Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Primary" and "Secondary," Biblical Separation, and Application of Scripture: Johnson, MacArthur, Driscoll, and Murray pt. 1

I do not believe that evangelicals especially, conservative or otherwise, obey biblical commands of separation. The mighty problems in evangelicalism and even fundamentalism come in a major way because they do not separate as Scripture teaches, either ecclesiastically or personally. They fellowship with unscriptural doctrine and practice. The descending slide in this country has been helped along by lack of the practice of separation. Evangelicals and fundamentalists both explain away ecclesiastical separation with their primary-tertiary doctrine teaching. They say that we come together based on the essentials and that we don't separate over non-essentials. When it comes to personal separation, evangelicals categorize many matters into non-scriptural issues by means of a kind of hermeneutic. They relegate what were once worldly and sinful practices into now unclear applications that we can no longer judge, so that we must tolerate those practices. The intolerant are often referred to as legalists. Recently some of the conservative evangelicals seem to be changing their tune.

First I would like to refer to the sermon preached (or as evangelicals like to say, "talk given") by Phil Johnson, member of MacArthur's Grace Community Church and executive director of Grace To You, on March 6 this year (2009) at the Shepherd's Conference. Johnson and MacArthur have both been major contributors to the essential/non-essential teaching and to the tolerance of worldly practices. I have been mocked and ridiculed by Johnson and those on his team blog, Pyromaniacs, for pointing out issues of conduct in violation of scriptural teaching. They are not only unresponsive in these areas, but they ridicule those who choose to communicate violations of biblical holiness. Then they resort to their standard arguments, that these issues of conduct are matters of Christian liberty.

I believe that conservative evangelicals have reached their size and popularity because of their tolerance in matters of personal separation. They have not stood against worldliness in cultural issues. They relegate them to secondary matters or Christian liberty. MacArthur is one that has practiced this way. He has not stood against worldly and fleshly music and dress. He does not make those types of applications of Scripture, or at least in the past. That has helped him to get where he is, because people who join him or affiliate with him can still fit in with the world in these ways. It is not just the issue of music, but that of worship. But that is what brings me to my point.

Iain Murray in his recent biographical sketch (2009) within the volume commemorating MacArthur's fortieth anniversary, Truth Endures, (on pp. 7-69) makes a major point of MacArthur "widening his base." In this section, covering twelve pages (pp. 36-48) Murray commends MacArthur for spurning fundamentalism and their kind of separatism over these types of secondary, cultural issues. Murray (on p. 37) quotes MacArthur from his book, Reckless Faith:

Another wing of fundamentlism moved in the opposite direction. . . . This right wing of the fundamentalist movement was relentlessly fragmented by militant separation . . . . Petty concerns often replaced serious doctrine as the matter for discussion and debate.

It is true that men can go too far with an emphasis on cultural and practical issues when they unnecessarily exclude doctrinal ones, but a balance is easily maintained with expositional preaching through books. However, that should not preclude these important concerns of personal separation. Those issues do directly relate to doctrine, a point that Johnson makes plainly in the before-mentioned Shepherd's Conference sermon (that I will talk more about later).

Murray in the same biographical sketch commends MacArthur, as a part of this swing away from separatism, to reconnect to an "older Christianity of the Reformed tradition" (p. 37). He quotes MacArthur again from his book, The Master's Plan:

There was a day in the history of the church when the great students of Scripture and theology were pastors. Puritan ministers, rather than being just good communicators, were first and foremost students of God's Word. They worked at understanding, interpreting, and applying the Word of God with precision and wisdom.

My observation is that MacArthur has reconnected with the Puritans on many doctrines, but he has ignored what they say about worldliness and cultural issues. They had plenty to say about that too, but he has not been one to share their "precision and wisdom" from the Word of God on those subjects. Just because some fundamentalists parked on topical preaching and pet issues doesn't mean that MacArthur should have forsaken the cultural ones to which he now seems to be returning.

MacArthur has in the last few years been making scriptural applications that I have never heard him make before. I believe that he is reacting to a worldliness that goes beyond that with which he is comfortable. And now Phil Johnson is doing the same. Much of this is in response to what is going on in churches in the name of church growth and marketing and of contextualization. They now are preaching messages that true separatists have been preaching for decades against some of the same problems they are dealing with. And now suddenly, these cultural topics, issues of conduct, are seemingly no longer so secondary and neither are they Christian liberties.

I agree with MacArthur and Johnson, but they are truly Johnny (and Phil) come lately. It also rings of hypocrisy to me. It seems that since the emergent (or emerging) movement and the Purpose-Driven phenomena (among other church growth schemes) have gone beyond even Johnson and MacArthur's tolerance for worldliness, that now the Bible suddenly says something on these matters. We've gotten where we are because these well-known and popular evangelicals have been silent already. Many recent articles and publications from MacArthur are dealing with these topics. And yet MacArthur had already clearly pushed himself away from those of us who have long been preaching against the same problems. Not only that, but Johnson and MacArthur still do the same kind of things and worse as the men that they are pointing out. I'll plainly illustrate this later.

The Johnson Sermon from Titus and Mark Driscoll

Phil Johnson preached an expositional message from Titus for the purpose of dealing with something that is occuring in evangelicalism, that is, pastors and preachers using foul and risque language in the pulpit. Johnson gave several examples of what he was talking about, saying that this kind of practice has become widespread. His poster boy for the message is Mark Driscoll, a maverick Reformed pastor in the Seattle area, who has become known as the "cussing preacher," because of the off-colored humor and corrupt speech that he uses in his sermons. The primary defense of men like Driscoll is that this is a kind of biblically espoused contextualization. It is missional, attempting to connect with and relate to a kind of mainstream sinner to whom he is preaching.

Johnson uses an expositional sermon from Titus to deal with this practice. He mainly parks on Titus 2:1-6. I listened to the message twice and I'm going to use the quotes as they directly came out of Johnson's mouth, rather than the ones that are up as a part of the transcript on the Shepherd's website. I believe we get what Phil is thinking in the exact quotes.

To start, the sermon was very good. He communicated the essence of what Titus 1 and 2 were about as well as I have ever heard it. Phil was right on with almost everything he said. It is true, as Johnson contended, that Titus 2 repudiates the practice of contextualization. The opposite of contextualization may be the very point that Paul is making in those two chapters to Titus. The churches on Crete were not to have leaders that behaved like Cretans. They were to provide a different kind of example, a contrast, to those people that lived on the island. An emphasis is placed upon behavior that was dignified and reverent, not that which would attempt to fit into the world. I wouldn't use the text behind the ESV like Phil did, but I will not be judging based on that criteria for this post. Even if he preached from the textus receptus, the message is the same, the emphasis is identical. I applaud Phil for it.

Phil was tough in the message. I heard excited men, shouting "amen" in the background. On the audio that I had, at 34:15, Phil made this important statement:

Sanctified behavior is the essential companion to authentically sound doctrine. It's essential. It's one thing to acknowledge that the gospel is essential; we need to acknowledge that to a certain degree some of the aspects of sanctification are absolutely essential. To a very large degree, I would say. And Paul's point here is that you may verbally affirm the finest confession of faith ever written, but if your words and your deeds deny it, Paul wouldn't have affirmed you as an authentic Christian at all, much less would he have laid hands on you for ministry.

That, by the way, is not how it reads over at the transcript at Shepherd's, but it is the quote word for word without a few verbalized pauses and stumbles.


Phil is making what he is preaching to be one of the "essentials." If it wasn't before, well, it is now an essential. This is what makes this very different. First, notice how that statement fits in with something that Phil said previously in the message. I take this quote straight from his transcript:

Doctrine is vital, yes. Some doctrines are essential, right? That's the premise of "Together for the Gospel," The Gospel Coalition, the Shepherds' Fellowship, and other similarly-minded groups. We may not agree on everything down to the smallest minutia, and we won't let insignificant disagreements rupture our fellowship. But we must agree on the gospel. That's the only basis for authentic Christian fellowship.

Then Phil says, very similarly:

Doctrine per se is not extraneous or superfluous, despite what our postmodern friends try to tell us. Some truths are vital—especially the rich tapestry of truth at the heart of the gospel. Some truths are so vital that if you deny or try to alter them in any way, you're anathema—accursed.

We even get italics for emphasis. Phil brings in his essential and non-essential teaching here. This isn't a thing that is in the Bible, that is, "we won't let insignificant disagreements rupture our fellowship." We don't see that teaching at all in Scripture. It is made up out of thin air. And what are insignificant disagreements? I'm sure that Mark Driscoll right now, and maybe John Piper, would say that what Phil is preaching is an insignificant disagreement and Phil knows it. He is moving it into the realm of significant, even though it isn't the gospel.

In this sermon, Phil Johnson makes bad speech a test of fellowship and that after he already says, "But we must agree on the gospel. That's the only basis for authentic Christian fellowship." Later he explains his point. He says that bad speech is the gospel. That's right, he does. Suddenly cultural issues and certain conduct or behavior are woven into the gospel by Phil Johnson. Later Phil says these statements:

But get this: there are likewise certain principles of sanctification and personal conduct that are so vital we're required to break fellowship with those who ignore them. . . . Paul's point is that sanctified behavior is the essential companion to authentically sound doctrine. You may verbally affirm the finest confession of faith ever written, but if your words and deeds deny it, Paul would not have affirmed you as an authentic Christian at all. Much less would he lay hands on you for ministry. . . . Notice that Paul encourages Titus to cultivate sound behavior, sound doctrine, and sound words—and to be a model in all those ways (not just the doctrine). Your life, your doctrine, and your speech are all crucial aspects of your pastoral duty. In fact, Paul words these instructions so that those categories are interwoven. Each one is essential to the others. They aren't three totally separate things, but three aspects of the same duty.

In these words, Phil Johnson weaves the speech and conduct into the gospel. Because the gospel is essential and they are woven into the gospel, then they're essential too. That's fine, but where does it say what is essential and not essential? Notice how many times that Phil uses the word essential in the quote that he is making good speech to be an essential. Three. And he says that it is the means by which someone can tell that you are an authentic Christian. Phil has chos
en this particular violation as one at the level of the gospel. As a result, this is a separation issue.

Speech toward People

Let's consider what it is that Phil is criticizing. This is speech that is directed toward people. He says that our bad speech toward people will misrepresent the gospel to the degree that it is a perversion of the gospel. Therefore, it is an essential, so it is something that is worth separating over. Isn't all sinful behavior not adorning the gospel to the degree that it can affect people's understanding of the gospel? We can't just pick and choose what our separating issues are going to be. This has crossed the line for Johnson and MacArthur. They don't want gutter pulpit speech and so it is elevated in its seriousness to an essential issue, despite the fact that the gospel is the issue of Christian fellowship, at least that's what Phil said before.

If you listen to the audio, you can hear that Phil becomes a little unsure of himself at that juncture, when he is raising the speech issue to the level of an essential. He says, "
We need to acknowledge that to a certain degree some of the aspects of sanctification are absolutely essential. To a very large degree, I would say." By the way, not all those words are in the transcript. They took them out. He says "to a certain degree" and "to a very large degree." Well, how can something be "absolutely essential" "to a certain degree" and "to a very large degree," and then he adds, "I would say." You would say? I thought we were depending on Scripture. Phil becomes very unauthoritative at that point. He knows that this contradicts the things he has been saying about essentials. We have been together for the gospel, but now we're also together for holy pulpit speech, well, I would say, um, to a certain degree or a large degree.

Then Phil has to do something that is real important in the making of this point. Phil must define what filthy speech is. He must tell us something that isn't in the Bible. This has been a major sticking point for the evangelicals against separatists---those militants that MacArthur pulled away from because they majored on the minors too much. Titus 2 assumes that we will know what sound speech is and what filthy speech is. I agree with Phil that we can know, but how can we make that determination for others when it is something that is not stated in Scriptu
re. Over at Pulpit Magazine, the MacArthur/Johnson people tell us:

[T]he Bible tells us “not to exceed what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). We cannot add to the Scripture without subtracting from its effectiveness in our lives. If we elevate personal preference and man-made tradition to the level of God’s Word (Mark 7:6-15), we risk entangling people in the bondage of legalism and diverting them from the true issues of sanctification (Romans 14:17).

When we determine what the filthy words are, words that are not said to be filthy in Scripture, are we elevating man-made tradition to the level of God's Word? Not only does Phil tell us that we're wrong if we say these words not found in the Bible, but we're violating an essential
and that is worthy of separation.


Phil goes about defining what cuss words are at the end of his sermon. In essence, he says that these words are so obvious that anyone would know what they were. We are expected to know what foul language is. And saying these words is worth separating over, even according to Phil Johnson. It is speech made to men. Phil says that it is blasphemous when that kind of language is mixed i
nto the preaching of God's holy Word. I don't disagree with him. I just wonder about the inconsistency in the matter of profanity.

What then is speech that has been profaned by worldly, undignified, irreverent music? In other words, what about worship? For Phil and even John MacArthur, whatever kind of music we send to God, whatever the taste we prefer, that's fine. It hasn't always been that way. At one time, it was wrong to use a certain type of music with godly words. But now that's not blasphemous. Is it possible that the same thing has happened to certain words, that we can't consider them to be foul anymore? Phil says that speech made to men, that is blasphemous. This is where they choose their essential behavior based on their own preference, even though it is not specifically mentioned in God's Word.

I agree with Phil Johnson and John MacArthur. I believe that this speech is intolerable. It is worth separating over. The men that use it should step down from the ministry. But what about the worship that has been mixed in with the rock and jazz music that is fleshly, sensual, worldly, and perverse? The same exact argument should be used about not using profane music in worship. Earlier in his sermon, Phil says:

There's nothing whatsoever here about adopting the badges of the youth culture in Crete. Not a word about the importance of fitting in or adapting your ministry to the lowbrow lifestyle of Crete. Titus was the one who was supposed to set the standard for them, not vice versa. . . . He doesn't tell Titus to get creative and learn to adapt his strategy to fit Crete's youth culture. . . Paul clearly recognized Crete's cultural tendency to favor the things of the flesh, but he was not in favor of making that tendency part of the ambience of the churches he was planting on Crete.

This is exactly what you see in the promotional material for their Master's College and for their Resolved Conference (you tell me what this does to worship and the name of God). They have the same kind of lighting and ambience at a secular rock concert. They have the trap set, all of the same types of music that we would hear in the world with its worldly, godless philosophy. You will find the same style of music used at the Shepherd's Conference, only a bigger production of it. Somehow this profanity misses MacArthur and Johnson, and yet this is speech that is sent toward God. They assume that God will enjoy this lack of dignity and reverence. What does that do to the adorning of the gospel? Why not make an application there? On this point, since they do these things, they would selectively say that this is legalism. The truth is that their worldly music that they call worship is exactly what has led to the further profanity that we see from Driscoll and others. Do you see this inconsistency?

I have more questions about evangelicals and not contextualizing. Phil said the word "cool" a couple of times in the presentation, speaking of what to try not to be.

And too many pastors are enthralled with the idea of being cool in the eyes of the world.

Paul wasn't the least bit concerned about adjusting the gospel message to eliminate the offence of the gospel; or adjusting the message to suit the tastes of some subculture; or making himself seem cool and stylish.

One might desire an interesting writing style, but if you read Pyromaniacs, Phil's blog, how many times do these forty-plus old men use the word "dude?" "Dude" may be the most-used word at Pyromaniacs. Should the term "dude" be used so many times if one is attempting to be dignified, a requirement from Titus that Phil emphasized? And why this picture that Phil chooses to represent himself? I understand the picture now and then, but to have this be the one that you want to be you. Is someone trying to be cool?

I've got more to say about MacArthur and Murray in part two.


Chuck Weinberg said...

Where did you go to high School? I think I played football with you.
visit my blog @
or email me @

found you on Pyros

Bobby Mitchell said...

Looking at the youtube videos you posted they strike me as a very sensual group of people--the way the musicians move their bodies, the way the women are shrieking about Mahaney, the way Mahaney wants to pound the drums and play to the crowds adoration . . . Any one with an ounce of discernment should be able to see that these people are not doing what the Lord and the Apostles commanded.

Joshua said...

Excellent job exposing the hypocritical line taken here.

To be honest, I have to sympathize with ol Phil. He does actually want to do what is right. He believes in God and wants to see him glorified in what is done in the Church.

It's just that he has a rotten doctrine (Prim, Second and Tert sorting) underlying much of his reasoning. He uses it to excuse far more than he ought Scripturally.

Yet at the same time he is not a spiritual fool. He looks around at things that are going on that are blatantly wrong, and he knows that it needs to be preached on and rejected. But the line of reasoning he has to use is the same he derides when apply his primary, secondary tertiary doctrine sorting method.

But he can't jettison that doctrine. Too many of his activities and associations is built upon the sand of doctrinal ranking. Yet he's just going to live with the contradiction because he has no intention of following the line of logic all the way home.

So many conservative evangelicals live in that halfway netherworld of knowing what is right, preaching what is right, but refusing to develop a Scriptural approach because enforced consistency there would cost them too many friends.

Robert said...

As they say in the driving world, anyone driving slow than you is an overcautious jerk and anyone driving faster is a reckless fool. Thus anyone more separated than you is a rigid hyper-fundy and anyone less separated is a carnal worldling.

Without an absolute standard of measure, it's all subjective, and thus shifts with the tides and the currents.