How The Strange Fire Conference Was Divisive (and Unifying)


To me, all of this debate over the Strange Fire conference makes it sound worse for Christians than the Obamacare website is for Americans. However, some of us can agree that the Strange fire conference is nowhere near as humiliating. Problem is, we actually know what Obamacare is, while few of us know what MacArthur and friends really meant to say.

All of this discussion has stirred in me a desire to not pick sides or justify my positions, but to give everyone their fair share in explaining what went on. My thesis about the Strange Fire conference: It didn’t create new divisions, or build any bridges- at least not yet. The conference revealed divisions that already existed, while intending to unite these divisions in truth, not ignorance or a comfy, unbiblical co-existence. MacArthur said in the Q&A session that this conference was intended to start a “conversation” centered on the Scriptures. That was the point of the conference, the problem is only a few people actually let MacArthur speak for himself. In my opinion, some people love to disagree with MacArthur, because they feel like they can. Some love to disagree with a person who has a lot of influence, so they can feel like they have the upper hand.

John MacArthur’s conference sparked a whirlwind of controversy, fueling the hungry gossip bloggers (and other ones, like those at The Gospel Coalition), while leading many to jump to conclusions, picking sides. In the eye of the storm, Mark Driscoll “crashed” the conference as a “publicity stunt” to “sell more books.” What really happened? Unless we were there, we’ll never fully know. Thankfully, both MacArthur and Driscoll have openly responded to criticisms. If they responded, it means that what they did before might not have been examined correctly (thus warranting a response). James, the brother of Jesus writes that, every man must “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. (1:20-22)”

Therefore, are we quick to listen, or are we looking for a fight? That determines where we go from here. As humans, it is much easier to see sin in our experiences than grace. So, it’s no surprise that we can become very good at voicing opinions, but terrible at listening to discern whether those opinions are rooted in what actually happened. Personally, I love listening to both Mark Driscoll and John MacArthur (in the right doses). Of course, as Todd Friel says time and time again, the best sermon you will hear all week is at your local church. MacArthur and Driscoll have shaped the way I approach ministry. The reports going around sound more like a Hollywood script than reality- but there is a way to redeem this to the glory of God, namely, with proper discernment and a loving heart.

So, let’s put the pieces together and eliminate all the adjectives so many are throwing around that dramatize real life. This all goes back to what the Scripture says. First off, what kind of unity does God desire from the Church? These few verses I’m about to mention give us short glimpses into the Scriptures grand picture of unity. The common theme is: it must be centered around the right Person, Christ.

This past Sunday, the Pastor at my church read Psalm 133, which I thought would be a helpful introduction to this post:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1-3 ESV)

Good and pleasant it may be, but unless we pursue an uncompromising unity in the gospel, and become less unified in other areas- subordinating and submitting them to the gospel, we will have a false unity and therefore false peace.

1) “…eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3 ESV)

God desires that the Church be united in peace. You can’t be united and at war at the same time. Unity is not Christianese for, “play nice.” God doesn’t want us to be unified like a work committee- with all the interplaying politics and confusion. He wants us to humble ourselves because the gospel that saved us is bigger than us.

2) Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15, 16 ESV)

Truth is the basis for unity. You are united by what you collectively believe to be true above all competing truths. God desires unity because it’s precious to him (see the Psalmists excitement in Psalm 133). He designed the Church to be a body that is not independent among its members, but is dependent on the other in order to grow.

3) The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22, 23 ESV)

The glory of the gospel has been entrusted to us (2 Cor. 4). We know from Scripture that God desires unity among the Church’s members, just as much as the Trinity themselves are united. This means we must be united in purpose, action, and reality (which comes from knowing God).

On his Grace To You YouTube channel, John MacArthur posted a video explaining why it’s important to listen to every message and discussion that was recorded during the conference (http://youtu.be/dIAAyNEUqLg). The conference has been misinterpreted by many charismatic believers (Adrian Warnock being one example, and others) as a “generalization” or lumping together of all charismatic Christians into the realm of demonic or Satanic. This is not the case. Though Phil Johnson earlier today posted a blog saying that they did generalize some aspects of the movement, they clearly knew what they were doing (see GTY blog for more info).

My opinion is that the speakers were not diluting all charismatics into a single branch and labeling it Satanic, but stating that the common beliefs of charismatics (that tongues, prophecy, healing and other Apostolic gifts are alive and kicking) are at issue with Scripture. He’s encouraging a return Ad Fontes (“to the sources”), God’s word, to see whether these things are verified as real or not. That’s the point: iron sharpening iron. Hopefully many Christians will pursue that route, while the false converts see the true gospel for what it is, and deal with issues of charismatic gifts as needed.

The distinction I made above is small but noticeable. The former requires little to no skill and is a straw-man tactic, the latter, an uncomfortable but accurate point that Scripture alone should determine what we believe, not our feelings or opinions. As for Mark Driscoll’s account of events, his makes a lot of sense, clearing up questions many had (see here: http://theresurgence.com/2013/10/25/see-you-in-seattle-pastor-john-macarthur).

So, where does this leave both sides? An analogy I like to use is the cross: we may be different directions away from it in our divisions (north, east, south, west), but so long as we actually can still see it and recognize it for what it is, then we can meet together at it in humility, not rivalry.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive post. There are many good blogs (mentioned above) for you to check out for more information.

Grace and peace to you,
Austin

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