Early in my quest for truth, the Spirit of God used John MacArthur to feed my soul and answer some of my questions when I wasn’t getting answers anywhere else. The Lord began to impress upon my soul the glories of salvation as well as the demands of the gospel by using John. I was a much younger man when leaders in our movement began to denounce him for something about the blood. By that time, I was beginning to think for myself, so I picked up a book by John in order to confirm what my trusted leaders were saying. My trusted leaders failed me. Then, the controversy turned to something about — oh, I can’t even remember — lordship? Bought another book. Once again, my teachers failed me. Time and time again, it has been the same type of experience. Now, the big question is perhaps not a theological question, but a practical one. How does one minister in this world as a teacher that can be trusted?
The leaders of my circles keep telling me that it’s not about what John says (I think they have conceded the battle there). No, it’s not about what John teaches, they say, it is about what he does. What he does garbles his message. Compromises it. We want to send a clear signal. MacArthur sends a mixed message.
Really? How come most of the clarifications I have ever gotten from a contemporary Bible teacher have been through John MacArthur’s ministry? How come all of his opponents have no problem understanding where he stands on the essentials? To whom is he sending an unclear message? Whom is he confusing? These are questions that have been running through my mind for years. I have a default mentality that gives my teachers the benefit of the doubt in spite of my propensities to be to be cynical and hyper-analytical, which propensities I know to be the sinful perversions of wisdom and thoughtfulness.
I came to the Shepherd’s Conference. Got here Monday. I came here prepared to be discerning. Trusted friends are telling me that to cooperate with this man on any level is a sin. Some are a little more broad-minded. It would be sin for them, they say, but they will allow me a little bit of latitude. Nonetheless, something that would be unwise and sinful for a brother that I love and trust, could very likely be unwise and sinful for me, too. To what am I so blinded?
Most of us are fundamentalists because we were born fundamentalists. That’s just a fact. Providentially, we were placed into the environment that nurtured us. I know that’s the first reason why I am a fundamentalist. But I have ventured beyond that. I have studied, prayed, examined positions, analyzed, prayed, critiqued, called upon God, confessed my sins, committed myself to His will, re-examined my doubts, pored over thousands of thousands of pages, determined not to be a man-pleaser, fought in the Spirit, fought in the flesh, asked forgiveness, demonstrated arrogance, prayed, cried, scorned, and prayed. In the end, I’ve become a fundamentalist by conviction.
I’ve also become a fundamentalist without a home. The differentia of fundamentalism, so we are told, is separatism; but no one can really agree on what that distinction is supposed to look like. The safest thing to do is to stay in the warm embrace of our circle of churches and institutions and allow only our teachers to interact with the contamination of other teachers from other circles. Thus, we have no problem allowing leaders in our institutions be tutored by Rick Holland in the D.Min. program at the Master’s Seminary, but God forbid that we should interact with Rick Holland, little peons like us, on the conference level. Apparently, it is not cooperation to sit at someone’s feet as a passive learner to get a degree from them, but it is sinful cooperation to stand beside the same person as an active participator in order to freely speak one’s mind. Doesn’t make sense to me. (I talked briefly with Rick. He’s sort of confused by us. So am I. He told me he wanted to get together sometime this week, but what am I going to say? I’m as nonplussed as he is. And I’m a 35-year-old pastor within the “movement” and with all kinds of attachments to all kinds of places and people within these circles!)
Anyway, I was sad when I went to sleep on Monday night. Devotions on Tuesday morning “just happened” to be Leviticus 10. I bowed to the Lord and trembled. “Strange fire” in worship. “O, Lord, deliver me from it.” Scratched in my Bible: Every worship is a strange fire that is not in and of and through Christ.
We went from the hotel to the church. The organization was superb. Greeters everywhere. They gave each one of us (we are 3,300) a nice Bulova watch when we registered. Met some guys I had never seen before. They came up smiling. Called me “Troll.” Chatted. The doors to the auditorium opened about 30 minutes before the first session.
The first thing that struck me was the simplicity of the auditorium. A little dated. The pulpit is very simple, almost cheap-looking. Looks like paneling. I love it. No wasted money in this meeting place. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t embarrassingly cheap. Nothing was. But one gets the impression after he has just put on a watch that retails around $100.00, knowing the same thing was repeated 3000 times over, that there is a different prioritization of funds around here. Seek first the Kingdom of God, I think.
About two hundred guys, all in dark suits and ties, are sitting in the choir. They are the seminary guys. In fact, so far, everybody on stage is in a suit. The music is anthem-like. Old hymns. Outstanding organist. The orchestra plays “Brethren, We Have Met To Worship.” Then the men sing. Two hundred voices, backed by organ and orchestra, bellow out “The Church’s One Foundation” and “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” Phil Webb, opera singer, sang “Look to the Cross.” Then it’s our turn to sing. We sing from the hymnal my church uses, The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration. Our song is “Guide me, O, Thou Great Jehovah.”
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
[or Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer…]
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
As we sing,
Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
John MacArthur speaks from Jude. A long introduction for a message he plans to finish Friday. It’s a rousing call to arms. Something like one might have heard in a Bible conference one hundred years ago. He names some “tests” that the Church is failing: Billy Graham is cited, Purpose-Driven Life (thereby Rick Warren), and Schuler. He loves the Church. It’s evident.
Over three thousand people are served lunch before the two workshops. I have to check Rick Holland out. Besides, he is talking about a subject that means something to my heart: preaching. It is outstanding. Still checking him out, I go to his next workshop. Besides, that too, is on a subject near and dear to my heart — the measure of true success. He recognizes me in the last session. Must’ve seen my mug online somewhere. We chat briefly, plan on getting together sometime.
Then, I sit down next to some guys (not pastoral staff) from Tri-city Baptist Church in Blue Springs and Inter-city Baptist Church in Detroit (fundamental bastions). Holland’s message blows me away. I lose sight of him and feel like I am caught naked before the mirror of God’s Holy Word, every damning blemish of my character exposed, morphing into demonic little demons, pointing at me and saying, “Thou art the man.”
As one guy put it, I’ve been mauled by the Lion of Judah. Feel like I need to limp home, dig a hole, crawl in it and cover my head with my arms. I find some rest for body and spirit in the sanctity of my hotel room. Pray. “Lord, have mercy on me.” Confess my sins. Ask myself why am I even in the ministry. Get upset at God for not giving me opportunities I wanted. Confess that too. Feel shame for my shortcomings. Embarrassment for my objectives. I wonder if I can absorb all this, and I’m only one full day into the conference. Then I wonder why some people won’t come to hear this guy. Some people within my circles, anyway. And they refuse to on the basis of Biblical authority.
My emotions stream from contrition to frustration to severely challenged sanctification to contrition again. Who gives a rip about his differences on music? Rise up, O men of God, have done with lesser things.
Time to go to the evening service.
On the way to the evening service we pray for blessing, appeal to God to give us a greater receptivity to His Word. We also pray for a good seat. We get all of the above. Sit smack dab on the front row, directly across from a small trap set. The music, once again, is superb. The only visible program snag so far occurs when someone fails to make sure the congregation received the music sheets. We made a joyful noise anyway.
Little detail. We sing my church’s hymn-of-the-month for February (“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”) and our hymn of the month for this month (“Before the Throne of God Above”) back to back! Music is just outstanding. Again, mostly traditional. We are also blessed with two pieces that are more contemporary in sound.
John MacArthur preaches the evening message from Luke 11. He gives teaching on how to deal with a false teacher. It strikes me that so often I have heard messages about false teachers that summed up in one phrase a simple solution: separate from them. John says, however, “Be like Jesus: confront them.” He assures us that an approach like that will be sure to arouse hostilities. But he also assures us that it is the only compassionate thing to do.
A very full day. Thank you, Lord, for enriching my soul. What else can I say?
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