Book Review: “Strange Fire” by John MacArthur

Posted: February 19, 2017 in Book Reviews, Bullying, Cal Fullerton, Charismata, Christian History, Confirmation Bias, Fred Anson, John MacArthur, Mormon Studies, Pentecostalism, Theology, Tongues Speaking

Strange Fire Front CoverReviewed by Fred W. Anson

Title: Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship
Author: John F. MacArthur
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Genre: Non-fiction, Religion
Year Published: 2013
Length: 352 pages
Binding: Digital, Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook
ISBN10: 1400205174
ISBN13: 978-1400205172
Price: $10.99 (Digital), $22.99 (Hardcover),  $6.99 (Paperback), $9.99 (Audiobook)

My pastor could have been speaking of John MacArthur when he said to me, “Your message is usually substantive and true but the way that you deliver it often leaves the other person so in reaction to the messenger that they can’t receive the message.” Yes, friends, I empathize with John MacArthur since I’m on of that those annoying “truth first, grace and mercy second, and let the pieces fall where they will third” guys too. And try as I may to not react to the messenger rather than the message in this review I will warn you in advance that I may not succeed.

The More Things Change . . . 
Anti-Charismatic books are nothing new to John MacArthur. In 1978 he published “The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective” In 1992 it was “Charismatic Chaos” and in 2013, his latest offering, “Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship”. So three titles and thirty five years later and what has changed? Obviously, not a lot since the twenty one old words of Vineyard Pastor, Rich Nathan are just as applicable to “Strange Fire” as they were of “Charismatic Chaos”:

“Ultimately it is MacArthur’s rancorous, bombastic style that undermines his objectivity and any value this book may have had as a necessary corrective to excesses or errors in the charismatic, Pentecostal and Third Wave movements. Rabid anti-charismatics will love this book. It provides wonderful sermon illustrations for the already convinced. For those not so zealously anti-charismatic, this book serves only as a painful reminder of the lovelessness that characterizes too much of contemporary Christianity.”
(Rich Nathan, “Vineyard Position Paper #5: A Response to ‘Charismatic Chaos'”, April 1993, p.27)

And this is a pity because MacArthur has always done a very good job of indentifying and condemning the excesses in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. In “Charismatic Chaos” it was the immature abuses of “out there” Vineyard churches (like the bizarre Holy Laughter of the Toronto Airport Vineyard and the insanity of the Kansas City Prophets), the zaniness of The Trinity Broadcasting Network, and the charlatanism of Benny Hinn – who has very appropriately returned as the favored punching bag and dart board target of Strange Fire. To all this, like so many other, mainstream, theologically cautious and conversative Charismatics, I can only stand, applaud, and yell, “Bravo!” These are things that we are in complete agreement with Mr. MacArthur on. In fact, these are things that we ourselves have publicly and repeatedly condemned and denounced ourselves. Bravo Mr. MacArthur, bravo!

John MacArthur

John MacArthur

Broad Brush Polemics
However, MacArthur isn’t content with reprimanding just a few bad apples. It quickly becomes apparent that in his mind, if you’re a Charismatic, you’re a bad apple – period. Consider these excerpts:

“The Charismatic Movement began barely a hundred years ago, and its influence on evangelicalism can hardly be overstated. From its inception by Charles Fox Parham to its most ubiquitous modern representative in Benny Hinn, the entire movement is nothing more than a sham religion run by counterfeit ministers. True biblical interpretation, sound doctrine, and historical theology owes nothing to the movement— unless an influx of error and falsehood could be considered a contribution. Like any effective false system, charismatic theology incorporates enough of the truth to gain credibility. But in mixing the truth with deadly deceptions, it has concocted a cocktail of corruption and doctrinal poison— a lethal fabrication— with hearts and souls at stake.”
(John F. MacArthur, “Strange Fire”, p. 113)

“the gospel that is driving these surging numbers is not the true gospel, and the spirit behind them is not the Holy Spirit. What we are seeing is in reality the explosive growth of a false church, as dangerous as any cult or heresy that has ever assaulted Christianity. The Charismatic Movement was a farce and a scam from the outset; it has not changed into something good.”
(Ibid, p.xix)

As one commenter on The Pneuma Review website said well of such over the top polemics:

“There are excesses in the charismatic group that need to be addressed, but Strange Fire is devoid of any hint on J[ohn] M[cArthur]’s part to meet with these whom he feels are in error to try to make sure he understands them. In taking this to the extreme that he has, he has become an example of the extreme he is trying to point out in others.”
(Rick Collins, Aug 24, 2014 8:27pm comment, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, reviewed by Craig S. Keener”)

And again, Rich Nathan’s description of “Charismatic Chaos” yesterday is just as true of “Strange Fire” today:

“MacArthur doesn’t rebuke charismatics as a person would rebuke a member of one’s own family. The book reads like hostile fire shot by an outsider. The tone, as will be seen by the numerous pejorative adjectives that MacArthur uses to describe charismatics, is anything but familial or irenic. It is one thing to have your child spanked by your spouse. It is quite another thing to have your child spanked by a stranger. Charismatics understandably react to being spanked by someone who intentionally positions himself as a stranger and not as a “dear friend, fellow worker… and [brother]” (Philem. 1:1).”
(Op Cit, Rich Nathan, p.3)

Folks, I could stop right there and you would have an apt brief review of Strange Fire. Unfortunately, when the specifics are considered Strange Fire gets even worse.

Double Standards
Adding insult to injury is MacArthur’s use of Double Standards. He spends an entire chapter pounding away at the scandals in the continuationist camp while utterly ignoring his own shattered cessationist glass house. As Time Magazine observed:

“Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York believes Pentecostals are no more trouble-prone than other Protestants. “The same sort of thing is happening to Baptists and Presbyterians,” she says. “Except for one big thing. They are not media figures.”
(David Van Biema, “Are Mega-Preachers Scandal-Prone?”, Time magazine, Friday, Sept. 28, 2007)

One need go no further than the dedication page of MacArthur’s first Anti-Charismatic book (“The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective”, circa 1978) to see MacArthur’s blind hypocrisy. It reads as follows:

“To Dave Hocking,
A true and beloved friend
with whom I share a common love
for the Word of Christ
and the purity of His church.”

Yet just fourteen year later, and just 6 months after MacArthur’s second Anti-Charismatic book (“Charismatic Chaos”, circa April 1992), fellow hard cessationist and Anti-Charismatic David (aka “Dave”) Hocking was involved in a scandal that involved not one, but two high profile Southern California churches:

“In Oct 1992, the elders of Calvary Church [Santa Ana, California] caught David Hocking in a major scandal involving marital infidelity. The elders of the church told Hocking that he would no longer be the Senior Pastor of Calvary Church and would have to undergo a three-year restoration process.

Refusing to accept the restoration plan of the elders at Calvary Church, Hocking’s long-time buddy Chuck Smith [the founding Pastor of Calvary Chapel and the Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, California at the time] took him in. Reportedly, Smith said that this great man of God should not be wasted, and took in David Hocking as a Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa staff member. Hocking was excommunicated by Calvary Church of Santa Ana after he refused to submit to the elders of the church in their restoration process…

This was a major point of contention between Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa and other local churches in the community (particularly CCSA [Calvary Church Santa Ana]). This caused a major scandal here in Southern California where the results are still being felt.”
(“The Calvary Church of Santa Ana/David Hocking Incident”, Calvary Chapel Wiki website)  

And this is just the tip of the cessationist iceberg of scandals. We could also talk about Southern Baptist Charles Stanley’s divorce, R.C. Sproul, Jr.’s  (whose father R.C. Sproul, Sr. spoke at the Strange Fire Conference) “Ashley Madison indiscretion”, or the scandals of Baptists, Kent Hovind, Lonnie Latham, Coy Privette, or Joe Barron (see “List Of Christian Evangelist Scandals” for details).

Further, and speaking as someone in the same Reformed camp that MacArthur is in (yes, I’m one of those dreaded “Charismatic Calvinists” that Steve Lawson woodshedded at the Strange Fire conference) it pains me to admit that Frank Viola was largely correct when he observed:

“Using MacArthur’s logic and approach, one could easily write a book about the toxicity of the Reformed movement by painting all Reformed Christians as elitist, sectarian, divisive, arrogant, exclusive, and in love with “doctrine” more than with Christ.

And just as MacArthur holds up Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, Pat Robertson, et al. to characterize the charismatic world, one can hold up R.J. Rushdoony, Herman Dooyeweerd, R.T. Kendall, or Patrick Edouard, et al. to characterize Reformed Christians. Or Peter Ruckman and Jack Hyles, et al. to characterize Fundamentalist Baptists. Or William R. Crews and L.R. Shelton Jr., et. al. to represent Reformed Baptists.

My point is that charismatic, Reformed, and Baptist people would strongly object to the idea that any of these gentleman could accurately represent their respective tribes as each of them have strong critics within their own movements. Even so, the game of burning down straw man city with a torch is nothing new.”
(Frank Viola, “Pouring Holy Water on Strange Fire” p.9; also cited in Michael L. Brown, “Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire”, p.157)

But probably no one summed it up better than Rich Nathan when he said:

“Immorality is, tragically, a phenomenon that seems to know no denominational boundaries. Indeed, several very prominent dispensational and fundamentalist leaders have had to step down from radio ministries, para-church leadership, and pastorates because of sexual immorality. One might more realistically point to the sex-drenched culture of the modern western world, the cult of sexual self expression, and the absence of the practice of spiritual disciplines as more likely explanations for the fall of charismatic pastors than their experience of speaking in tongues.”
(Op Cit, Rich Nathan, p.8)

Treating the Extreme as the Norm
This treating extremes as the norm is the biggest problem with MacArthur’s approach to Pentecostalism in general and his Anti-Charismatic books in particular. Consider this example from Strange Fire:

“More moderate charismatics like to portray the prosperity preachers, faith healers, and televangelists as safely isolated on the extreme edge of the charismatic camp. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Thanks to the global reach and incessant proselytizing of religious television and charismatic mass media, the extreme has now become mainstream. For most of the watching world, flamboyant false teachers— with heresies as ridiculous as their hairdos— constitute the public face of Christianity. And they propagate their lies in the Holy Spirit’s name.”
(Op Cit, John F. MacArthur, “Strange Fire”, p. 13)

Again, writing of “Charismatic Chaos” Rich Nathan’s response is just as applicable:

“MacArthur rarely acknowledges a mainstream view within the charismatic or Pentecostal movements that’s balanced, Biblical, and mature. MacArthur, moreover, rarely admits that the Pentecostal/charismatic movement – now over 400 million strong – has borne tremendous fruit for the kingdom of God. He simply does not permit himself to acknowledge positive contributions by this enormous and varied movement.”
(Op Cit, Rich Nathan, p.2)

And as this review is being written, Pentecostals and Charismatics not only number over 500 million adherents but represent the fastest growing segment of the modern Christian Church. All this while mainline denominations are shrinking and cessationist numbers are flattening. No numbers and don’t equal veracity but, if nothing else, it bespeaks an ability to meet needs and bear fruit – something that John MacArthur sees as a net negative due to his antipathy toward continuationism in all forms. Such prejudice driven hard hardheartedness and blindness is heartbreaking.

Exaggeration, Data Manipulation, and Guilt by Association Fallacies
Equally concerning is how MacArthur repeatedly engages in gross exaggeration and “Guilty by Association” fallacies. Please consider this example:

“[Joel] Osteen’s muddled comment about Latter-day Saints introduces an interesting point of discussion— especially since the founders of Mormonism claimed to experience the same supernatural phenomena that Pentecostals and charismatics experience today. At the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836, Joseph Smith reported various types of charismatic phenomena— including tongues, prophecy, and miraculous visions. Other eyewitness accounts of that same event made similar claims: “There were great manifestations of power, such as speaking in tongues, seeing visions, administration of angels”; and, “There the Spirit of the Lord, as on the day of Pentecost, was profusely poured out. Hundreds of Elders spoke in tongues.” More than half a century before Charles Parham and the Pentecostals spoke in tongues, the Latter-day Saints reported similar outbursts, leading some historians to trace the roots of Pentecostalism back through Mormonism.”
(Op Cit, John F. MacArthur,”Strange Fire”, pp.51-52)

Well the “some historians” referenced in the footnote for that last sentence is exactly one historian, and one historical work (Hard Cessationist, Thomas R. Edgar’s Anti-Pentecostal treatise, “Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit”, p.218 and p.108)

Further, speaking as a Mormon Studies Scholar, the fact is that the early Mormons were merely one of many tongues speaking groups in the Second Great Awakening. Joseph Smith and the earliest Mormons didn’t speak in tongues at all until Brigham Young and his tongues speaking brothers arrived on the scene along with their tongues speaking friend Heber C. Kimball. And, for the record, Young and his brothers were Restorationist Pentecostals (specifically tongues speaking Primitive Methodists in most cases) before joining the Mormon Church – so the phenomenon didn’t, I repeat, did not originate in Mormonism.

Rather, it’s generally conceded that the fountainhead for all this 19th Century, Second Great Awakening tongues speaking was the 1801 Cane Ridge Revival. So for a historian to claim that the roots of modern Pentecostalism can be traced back to early Mormonism isn’t just ludicrous, it’s hack scholarship.

But wait, MacArthur isn’t done yet, there’s more:

“Even today, similarities between the two groups have led some to seek for greater unity. In their book Building Bridges Between Spirit-Filled Christians and Latter-Day Saints, authors Rob and Kathy Datsko assert, “Although there is an incredible language and culture barrier between LDS [Latter-day Saints] and SFC [Spirit-filled Christians], often these two groups believe many of the same basic doctrines.” Though Pentecostalism has traditionally rejected the Latter-day Saints, comments like those made by Joel Osteen suggest that a new wave of ecumenical inclusivism may be on the horizon. It is hardly coincidental that Fuller Theological Seminary, the birthplace of the Third Wave Movement, is currently leading the campaign for greater unity between Mormons and evangelical Christians.”
(Op Cit, John F. MacArthur,”Strange Fire”, pp.51-52)

Regarding this passage, as I pointed out in my review of Rob and Kathy Datsko’s book, “Building Bridges Between Spirit-Filled Christians and Latter-Day Saints” MacArthur’s argument is based on data manipulation, flawed evidence, and good old fashioned exaggeration. Please consider the following questions I posed to Mr. MacArthur in this regard:

1) Why are the Datskos implicitly presented as Charismatic Christians in your (circa 2013) book when, in fact, they have been Mormons since 2003?
Folks as soon as these folks converted to Mormonism, they were no longer Charismatic Christians, they were Latter-day Saints who were following another Jesus and preaching another gospel.

2) Where are the rest of the Charismatic Christians that you declare, are seeking greater unity with Mormons?
Friends I’m a Mormon Studies scholar and I will tell you plainly: Any that have tried this (such as Lynn Ridenhour, Paul Richardson, and Cal Fullerton) are now considered, marginalized, lunatic fringe, Charismaniacs by mainstream Charismatics. They have no significant power or influence among us.

3) Why do you single out Charismatics when, in fact, it’s cessationists who are taken a far greater, more active role in seeking greater unity with Mormons?
I’ll name names: Craig Blomberg (Denver Theological Seminary), Christopher Hall (Episcopalian theologian), Gerald R. McDermott (Beeson Divinity School), and James E. Bradley (Fuller Theological Seminary). Oh, and let me add newcomer, Baptist Author and Educator, Roger E. Olson, to the list.

4) Where are all these Charismatic Latter-day Saints that you refer to on p.73 of Strange Fire?
That’s where you claim, “Today there are even charismatic Mormons. Regardless of what else they teach, if they have had that experience, they are in.” Footnote 53 for the passage on p.73 takes us to this: “See, for example, “Hi. I’m Kathy, I’m a born again, Spirit-filled, Charismatic Mormon” at Mormon.org, accessed March 2013” (p.290) and one clicks on the link that’s provided in the footnote and it takes us to (wait for it, wait for it, wait for it) Kathy Datsko’s Mormon testimony! Folks, no many how many times you count her Kathy Datsko is one, and only one, Charismatic Latter-day Saint. Add in her husband Rob and you now have not one but two Charismatic Mormons.

This is far from a trend or even a pattern people! In fact, other than these two I know of no other Charismatic Latter-day Saints. That’s because Latter-day Saints have absolutely no interest in Pentecostalism and stay as far away from it as possible – they treat it like kryptonite. So in the end Mr. MacArthur’s evidence that there’s a major trend involving mainstream Charismatics Christians are seeking closer ecumenical ties with Charismatic Mormons isn’t just exaggerated, it’s non-existent.

Confirmation Bias Driven Evidence Presentation
As continuationist Bible scholar Craig S. Keener notes:

“MacArthur’s selective approach to history is meant to substantiate his approach. Yet his appendix on church history, if intended to be representative, cherry-picks only statements that agree with him. Yes, cessationists existed; but not all orthodox believers have been cessationists. Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian all claimed eyewitness accounts of healings and exorcisms. Historian Ramsay MacMullen shows that these sorts of experiences constituted the leading cause of Christian conversion in the third and fourth centuries.

MacArthur cites Augustine as an advocate of cessationism (252-53) without noting that he later changed his mind and reported numerous miracles, including raisings from the dead and some healings that he personally witnessed. John Wesley valued weighing prophecy rather than rejecting it, reports healings, and offers his own firsthand report of what he believed to be a raising from the dead. Late nineteenth-century evangelical leaders such as Baptist A. J. Gordon (for whom Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is named) and A. B. Simpson, founder of Christian and Missionary Alliance, were continuationists and recounted healing reports.”
(Craig S. Keener, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, reviewed by Craig S. Keener”, The Pneuma Review website)

And it’s not in the book but in the follow up video on to the book and conference that Mr. MacArthur did at The Master’s Seminary entitled, “What has happened after the ‘Strange Fire’ Conference” (it can be seen on YouTube) John MacArthur said of Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapel movement that in 1967 “a bunch of Jesus freak people.. go to Calvary Chapel…and for the first time…that I know of in history, the church lets the very defined subculture dictate what it will be,” citing “the hippie culture, communal living…kids coming out of drugs and free sex, and all that” as displacing “all the normal and formal things,” and typifying the charismatic church, with the movement becoming Calvary Chapel. (video transcription from Wikipedia)

Well, I’ve got to tell you, I was at Calvary Chapel in the 1970’s during the height of Jesus Movement and what Mr. MacArthur has just said is nonsense! Chuck Smith’s friend and colleague Jacob Prasch has called it “false witness” and I agree with him. Folks, it simply isn’t true. Anyone who thinks that staid, culturally and theologically conservative Pastor Chuck wasn’t fully in control of things and wasn’t keeping a leash on the insanity that we hippies brought in tow with us simply wasn’t there! Case in point: Chuck Fromm (the founder of Maranatha! Music and Chuck Smith’s son in law) once told me that Pastor Chuck didn’t like the rock music that was on the label and was always trying to convince him to shut that side of the ministry down and focus on just worship music – which Fromm eventually did.

While we all loved and respected Pastor Chuck, we still thought that he was a bit of an establishment square, a stick in the mud, and even an encumbrance to all our “grooviness” at times. To suggest that we children were leading a strong willed, in command, personality, father figure, and leader like Pastor Chuck is just laughable! And if there’s any doubt on any of this please see watch the “Pastors Perspective 4/3/2014” video on the K-Wave Radio YouTube Channel and you can hear it straight from Brian Brodersen, Don Stewart, Steve Mays, and Ray Bentley who were there at a much higher level than I ever was.

Conclusion and Other Perspectives
Since the Strange Fire conference and publication of the book John MacArthur has stated that they were supposed to be “the catalyst for conversation” (see “John MacArthur on Making an Informed Response to Strange Fire” on YouTube). Well if that’s the case, given the harsh, polemic, condemning tone then this “conversation” started with all the charm and grace of an alley mugging by a bully.

Equally amusing is how in the aforementioned, “What has happened after the ‘Strange Fire’ Conference” video Mr. MacArthur complains about the ad-hominems leveled at him in the reviews on Amazon. This coming from a man who spends, pages, chapters, and even the greater part of a book engaging in personal attacks, character assassination, and some of the most derogatory and insulting slurs against fellow Christians imaginable. Mr. MacArthur that thing sticking out of your eye is what’s called a “beam”.

That said, I have one last piece of advice to my Charismatic friends: Read the Strange Fire book. Yes, read the book. I think it speaks for itself. Please don’t take my word for it, read the book and see for yourself if all the criticism that this book has garnered from myself and others is justified or not.

Finally, probably no one summed up the mindset, spirit, and content of “Strange Fire” better than the late, great, first editor of Christianity Today, Carl F.H. Henry who said in 1957:

“The real bankruptcy of fundamentalism has resulted not so much from a reactionary spirit – lamentable as this was – as from a harsh temperament, a spirit of lovelessness and strife contributed by much of its leadership in the recent past. One of the ironies of contemporary church history is that the more fundamentalists stress separation from apostasy as a theme in their churches, the more a spirit of lovelessness seems to prevail.

The theological conflict with liberalism deteriorated into an attack upon organizations and personalities. This condemnation, in turn, grew to include conservative churchmen and churches not ready to align with separatist movements. It widens still further, to abusive evangelicals unhappy with the spirit of independency in such groups as the American Council of Churches and the International Council of Christian Churches. Then came internal debate and division among separatist fundamentalism within the American Council. More recently, the evangelistic ministry of Billy Graham and [the] efforts of other evangelical leaders, whose disapproval of liberalism and advocacy of conservative Christianity are beyond dispute, have become the target of bitter volubility.

This character of fundamentalism as a temperament and not primarily fundamentalism as a theology, has brought the movement into contemporary discredit… Historically, fundamentalism was a theological position; only gradually did the movement come to signify a mood and disposition as well. In its early [years] leadership reflected ballast, and less of bombast and battle… If modernism stands discredited as a perversion of the scriptural theology, certainly fundamentalism in this contemporary expression stands discredited as a perversion of the Biblical spirit.”
(Carl F.H. Henry, Editor of “Christianity Today” magazine in 1957)

Appendix: Other Voices
Here are some other quotes on and about John MacArthur and Strange Fire that I thought the reader might find interesting:

“Within the worldwide charismatic movement, there are no doubt instances of weird, inappropriate, and outrageous phenomena, perhaps including some of the things MacArthur saw on TBN. Many Pentecostal leaders themselves acknowledge as much. But to discredit the entire charismatic movement as demon-inspired because of the frenzied excess into which some of its members have fallen is both myopic and irresponsible. It would be like condemning the entire Catholic Church because some of its priests are proven pedophiles, or like smearing all Baptist Christians because of the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church.

When told that his all-charismatics-are-outside-the-pale approach was damaging the Body of Christ because he was attacking his brothers and sisters in the Lord, MacArthur responded that he “wished he could affirm that.” This is a new version of extra ecclesiam nulla salus—except that the ecclesia here is not the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church but rather an exclusively non-charismatic one.”
(Timothy George, “Strange Friendly Fire”, First Things, November 4, 2013)

“The problem I have is that, at least in my admittedly limited observation, some members or follow[er]s of the MacArthur circle suffer from Richard Dawkins syndrome. Dawkins has such contempt for Christianity that he can’t bring himself to take Christianity seriously even for the sake of argument.

And some members/followers of the MacArthur circle reflect the same mindset. They exhibit such unbridled contempt for charismatic theology that they can’t take it seriously even for the sake of argument. They demand evidence, yet they don’t make a good faith effort to be informed. So the objection is circular, given their studied ignorance.

There’s a word for that: prejudice.”
(Michael L. Brown, “Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire”, p.8; Charisma House. Kindle Edition)

‘On each point, it is surely misguided to single out charismatics, says [Pastor John] Piper. “Charismatic doctrinal abuses, emotional abuses, discernment abuses, financial abuses, all have their mirror image in non-charismatic churches.” Of charismatics and non-charismatics alike, “we all stand under the word of God and we all need repentance.”

But those charismatic abuses remain. So how are these excesses best policed? How are Christians today protected from the abuses of the charismatic church? Is it through attack-centered books and conferences?

“I don’t go on a warpath against charismatics. I go on a crusade to spread truth. I am spreading gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, Calvinistic truth everywhere, and I am going to push it into the face of every charismatic I can find, because what I believe, if they embrace the biblical system of doctrine that is really there, it will bring all of their experiences into the right orbit around the sun of this truth.”’
(John Piper, “Piper Addresses Strange Fire and Charismatic Chaos”, Desiring God website)

“In his “Strange Fire” conference (that starts today), book (upcoming), and ensuing promotions, John MacArthur has, I believe, acted very irresponsibly and is doing incredible damage to the body of Christ.

It is no secret that John MacArthur pushes the polemic line and causes many of us to be uncomfortable. This is just who he is and I don’t really expect him to change. But this conference is an excessively eristic and unnecessarily divisive crusade against charismatics. And, to be frank, it is even over the top for him…

Because of all this, John MacArthur is losing his voice, and I don’t want him to. His reputation dismantles his platform to speak at just about any conference. He has worked himself into a corner where every time he writes a book or opens his mouth, many of us say, “Oh no!” before anything else. His radio program is called “Grace to You” and we are often left thinking “grace to who?”

John MacArthur says the charismatic movement “blasphemes the Holy Spirit” and “attributes to the Holy Spirit even the work of Satan.” Maybe he should think about who is actually attributing the work of the Spirit to Satan. I am not a charismatic, but such a statement really scares me. And because of this it would seem (even though the conference is sold out) that John MacArthur may be losing his voice.”
(C. Michael Patton, “Why John MacArthur May Be Losing His Voice”, Reclaiming the Mind website, October 15, 2013)

“I’m not just talking from the sidelines as a bystander but as someone who has had a lot of experience and education in both [the Charismatic and Reformed] traditions and still embraces a respect for each while feeling free to critique both.

As I watched the video [of John MacArthur’s opening address at the “Strange Fire Conference”] I felt a growing anger as well as a disgust for what MacArthur was saying and how he was saying it. His speech is as lofty as his demeanor. His criticism of charismatics is as old as the charismatic movement itself. So it’s nothing new. It is a familiar flame. What I found dismaying is his complete dismissal of the movement and all its adherents in a single one hour dignified gesture. With one speech he purged the rolls of salvation of over 500 million believers.

Basically his argument is that charismatics dishonor God. Since they are therefore not in Christ, their theology is demonic. So since they are serving Satan and promoting him, there is a hotter hell reserved for them. He claims that the charismatic movement has done nothing to advance sound doctrine or biblical theology but in fact has caused more damage than anything else ever has because it has only delivered confusion, distortion and error to the church. He questions the church: You have always defended God. You have always defended Jesus Christ. Why do you not defend the Holy Spirit? Instead, the church opens the gates to the charismatics and they have taken over the city of God and set up an idol in its center. He doesn’t understand why God doesn’t just strike all these people down. He sadly supposes his ways aren’t our ways…

I’m not just angry. I’m not just disappointed. I’m sad. After watching MacArthur I was tempted to throw in the towel. Even though many people would distance themselves from MacArthur and his position on charismatics, it’s still a sign that the church and its leaders may use anything at their disposal to elevate themselves above their brothers and sisters, even if it means separating themselves from them forever.

I thought we were better than this.”
(David Hayward, “John MacArthur Sends 500,000,000 Charismatics to Hell”; nakedpastor website, October 18, 2013

“MacArthur’s latest book does not represent an honest search for truth. It is obvious that his mind was already made up when he began his research for Strange Fire, and he found what he was looking for. He presents a circular argument, beginning with a faulty premise and proceeding with selective anecdotal evidence that determines the outcome. He begins with a commitment to cessationism, the belief that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church after the death of the twelve apostles and the completion of the writings of the New Testament. Since that is the case for him, that means modern expressions of Spiritual gifts must be false. He then utilizes the selective anecdotal evidence to buttress his presupposition, which leads him back to his starting point of cessation.

It seems that MacArthur wants to believe the worst about the movement of which he writes. At times I felt he was embellishing the bad to make it even worse. For example, Oral Roberts was not a Christian brother with whom he had profound differences but a heretic who did much damage to the body of Christ, “the first of the fraudulent healers to capture TV, paving the way for the parade of spiritual swindlers who have come after him” (p.155). Make no mistake about it, MacArthur is not out to bring correction to a sector of Christianity with which he disagrees; his goal is to destroy a movement he considers false, heretical and dangerous.”
(Eddie L. Hyatt, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, Reviewed by Eddie L. Hyatt”, The Pneuma Review website, October 23, 2013)

And while Pastor Jack Hayford didn’t call out John MacArthur (who by the way he’s close personal friends with) directly, for anyone who’s read the Strange Fire book or watched the conference videos there’s no mistaking what prompted the following response:

“It is essential to note: as with any sector of the church, at times ungodly and wholly unworthy leaders rise and gain a following. From local pastorates to notable media ministries one can find shameful violations of the Word and personalities lauded as ‘anointed’ who ignore biblical standards regarding morality, financial accountability, and biblical integrity. Pop culture themes that compromise the whole truth of God’s Word on subjects that lead to human, financial, lifestyle, and attitudinal shoddiness are often paraded in the name of ‘charismatic.’ This is a tragic miscarriage of a biblically rooted word (charismata) and shameless rejection of the charismatic lifestyle modeled by the apostles’ own first-century ministry—one lived without compromise of truth, character, behavior, or morality, and devoid of any self-serving ways.

May it be known and affirmed here: such biblically inconsistent leaders, be they men or women, who violate God’s Word—and any who follow them—are not and should not (no matter what ‘signs following’ are claimed) be seen or understood to be a valid definition of what charismatic or Pentecostal life or leadership is about.

It is grieving to all who seek to live and walk in humility and holiness as members of the Spirit-filled community of believers, when there is evidence of a leader’s doctrinal, ecclesiastical, moral, or financial compromise, and yet nothing of confrontation, discipline, or disapproval appear to be administered. However, truth is that this is not at all the case among the vast majority of those within the Pentecostal or charismatic community. For the most part, existing denominations and structured nondenominational networks do administer correction and discipline, as well as directing recovery and restoration programs where repentance is shown by the errant or fallen.

The most flagrant cases of violation and neglect of discipline occur in the glaring instances where independent, self-directed, self-ruled, and self-governed leaders move. The absence of structures requiring accountability to fellow leaders, or the ‘cronyism’ of some who unite, but do so forming small circles of equally errant ministers who ‘measure themselves by themselves’ (2 Cor. 10:12) and smugly exercise a self-affirming tolerance and grace that refuses the legalism of critics; these are of the nature of those the Epistle of Jude identifies as ‘dreamers’ who ‘defile the flesh, reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries,’ and as having ‘gone in the way of Cain, run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah . . . for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever’ (Jude 4-13, NKJV).

Further, it is an egregious exercise in unkindness when categorical charges or institutional ‘blackballing tactics’ are leveled against charismatics as though all are given to indifference concerning Bible interpretation or moral recklessness. Even those differing theologically know full well that such broad brush treatment is a violation of facts—that the few characterize neither the values nor lifestyle of the many, i.e., charismatics who love, honor, and live for Christ, the Lord of us all—charismatic or otherwise. May God extinguish the foul incense from the ‘strange fire’ offered by voices among leaders at either group’s altars, and may His ‘holy fire’ baptize us all with a fresh baptism of His unifying love, whatever our doctrinal differences.”
(Jack Hayford’s foreword for R.T. Kendall, “Holy Fire: A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our Lives”, Kindle Locations 3477-3504)

Recommended Reading
The following books have been written in response to “Strange Fire”. They offer a fuller, richer perspective on the book and address in greater detail MacArthur’s errors – up to and including his confirmation bias driven hard cessationist exegesis of scripture.

“Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire” by Michael L. Brown
This book directly addresses the issues raised by the Strange Fire book, conference, and camp in a calm, even toned, and scholarly manner. (note: I have also reviewed this book)

“Holy Fire: A Balanced, Biblical Look at the Holy Spirit’s Work in Our Lives” by R.T. Kendall
A thoughtful scriptural exegetical response to MacArthur’s hard cessationist arguments from a theologian in the Reformed tradition who is Charismatic.

“The Essential Guide to the Power of the Holy Spirit: God’s Miraculous Gifts at Work Today” by Randy Clark
A combination defense of continuationism and practical, scriptural guidelines which, if followed, would eliminate would eliminate many of the abuses and excesses that MacArthur correctly criticizes in Strange Fire.

Christian Historian William De Arteaga’s short analysis of how John MacArthur abuses and misrepresents Church History in “Strange Fire” is very informative and enlightening.

William De Arteaga, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire as Parody of Jonathan Edwards’ Theology”, The Pneuma Review website, November 8, 2013

And, finally, while I would like to believe that my review is pretty good, I’m not sure that these reviews of John MacArthur’s last two Anti-Charismatic books can be topped. I’ve cited from some of them above but I encourage a full read in order to fully appreciate them for yourself: 

Craig S. Keener, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, reviewed by Craig S. Keener”, The Pneuma Review website, November 15, 2013

Monte Lee Rice, “John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, reviewed by Monte Lee Rice”, The Pneuma Review website, December 26, 2013

Rich Nathan, “Vineyard Position Paper #5: A Response to ‘Charismatic Chaos'”, April 1993

(this review was previously published on Goodreads and Amazon)

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