MacArthur, Patrick and the Tribal Identity

In case you missed it, the sun arose today on yet another controversy in the conservative Christianity blogosphere. I usually don’t even bother to read these, as they come and go and are almost entirely based on soundbytes that are irresponsibly pulled from a larger context. You know what I mean: YouTube videos with names like “PIPER PREACHES THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL” or “DRISCOLL DENIES THAT GOD IS MERCIFUL.” But this controversy struck me in a way others haven’t. Namely, the responses of the men in question have widely differed from those who follow these men and count them as heroes.

The kindling for this brush fire arose from an interview between Phil Johnson and Dr. MacArthur. In responding to a question, Dr. MacArthur chastized Darrin Patrick’s book Church Planter for encouraging pastors who are undertaking church planting to design their own doctrine and theological beliefs.  Here’s the passage MacArthur was referencing:

One of the common errors of young men who surrender to ministry is to simply adopt the model of a church they have experienced or idolized. A similar mistake is to blindly accept the ministry philosophy and practice of a ministry hero. The man who is experiencing head confirmation is thoughtful about his own philosophy of ministry, his own ministry style, his own theological beliefs, his own unique gifts, abilities, and desires. In short, there is a uniqueness to the way  he wants to do ministry (page 37, italics in original).

I watched the movie Luther the other night, the third time in five years. You know what? Tetzel plied his damnable trade again. Luther discovered justification by faith again. Katie showed up and they got married again. And the conversation between the followers of John MacArthur and the followers of the Acts 29 movement have been just as predictable as the movie Luther was the third time through. A quick survey of the comments left on Tim Challies’ blog runs the average to about 3-1 against MacArthur. The comments are exactly what you’d expect:

“I love MacArthur’s teaching, but he’s so ungracious towards his brothers in Christ. I wish he wasn’t so divisive.”

“Such a blatant violation of the biblical principles found in Matthew 18. Someone needs to call MacArthur out on this for not speaking to Patrick privately first.” (Which is a really ironic comment when you think about it…)

“MacArthur probably hasn’t even bothered to read Patrick’s whole book.”

“I haven’t read Patrick’s book, but I really trust and respect Dr. MacArthur. And I don’t know about those Acts 29 guys.”

Have we as the church become the same as our nation? Have we become an assortment of pundits each with an opinion based  upon nothing more weighty than which tribe we most readily identify ourselves with? We recognize these evils in politics and the incessant squaking of Fox News and the New York Times. But do we recognize it in ourselves?

Who in this conversation are you most likely do give the benefit of the doubt to – Patrick or MacArthur? There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as we all have to constantly weigh small snippets of words against the greater whole of an individual’s work and ethos. It becomes wrong when we make a particular style or ministry our own personal identity.  When our appreciation for and natural identification with one minister’s or ministry’s particular style eclipses our identification with the gospel and truth, we have ceased to think as the redeemed choosing rather to content ourselves with petty partisanism. When we hear of our heroes squaring off with another minister are we willing to seriously consider and ponder the critiques, or do we blindly grab our banner and lance and ride forth to do battle with the dark knights of the enemy’s blogging horde?

Shortly after the critique of Patrick’s book, Johnson asked MacArthur if any of his doctrine had changed in the middle of writing his commentary series. MacArthur responded by reminiscing about Michael Horton “catching [him] and taking [him] behind the woodshed” about an improper distinction between imputed and imparted righteousness in his volume on Romans. And MacArthur was thankful for it, for it improved his understanding of God and corrected an underdeveloped aspect of his theology. When a man writes a book and publishes his thoughts, he is inviting his peers to critique him. Matthew 18 is about personal sin, not a discussion about proper ways of addressing theological concerns in the Christian publication world. If it was, I’m not sure the blogging world could exist.

We have much to learn from the humility of these two men. As their followers have been sharpening their knives and preparing for blood, they’ve been planning to sharpen each other. MacArthur published a follow up article, clarifying that he wasn’t attacking Patrick or accusing him of being unorthodox. And Patrick tweeted “Dr. MacArthur you are a hero to me. Period.” And “Dr. MacArthur, many young pastors like me didn’t have dads. We need godly, established men like you to father us.” And “I would be happy to fly to SoCal on my own dime to be mentored and coached and get to know you.” To which the men agreed to do so.

I haven’t said anything about the actual content of the disagreement. In short, MacArthur’s probably right in identifying something that should not have been said in Patrick’s book. From knowing and participating in both ministries, I can say that Patrick isn’t talking about designing your own doctrine. But that’s how the book reads and that point needs to be modified and communicated better. And Patrick’s probably right in saying that it’s disaster for one pastor to try and duplicate the ministry of someone he idolizes, for God has made us all unique. Each tribe needs the others, for they challenge each other to clarify and purify both the content and the communication of our doctrine and ministry philosophies.

God make us all men like MacArthur and Patrick.


4 responses to “MacArthur, Patrick and the Tribal Identity”

  1. Cole says :

    Great thoughts, Nate! Thanks for writing them down.

    Contemporary Christians live in culture that’s becoming increasingly polarized. Unfortunately, that polarization is affecting the Church as well. Divisions and fragmentation seem to be every where, and often they’re caused by nothing more than personal preferences. The “I’m a follower of Paul/I’m a follower of Apollos” problem is still very much with us.

  2. Kevin says :

    Oh, Nate, I’ll bet you haven’t even read all the way through Acts 29! But yes, you’re right. It’s so easy to grab what we “want” to hear and launch into tirades. As Pastor JM is preaching through 1 John, the message of love is overwhelming. The problem of ‘sound bite’ critiquing is growing. The answer is Christ and His love for us that we must share with each other.

  3. John Foldberg says :

    Thanks for putting it so well, and I agree with Cole it sure sounds a lot like “I’m a follower of______”
    Nate, one of the things I grew most from your Dad’s teaching was his high view of God, it was in every message I heard from him. All too often we have a high view of man and then the sniping begins, our focus is on the wrong thing.
    Praying for you brother.

  4. Matthew says :

    In your second sentence of this blog you wrote, “I usually don’t even bother to read” which leads me to wonder how you even know what Acts 29 even says. but in all seriousness, I tend to blame this kind of thing on people who blog (wink wink). ok. now, really seriously, love you nate. you’re great with words, and your writing is appreciated by me.

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