Strange Fire is confrontational, controversial and constitutive, MacArthur's tone is polemical, but his motivation is pastoral. As I have said elsewhere, I have been involved with the Pentecostal and charismatic movement for most of my Christian life and even when I was actively committed to the main presuppositions of the movement, I would have agreed with many of MacArthur's observations.
Many charismatics perceive MacArthur as being divisive, unspiritual and even heretical. However, in my view, these responses really miss the heart of the issue. In the book, MacArthur says:
In recent history, no other movement has done more to damage the cause of the gospel, to distort the truth, and to smother the articulation of sound doctrine. Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers. It has warped genuine worship through unbridled emotionalism, polluted prayer with private gibberish, contaminated true spirituality with unbiblical mysticism, and corrupted faith by turning it into a creative force for speaking worldly desires into existence. By elevating the authority of experience over the authority of Scripture, the Charismatic Movement has destroyed the church’s immune system—uncritically granting free access to every imaginable form of heretical teaching and practice. Put bluntly, charismatic theology has made no contribution to true biblical theology or interpretation; rather, it represents a deviant mutation of the truth. Like a deadly virus, it gains access into the church by maintaining a superficial connection to certain characteristics of biblical Christianity, but in the end it always corrupts and distorts sound teaching. The resulting degradation, like a doctrinal version of Frankenstein’s monster, is a hideous hybrid of heresy, ecstasy, and blasphemy awkwardly dressed in the tattered remnants of evangelical language.
That is some statement. But we need to pause and think about it. We need to ask, is it true? If it's true, how true is it? Is it the whole truth? And so on.
Of course, this is not how the charismatic church is usually described. It is usually described as the fastest growing segment of the Christian church; the most active in evangelism; it has been hailed as a vehicle of church unity because the common charismatic experience has united Christians from every denomination in Christendom and it is reputed to have revolutionised worship.
Which perspective is true?
There is truth in both statements. The movement is growing, the movement is active in mission, the movement has pioneered the way in worship and the movement has caused individuals to experience a new vibrancy in their faith. So, how do we reconcile the two perspectives?
J.I. Packer, a supporter of the charismatic movement, once made the following statement. When I first read it, I was actively involved in an independent charismatic church. Here is what he said:
Christian history has seen many movements of experience-orientated reaction against theology’s supposedly barren intellectualism. These movements have thought they could get on without serious theological study, and have discouraged their adherents from engaging in it. In the short term, while living on theological capital brought in from outside by their founders, they have often channelled spiritual life in an impressive way, but with the passage of time they have again and again lapsed into old errors and forms of imbalance and stuntedness which, for lack of theological resources, they are unable effectively to correct, and which prompt the rest of the church to stand back from them.
Packer's statement can easily be applied to the charismatic movement, and it also sheds light on just how a movement can be zealous and growing yet at the same time erroneous and unhealthy. MacArthur highlights these issues effectively, so I'll point out some of the statements in his book which I thought were significant critiques.
MacArthur's critiques of the charismatic movement
"The Charismatic Movement claims to exalt the third member of the Trinity. Truth be told, it has turned Him into a sideshow."
"Pentecostals and charismatics elevate religious experience over biblical truth."
"Novel doctrines, ostentatious self-promotion, and claims of fresh revelation from God (all quite common characteristics of the Charismatic Movement) are the particular signs of a false teacher."
MacArthur's criteria for discerning whether or not something is a true work of the Holy Spirit:
"(1) Does the work exalt the true Christ? (2) Does it oppose worldliness? (3) Does it point people to the Scriptures? (4) Does it elevate the truth? (5) Does it produce love for God and others?"
"A true work of the Spirit shines the spotlight on the Savior, pointing to Him in an accurate, exalting, and preeminent manner. False teachers, by contrast, diminish and distort the truth about Him."
"In contrast to false prophets, those who are truly empowered by the Holy Spirit place the
primary emphasis on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ."
"Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and His gifts (real or imagined), and I will show you a person not filled with the Holy Spirit. Show me a person focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ—never tiring of learning about Him, thinking about Him, boasting of Him, speaking about and for and to Him, thrilled and entranced with His perfections and beauty, finding ways to serve and exalt Him, tirelessly exploring ways to spend and be spent for Him, growing in character to be more and more like Him—and I will show you a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit. We should learn what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit. We should teach what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit. We should seek to live lives full of the biblically defined ministry of the Holy Spirit.
"Any ministry or message that does not present Jesus Christ in a biblically accurate way is not a true work of the Spirit."
One of the accusations that has been levelled against MacArthur's Strange Fire, is the claim that he condemns all charismatics as apostates who are doomed to hell. This is not true. MacArthur says:
I do believe there are sincere people within the Charismatic Movement who, in spite of the systemic corruption and confusion, have come to understand the necessary truths of the gospel. They embrace substitutionary atonement, the true nature of Christ, the trinitarian nature of God, biblical repentance, and the unique authority of the Bible. They recognize that salvation is not about health and wealth, and they genuinely desire to be rescued from sin, spiritual death, and everlasting hell. Yet, they remain confused about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the nature of spiritual giftedness. As a result, they are playing with strange fire. By continually exposing themselves to the false teaching and counterfeit spirituality of the Charismatic Movement, they have placed themselves (and anyone under their spiritual care) in eternal jeopardy. For true believers, the Charismatic Movement represents a massive stumbling block to true spiritual growth, ministry, and usefulness. Its errant teachings regarding the Holy Spirit and the Spirit-inspired Scriptures perpetuate immaturity, spiritual weakness, and an unending struggle with sin. A parallel exists between those Christians who are trapped in the modern Charismatic Movement and the true believers who were part of the Corinthian church in the first century.
Many charismatic and continuations believers think that MacArthur is writing off any and every spiritual experience they have ever known. This makes it impossible for charismatic believers to take on board what MacArthur is saying. However, I think the problem is that MacArthur's position is being slightly clouded through his over-statements. MacArthur does not reject all experience, he is just seeking to correct an experience driven movement. One of the ways he does that is to re-categorise spiritual experience. MacArthur observes:
Thus, any personal impression
or fleeting fancy
might be labeled “the gift of prophecy,”
speaking in gibberish is called “the gift of tongues,” every remarkable providence
is labeled a “miracle,”
and every positive answer to prayers for healing
is seen as proof that someone has the gift of healing
. All of that poses a major problem, because it is not how the New Testament describes those gifts. For any evangelical pastor or church leader to apply biblical terminology to that which does not match the biblical practice is not merely confusing; it is potentially dangerous teaching for which that person is culpable.
This is a majorly important point, yet it's one that is almost lost in the midst of overwhelming rebuke.
Here is the truth, God's leading through intuition, healing as a result of prayer, and amazing circumstances that are clearly God at work, are not unique to charismatics. They are experienced by Christians everywhere. Moreover, assigning them the wrong "category" is actually harmful as it leads to false expectations, exaggeration and error. God does stuff, but this is not the same as elevating these precious and personal experiences to the level of apostolic revelation, miracles and gifting.
This, I think, is where the confusion comes in and where many charismatics get off on the wrong direction. They can have genuine experiences, but these experiences are given the wrong theological category, consequently doctrines are developed which end up doing more harm than good. If I have one critique of MacArthur's Strange Fire, it is simply this, he could have emphasised this more. To do so would have helped bridge gaps with sincere charismatics who have had genuine spiritual experiences (special/remarkable providences). In other words, it is possible that people have had valid experiences, but they have understood those experiences through the wrong theological lenses. Consequently, God's guidance through personal impression is elevated to the status of prophecy — this is disastrous and it is one of the main reasons why there is so much false prophecy within the charismatic church. It also explains why sometimes personal impressions are incredibly spot-on — quite simply it was what has historically been defined as a 'remarkable providence', in other words, God bringing about his plans in an unusual manner. However, the very fact it is remarkable is a clue that we should not expect it as the norm.
So, one year on, having benefited from the conference and eventually getting round to reading the book, I would say that the message of Strange Fire is essential. MacArthur has, at personal cost, raised his voice at a time when the Word of the Lord needs to be heard.