Monday, October 10, 2011

MacArthur is to Elvis what Driscoll and MacDonald are to Lennon & McCartney: polemics among the rock star pastors

I was at a 9Marks conference recently and was shocked to hear one of the panelists include me, and another preacher on the platform, as “rock star” pastors. I guess somewhere on the edge of my mental radar I had heard the term before, but it had never occurred to me that “I” might be one. As I listened, it became clear that the qualification for such a pejorative term was gained by extending my preaching ministry by video to places I did not go in person, and then including those reached locally as part of our church organizationally. I later discovered that by doing this we have evidenced an ego out of control and are inducing idolatry. Really?

My first celebrity pastor was John MacArthur. In the early 1980′s (before video), my home church substituted John MacArthur Jr. for our Sunday night preacher and showed his series on the family. ...

Now I'm going to go on record (again) and say I have never had one positive impression about James MacDonald. He's still not on my list of favorites. But you know what? I agree with his basic contention that John MacArthur was a celebrity pastor before a lot of the celebrity pastors MacArthur doesn't approve of hit the scene. As blogger Fearsome Tycoon put it over on the Boar's Head Tavern, a guy who has a study Bible named after him should not be complaining too loudly about a cult of personality surrounding another pastor. John MacArthur is as much a rock star pastor for his generation as Mark Driscoll is a rock star pastor for his.  This is, in fact, a point I've been making for some time now to no effect because I am not a rock star blogger or a celebrity blogger.  That's good and may it stay that way. The downside of being a real nobody trying to tell everybody about something (as opposed to the posture and franchise line purporting that) is that because you're nobody ... nobody pays attention to you.  But I digress.  Here's some more from MacDonald that provides a sense of what a rock star pastor this guy was even two decades ago.

When he came in 1985 to preach at our denominational convention, I lined up outside the door with a throng of eager hearers, then raced in to find a front seat, so I could soak up every word. My hands trembled as I stood in line to shake his hand. God had gifted him wonderfully, and he was extending that gift to as many people in as many places as possible. At the time I never dreamt that John MacArthur would be someone who came to speak at my church, as he has done numerous times, or that I would be invited to speak at his college and Seminary. Getting to golf with Dr. MacArthur several times I saw firsthand his generosity and uncommon graciousness. I was thankful through the years to have that testimony ready when colleagues in ministry took shots at him and attacked some of the stands he took on controversial issues. I not always agreed with his actions, but I have never doubted his fidelity to Scripture or his sincere desire to hold others to the same. I praise God for John MacArthur’s ‘celebrity,’ and how it has impacted my life. The issue is not celebrity, but how one arrives there and how they steward that influence. I realize that he, like all of us, will account to Christ for how he allows his influence to be used and how he treats every minister of the gospel, every Christian, and every person outside God’s family.

 The time has come to model publicly, a gracious biblical method for how to disagree. Obviously our manner depends on who we are disagreeing with and what issues are at stake, but it must be:

• An approach that neither compromises truth nor fails to exhibit grace.
• A method that models correcting a brother in serious error and, if possible, protecting the relationship.

• An approach to dealing with serious doctrinal error that moves beyond a social “burning at the stake,” but refuses to back down or sing kumbaya when the gospel is on the line.

Hmm, well, Mr. MacDonald, those bullet points didn't seem on prominent display when you kept cutting off Mark Dever in a discussion about multi-site churches.  Those bullet points didn't seem particularly prominent in bromides and proof-texting against congregational polity, either.  That Jakes is even in a state of invitation to the Elephant Room doesn't fill me with optimism any more than any association with a tool like Furtick whose church is now nationally known for how it treated a person with a physical and mental disability. 

But I'm in an unusually generous mood today and the MacArthur orbit and his fanboys haven't put together that MacArthur is a grand old man among rock star pastors.  So I'm grateful that James MacDonald has helped to spell things out for me.  You know, folks, if a pastor like John MacArthur inspires Steve Camp to write, in his well-tested "Here's my Christian book report" tradition, a song called "The Gospel According to Jesus" we might be talking rock star pastor category here.  Yeah, I know that Steve Camp doesn't rock as hard as Kansas or Yes or Springstein but he rocks harder than Air Supply about half the time.  Did I telegraph that I don't enjoy his music?  Well, I admit as much but I respect his committment to the faith even when I don't land anywhere near the same places he does on a few things.  And the amount of humble pie he ate in admitting that he overdid his crusade against Driscoll is something some of the other MacArthur fans might benefit from.  Rock star pastors don't always look the same in each generation. 

I'm not backing down on my disagreements with MacDonald on the few things I cared to learn about of his writings and words.  I still think he's a self-regarding proof-texting tool just for how he dealt with Mark Dever.  But I'm a nobody who doesn't matter, which is as it should be.  Still, I'm going to throw MacDonald a proverbial bone because I have been saying for a while that a common denominator with some of the rock star shock jock pastors is that they have paid homage in various ways to MacArthur. 

There's a sense in which MacArthur and his fan club have to consider what they have wrought.  It'd be one thing if MacArthur inspired a whole series of folks who were not strident polemicists.  For instance, I could look at Michael Card's musical career and then look at the life of scholar William Lane as I got to know him in the early 1990s and I could draw a remarkably straight line between the Christian teacher and the influence he had on Card.  When I look at MacArthur and Camp I see a similar line of influence.  MacArthur can't go on too much about rock star pastors because the line between rock and Christian pop isn't that huge in the end.  When Driscoll has said (and he's said it a few times) that MacArthur was a huge formative influence on him I'm in a position to know because I got it from the man himself.  We were never close, but we were in enough proximity that I can vouch for his repeated mention of MacArthur being an important early influence. 

The trouble with legacies is that you die and you never know what those legacies are ultimately going to be. Even while you live you don't know what your legacy and influence will open doors for.  Elvis paved the way for Lennon & McCartney.  By analogy, John MacArthur could be taken as a late 20th century Elvis among rock star/celebrity pastors and he has paved the way for the rock star/celebrity pastoral team of Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald.  It's not that the Elvis impersonators aren't entertaining or providing a useful service, it's that the nature of the rock star/celebrity pastor changes.  The influence of MacArthur may paradoxically be stronger in American Christianity through the rock star pastors who basked in his cultural shadow, that he feels obliged to rebuke now, than through his more hand-picked proteges. 

Paul urging the Christians in Corinth to not get caught up in loyalties to individual teachers has never lost its relevance and one of the continuing and sad paradoxes of the faith is that many people who would tell us to heed those words of Paul are guilty of breaking the spirit of their intent in the process of trying to make that point.  Thus we get Elvis impersonators lining up around Elvis to make a case for why Lennon & McCartney are a downgrade.

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