray for healing. So did some of his visiting evangelists. Now I must confess, as a parent, who wouldn’t want their child healed of a debilitating problem? When the offers were extended, I am glad my theological training helped me through those challenging days. To go through life thinking that if I had only had more faith, my son might have walked—
Now some have argued that MacArthur shouldn’t criticize other Christians. He is being divisive. I suppose Jeremiah and Nathan were also divisive for speaking out. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their false teachings! That was surely considered by some to be divisive. So John is in good company. Others have criticized John for not going far enough or for saying too little, too late. I give him a lot of credit for taking aim at this larger target late in his life. A contender for truth to the end. Good for John! I hope the messages, when they are posted, get a wide hearing. I am looking forward to them being made available. Continuationism is not helpful to the Christian church. I am glad I teach at a school that is still willing to be cessationist. No matter how few of us there are left!