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MacArthur’s Truth War Appears Truth Deficient

John on January 12, 2007 at 4:45 pm

John MacArthur has a new book coming out titled The Truth War. I haven’t read it, but his website has several articles which were “adapted” from this as yet unpublished book. Based on these it appears to me that MacArthur is about to become the recognized head of the Slice of Laodicea (now Christian Research Net) brand of Christianity.

Take, for instance, this article titled “Raising the Error-Alert.” MacArthur’s premise is that the church is in trouble.

[T]he church today is quite possibly more susceptible to false teachers, doctrinal saboteurs, and spiritual terrorism than any other generation in church history. Biblical ignorance within the church may well be deeper and more widespread than at any other time since the Protestant Reformation.

A bit hysterical, but certainly provocative. Clearly the terror metaphor was central enough to MacArthur’s thoughts here that he titled the article with a terror related pun. There’s even a graphic which mimics the Department of Homeland Security’s threat level system. But what is spiritual terrorism exactly? What is it that threatens us so gravely?

Bible teaching, even in the best of venues today, has been deliberately dumbed-down, made as broad and as shallow as possible, oversimplified, adapted to the lowest common denominator— and then tailored to appeal to people with short attention spans.

So it’s a failure of teaching. MacArthur identifies two areas where this failure is happening:

Sermons are almost always brief, simplistic, overlaid with as many references to pop culture as possible, and laden with anecdotes and illustrations. (Jokes and funny stories drawn from personal experience are favored over cross-references and analogies borrowed from Scripture itself.)

If using anecdotes constitutes spiritual terrorism, Jesus must be on the most wanted list.So if that’s the disease I suppose the cure is long, heavily annotated messages with no humor, no narrative and no references to modern culture. So I guess teaching like Jesus is out (Did parables cease in the first century?) Seriously, it seems to me this is very much at odds with the Gospel accounts of Jesus ministry. Even with his disciples, Jesus’ teaching was topical, anecdotal, laden with illustrations and even humor at times. If using anecdotes constitutes spiritual terrorism, Jesus must be on the most wanted list.

Typical sermon topics are heavily weighted in favor of man-centered issues (such as personal relationships, successful living, self-esteem, how-to lists, and so on)—to the exclusion of the many Christ-exalting doctrinal themes of Scripture.

Just to put this in perspective, the article I’m quoting is on MacArthur’s website, the bulk of which is devoted to materials MacArthur has for sale. I have no problem with selling materials, but let’s look at some of MacArthur’s offering in light of his statement:

Typical sermon topics are heavily weighted in favor of man-centered issues (such as personal relationships, successful living, self-esteem, how-to lists, and so on)—to the exclusion of the many Christ-exalting doctrinal themes of Scripture.

So there seems to be a bit of a disconnect there, but in all fairness the bulk of MacArthur’s material is heavily doctrinal. He certainly can’t be faulted for doctrinal deficiency.

As the article continues, we move from general statements about the church to a consideration of the Apostle Paul’s example. After quoting 1 Corinthians 2, MacArthur explains:

Notice that Paul deliberately refused to customize his message or adjust his delivery to suit the Corinthians’ philosophical bent or their cultural tastes. When he says later in the epistle, “To the Jews I became as a Jew . . . to those who are without law, as without law . . . to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22), he was describing how he made himself a servant to all (v. 19) and the fellow of those whom he was trying to reach. In other words, he avoided making himself a stumbling block. He was not saying he adapted the gospel message (which he plainly said is a stumbling block—1:23). He did not adopt methods to suit the tastes of a worldly culture.

This is an exceedingly loaded and slippery approach to this passage. Loaded because it assumes that those he is criticizing (i.e. pastors who add personal stories to their messages) have “adapted the gospel…to suit the tastes of a worldly culture.” Let’s just say these are facts not in evidence.

MacArthur’s reading is also slippery because it comes very close to reversing the plain meaning of the text.MacArthur’s reading is also slippery because it comes very close to reversing the plain meaning of the text. When Paul says “I became as one outside the law” this is more than a general attitude of servant hood. R.C. Sproul says of this verse “When ministering to Gentiles, Paul was willing to live like them, while recognizing that he was never free to disobey God.” When Paul says “to the weak I became weak” (v.22) he is not talking about a feeling of shared malaise but taking on a particular set of beliefs about what is and is not sin. For instance, weakness might take the form of not eating specific foods (1 Cor. 8 ) something which Peter was specifically told by the Lord not to be concerned with (Acts 10). These were practical, cultural considerations about how to best engage those to whom one was preaching.

Paul sums up his thoughts saying “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.” You can look at the verse (v.22) with Greek references here. No matter how you slice it, the meaning is clear. Paul would become whatever was necessary outwardly to help him reach people with the Gospel.

I don’t think the same can be said of John MacArthur. More than others, he has tried to force secondary issues and make them of issues of first importance. As just noted, this means telling a joke in a sermon is a first order issue. That we use hymns and traditional instruments in worship is a first order issue. That God created the earth in six literal days and that the earth is young is a first order issue. That we embrace the five points of Calvinism is a first order issue. And so on. That’s not to suggest these issues shouldn’t be considered, but in each case above the history of the faith is replete with men who did not hold the same views as John MacArthur, as the 1 Cor. 9 passage demonstrates Paul is one of them.

Finally, it can’t be overlooked that MacArthur’s reading of these verses is also directly contradicted by Paul’s sermon in Acts 17. MacArthur’s final paragraph begins:

Paul had no thought of catering to a particular generation’s preferences, and he used no gimmicks as attention-getters.

This is simply irreconcilable with the Biblical account. On Mars Hill, Paul not only used an attention grabbing intro, he backed it up with quotations from popular poets (poets who were writing about Zeus). It was the first century equivalent of quoting Bruce Springsteen lyrics in a sermon and it’s right there in Acts 17.

This is the problem with most of the discernment ministries and truth warriors in the Christian camp. When one examines their statements closely, the truth they are proclaiming often seems at odds with the Bible. If anyone else were to disregard scripture in this manner, John MacArthur would be the first to call them to order. Who’s watching the watchmen?

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