Awkward Continuationist: Family Feud

When youre a continuationist, a bizarre reality you’ll wrestle with is that some of your harshest critics are other believers. 

You know, your extended spiritual family. And as the saying goes: “You can pick your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives.”  

And one of our crazy cousins—the unpredictable one you’d think twice about inviting to the annual family BBQ—is John F. MacArthur. He’s written three (count ’em, three) books attacking all things Pentecostal and charismatic, each one progressively meaner and more volatile. 

The first book was 1978’s The Charismatics, which you wouldn’t exactly call complimentary. But at least it closed with the chapter: “What We Can Learn From Charismatics.”

By the time Charismatic Chaos was published in 1992—largely a rehash of the first book—the closing chapter was MIA. Apparently, there was nothing to learn from charismatics, after all. 

I read The Charismatics while still in high school, via the three-month installments made available in Moody Monthly magazine. And I purchased a copy (hardcover, even!) of Charismatic Chaos when it first came out. I read it, front to back, several times. My reasons, at the time, were two-fold:

  1. It was the best-selling book of the year in our local Christian bookstore, and I knew Id better be aware of what Cousin John was saying. Sort of a continuationist application of “always be ready to give a reason (1 Peter 3:15-16).
  2. I thought there might be some helpful critique we continuationists needed to hear.
Boy, was I disappointed with item #2. Multiple misrepresentations, exaggerations, caricatures, and generally sloppy research robbed the book of any redemptive value. Plus, Cousin John’s shrill and hysterical tone made it sound like he was cussing out his enemies, not addressing brothers and sisters in Christ.
Rich Nathan wrote an excellent response to Cousin John’s section on the Vineyard, which you can download for free here.
But, never one to leave well-enough alone, Cousin John did it again with 2013’s Strange Fire. This time around, I knew better than to waste my meager book budget on it. But through the modern miracle of Amazon’s Look Inside preview, I was able to verify the following quote from the book’s preface:
“Charismatics now number more than half a billion worldwide. Yet the gospel that is driving those 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.
“This is the hour for the true church to respond… There must be a collective war against the pervasive abuses on the Spirit of God. This book is a call to join the cause for His honor.”
(John F. MacArthur, Strange Fire?, page xvii)
Um, yeah. You really want to go there, Cousin John?
  • A false gospel?
  • As dangerous as any cult or heresy?
  • It’s time to declare war on continuationists?

I think Cousin John is conflating “gospel” with “secondary teachings.” For example: Believing in the gift of tongues (or not) has absolutely zero effect on the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. Believing God still heals and performs miracles today (or not) has no impact on Jesus being the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). You’d be hard-pressed to find any difference in the gospel being preached by MacArthur and the overwhelming majority of continuationists.

Cousin John has gone beyond the bare facts of the gospel and added cessationism to the mix. The irony is glaring: Cousin Johns upset at some secondary doctrines in the continationist camp (e.g., Word Faith, NAR), and yet his secondary doctrine of cessationism is just as biblically indefensible (you could call it a false teaching without exaggerating). 

Cousin John is rightly concerned about the wacky secondary teachings in certain continuationist circles. I wouldn’t have taken the time and effort to write Post-Charismatic (and the resulting flak) if I didn’t agree. The bathwater needs cleaning. But that’s a far cry from words like false gospel, cult, heresy, or war. 

It’s tempting to write off Cousin John as a grumpy, axe-grinding curmudgeon. But then I remember something John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, once said:

“Your brother is never your enemy, even when he acts like it.”

So, Cousin John, we may never have a BBQ together this side of eternity, and it would appear a snowball in hell has a greater chance of survival than you and I agreeing on everything. But despite our differences, and our disagreements, you are my brother. 

Yes, that’s right. You’re stuck with me.

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