For those who are unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two; Session Three; Session Four, Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, (Session One; Session Two; Session Three; Session Four, Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, Q&A 1, Session Eight, Session 9, Breakout Session 2). It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.
Moderator: Todd Friel
Participants: John MacArthur (JM), Conrad Mbewe (CM), Phil Johnson (PJ), and Nathan Busenitz (NB)
Friel: We depart from here, we’re loaded with great teaching and theology and expository preaching. And it’s big. But I need short, because people have short attention spans. So how do I keep this—all that we have seen and heard—from getting into my church?
JM: I would be coming at it from a pastoral perspective. I would say: rather than create a groundswell at the level of your friends that raises distrust in the leadership, I think the right thing to do would be with a humble hart, go to the leaders, sit down with them and share your heart, give them a copy of the book. I say that, because the arguments in the book are frozen, you can digest it and think about it. If you just take the impressions of this week, they could be misrepresented. You could get caught up in the emotion and not be able to make the case. That’s why the book is important. I would, in kindness, and humility and patience, put the book in the hands of the leaders of the church, and say, “This is what’s on my heart. Could you read this and could we talk about it?” That’s a way to give honor to those who are over you in the Lord. The last thing I would want is for someone to leave this conference and go overturn a church and be a revolutionary and make life difficult for leaders in the church. I don’t mind the havoc that the truth creates, but handling the truth with great patience and instruction is our calling.
Friel: My experience is, a lot of pastors are busy studying and counseling. I can be on the internet a lot and I see how big it is. How do I help the pastor/elder to recognize that this is something that’s making its way through the cracks? How do I elevate their understanding?
PJ: You have to have a legitimate platform to do that with your pastor. If you haven’t encouraged him and gotten to know him then you don’t have that platform. You need to know your pastor, encourage him, be a friend to him. And then you have a platform to correct his theology. Churches are filled with people on the periphery and who only ever approach their pastor if they want to criticize him. And nobody in the world responds well to criticism like that. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, starting with your pastor—especially if you have a concern about him. You need to do it in a way that honors his place as the man that God has put in the teaching role.
JM: There are a lot of pastors who don’t know where they are on this. They’ve allowed things to come together in the church but they haven’t thought about it critically, because no one has dealt with it. I’m already being hit hard in the internet because they think it’s a fixation or obsession of mine. I remind people that we’ve had close to 40 years at Grace to You and we’ve never had a conference like this. It’s not an obsession. Some of the leaders we’re going to hear from admit they don’t know what to do with this. That’s why this is important. The book makes a very sound, biblical and theological case. Put the book in their hands. If they don’t read it, then they’re being irresponsible [for not availing themselves of the available information.]
Friel: In a sentence, what do I say: “I’m giving you this book, because….” What? Why am I giving it to him?
JM: “This is a deep spiritual burden to me. This is a matter of prayer for the church around the world, for our church, and for you, and the people in our influence. This is Psalm 69: Zeal for Your house has eaten me up. This is an ache in my heart, and I’d love to know if you share that concern. Would you read this?”
Friel: I see some of this entering into my church, whether the music, prophesying, hearing from God. I know that it’s in there. Is there a point where I can determine that the church has crossed a line and it’s time for my family to go elsewhere?
PJ: That’s a really complex question because every situation is different. I would have to ask a barrage of questions, starting with: What are other churches like? How did you end up in this church? What are your specific concerns? In terms of principles, any church whose leadership has shown a willful failure to shows Scripture as their authority, I’d be inclined to find a better church. If it’s just a matter of too much percussion, I’m less likely to encourage you to move on. And a lot depends on other churches in your area. Where are you going to go? My first thought is: What is it that you can do through your gifts to take that church to where it ought to be?
JM: A biblical model has been helpful to me. If you were in Asia Minor in the first century and Ephesus was a church that left its first love, where would you go? You had no other place to go. That was your church. And unless you were Smyrna or Philadelphia, you were in a bad church. There are times when you’re there like a believer in a marriage with an unbelieving spouse. You’re the source of divine blessing to them. I think it’s important to understand that most times in church history people couldn’t run from place to place. Not just the New Testament era, but long after that. We can’t treat this like consumers. And another thing to add to that: leadership changes very rapidly. I don’t know what the average stay of a pastor is but it’s like 2 or 3 years. You want to be sure that you don’t run before the Lord makes a change that could be a blessing or for your benefit. One other thing: the Lord still has those churches in His hand. If there are believers there, they’re in his hand. Having said all of that, if there’s a more faithful church preaching the word faithfully in sound doctrine, go there.
Friel: I go home and see these things: The music is hypnotic, they’re calling down the fire, pastor felt the prompting, etc. How do I begin to approach it? Do I deal with every issue? Every person?
CM: I think we need to appreciate the fact that ultimately the behavior is a fruit of the person’s belief. Instead of simply beginning to fight the fruit, the behavior, it would be important for you to help with the understanding, with the doctrinal roots from which all of this is coming. An obvious example is if you look at the Pauline epistles, he always deals with the doctrinal and says, “Therefore.” And faithfully loving and serving those people gives you a good platform to help others.
JM: The most extensive doctrinal statement that I have ever seen is GCC’s doctrinal statement. It’s the same statement for TMC, TMS, and GTY. It’s a booklet of what we believe. I think it should be an absolute in a church that you have a highly defined doctrinal statement. You may even go back to the WCF, to the LBCF, something like that. And while we wonder about confessional Christianity, those confessions are the product of 1100 hours of diligent work by men who were scholars in the Word. And I think all churches should be able to go back to that. We are never at sea here. Everything is defined in that doctrinal statement. To go to a church leader and say, “Pastor, I’m concerned about our doctrinal statement. What is our church’s position on these things? Could someone take a look at this issue?” But you’ve got to back up to that. Because the contemporary view of fitting into the culture forces people to disregard that and just follow trends. And if you follow the trend, you’ll end up in the Charismatic movement.
PJ: You need to ask yourself what you’re doing in this church in the first place. If you came because of the better youth program or you like the music, but it’s not the soundest church, what are you doing in that church? When you decide where you take your family to go, you better take your family to the church with the best teaching, regardless of the youth program.
Friel: Should you do your best to faithfully teach in the arena God gives you in that church? Maybe teach Sunday school, a Bible study, begin to disciple others? Would that be wise?
NB: I think it’s important to make sure that we’re always bringing people back to the biblical text, and we’re not allowing our own experiences be the authority, but we’re examining it by the texts. That’s our authority. The reason we’re cessationists is because we’re convinced that that’s what the Word teaches. As long as we’re bringing it back to the text, we’re honoring the Spirit who inspired this Word.
JM: The contemporary evangelical church has very little interest in theology and doctrine, so you’re going to have a tough sell. It’s about style. And style is the Trojan Horse that lets Charismatics in the church. Because once you let the music in, the movement follows. It all of a sudden becomes common. We sound like the Charismatics, sing like they do, have the same emotional feelings that they have. It’s a small step from doing the same music to buying into the movement. So the tough thing is you’re going back to a church that is thinking like that. It’s hard to make sound doctrine the issue when style is much more the interest of the leaders of the church.
Friel: What I’d like to do is to share some of the objections to this teaching, to this conference. Because I suspect these things will be what we’ll hear if we bring this back to our churches. Here are some comments made prior to and during the conference. People are saying that the videos we were showing yesterday was simply the fringe movement. “That’s not who we are.”
NB: Part of what the Strange Fire book talks about is that what people think is the fringe has become the mainstream. John T. Allen says in his book that 90% of Pentecostals in countries throughout the world hold to a prosperity gospel.
Friel: “But we’re not falling on the ground.”
JM: You’re not doing it in the church, but your kids are listening to Jesus Culture, so when Jesus culture comes to the 16,000-person arena, then they are falling on the floor. And they’re doing it. Hillsong and Jesus Culture are everywhere. It’s marketed and spread like wildfire. 1400 young people come into Redding, CA, to be trained for a year to spread this stuff everywhere. And they create events in the name of Jesus, and young people from your church go and buy in. You have to draw the line before you get to the entry point or you end up allowing that kind of behavior.
Friel: We’ve been saying that Jesus Culture and other bands are sort of the entry drug into this movement. But they don’t wait till after the concert to teach people. There is teaching in the concert. This is Kim walker of Jesus Culture describing her encounter with God. … She encountered God. Jesus appeared to her. She had a conversation with Jesus. She communed with Him. He held her. This si what really launched her—her encountered with God. It doesn’t happen all the time, but she says it has happened in her life. So, these groups do teach at the concerts.
PJ: And it’s bad theology. That’s an hour and a half long video. She says she lives from encounter to encounter. It’s not about truth, it’s about experience. It’s deplorably bad theology, and that is the entry level for a lot of young people. Jesus Culture was the music group at Louie Giglio’s Passion. John Piper was a speaker there. This is not far out on the fringe. It’s bleeding in to the mainstream.
JM: This is classic marketing. Make people feel like they’re out of touch. Take a typical kid, put him in that environment. He’s clueless about this kind of experience. When I was in junior high I read Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Life. He’s a mystic. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I thought, “You’re missing something.” I’ve never had these mystical experiences. So I got a book on prayer by E. M. Bounds, and it got worse. Then I got Witness Lee. And I’m a junior high school kid. Just an average kid who loves the Lord and am wondering if I’m missing everything! They’re literally dupes for this kind of thing. Take a kid who knows his life isn’t right, show him this religious experience being portrayed before him. He’s not theologically informed. I can tell you from my experience about people who wore holes in a wooden floor from praying in the same place. I couldn’t comprehend that. Fortunately, by the goodness of God I was kept from that path. It’s a preparedness of their hearts that comes from knowing they’re short of what real spirituality should be. And they get suckered into that. And then they buy the illegitimate substitute. They carry that back and go to the church, and they sing amazing grace, and the preacher speaks from Scripture, and they’ll say that the preacher doesn’t “have it” either, because they got it at the Charismatic rally.
Friel: This is the “church” that they come out of and the type of teaching the kids find. This is Bill Johnson.
JM: Did you notice the absence of the Bible? This is Bill Johnson, not God.
Friel: Objection: “Hearing from God is not new revelation!” Your response?
NB: Wayne Grudem says it is. They define it as new revelation and they’ll call it new revelation from God. To say that it’s not would be a cessationist way of speaking. But the Charismatics themselves do refer to it as revelation from God. They’ll say the revelation is perfect and the human instrument messes it up. The problem is, according to Deuteronomy 18, those who speak on God’s behalf are required to speak it faithfully. If they don’t, they fall under the curses of Deuteronomy 18.
JM: What else would it be? If God is giving you information, by definition that’s revelation from God. If it’s to you now, it’s new revelation. This is the folly of this movement. And then to say it’s OK for us to mess it up, because we’re fallible and its fallible and God works it out anyway. That completely turns God’s revelation on its head. Of course it’s’ new revelation. What’s so bizarre is that there is no way to verify it. And just because it isn’t heresy, we’re supposed to say it’s new revelation. All things God has deemed for us to know for life and godliness are on the pages of Holy Scripture. No new revelation is required or allowed. For them to say it’s not is ridiculous. When Sarah Young says Jesus is speaking to me and writes the book as Jesus in the first person, that’s new revelation.
Friel: “Come on, we’re talking about 500 million people here. I see good fruit, they really do love the Lord. This entire movement is condemned to hell? We’ll show you the fruit. Don’t you see it?”
CM: I think the difficulty there is that basically you’re putting the cart before the horse. Roman Catholicism will show you some “good fruit.” Especially out in Africa, at the social level. They put up schools and hospitals which have benefited entire nations. But that doesn’t therefore mean that Roman Catholicism is correct. So we need to always begin with: What does the Bible say? Begin from that foundation, and then you have your therefore, what should be a consequence of that. That’s where the error is. The Bible is very clear that with the foundation laid the generations succeeding that are to expound the teaching that was brought forth in an extraordinary way through those foundational teachers, the apostles and New Testament prophets. That’s straight forward. Anyone therefore who begins to bring in another approach, wanting to lengthen that is opening a dangerous door where in due season the kind of things we’ve talked about here become common fare. Those of you who have been exposed to regular teaching of God’s word, you were sighing and groaning at the things you heard. A lot of the people who heard these things are thinking, “That’s life. After all my teacher is teaching that.” So the basic principle is not, “There’s good being done. Look at it.” It’s “What saith the Scriptures?”.
JM: People who have any connection to Judaism and Christianity have a connection to philanthropy. It is a striking anomaly, however, that there is essentially zero social benefit to the world from the charismatic movement. Where’s the charismatic hospital? Social services? Poverty relief? This is a scam. This is lying to people who are poor at the potential. What have they done? Where are those? This is all about me. This isn’t about sacrifice. So when you say, “good,” Todd, what are you talking about? Personal charities and acts of kindness? But as a movement in itself it hasn’t demonstrated even what the Roman Catholic Church has.
PJ: and you can’t always tell at first glance what’s good fruit. Sometimes it looks good at first but you have to analyze it. The real test of good fruit is the underlying core of teaching. If it’s not based on the truth, it’s not really good fruit.
Friel: Objection: “You cessationists have no business making any sort of critiques. It’s none of your business.”
JM: Well, I’ve lived that. We live within 5 miles of the Pentecostal “Mecca” in this area: The Church on the Way. And the conversations I’ve had sound like this: “God has blessed John MacArthur. Imagine what God could do with him if he had the Holy Spirit.” I’ve heard that for years. “He’s not equipped to critique this movement because he’s void of the Spirit.” There’s nothing for me to say. It’s a frightening world to live in.
PJ: If the best Charismatics, who really do have a concern about the authority of Scripture, were actually critiquing their own movement, sounding the alarm, we wouldn’t have had to do this conference.
Friel: 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?
PJ: I think it’s important to respond to those things honestly. I spoke about that in my session yesterday. And I love John Piper, and I’m not prepared to throw him out completely. People say I should. My response is: the times in which we are living are comparable to the book of Judges where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. There’s no consistent voice in the church that sort of polices all that stuff. It’s not even politically correct to sit here and say it’s wrong. That’s automatically deemed unkind, uncharitable, unloving. In a time when no one is willing to speak with a voice of clarity, you’re going to have men in whom there’s lots of good and some bad. And the question I always ask people about that is: what would you say about Samson? Would you follow him? He made a wreck of his life and yet he’s in Hebrews 11. Despite what I would criticize and disagree with them, they’re men of faith and that deserves to be recognized.
JM: With John Piper, that is a complete anomaly. That is just so off everything else about him. It’s not that he speaks in tongues or prophesies. He admits that. But there’s this anomaly in his mind that’s open to that. He’s always stated it that way. He’s even made statements like, “I don’t know, I’m not sure, I don’t know exactly what to think.” That’s’ a far cry from propagation. Even Wayne Grudem. I look at this as an anomaly [in his theology]. I don’t know and don’t need to know where this impulse comes from. 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. So 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. I have the same issue with R. C. Sproul. I want to say to him: why are you baptizing babies? Everything else is so clear, and yet there’s that one issue. I fully embrace the range of his commitment and the impact of his ministry. This is where love comes in to embrace faithful men. I know I’m wrong somewhere, and if you can show me where please show me, because I would change. I know somewhere I’m wrong, because none of us has a complete control of all truth. And I hope to have the same charity from them, that I would eagerly extend to them.
JM: I just wish they would see that they don’t need to be unclear about this issue. Because the lack of clarity on this issue has given room to this movement. These guys give credibility to this movement by even allowing for it.
Friel: We’re going to leave here and I suspect almost everybody is thinking about something gin the church, a family member, a mom . They’re wondering what to do with this. They’re going to be confronting these issues. What’s one piece of advice?
PJ: It would be: 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. If you can coax your Charismatic friends to truly devote themselves to what Scripture teaches, they’re miles ahead.
NB: Celebrate the true work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t allow the Charismatic movement to replace a celebration of the true work of Holy Spirit with counterfeits. His work in salvation, in illumination. 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.
CM: What’s already been said: sola Scriptura. That’s the foundation. Everything else, the pillars, and the roof on top. But always remember the Scriptures. If any contradicts the Scriptures there is no light or life in them.
JM: You can personalize that a little bit. 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. I believe they live with assumptions that have never been proven even to their own minds. The burden lies with them to prove their point. If they’re not willing to do that, then they need to face the absence of integrity in denying you that. I’d put the burden on them. Encourage them to show you why they believe what they believe from Scripture.
Friel: If you decide to confront somebody, instead of attacking the teacher, attack the teaching. Secondly, the majority of these folks are caught up in a wrong system. Instead of debating these issues, share the Gospel with these folks. Witness to them. Help them understand the true gospel and how magnificent it is. Third, I really think people run to this movement because they’ve never been shown that Christianity is vibrant, vital, alive, and theology works. Show them. “You think theology is stodgy. I’m going to take this theology and show you what this does in your life. My final exhortation if I might be so bold is: in America we think we’ve got to write a best seller or have a TV show. But think local church. Get involved. Teach little kids, the junior high group. Start your Bible study. Start mentoring. Identify somebody younger and start mentoring them. Do what you can. Go where God has called you to be. God’s kingdom marches on not by one big overnight victory, but by a million small victories right where you’re at.