I’ve been asked to give a justification for speaking at the God-focused Youth Ministry Conference in Rocky Mount, NC this fall.
My short answer is this: It’s God-focused.
For those who want a lengthier answer, I am attaching a copy of a letter I wrote to a pastor who kindly and respectfully asked me questions concerning my participation in the conference.
February 1, 2005
Thank you for the letter, the questions, and the spirit in which they were addressed. I hope that you understand my concern in the answering of these questions via email in that, for the sake of brevity, my answers will appear to be over-simplifications of what are actually spiritually complex thought processes. My fear is that the necessarily brief answers will misrepresent my strongly-held convictions. I have been ensnared in the gotcha politics that have taken my own boldly stated words, oversimplified them, decontextualized them, and turned them into weapons intended for my own hurt. However, the blessing of God’s Spirit upon our ministry, the weekly evidence of His gracious power, and the spiritual growth given to me and to those in my church have emboldened me to once again enter the sometimes confusing conversation on Fundamentalism that is going on in our beloved movement.
I have read and been blessed by your former pastor’s books, rejoice in my Fundamentalist heritage, and am not ashamed of our past even though I am not at all ashamed to be a sharp critic of our present. This should not be read to suggest that I am ashamed about everything of our present.
Also, I would like it to be very clear that my response is for myself. I do not intend to represent any of the men that you have addressed in this letter. I will copy them in on this letter since you sent it to the three of us.
First, there is, in my mind, an illogical assumption that speaking in any given venue automatically necessitates a wholesale endorsement of any given speaker at the same venue. The notion that I wholeheartedly endorse Holland (or Ollila and Hamrick for that matter) just because I am speaking where he is speaking is, to put it bluntly, simplistic. Nor do I expect them to completely endorse me.
This mindset which dominates the thinking of many Fundamentalists is nowhere to be found in history. It is parochial in time. Our views of the practical applications of the doctrine of separation are so disproportionately influenced by our century, our era, and our circles that we remind me of T.S. Eliot’s complaint. He said that there never was a time “when the reading public was so large, or so helplessly exposed to the influences of its own time. There never was a time [when] those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than books by dead authors; there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.” Historically, Christians have had a deeper spirituality and a more reverent love and appreciation for the Body of Christ to categorically separate on the basis of any conviction without prayerful discrimination. Read the excellent biography of John Sutcliff (One Heart and One Soul, John Sutcliff of Olney, his friends and his times by Michael Haykin) for example and be deeply affected as I was by the godliness of these Baptist forebears who became the founders of the modern missionary movement. Sutcliff was one of the three pastors that stood with William Carey for more than four decades. Also, be moved by the magnanimity of Christian spirit that these men showed toward others of differing opinions.
For example, during that time the Church of England was greatly compromised. Everyone evangelical (in the historic sense of the word) was aware of it. Nonetheless, there were some giants of the faith and pulpit still within the established church. John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame was one of them. When the Northhamptonshire Baptist Association met for fellowship in Olney it would invite the respected Newton to attend, sometimes pray, and even on occasion preach. The Church of England was more compromised in that day than John MacArthur could ever think of being, but notice what John Sutcliff said: “Cheerfully we own that the Established Church is honored with a noble list of worthies. Their names we love. Their memories we revere…. Numbers in that connexion are zealous for truth and are patterns of holiness. For their usefulness we pray; and in their success, in turning sinners from darkness to light we rejoice” (p. 292).
Another controversy included baptism, but again Sutcliff, Carey, John Ryland, and Andrew Fuller (who Spurgeon called the greatest theologian of the 18th century) showed beautiful Christian magnanimity. Drawing from quotes from Ryland and Sutcliff written for the preface of the memoirs of a Congregationalist, Haykin excellently summarizes their perspective on the great variety of doctrinal and practical views among believers.
“The reasons for such variety were not only to be found in the ‘diversity of constitution and religious advantages’, but even in ‘God’s different manner of working upon different persons’. One lesson that the three friends drew from this fact was ‘not to set up the form and experiences of any one as a model by which to judge concerning those of others’. And, they continued, ‘While we perceive not only varieties, but contrarieties in the views and feelings even of eminent Christians, the former are but as the various features, and the latter as accidental spots, in the human countenance. The great and essential principles of Christianity are found in every Christian, no less then the distinguishing properties of humanity are found in every man’” (p. 293).
Your former pastor’s views on separation are helpful. I have read and pondered over his thoughts on separation, but he is just one voice in one very small period of time. Nor do I think that it is wise, to use the words of Sutcliff, to set up his form and experiences which are already of another era as a model by which we judge everybody else’s action toward brethren of differing views. A more balanced separation would result by a thoughtful and mature reading of works such as John Owen’s classic, A Review of the True Nature of Schism, the writings of John Newton, and the biographies of most of our Christian heroes. Otherwise, what T.S. Eliot said about culture generally is true about Fundamentalism particularly: “there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.” It’s worse. We are increasingly shut off from Biblical and spiritual reality.
You asked three questions. Here are my brief responses.
1. Do you agree with the direction of John MacArthur’s ministry enough to use Rick Holland without reservation?
I am not using him so to speak. I am merely speaking at the same conference. I point out that nuance merely to show that my answer (and Dr. Ollila’s) does not necessarily have to correspond to Dr. Hamrick’s answer. You illogically lump Dr. Ollila and me in the same category. We are also being used. It is not our conference. Frankly, in the whole conversation of separation that is a significant nuance. But my short answer as far as speaking at the same conference is this: yes.
John MacArthur is unquestionably a contender for the faith. Do I agree with everything that he does? Of course not. If that is the criterion, I would never be able to go anywhere. Have you read Evangelicalism Divided, A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 by Iain H. Murray? There, Iain H. Murray sharply rebukes New Evangelicalism, Billy Graham and the like. John MacArthur heavily promoted Murray’s work, made a booklet summarizing this book in which Graham is named and repudiated. I am certainly happy with that direction. John MacArthur has been more articulate, more forceful, more effective, and more relevant in the battle against error and, note this, New Evangelicalism than any so-called “Fundamentalist” in the last decade. In his book, Truth Matters, he identifies himself as a fundamentalist. And if contending for fundamental truth is a qualification, he certainly has it. Examine for yourself the actual wording of the Fundamentalist/New Evangelical divide in the last century and see where MacArthur’s ministry actually stands.
2. Are you aware of the rock music being used by the Grace Community Church youth group?
I am aware that the youth group of Grace Community Church uses music that I do not like and which Morning Star Baptist Church avoids in corporate meetings. But I have no Biblical mandate to repudiate people just because they do/believe things I repudiate. I must discriminate. Your question suggests that I must give an account for their choice of music and my choice of speaking at the same conference with someone who uses that music. I spoke in the chapel of West Coast Baptist College a couple years ago. Nobody wrote me and asked me if I was aware that the school held to the untenable, unbiblical, and illogical King James Only view.
3. Do the following pictures from their web site represent a God-focused youth group in your opinion?
What does a picture of somebody being God-focused look like? Did you see my picture in the flyer? Does it look God-focused? I looked at your church website to get an idea of what you might mean by God-focused. [note: His website had only three pictures of the pastors in suits; thus I’m being a little satirical. It also had links to fundamentalist camps, etc.] I saw people dressed like many sectarian, hypocritical, thieving, lying, adulterous people that I know. Legalism is worldliness. And they looked like some of the worldly people I have known. I cannot and do not assume that, of course, by looking at the picture without knowing the heart of the people. But, honestly, I got a yucky feeling when I saw the pictures on your site. They vividly reminded me of very ungodly people.
Understanding, however, the real intent of your question I gathered from your selection of pictures [there were three pictures] that you want some comment on the trap set, the hugging couple, and the microphone holder. I don’t have a trap set, don’t like them, and we don’t use them. I’m guessing the hugging couple was not married. They could be engaged or siblings, though unlikely, so I would certainly discourage too much physical contact. I have no idea what they can or cannot handle. And, I say this tongue in cheek, but it looks like the girl is suffocating, not enjoying sensual titillation! And as far as the microphone holder, I’ve seen far goofier things on Fundamentalist Christian college campuses.
At a conference of believers from a varied group that formed the Union of Bedfordshire Christians in which our beloved heroes John Sutcliff, William Carey (by association), John Ryland, and the great Andrew Fuller were involved with, the keynote speaker, Congregationalist Samuel Greatheed preached a stirring message. In it he made a comment which I think could apply to the conference that our fellow-contender for truth, Frank Hamrick, has put together. Greatheed said that their goal was not uniformity, but “we wish to excite your zeal, not alter your opinions; we long to promote your love to all fellow Christians, not lessen your attachment to those with whom you are immediately attached.”
I hope to see you at the conference. If not, please know that you are loved in Christ. We serve the same cause.
In the Beloved One,
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