Opinion

Interview: John MacArthur On Fair-Weather Friends, Criminalizing Evangelism, And Defying Caesar

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Modern culture tends to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, and the Scriptures have plenty of stories about such seers. But more often, prophets in the Bible simply spoke the truth to the nation, calling it and its leaders to repent and live by God’s standards.

The prophet Nathan rebuked David on the Lord’s behalf for his sexual sin with Bathsheba. Elijah spit fire, as the kids say, at the people of Israel and their false teachers for distorting the word of God and following the example of pagans. John the Baptist didn’t shy away from addressing Herod’s indecency in marrying his brother’s wife. They often come across, in other words, like prickly, pugnacious guys.

Grace Community pastor John MacArthur, the California Bible teacher behind one of the largest radio ministries in the world, is no stranger to this kind of prophet work. His plain-spoken condemnation of the social justice movement, which has taken deep root in American Protestantism thanks to the influence of left-leaning church leaders, has been known to ruffle more than a few political and ecumenical feathers. More recently, he led the charge against unconstitutional government mandates to close churches, a move that few in establishment evangelical circles supported.

At 82, MacArthur is taking on what could become the greatest threat to religious freedom of our time: The Left’s use of so-called “conversion therapy laws,” which are deceptively marketed as bans on coercive and abusive medical treatments, to silence the Gospel and stop the spread of Christianity.

A few weeks ago, MacArthur heard from Canadian pastor James Coates, a fellow renegade who made headlines in his own country when he was jailed for defying authorities who ordered his church not to meet. The two were brothers-in-arms in fighting for the right of Christians to gather, but this time Coates was sounding the alarm about a new Canadian law that ostensibly bans conversion therapy for homosexuals and people who believe they are transgender. But the real effect of the legislation, Coates warned, is to outlaw the preaching and teaching of biblical sexuality, to criminalize evangelism.

The language of C-4, as the law is known, is so broad, it could apply to almost any context. If a pastor preaches a message from the pulpit about sexuality and the authorities interpret it as trying to convince someone not to be gay or trans, they could arrest him. Same with a teacher at a Christian school. Or a lay minister offering church counseling. Even if an individual wants to leave a gay or transgender lifestyle, any Christian, be it friend or family, advising them on how to do so would be breaking the law. As MacArthur, with characteristic bluntness, has stated, C-4 represents an “attack on the Word of God.”

When he received Coates’ SOS, the best-selling author immediately went into action, issuing a call to his fellow ministers to preach on the subject of God’s design for gender and sex on January 16, in a show of peaceful defiance against a power-drunk Canuck Caesar. It must be noted, though, that the issue hardly stops at the northern border. Fourteen states including California, New Jersey, and Washington, already have similar bans, though more limited in scope. And Indiana recently introduced a bill of its own. At its last convention, the Democrats made advancing conversion therapy laws a key part of their party platform.

Thus, MacArthur is once again standing, like his Puritan heroes, against the government. Unable to do otherwise. But while thousands of lesser-known, faithful pastors have responded to his call to preach on biblical sexuality on January 16, when it comes to high-profile marquee names, he is also, once again, mostly standing alone.

How to Lose Friends But Influence People

When I ask MacArthur why he thinks so many of the men he has shared pulpits and stages with over the years have gone silent, he starts with the most charitable explanation. “Maybe they’re busy doing something else,” he says. But then he acknowledges that preaching boldly against LGBT orthodoxy isn’t exactly a popular maneuver in the seeker-friendly church culture of today.

“Few pastors want to tackle this,” he concedes, “because their strategy is to give the unconverted, degenerate sinner what his fallen heart wants. You don’t confront anything, you don’t offend.”

MacArthur’s right-hand man, Grace To You executive director Phil Johnson, tells me he, too, thinks the silence from old friends stems in part from the fact that evangelical leadership is currently dominated by men who lack courage.

“It’s not that most of them would be in favor of softening the church’s stance on sexual morality,” Johnson explains. “But they are embarrassed to be outspoken on an issue that sets them apart from a world that is passionately determined to eliminate from our culture all rules about sexual immorality. They can’t stand the conflict and persecution they know will come if they speak out against LGBTQRSTU&%.”

Yet Johnson points out MacArthur’s solo act may be for the best anyway. “Unfortunately, most of the best-known names in evangelical leadership have left this issue alone for so long or treated it so deferentially, they would not be able to make a credible case against wanton immorality anyway.”

Still, there’s a possible third reason so few celebrated pastors or theologians have responded to MacArthur’s call, and he’s too much of a realist not to acknowledge it.

“I think there are guys who are reluctant to be identified with me,” MacArthur sighs. “I’m sort of a package deal. You know, I have lots of dear friends that I’ve hosted at [Grace Community’s annual] Shepherd’s conference. I’ve participated in Together for the Gospel and lots of other things with these guys. But over the last two years, we’ve taken a stand at Grace Church [to defy Covid mandates not to gather]. And I haven’t heard one of the people that I was associated with in those ministries say one affirming thing about what we’ve done.”

When I ask MacArthur if it hurts to discover old friends are fearful of being associated with him, he says he tries not to take it personally. “I love these guys, so it doesn’t change how I feel about them.” But not taking it personally doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel acute disappointment for other reasons.

“You know,” he says, “[these church leaders] took a stand when it was easy to take a stand. But when it became hard to take a stand, they didn’t do it. It’s one thing not to want to be identified with somebody who has given you a platform for years and years. I understand that. I’m sort of out there on the COVID thing and our public position on wokeness was kind of the same deal. But I’ve been asking the Lord to bring these guys to the front because they could have tremendous, tremendous impact. We wouldn’t be seeing the disintegration of evangelicalism on so many levels.”

He takes a beat then adds, “These same guys who were leading at one point in the clarion call for the Gospel just seem to have faded from the front of the battle.”

The Man in the Arena

To theologian Owen Strachan, MacArthur’s loneliness on the front line is evidence of his faithfulness, his disregard for protecting his own legacy or maintaining his influence. “He stands alone because he speaks truth, and to specific issues. He names names,” Strachan says of MacArthur, who wrote the foreword to Strachan’s best-selling book “Christianity and Wokeness.”

MacArthur may have a reputation for being brusque (pundit David French has suggested he is intolerant and even cruel) but Strachan argues that if you look at Bible passages on how pastors are to conduct themselves, he is fulfilling his commission.

“This is exactly what Titus 1:9 calls elders to do: they must give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it,” he says. “Very few men end up doing this today, because it makes you liable to be labeled divisive and the words that evangelicals today seem to fear most, ‘not nice’ and ‘unnuanced.’ Truth is dying in the church today, and if you look closely, you see Nuance and Niceness with blood on their cufflinks.”

Strachan goes on to note that Jesus, the Christian’s ultimate model, was alone at his death because of his unwillingness to compromise truth. “He was deserted, forgotten, betrayed, and alone–utterly alone. Epic stands for truth like MacArthur has taken are usually taken alone, so high is their cost.”

Perhaps like Jerusalem, Western culture inevitably stones the prophets who are sent to her, only, in our day, it is reputations at which we throw rocks. The great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon’s contemporaries reportedly viewed him as lacking in intellectual sophistication, and he had a habit of angering plenty of them with his public attacks on theological liberalism. So, for that matter, did the Apostle Paul, something Strachan points out.

“Look at 2 Timothy 4:16–18,” he says:

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever.

“The cost of standing for truth is so high, so precious, so all-consuming that almost no one will meet it,” he says. “The worst times are when men of courage do their best work. The reward for such faithfulness will be beyond belief in the age to come.”

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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