Last week, John MacArthur celebrated 50 years in the pastorate at a conference at his congregation Grace Community Church. During the event, MacArthur accused the Southern Baptist Convention of taking a “headlong plunge” toward allowing women preachers after women spoke at the SBC’s 2019 annual meeting.
That, he said, was a sign that the denomination no longer believed in biblical authority.
“When you literally overturn the teaching of Scripture to empower people who want power, you have given up biblical authority,” said MacArthur.
A moderator also asked MacArthur and his fellow panelists to offer their gut reactions to one- or two-word phrases.
When the moderator said “Beth Moore,” MacArthur replied, “Go home.”
MacArthur has never shied away from controversy. Last year, he helped organize a controversial statement responding to social justice. He has frequently spoken out against the modern Charismatic movement. And the college he leads, The Master’s College, is on accreditation probation.
Part of the impetus behind MacArthur’s tendency to speak out comes from how he understands his belief in a high authority of Scripture, says Jonathan Holmes, a pastor and counselor who graduated from the Master’s College and worked there for several years.
“There are a lot of things many evangelicals would say are non-essentials, for instance, a woman's role in the church, or drinking, or dancing, or creation or the end times,” said Holmes. “But those all become major touchpoints for MacArthur because his view of Scripture is such that if you budge on the grammatical, literal interpretation of the Bible in any of these areas, the whole thing begins to fall apart.”
Holmes joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss whether MacArthur is a fundamentalist or evangelical, whether he has ever changed his mind with regards to his own theological convictions, and what to make of a Master’s Seminary grad preaching at one of Kanye West’s Sunday Services.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #183
What can you tell us about MacArthur's background? What are some of the things that have shaped him and who are some of the theologians he models himself after?
Jonathan Holmes: John is a California native, or at least he was raised in Los Angeles and came from a rich tradition of pastors. I believe that John's actually a fourth-generation pastor himself, and I think that has made him the type of person that he is today.
He was a well-known athlete in his college years, he played football, went to Bob Jones, eventually ended up transferring to Azusa Pacific University, did his graduate work at Talbot, and then came to Grace Community Church. It was not the church that it is now in terms of its size and influence when he started, but the church began to grow the radio ministry, Grace to You.
And around 1985, MacArthur came to The Master's University, which had previously been known as Los Angeles Baptist Bible College. They had asked MacArthur to come there to really help the school, which was really struggling both financially and with enrollment. From my memory, or at least anecdotally, they had tasked MacArthur with two things: They said, "We want more students and we want our sports teams to start winning." The last one was a bit of a joke since the sports teams weren’t very good at all.
I think one of the things that you will see as a common thread in MacArthur, his ministry, and really anything that orbits his world is a high, high view of scripture. And when we think of a high view of scripture, think about the fundamentalist modernist controversy in the 1920s as it moved forward. For some people, being labeled a fundamentalist might be a knock against them, but I think for MacArthur that's a positive that there is this extremely high view of scripture—the inerrancy of scripture, the sufficiency of scripture and the authority of scripture. So in terms of his preaching, in terms of how he views really every aspect of life, it all funnels through that grid.
From very early on at the church, expositional preaching was a hallmark of his ministry and teaching, that beginning with the books of the New Testament, he was going to preach systematically through it. And I think probably more so than any other mainstream evangelical pastor today, he has brought expositional preaching to the forefront in terms of people modeling their own preaching style after it.
How did his emphasis on expository preaching shape the Master's college itself?
Jonathan Holmes: I would say that his view of scripture, his theology of scripture, really influences the college in a few ways. From the mission statement to the way that they've hired professors and even structured the campus In terms of being able to work at Master's, you have to adhere to a fairly strict doctrinal statement that John and the board of directors have put forward.
And so in terms of his view of scripture, one of the hallmarks of his theology and his view of scriptures is that he believes in the literal, grammatical, historical interpretation of scripture. The Bible is to be interpreted literally. And so anything from the way that they view creation, at Master's, you have to believe in a six-day, literal 24-hour creation, in order to work at Master's or to work at the seminary.
And that's pushed through the funnel of, "We have a high view of scripture, and so we value everything that scripture says, and we interpret scripture through this particular lens." And so what comes out of that is an overarching framework that everything gets pushed through. So whether it be how you view creation to how you view the end times, all of that goes through that funnel. So, for instance, if you were applying to Master's Seminary, my understanding is that you need to be pre-millennial in your doctrinal interpretation of the Old and New Testament. So if you're not pre-millennialist, then you wouldn't be eligible for admission, whereas at other seminaries, different views would be welcomed or encouraged or not even be an issue for admission.
I think one of the downsides of the environment, or the ethos, that particular theological viewpoint can produce would just be this sense of we're the ones who have it right because we can always default back to "this is what the Bible says." Somebody might have an opposing interpretation that they've gleaned from scripture and it would be invalidated.
And so basically, if you have a different interpretation, those are not very welcomed at all within that culture. It's can breed a pridefulness and an arrogance of seeing yourself as the holders of Biblical truth here. If you don't agree with them on every single point of doctrine that they would say is essential, then you don't have a high view of scripture or you're not interpreting scripture correctly.
Whether or not that was explicit, I would definitely say it's implicit in terms of the way Master's and MacArthur preach and teach.
There are a lot of things many evangelicals would say are non-essentials, for instance, a woman's role in the church, or drinking, or dancing, or creation or the end times. But those all become major touchpoints for MacArthur because his view of scripture is such that if you budge on the grammatical, literal interpretation of the Bible in any of these areas, the whole thing begins to fall apart.
Has John MacArthur not changed his mind on anything in the 50 years of his ministry? Does he hold all the same views, or have you seen him change or nuance some of the positions that he has held on things?
Jonathan Holmes: That's been a question that I've heard a lot of different people ask in a variety of different ways, and honestly I can't think of a time where he has said, "Hey, I was wrong here. I have a new understanding, or I view this differently."
I think that there was one or two minor doctrinal issues I would hear rumblings about at Master's when I was a student, but nothing major or significant that I can think of. And for MacArthur, that would be a positive, not a negative. I mean, if anything, he is incredibly consistent. And he's incredibly faithful to his views.
Mark Galli: He has changed his views on a few things, but not on anything major. The point is, the point is that he doesn't think of himself as infallible. So even when he changed his mind, he said, "I've done a deeper reading of scripture and now I've concluded this." It was a matter of his fault as a human being not going deep enough and that's how he would defend any change.
MacArthur might be more easily understood as a fundamentalist rather than an evangelical. The difference would be this concern about the literal, grammatical, historical reading of scripture and how it affects not only what Christians have for thousands of years considered the major doctrines and unbudgeable doctrines. Nowadays, most Christians would say Christians of goodwill can have different views.
And there are many differences between evangelicals and fundamentals, but one point of difference would be that evangelicals are generally more willing to look at different passages of scripture and understand their different genres. So they might look at Genesis account as beautiful, beautiful poetry speaking of God's creation—absolutely convinced that God has created the world and is created with purpose and all that sort of thing, but not feel like they're bound to a grammatical-historical point of view. And that that same thing would apply to other things like women's ordination to how we understand Israel.
Let's talk about one of the most prominent movements that MacArthur is against and has spoken out a lot about: the charismatic movement. Can you tell me a little bit about more about his opposition to that Christian movement?
Jonathan Holmes: MacArthur published a pretty well-known book called Charismatic Chaos, and as recently as a few years ago, his church hosted the Strange Fire Conference where he essentially took charismatic theology and Pentecostalism to task. And to understand that his antipathy towards charismatic theology and Pentecostalism, it goes back to his view of scripture.
Because charismatics and Pentecostals believe that the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is alive and active, that the Holy spirit can speak to people, that we can still receive revelation, that is a significant problem for MacArthur and his view of scripture.
His view of scripture is that it is a closed canon, that the Lord does not speak to us today in either an audible voice or through impressions, but He speaks to us primarily through His word. And so to open up the door to such subjectivism is incredibly problematic and for him would undermine the very nature of what scripture is.
So for him, charismatic theology is a real enemy in terms of how he views scripture and how he views theology.
For MacArthur, that type of theology is very feelings-based. It's very subjective. It's based on impressions. It's not tethered to the word of God. And once you untether yourself from the word of God, you become your own authority. That's going to lead you down the path of doctrinal error and has to be corrected. And for him that has to be confronted, that has to be contended with. I think that he really sees himself as this warrior for biblical truth, to call out what he would say is false teaching.
Even if we assume the best about his intentions, it is clear that his approach, and the intensity in which he chooses to confront issues, has been hurtful to other believers. The comments about Beth Moore are a good example of that. Has anyone ever really confronted him or tried to correct him in his approach?
Jonathan Holmes: I'm not aware of that happening. In terms of the inner workings of MacArthur's circle, who has access and who's speaking into his life, I don't know that. But I would hope that faithful friends around him are encouraging him towards a more gracious tone. But I think in some ways though, he would view it as him speaking out against those he disagrees with is him being gracious. It is gracious to speak truth.
He would see it as trying to save that person from doctrinal error, from biblical malpractice.
But to your point, what he said about Beth Moore and how he said it, the way the question was constructed, the laughter that was going on in the room, the associations with Paula White, QVC, women hawking jewelry—I'm married, I have four daughters, I found it to be incredibly offensive and problematic in terms of those statements, but not only the statements, but also the audience's reaction to it as well. It just did not seem charitable to me at all.
And so in my thinking, you can have disagreements with Beth Moore, with her theology, with women's role in the Church, but is there a better platform, medium, or way to go about talking about those things than in the manner in which he did? And I think that's a point of disagreement where you see people might hold to something that he says or his view on the women's roles in the church, but the way that he expresses them is where things begin to break down.
One thing a lot from people say when they're talking about MacArthur is that he does not want to capitulate to the culture. What does MacArthur mean when he is talking about culture?
Jonathan Holmes: I wouldn't want to speak for him cause I don't know if I've ever heard him definitively say that, but I would say culture for him is this larger than life influence of the world that we live in—it's philosophy, it's music, it's art, it's literature, it's proponents.
I wouldn't say he views culture as a boogeyman, but it's definitely something that I think can be ill-defined in not only MacArthur's world but also people that would be acolytes of his. So culture is not seen as something that can be transformed, it's not seen as something that can be redeemed, but it's something that we need to contend against and that we need to push against and not be taken captive by. And it is a constant temptation for the church to go after culture's approval.
And I think for MacArthur, the way that he sees it is that in so many of these different movements, as he's seen them go by, whether it be from Pentecostalism to charismatic theology to the emerging church to social justice, etc. He would view that, I believe as the church's way to ingratiate themselves with the culture, join themselves with it, make themselves more palatable to culture. And for him that's, that's a no, no. You don't do that. You don't need to make the gospel more palatable for people. You don't need to contextualize the gospel. Contextualization is something that MacArthur has preached against, and in terms of contextualizing or actually changing the format or the tone of the actual message to better fit the audience that you're preaching to is something MacArthur would be very averse to.
Some of our listeners will remember that last year, John MacArthur and a dozen other Christian leaders launched this website that was about presenting the statement on social justice in the gospel. And in the statement, the signatories claimed that the social justice movement endangered Christians with an "onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threatened the gospel, misrepresents scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ." They also basically argue that there was a secular threat infiltrating the evangelical church, a lot of that coming from social justice. So this sparked a huge debate that we actually talked about on Episode 127 of our podcast. I'm curious, what was your take on his stance on social justice?
Jonathan Holmes: Understanding who MacArthur is and understanding the social justice movement, I think you can understand his reaction. There's this kind of cultural zeitgeist right now that's talking about social justice, the #metoo movement, and you see the church in many ways trying to come to grips with their own past history and mishandling certain cases of sexual abuse and racial history and racial inequalities. And the church is talking about it more, trying to address some of those things, and so the gospel is put in this framework of understanding it from a justice perspective.
For MacArthur, that's problematic. It's problematic in the sense of the gospel is unchanged. It doesn’t bow to culture; it doesn't need to seek to accommodate itself in. So the heart of the gospel is not about racial inequality, it's not about racial injustice—which I don't think the promoters of social justice are trying to say, but that's how I think MacArthur hears it.
Anything that distracts away from what he would say is the primary message of the gospel is seen as a threat, seen as a movement or an accommodation towards culture. For some people, it's just another helpful way to think through their faith, it's another helpful lens to help them understand the gospel. But from MacArthur, you give an inch on something like this, and before you know it, you've lost all types of doctrinal purity, which is why there's this strong sense of you have to toe the line on all of these issues.
I don't believe that MacArthur is sexist or racist. I don't believe that at all. But what is true is that he sees there are problems with the actual language, that the social justice movement in the church borrows language from the world. And I think that was one of his main concerns in the Beth Moore talk, where he was critiquing the SBC in their adoption of resolution nine on intersectionality and critical race theory. For him, that's just mind-boggling to think that two cultural categories of thinking or philosophy would have anything to contribute to Biblical Christianity.
So the language is problematic for sure, but then also just because culture is talking about it and the church is talking about it seems problematic as well. That move where the church wants to be affirmed by culture.
He would obviously clearly see things like sexual abuse and racism as sin, but to me, a different way to see it is a matter of emphasis. MacArthur's emphasis is going to be significantly different than where other evangelicals would place them right now.
It's not like MacArthur is the only one that would have concerns about women in ministry, but I think one of the things that distinguishes MacArthur that people in evangelicalism would have a problem with is his tone and in the way that he addresses some of these issues. So it's not just that he disagrees with it, but sometimes the rhetoric and the tone is inflammatory. It's unkind. It's not believing the best about its opponents. A lot of the times people actually do agree with where he's coming from, but it's the presentation and the way that he puts it out there that is so difficult for a lot of people.
In all my interactions with him, as a student and then as an employee at the college, he's a kind person. He's gracious. He's generous. He's attentive to you in conversation. So there is a side of him that a lot of people don't see. They see a public persona of him, mediated through his writings and through his ministry, and sometimes when he's speaking in a more public setting, the tone and the rhetoric can be a bit more inflammatory.
I graduated from Master's in 2005 and so I've been out of the college for quite some time. I did not sense an atmosphere of fear and intimidation from him there. However, I did sense that you needed to agree and hold to the doctrines that he held to. That good Christians, Bible-believing Christians held to and believed what he believed preached, taught and espouse. And if you didn't, that's a problem, you're not reading God's word correctly.
Unfortunately, that can breed arrogance and pridefulness in the graduates, in terms of you're sending off graduates and pastors into settings where they kind of view themselves as mini MacArthurs.
Let’s end on a more light-hearted note. Recently there was a Master's Seminary graduate who was preaching at Kanye West's Sunday services, and that caused some stir in the evangelical community to see someone with more conservative theological credentials being highlighted onstage with one of the most famous performers of our time. Was that surprising to you?
Jonathan Holmes: It absolutely was.
I think when the first picture came out of Adam Tyson, who is the pastor who has been traveling with Kanye West, for all of the different alumni or people that have been connected with MacArthur in the past, all the conversations both online and through texts were very surprised.
But personally I was thrilled to see someone like Adam be able to have a role in a place in someone as famous as Kanye's life. I think for me, I want to believe the best, both about Adam and Kanye and I just praise God for whatever is happening there in his life and just pray that it continues to bear fruit.
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