My Thoughts In the Embers of The Strange Fire Worship Criticisms

This week a number of people forwarded me articles referencing John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference. For those who haven’t heard about it, it was an anti-charismatic/anti-Pentecostal conference hosted in California as a promotional for his upcoming book release “Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship” with speakers that until this week I thought were charismatic. awkward. No matter.

It’s awful timing because Sydney is now actually blazing, with an early bushfire season. I guess you could call that strange. But these two events are unrelated. The reference apparently comes from Leviticus 10: 1-2

“Now Nadab and Abi′hu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered [strange fire]  before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”

Operative words are “he had not commanded them” and “died”… in short, it’s not a positive summary of Pentecostal worship.

Initially I had little to say on this issue, perhaps because the world is finally recognizing a plurality of Pentecostalism(s) and no-one speaks definitively on all. (Except a couple of academics who got in early and who I’ve been trying to follow, like a three-legged dog runs after a horse. Don’t judge, it gets there in the end).

Actually, after I replied to my friends who had inquired privately, I was kind of shocked I didn’t really need to say anything public, and neither did any Pentecostal I’ve noted so far on facebook. Thank goodness for great evangelical charismatic buddies at my seminary who deemed MacArthur’s logic was ridiculous and unfounded. It could have been a bad day in class, let’s just say. Even my scholar friend who was shocked and *did *not* understand* Angeles Temple style demonstrative manifestations up close and personal during the song “The Great I Am” responded in a measured way (You’re amazing Leland).

Of course, I could talk about the context of that scripture and its relevance to NeoPentecostal worship today, drawing in other scriptures on worship to explain contextualization. I could list some positives and negatives of Pentecostal worship, but honestly? I just don’t see the need. There is such an overwhelm of writing on worship and biblical theology, and an even larger body of writing on worship styles. I just think I’d rather not. And suddenly, I realized this is arguably a Pentecostal distinctive – I have little to say on this issue is because arguing doctrine is not a priority for me or for the Pentecostal people I tend to hang with, drink coffee with and theologize with. Most of them care a *lot* about the bible. Many are Pentecostal by academic definition, but dislike incessant happy clapping music; falling down during meetings; or yelling ‘SHOULDABOUGHTAHONDA’ loudly in public. We’re more critical of those things than anyone.

My parents defected from the Church of England Sydney Diocese. So I grew up with charismatic doctrinal wars that split families. I was told multiple times at school by the Baptist pastor’s daughter that I wasn’t a Christian, and repeatedly by my small group leader at EU (Evangelical Union) that I was attending a cult (Hillsong Church) and was being “brainwashed”.

I eventually pursued theological training in three different academic institutions, but am still considered dubious by varied definition. I have Pentecostal friends attending almost all the staunchly evangelical seminaries (Moore, SMBC, Morling, Biola, Calvin, Fuller, you name it). The point is, many of us now have a parental-like authoritarian voice that yells in our head whenever we veer towards the experiential or the inexplicable, whenever women are speaking, or when something is doctrinally difficult. We live with two personalities vying for attention, and I sometimes sound schizophrenic to my students as I give nuanced answers like “yes, you are right, we interpret the bible like that and it informs our church practice. And… you had better learn the other side of this in case you’re ever in conversation with a Christian of another persuasion”.

Case in point, the woman who practically mauled me at my own church venue at an ecumenical meeting over my lack of emphasis that God had drawn people to make first time decisions to become Christians that night. “Had drawn” was the operative phrase missing from my sentence. Or the time I didn’t start with “biblically based” as the answer to how I program worship in Fuller’s liturgical setting and it took twenty-five minutes of listening to get me off that hook with another chapel director. I kind of assumed we could both come from the perspective that the liturgists who put together The Worship Sourcebook started with a bible as reference; was that so stupid?

It’s not just semantics for many. Ultimately the whole thing is based on fear. It is an emotionally-based doctrinally-argued response to a perceived encroachment of a different faith expression upon the lives of those who cannot recognize their own Western inculturation. I get that. There are days I don’t want to learn how to engage other worship styles, or hear other perspectives either.

Which is why I’m really passionate about us recognizing that orthodoxy works hand in hand with orthopathy. Right thinking and right feeling are linked. And the biblically modeled emotion towards the church as the Bride of Christ is a deep love despite her flaws (Eph 5:25; 2 Cor 11:12).

So, you ask, what would I say to John McArthur and his Strange Fire movement? I would say thank you. Thank you for bringing our attention to some things we probably need to work on together. There are blind spots in our movement. Slightly more tongue in cheek, I hope and pray your churches grow and prosper and become all they are called to be. Perhaps you could also pray – that we become clearer in our thinking, more engaged in exploration of the scriptures, and intentional about discussion. But together we are all the church.

12 thoughts on “My Thoughts In the Embers of The Strange Fire Worship Criticisms

  1. I agree with Shane. You’re being rather generous with someone who has called Pentecostalism (ex: God is still active, the Spirit of God is real among us, and Jesus loves sinners – whatever their political stripe) “strange fire.” This is part of a decades long witch-hunt. Rather than building the Kingdom, Piper and MacArthur clearing feel a calling/mandate to exorcize in explicit violation of the teachings of the Gospels and the inclusivity of Paul. Their rhetoric is damning and damaging – we’ll be doing cleanup long after the confetti and streamers have been swept.

    1. I guess I’m in two minds about it. I’m definitely sympathetic towards all those who feel hurt, as he made hurtful allegations, and he mobilized people on mass. But I’m also drawn to this scripture:

      Matt 5: 38-42
      “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

      So, maybe I am being irresponsible by not engaging this issue publicly and clarifying our doctrine. Or maybe, God will deal with it? I think authors and pastors who spend this much energy proclaiming against Pentecostals are unaware of their numbers, probably unconnected to contemporary Pentecostal practice, and thus lose credibility in the long run.

      1. Today I read a public letter from Mark Driscoll (who attended the Strange Fire conference and was “thrown out” [an inaccurate statement, but then again Driscoll has a way of bending light]) in which he says he disagrees with MacArthur but welcomes him to an open discussion/ joint book tour.

        Two things – I think it is a good thing that Driscoll has made this message public, in that he has basically said ‘Whoa. Slow down, John. I’m one of you, and even I wouldn’t go so far as to call the presence of the Spirit heretical’ or, as you put it, he is suggesting that such claims are not in line with the majority of the pews; and secondly, I suppose the angels of our better nature are prevailing. I’ve come to the point (which will prove, I hope, to be wisdom) where I feel these kinds of deviations speak for themselves in character and action. (ex: when one of your heroes denounces beliefs you hold to be sacred, you respond with an invitation to a joint book tour – $$)

  2. The pertinent scriptural response is Numbers 1:24-30.

    “So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.

    “However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were among those registered, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’

    “Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, ‘Moses, my lord, stop them!’

    “But Moses replied, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.”

      1. Sure! I love this passage, and I think it does have links to the phenomenon experienced within the contemporary church too. There’s a lot of wisdom in this! Thanks!

  3. Wow, awesome blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is fantastic, as well as the content!

  4. I can call a brother or sister a heretic because I perceive a deviation in their thinking, and yet be worse than a heretic myself for ascribing a greater crime than they are actually committing.

    And… a heretic isn’t necessarily a blasphemer. I think sometimes we can conflate the two.

    I think it sad that some people have built renown for themselves with what they might call ‘discernment’ ministries or ‘warning’ ministries, but are what, from the outside, look more like gossip and misinformation only slightly more dignified than what is published in the sort of magazine one could pick up at a supermarket counter.

    1. Very, very true!! It *is* sad, there are some very strong examples of that in Australia. It’s not really the picture of unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-23, is it?!!

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