To think and consider.

This link is to an essay, being a response by John MacArthur to the Church Growth Movement.  You might be best to read John MacArthur’s address to better understand my “pushback” against some of his ideas.

It is apparent that John MacArthur’s address was the opening address at something similar to a Grace Church Impact conference.  It is probable that later addresses at the conference picked up on John MacArthur’s themes and defined them for the audience.  However, we don’t have the benefit of further definition given that this address is undated and is released on John MacArthur’s website without comment.  My concern is that the John MacArthur response to the issues he addressed are part of the overall ethos of the John MacArthur movement and particularly the Shepherd Seminary.  They form a background from which John MacArthur’s advocates criticise others who labour and bring the gospel to men and women who live in diverse cultures around the world and particularly in English speaking sub-cultures.

The discussion here raises serious issues.  Having observed the impact from John MacArthur’s advocates, I agree with a friend who has observed that “Often the rhetorical flourish of Mac’s preaching is taken by those who appreciate this to extreme levels and with an ‘either/or’ and ‘black/white’ approach to the issues where he raises valid concerns.  His followers end up going 100% down one narrow lane of a valid concern/truth without being able to manage other balancing or complementary concerns and truths.”

John MacArthur starts his address with this very strong statement:

Why every true Calvinist must affirm a biblical ecclesiology and reject church-growth theory.  That would be a summation statement of what I want to say to you.  If you believe that God is sovereign in salvation; if you believe that Jesus will receive all those whom the Father draws and gives to Him will keep them, lose none, and raise all at the last day. The question is, how does church-growth theory fit into that?  Sovereign election has already been determined.  It has determined who will be saved and constitute the regenerate church.  That was done in the councils of the Trinity before time began.

With that very strong statement he lays a foundation for criticism of “Churches where tares assemble in increasing numbers with a scattering of weak wheat stalks among them.” He refers to tare pastors who “compete to see how many tares you can get in a building.”

He then goes on to give his exegesis of how “the Lord went about building the church that He promised He would build.”  In the essay he identifies the characteristics of the growing church being, a transcendent message, a regenerate congregation, valiant perseverance, evident purity and spiritual leaders.

As you read you will observe that MacArthur’s passionate criticisms are painted with a broad brush.  He targets Willow Creek and Brian McLaren who is a leading figure in the movement known as the Emergent Church.  He also refers to Mark Driscoll without naming him, and probably has Rob Bell in his sights as well.  We don’t make any apologies for Willow Creek nor these other people who have brought valid criticism upon themselves.  But there are some very apparent errors in the essay which lead to generalisations which can be church killers.

The first error is, there is no single church growth theory.  John MacArthur does not define the target of his criticism.  It is true that Willow Creek has espoused a particular theory and the Emergent Church has another one.  Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell have brought themselves undone without help from John MacArthur.  Indeed, what John MacArthur is teaching is another church growth method which is taught and practiced by the Grace Churches.  In the essay John MacArthur makes much of the success of his method.  He says,

I’ve preached my messages just about everywhere on the planet, from the high mountains of Ecuador to the sophisticated business buildings of Hong Kong and I never changed the message.  I do the same…I take the same notes that I preach here. Nothing changes. Grace To You radio is on a thousand times in the English speaking world, around the world, and a thousand times in Spanish around the Spanish speaking world, books translated, I don’t know, 30, 40, 50, 60 languages, Study Bible, 8, 9, 10 languages now being translated into Chinese and Arabic. This is not remarkable, this is just the way it ought to be. This is the way it ought to be.

It would seem that John MacArthur is lumping all church planting methods and ideas in the one bundle, and promoting his own method and his own ecclesiology as being biblical and the only way to do things. I don’t think that even those who call themselves “true Calvinists” would agree with him on this point.

Second, it is evident that John MacArthur has a passionate and irrational dislike for contextualisation. He says,

So, the Apostles went out with absolute disdain for…here comes the buzz word….any contextualisation at all. The modern cry for contextualisation is a curse…it’s a curse because people are spending all their time fussing around with trying to figure out whether they should have holes in their Levis and a skull and crossbones on their T-shirt as if that’s a means to drawing in the elect. Are you kidding me? This is a curse, instead of spending all their time trying to understand the biblical context.

MacArthur’s essay demonises the idea of contextualisation without acknowledging that contextualisation occurs on a continuum.  Simply, at one end of the continuum, contextualisation means “to consider something in its context”.  At the other end of the continuum, for some it will mean “changing something to blend in with the context”.    John MacArthur may validly criticise the error of the Emergent Church understanding of contextualisation, but he errs seriously when with false authority he suggests that the Apostles went out with absolute disdain… for any contextualisation at all.

The problem for John MacArthur is that at the basic end of the continuum he too is into contextualisation, otherwise he would not have people translating his books and he would not bother writing commentaries for today’s people.  Every missionary sent out by a Grace Church must contextualise to some degree or it would be of no value for them to buy an airfare or learn a foreign language.  They would simply be irrelevant anachronistic intruders invading foreign cultures.  I wonder if any of them are translating the Bible?

It is true that the Gospel, the message of the Bible does not change.  God’s word does not change, but the mode of communication must change.  Communication must be contextualised otherwise you don’t have communication.

Unfortunately the application of John MacArthur’s principles promotes the idea that one style of message fits all.  His method of exegesis, being “Unleashing the truth one verse at a time” is promoted as the “nothing changes” method which is to fit all people of all cultures and of all educational backgrounds.  Typically John Macarthur’s method of verse by verse exposition is in-depth, exhaustive, detailed, with little application, and more suited to a teaching commentary or a seminary lecture rather than a Sunday morning church service.  The exponents of this method are given to supporting every thing they say with unnecessary repetition of similar references and frequent quotations from Bible commentaries and sometimes puritan writers.

This is a long way from Paul’s method explained in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.  John MacArthur’s principles of communication do not work amongst people who are disadvantaged educationally, from foreign cultures, have only elementary or no understanding of theological jargon, and those who have a general disdain of pretentious academia (this includes those who identify with ockers and bogans). These people will neither understand nor appreciate seminary lectures in normal church services.

Unfortunately the impression that is left with the hearers is that the Bible can’t be understood by ordinary people without it having been exhaustively analysed by the specialist. 

It is very easy to develop specific church cultures with their own “in group” language.  Such a church has no awareness of audience, and no understanding that God uses means to reach and teach people.

Again we see that in John MacArthur’s world, the truth that the Gospel and God’s word is true for everyone and isn’t to be tampered with is not complemented with the idea that people need to understand that truth for it to have an impact (e.g. differing cultural backgrounds, educational levels, language difficulties).

Third John MacArthur attacks churches that welcome sinners in to hear the gospel.  John MacArthur does not recognise that there are many churches that are soundly evangelical, solidly biblical, teaching the transcendent message, having a regenerate congregation, valiantly persevering for the Lord, upholding righteousness, and have spiritual leaders.  It is these churches who also have public meetings where unsaved people will come to hear the Bible taught, the gospel explained, and where they will be drawn by the love of God, through his people, to the Saviour of the world.  Of these churches John MacArthur says:

Is it too obvious to say that the church of Jesus Christ is an assembly of true believers? To call an assembly of non-believers a church is preposterous, outrageous. The Lord only adds believers to the church. There’s a serious defect in a so-called minister content to be proud of assembling non-believers and calling them a church. Something deeply wrong there. Modern evangelicalism seems to exhaust every imaginable and unimaginable means to attract and collect non-Christians into a building and then call it a church and call it church growth. Maybe there’s a better way to identify these places, let’s just call them non-churches. Maybe it’s just an evangelistic event.

We do not differ with John MacArthur in the definition of the Church which is the body of Christ.  However, John MacArthur fails to distinguish between what in modern parlance is called “going to church” or a “church service” with what we know is the Biblical understanding of the Church which is the body of Christ, the bride.  Ignored by John MacArthur is the blessed reality that as in the first century God, in his sovereignty, still brings unregenerate mums, dads, youth, boys, and girls along to church meetings.

Unfortunately the application of John MacArthur’s principles makes church services a place where unregenerate and sincere enquirers will be uncomfortable because the church meetings are only for the teaching of the “true believers” and the “true Calvinists.”  If John MacArthur is to be followed then such churches should replace “All Welcome” on their sign boards with “Meetings held for the elect only.”

Sadly, from John MacArthur’s perspective, holding to the truth that the church is primarily for believers, and elders are meant to be shepherds of the flock under their care, etc, is not able somehow to be complemented with the idea that church services could also be carried out in such a way that our language, etc. is intelligible to non Christian family members, friends, & visitors. The assumption that everyone is a believer in the meetings of a church will also contribute to other problems.

Regarding Psychology.  John MacArthur’s brief cynical reference to psychology in the address is enough to reveal his well known dislike for this discipline.  He does not appreciate that psychology has value in helping us understand human behaviour which includes the effect of sin upon our souls.  Good science is never in competition with what the Bible says about our innermost being.  Unfortunately John MacArthur dismisses any good science which can give us insight into problems that are hurting many people around us, people who have been scarred by the effects of sin in their families and communities.

Through the John MacArthur Masters Seminary, nouthetic counselling is taught. Sadly for John MacArthur’s advocates, the truth that God’s word is sufficient for spiritual growth (nouthetic counselling) isn’t able to be complemented with experience/studies of human behaviour that help us understand why people behave the way they do and how medicine/science helps us with that. It has been observed that the nouthetic counselling method can be dangerous when used by practitioners who are without empathy and who are inclined to be manipulative, abusive, and powerful. In such situations people so counselled may go away feeling they have not been listened to, there is no empathy demonstrated and the legalistic burden to conform has been increased.  This contrasts with the way the Lord Jesus dealt with people (Matthew 12:20).

Generally Christians, including John MacArthur’s advocates, are able to accept that good science gives us insight into the world that God has made.  But, for John MacArthur, psychology is the exception and is loathed with a passion.

A word regarding the “true Calvinists.” Who are they according to John MacArthur?  The 4-pointers or the 5-pointers.  They are not likely to be the Presbyterians nor the Puritans, they have the wrong ecclesiology.  It couldn’t be John Piper, he is soft on pentecostalism.  I thought I was one. I believe in the sovereignty of God, but that is probably not enough to qualify as a “true Calvinist” I would probably flunk the TULIP test.  Obviously it must be John MacArthur and his friends.

But let’s not miss the mark, The truth that God is sovereign and his people were chosen in eternity past must be complemented with the idea that God uses means to accomplish his purposes (i.e. people who tell the gospel to others in ways that they understand).  We are commanded to preach, teach, and disciple others (Matthew 28:19-20).  The Spirit and the church are to be calling people to come to take of the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)

In conclusion.  Yes, it is possible to appreciate some of John MacArthur’s valid and passionate criticism of some mega-churches and we might relish the eloquence with which he expresses his strong opinions.  It is fair and good to give credit to John MacArthur recognising his faithful ministry in his own mega-church in Los Angeles, and his prolific writing and commentaries. But it is plainly wrong to generalise and suggest that those who differ in practice and church culture from John MacArthur must thereby be lukewarm, without a love for Christ, and holding to a false gospel.  Unfortunately this is how many of the followers of John MacArthur apply his teachings and how they impute wrong motives to their brothers and sisters.

If you hold half of the truth and are unable to recognise complementary truths you will end up in a bunker taking pot shots at your brothers and sisters.

When we draw the bow to slay those churches that labour faithfully in the harvest field, we have a problem.  Yes, others may have a band which plays music we don’t like, their services  might feature a skit or a drama, the preacher might wear blue jeans with a tear in the knees, and they may be attractive to unchurched people who come expecting to hear the word of God.  But, nevertheless let us praise God for every effort these churches make to reach a world that needs to know the Lord Jesus, and for every effort they make to encourage one another and build one another up.

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About Les Loader

Les is a pastor at Cairns Community Church. He travels and speaks around Australia as well as overseas. He was a missionary in PNG for several years and continues to visit regularly to help churches and Christians over there.