It’s been encouraging to see many in the family of faith offering up wisdom for consideration in the wake of the Strange Fire conference. Helpful angles on the conference have been brought from, among others, Clint Archer, Tim Challies, and Trevin Wax. Instead of elaborating on their work, I’ll offer a few afterthoughts for consideration of this impactful event:
1. The conference did not happen in a corner.
On social media grounds alone, the conference received more attention than some of us anticipated. More blogs have popped up than most of us could keep up with. It was also reported that the conference Twitter hashtag was the most popular late last week.
For more important reasons, the conference is not something we can responsibly shun. As Thabiti Anyabwile wisely pointed out, the difference between caring about the issue and not is, “One takes God’s word seriously; the other tends toward a practical atheism that shuts His voice out.”
Furthermore, it was reported during the conference that some 127 countries were viewing the live stream. All that to say, the conference was not peripheral.
2. The speakers recognized distinctions within the charismatic spectrum.
Leading up to the conference, cessationists and continuationists expressed the necessary desire for speakers to identify the diversity within the charismatic movement. And they did. Not all agree, however. For example, Adrian Warnock claimed, “MacArthur seems to have missed all these nuances [of the charismatic spectrum] and simply want to reject all charismatic thinking as heretical.” But a careful scan of the conference shows otherwise.
For example, in the opening session, MacArthur made it clear that he believes many in the movement desire to worship God in a true way, hold to sound theology, and believe the truth. Later, Steve Lawson devoted an entire message to the minority charismatic calvinists, thus distinguishing within the spectrum. Then, Conrad Mbewe addressed the alarming trends within the movement on his continent, where a portion of “evangelicalism” is rapidly becoming syncretistic, mixing forms of paganism with Christianity. In Friday’s Q & A, Todd Friel asked a question on many minds:
“We would say John Piper and Wayne Grudem are brothers. Here are some biblical scholars that many of us love who are saying things that are causing us to scratch our heads. How do we respond to these men? With whom do we associate? With whom do we break associations?”
Among other things, MacArthur said:
“… I think if we start shutting everybody down who has got one thing they’re not clear on, we’re going to really find ourselves alone. That’s going too far. I have no fear that John would ever tamper with anything that is essential to the Christian faith, starting from theology proper all the way through to the return of Christ. He’s going to be faithful to the word as he understands it.”
There were other examples, but overall, the conference neither ignored the diversity in the movement nor painted with too broad a theological brush.
On a lesser but related note, I bumped into some who were crying down the conference on the grounds of the speakers “lumping us together.” After interacting with some of these claims, they nobly admitted to responding to other things flying around in social media.
3. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit was apparent.
Evidences of this could be seen around the conference. For example, in Friday’s Q & A, MacArthur answered Friel’s question regarding Piper and Grudem: “But I do know the great body of work that John Piper has done is true to the faith. John is a friend not only whom I admire but whom I love.”
Also, during that Q & A, MacArthur gave helpful counsel on how to interact with differing viewpoints:
“[I] think you need to say to people, ‘Show me from the Word of God why you believe that. Let’s talk about that.’ If you pounce on them with all your Bible verses you put them on the defensive. But if you ask them to explain why they believe from the Word of God, you can get to the Scriptures.”
Also, though not seen on the live stream, Grace Community Church launched an army of some 700 volunteers to serve the 4000 or so attendees in the name of Christ. Additionally, the live stream was offered up in approximately six languages from which people from 127 countries reportedly benefited.
Other evidences of the Spirit were apparent in the speaker’s concern for the local church (see below). In fact, the mere existence of the conference evidences a healthy concern for the good of Christ’s body. Regardless of one’s view on the issues, the idea of multiple pastors gathering to shepherd God’s people (and those who are not) evidences a godly impulse.
Finally, the big emphasis on Scripture evidenced the work of the Holy Spirit. The basis for that claim is, in part, shown in the biblically parallel passages Ephesians 5:18-6:9 and Colossians 3:16-4:1. To be about the word is to be about the Spirit. A surrender to the Spirit’s sword is surrender to the Spirit. Thus, the respect for, ministering of, and emphasis on Scripture during the conference demonstrated emphasis on the Spirit.
All of these things evidence the power and presence of the Spirit in God’s people.
4. There was a strong emphasis on Scripture.
Obvious effort was given to teach Scripture, stress the centrality of it, and exhort others to emphasize it as our objective source of truth.
For example, MacArthur opened the conference by, in part, highlighting the importance of correct worship of God from Leviticus 10 (from which the conference derived its name) and Hebrews 10. R.C. Sproul weighed in with an exposition from Acts, giving helpful insight on the transitory nature of the book, identifying how some charismatics undervalue Pentecost. In doing so, he identified the four unique outpourings of the Holy Spirit in Acts as four different Pentecost events. Tom Pennington offered seven biblical arguments for cessationism. Phil Johnson provided a clarifying distinction between biblical miracles and the remarkable providence of God. Steve Lawson gave what MacArthur said, and I agree, was an “epic” message on Sola Scriptura. Conrad Mbewe, in both sessions, lamented the loss of Scripture’s centrality in much of the African charismatic movement. In Friday’s Q & A, Phil Johnson responded to Friel’s question on how to interact with this issue by shepherding people to, “…immerse yourself in the Word of God. You don’t have to take my word for it. I don’t ask people to change their minds the first time you hear teaching on something.” Answering the same question, Nate Busenitz encouraged people along the same lines: “When we go to the Word of God we are sitting at the feet of the Author of the Word of God: the Holy Spirit. So to go to the Scriptures is to go to the Spirit.”
More could be said, but the emphasis of the conference was to anchor ourselves in the objective source of truth, the sword the Spirit.
5. The speakers stressed the importance of the local church and faithfulness in ministry.
At one point Friday’s Q & A speakers were asked what to do if they are in a church where they disagree with the view. Much of the counsel demonstrated a respect for and commitment to the local church. Speakers encouraged God’s people towards humility and unity as much as possible in their respective churches.
Faithfulness in pastoral ministry was also emphasized. In his second message, Conrad Mbewe brilliantly and biblically remarked, “A pastor is someone who faithfully studies the Bible, preaches it in its context, and applies it in the context of God’s people.” In Friday night’s session, MacArthur finished with a reminder of the pastoral charge: “’O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.’…Guard the treasure. What’s the treasure? Divine revelation… Ministry is a guardianship. We not only proclaim the truth, we protect the truth.” He also recognized his personal and pastoral responsibility by saying, “I will be held accountable before God for the discharge of this responsibility.”
All that to say, with the frequent connections made to the local church, it was apparent that these are not loosely-connected, cavalier men whose theology is divorced from the rigors of shepherding. Rather, they demonstrated a level respect for the Lord’s flock and the mandate of faithfulness thereto.
6. The conference was not sinfully divisive.
Cries of division were not surprising with a volatile issue like this. While roaming the cyberworld scene a bit, it became clear that the Divisive Bogeyman was out and about. Many cried foul due to the mere existence of the conference. Some were turned off by confident teaching of the cessationist view.
But it’s best to avoid errors that were flying around along the lines of, “disagree = sinful divisiveness,” “teaching something different than another = I hate them,” and “biblical certainty = lack of humility.” Those are all slippery postmodern slopes from which we need to distance ourselves. Tim Challies and Trevin Wax offered helpful clarification on these types of errors. And in MacArthur’s closing session, he helpfully pointed out that love speaks the truth and truth, since it is not error, creates a necessary (but not sinful) division.
Furthermore, in Friday’s Q & A, MacArthur defied the factious accusations, when he answered Friel’s question regarding Piper and Grudem:
“But I do know the great body of work that John Piper has done is true to the faith. John is a friend not only whom I admire but whom I love. I don’t know why on this front he has that open idea, but it’s not an advocacy position for the movement and he would join us in decrying the excesses of that movement for sure, and even the theology of it.”
Instead of propagating sinful division, the conference did the opposite: It clarified existing biblical disunity and promoted true unity. Biblical unity is around the truth of Scripture. Someone is right and someone is wrong in this issue. So, where there is straying from the truth, there is no complete, real unity no matter how good of friends we might be. We can like each other and have a form of relational unity, but it cannot be said that we have the most noble of unity, “the unity of the faith” (Eph 4:13), for which God desires all the saints to be equipped. Thus, the divisive bogeyman is merely a bogeyman.
Instead, the conference did a service to the body of Christ. God’s people were better equipped to understand the cessationism/continuationist debate. Necessary discussions have been resurrected in the noble quest for truth. Straying sheep and deceived goats have been warned. We’ve been forced to bring our understanding of things like the nature of truth and the definition of unity closer to God’s. And who knows the amount of conversions and sanctification which will result from the conference. For all that, I thank God for what appears to have been a historic and necessary event in church history.