It’s been impossible for me to miss the controversy that’s been brewing in Southern California between Governor Gavin Newsom and Sun Valley’s Grace Community Church as led by their pastor-teacher, John MacArthur.
As a former member of Grace (and custodian), and graduate of The Master’s Seminary, it’s been interesting for me to consider his recent refusal to comply with the governor’s unconstitutional (and therefore, illegal) order against gatherings in places of worship. His boldness and courage are a stark contrast to the myriad of evangelical leaders who kneeled at the feet of the social justice mob just a couple short months prior and are criticizing him for taking a stand on the lordship of Jesus over human government.
This entire situation has me curiously pondering: What is it that makes a “John MacArthur?” What keeps him from the mad rush to find the middle ground on every issue? What has caused him to take stand after stand over the past fifty years yet remain unmoved because “the Bible says so?” I remember him saying once that he’s never once cared about what people are going to think about him—how’s that even possible?
Examples in the Past
As I consider these questions, I am reminded of church history class and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). A beloved college professor of mine made us memorize paragraphs from that statement. After he died in 2002, his wife gave me his audiocassettes of that council. The names on those tapes are a “who’s who” of the glory days of 20th-century evangelicalism—men like J.I. Packer, Norman Geisler, Gleason Archer, Edwin Yamauchi, John Gerstner, R.C. Sproul, James Montgomery Boice, Francis Shaeffer, and almost 300 others. Many of the signatories were giants in the church of their day.
As one of those who signed it, John MacArthur (at that time, a 39-year-old pastor) is in their rarified air. He is one of the last men standing of a fading generation who knew the truth, loved the truth, defended the truth, and were not at all afraid to contend for it either.
His life has made me wonder: Who is alive today that will take his place in evangelicalism? At over 80 years old, who will fill the leadership vacuum when he’s taken to heaven? Where are the leaders who are ready and happy to take the social media mob head-on, both inside and outside of the church, and refuse to back down? They do not exist, as far as I know. He is the last of a dying breed I’m sure many are happy to see go, but I’m terrified to lose. Far too many of our 21st century evangelical leaders are better at being politicians or motivational speakers than they are at being warriors, and this is at a cultural moment when we have a desperate need for warriors.
This, again, causes me to ask, why? I think it’s because those men grew up in an era before relativism had the cultural dominance it does now. They lived in a world where right was right, wrong was wrong, the truth was the truth, lies were lies, and sin was sin. These faithful men saw it on the horizon and warned Christians against its potential to undermine every single thing evangelicals believe.
Emptiness in the Present
That is not our world at all. Evil is good; good is evil (Isa 5:20). Nothing is right or wrong except what our politically correct masters tell us is. The intent of an author is impossible to determine. Power is oppressive. Feelings determine our decisions. Truth is not objective; it is merely a personal or societal construct. Lies and hypocrisy are useful tools that help advance one’s agenda. The ends justify the means. In the church, we baptized the fear of man (also known as co-dependency or peer-pressure) and turned it into a ministry philosophy, assuming that, “If the non-Christian world likes us—thinks we’re helpful, cool and relevant—they’ll like Jesus too.”
Everything leftover is considered “gray area,” as if non-essential doctrines for salvation mean “unimportant” for the faithfulness and courage of a church leader. Where conviction was once found, we now found deflecting or straw-man sentiments like:
- “There are good people on all sides.”
- “They may be in error but they are such a nice person.”
- “I want to be known by what I am for, not against.”
- “It must be nice to have all the answers.”
- “My truth is my truth. Your truth is your truth.”
- “The Pharisees were good at pointing things out too.”
This is the cultural air that I’ve breathed since I was born. Most adults my age (43) and younger consider relativism “just the way it is.” As Allan Bloom once said, denying it is like trying to convince people that 2 + 2 isn’t 4 (which was embarrassingly attempted recently).
Emasculation in the Future
In a culture where relativism reigns, a culture without reality, without truth, without right and wrong answers, pastors will have a hard time going beyond, “Well, there are 4 views on that.” Without doing the hard work of determining which views best match the Bible through exegesis and logical argumentation, pastors simply do not have the tools to do what MacArthur’s doing now. Instead, they’ve become convinced that the only stand they should take is not taking a stand (unless it’s a stand the culture approves of) and standing against anyone who does. So, I predict we’ll see more and more Christian leaders cave to the culture, call it heroic, get affirmation from their cheering section for being relevant or shrewd or loving or reasonable, all while assuring their deadened consciences that they’ll take a stand when it “really matters.”
No, they won’t! This is wishful thinking at best and self-delusion at worst for one overwhelming reason: John MacArthur can do what he’s doing because he has convictions, but relativism makes convictions impossible. In a world where there is no truth, there’s nothing to take a stand on. Oh, people will have convictions—don’t get me wrong—but instead of coming from the truth (John 17:17), they will come uncritically from their upbringing, a hierarchy they trust, heroes they admire, or the cultural overlords who are all too ready to choose their convictions for them.
Without convictions that are well thought out and deeply rooted in the bedrock of Scripture, pastors cannot have courage. We’ll never have the bravery we’re seeing in John MacArthur. Truth leads to convictions and convictions produce courage. Without convictions, the church will continue to be led by “men without chests” (C.S. Lewis) who genuflect before the mob, who won’t have the fortitude needed to stand in these dark days, but who will feign courage by passionately criticizing nobody but those who have it. Wavering and weak, many will seek to insulate themselves from ever being a target of the world’s hatred, something Jesus told His followers to expect and embrace (John 15:18-20). In Christ’s mind, it seems that we have a choice to make: we can be faithful or popular. All of us, sooner or later, will be forced to choose and we can only choose one!
In the end, you may not agree with John MacArthur, but he doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should be asking about John MacArthur is not, “Do I agree with what he’s doing?” Instead ask, “Will I have his courage when it’s my turn to stand?” Courage is the lesson young pastors (and a ton of older ones) should be learning from John MacArthur right now. Thank God for him.
Jon Benzinger (@jonbenz) is the Lead Pastor at Redeemer Bible Church in Gilbert, Arizona (@rbcgilbert). He has a passion for teaching God’s word and has been doing so in both the local church and academia for nearly twenty years. He lives with his wife and three children in Queen Creek, Arizona.