The Right and Wrong Way to Engage John MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” Conference

Trevin Wax

The world of social media was abuzz last week as John MacArthur hosted the Strange Fire Conference, a meeting designed to launch MacArthur’s new book written to equip Christians to evaluate the claims of the charismatic movement.

MacArthur has long held concerns about charismatic practices and the erroneous teachings of those in the Word of Faith movement. Today, it seems he is concerned that what was once the fringe has made its way to the mainstream, a sign that the continualist position (the belief that the miraculous gifts described in the New Testament continue to this day) necessarily reaps a harvest of aberration and false teaching.

Sometimes, a controversy can be revealing – not because of the issues directly involved in the controversy, but because of the way people engage in debate. There is a right way and a wrong way to engage in a controversy, and in the flutter of Twitter and blog activity last week, I saw signs of both.

The Right Way

If you believe in truth and error, facts and falsehood, right and wrong, then you recognize the need to seek truth as opposed to false teaching. This is the position of John MacArthur, and it should be the position of every evangelical Christian, including those who disagree with MacArthur’s cessationist views.

Here’s the fact of the matter – the continualist who believes MacArthur is wrong and the cessationist who believes MacArthur is right are closer to each other than the person who says this debate doesn’t matter or cannot be decided. Why? Because both the committed continualist and the committed cessationist believe God has revealed Himself on this issue and that we are accountable to live according to God’s revealed truth.

If MacArthur is wrong, he is in the frightening position of attributing the work of the Spirit to satanic deception. If MacArthur is right, charismatics should repent of false belief and practice. As you can see, the stakes are high.

If you agree with MacArthur, the best way to engage critics is not to defend him as if he were the pope, but to back up your claims by appealing to Scripture. If you disagree with MacArthur, the best way to engage the conference is not by railing against the man, but by showing specifically the ways you think he caricatured your position and by providing a calm, sober affirmation of continualist claims, backed up by Scripture.

The Wrong Way

Unfortunately, much of the controversy surrounding this conference seemed to me less like continualists and cessationists making the case for their respective positions and more like postmodern aversion to saying someone could be right or wrong. In fact, some of the criticism launched at MacArthur seemed to imply that MacArthur is wrong simply for being so sure he is right. As if certainty or confidence is at odds with humility.

As Dale Ahlquist writes:

“When the prevailing philosophy claims that truth is relative or basically unknowable or strictly personal or largely irrelevant, in other words, when our only certainty is our uncertainty, there is nothing more irritating than someone coming along and smashing such nonconclusive conclusions. There is nothing more unsettling than someone who has settled things.”

Regardless of your view of MacArthur or the wisdom of hosting this conference (and I’ve seen continualists and cessationists question his aims and criticize his handling of the issue), we must not surrender to the postmodern ethos of our time that would deny the possibility of discovering what is true and false, right and wrong. God has revealed Himself in His Word. We may disagree on how clearly He has revealed Himself on this issue, but we cannot surrender to the idea that truth and error do not exist, or think that both sides can be right. These positions are at odds with each other. They are different. Papering over the distinctions will not aid us in dialogue and debate, but only mask the issues at stake.

Discovering Truth

Good dialogue takes place when both parties recognize that there is a right answer to these questions and we are pilgrims who are seeking to study the Scriptures and arrive at those answers. Humility will inform our quest to discover truth, of course, and we ought to be open to changing our position if convinced by God’s Word. But humility does not mean refraining from taking a stand or making it known.

MacArthur’s conference should be judged on the merits of the case he and the other speakers made:

  • Did the speakers make a solid, exegetical case from Scripture for cessationism?
  • Were the speakers fair to charismatics who decry the excessive practices and theological errors of other charismatics?
  • Would the continualists listening to these messages agree that their position was represented fairly and accurately (even if ultimately rejected)?

You may find MacArthur’s conference to be sorely lacking in these areas. That is fine, but let’s not judge the conference speakers as wrong simply for gathering together and taking a stand against doctrines they believe to be false. As Christians, we may be continualists or cessationists, but we are not relativists.

Chesterton was right:

“The aim of argument is differing in order to agree; the failure of argument is when you agree to differ.”