Earlier this week, G3 Ministries announced that it would be partnering with John MacArthur’s Grace To You ministry to host a conference at MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. The topic of the event is cessationism, which is a doctrine that argues supernatural gifts such as prophecy, miracle healing, and speaking in tongues are no longer operative in the church or in the lives of believers today.
What is personally noteworthy to me is that the announcement coincided with the anniversary of another event hosted at John MacArthur’s church roughly a decade ago—an event I credit with launching the beginning stages of my deconstruction process and sending me in pursuit of a better form of Christianity.
That event was the Strange Fire conference, which took place in 2013.
Though not explicitly billed as a sequel to that event, many who are involved in the Cessationist Conference or who are planning to attend it see it as such.
“Though we are not calling it Strange Fire II, the Cessationist Conference will be, in effect, just that,” posted Justin Peters, an evangelist who is a part of the conference’s lineup and who was also featured at Strange Fire. “We are now 10 years past Strange Fire and literally everywhere I preach, both domestically and internationally, without exception, people come up to me and tell me how much the Strange Fire Conference impacted them.”
Well, it certainly impacted me.
While I didn’t attend the Strange Fire conference in person, much of the content from the event quickly became available online. And as a poor college student who had invested literally hundreds of dollars in John MacArthur commentaries and books of which I had read nearly every page, I tuned in with attentiveness.
But as I watched the men in the conference’s lineup—men I respected—engage in the conversation regarding charismatic spiritual gifts, what I saw began to unsettle me.
I remember one panel session in particular. The group played a video clip from a worship service at a well-known charismatic church. To be sure, the worship leader was engaging in a style of worship that I considered to be over the top (and still do). But as the panelists began to respond to the clip, they did so with a sort of casual scorn that bothers me to this day.
This panel of men in suits sitting on a velvet red stage began to mock the worship leader and their church. As they joked, the crowd jeered and laughed. And then these men, with straight faces, argued that Christians of the kind shown in this clip and others like it are not Christians at all.
Mark this. They were expressing their belief that a large group of people who thought they were following Jesus were actually going to hell. And they laughed about it.
What’s more is that this wasn’t some fringe group of fundamentalists who nobody listens to. This panel was taking place on the stage where one of America’s best known expositional preachers stands behind the pulpit every Sunday—and that very pastor was on the panel.
It was at this moment that I felt myself begin to look around and question, “Are we all really okay with this?”
As it turns out, “we” were. And that made me question which “we” I wanted to be a part of.
Though the Strange Fire conference was billed as a theological endeavor aimed at getting to the bottom of what the Bible says about the supernatural gifts in order to protect Christians from falling into error, its real purpose was not so much to instruct as it was to demean and discredit.
The strategy was simple. Search the internet for some of the most bizarre and fringe moments to occur in charismatic churches and then portray those clips as not only characteristic of the weekly rhythms of those churches but indicative of every church that does not hold to cessationist theology.
There was no serious consideration given to the careful and measured interpretations of Scripture held by hundreds of millions of charismatic Christians around the world. There was no nuanced recognition of the fact that the cessationist view is an argument from inference that isn’t explicitly discussed anywhere in the New Testament. There was no grieved concern for those who might be propagating theology that is wrong or possibly harmful.
There was only ridicule and self-congratulation.
As I consider the use of charismatic spiritual gifts in the church today, I still have many questions. From the standpoint of biblical exposition, I find cessationism to be the weaker position. On the other hand, I’m also aware that by the same standard, some common practices among charismatic evangelicals are more than a little bit questionable.
I’m still not sure what to do with that tension.
But I know at least one thing I don’t want to do is to denigrate the image of God through scornful mockery. I don’t want to sling mud at my fellow Christians to the praise of conference organizers and book publishers. I don’t want to be so sure of my theological convictions on nonessential issues that I completely dismiss without a second thought the experiences of millions of my Christian brothers and sisters.
At the Strange Fire conference, that’s exactly what happened. And if the marketing materials for the Cessationist Conference are to be believed, 10 years later, not much has changed. And I don’t want any part in it.
This isn’t to say that I don’t want to engage in theological debates on secondary issues—quite the contrary. One of my passions is taking a critical look at the doctrines that have been handed down to us to see if they really represent the best possible interpretation of the relevant biblical texts. And where I feel that the evangelical tradition has broadly gotten it wrong or has unnecessarily excluded a view that I feel is biblically viable, I’m not afraid to be vocal about it.
Even still, far be it from me to ridicule those who disagree with me—not even the Cessationist Conference people. It can hardly be said that you have a mastery of Christian theology if you do not engage in theological discourse in a manner that is distinctly Christian. If we disagree on theological grounds, we have to do so in way that is moral. And how much more so when we disagree on moral grounds?
Or as Paul puts it,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
If we have all the theological prowess in the world, but we have not love for our fellow believers (or our fellow humans in general, for that matter), then we have nothing. Though we may rise to be social media influencers, authors, and conference speakers, our work has been for absolutely nothing.
Theology matters. Doctrine shapes us. But love is the whole game.
The minute we lose sight of that reality, we might find ourselves putting on whole conferences that stand as a monument to our spiritual immaturity.