Sometimes the fruit just hangs so low. The target is so close and easy to hit. And Tim Challies provides such opportunities so regularly.
When it comes to pastoral ministry, many of the neo-puritan and neo-reformed types revere John MacArthur. There were periods during my pastoral ministry when I read things he wrote, but even then, even when I agreed with many of his positions, I thought of him as a rather out-of-touch biblicist. I saw him as one of those “nose-in-the-book” Pharisee-types who saw the text as the true reality and the world and people as secondary in importance and emphasis. That impression has been confirmed time and time again over the years.
And it is confirmed once more by an article at Challies, commending MacArthur’s imbalanced and woefully incomplete description of pastoral ministry.
In this article, Challies references some teaching MacArthur did on 1 Timothy 4, which has this in verse 6:
If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed.
John MacArthur then takes a leap. Now let me say that I understand this leap, for I have taken it many times in the past. MacArthur generalizes the passage and then goes on to teach it as timeless truth for all ministers.
He says that this text provides “a rich summary of all of the apostle’s inspired instruction for those who serve the church as ministers, as pastors. And it all begins with the statement, a noble minister, an excellent minister, a good servant of Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine).
Now this is patently not true. The “12 marks” of an excellent minister that John MacArthur finds in this passage nowhere begin to summarize all of Paul’s teaching about pastoral ministry. Not even close. What they do summarize are characteristics of ministry that Paul urged upon Timothy in the particular setting of Ephesus, where false teaching was invading and dividing the congregations. And because John MacArthur has defined pastoral ministry strictly in terms of teaching and guarding against false doctrine, he likes this list. It conforms to his expectations of what the Bible should say about a pastor’s responsibility. So he makes it a general statement, a defining text about what it means to be an excellent minister.
Here are the 12 marks of an excellent minister John MacArthur finds in 1Timothy 4:
- An excellent minister warns people of error.
- An excellent minister is a faithful student of Scripture.
- An excellent minister avoids the influence of unholy teaching.
- An excellent minister is disciplined in personal godliness.
- An excellent minister is committed to hard work.
- An excellent minister teaches with authority.
- An excellent minister is a model of spiritual virtue.
- An excellent minister maintains a thoroughly Biblical ministry.
- An excellent minister uses his spiritual gift and employs it.
- An excellent minister is passionate regarding his work.
- An excellent minister is manifestly growing spiritually.
- Finally, an excellent minister perseveres in ministry.
Fully half of John MacArthur’s list is about teaching. The other points, though not explicitly about study or teaching, imply working with the Bible or mention some aspect of that in his comments. Challies quotes him as saying:
You will spend your whole life mastering one book — one book, the only book that God has inspired which he has placed all of his truth. The Bible becomes the sole content of your ministry, the sole theme of your preaching and it must saturate your mind and your soul. You make a radical commitment to the Bible and to Bible study and to Jesus. That is being lost rapidly in ministry.
Now, I love the Bible as much as anyone, but this is a narrow and woefully inadequate description of Christian pastoral ministry. And yet MacArthur sees this as “a rich summary of all of the apostle’s inspired instruction for those who serve the church as ministers, as pastors.”
What about 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8? Shouldn’t this be included as well?
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (emphasis mine)
What about the countless NT examples of Jesus, the disciples, Paul, and other ministers visiting the sick, helping the poor, caring for orphans and widows, organizing projects to help those in need, spending time with people in the community, engaging in conversations and befriending the neighbor?
The other day I was talking with a man whose wife came on to our hospice service. It was my initial assessment, so I asked about his faith and his church. “Does your minister visit you?” I asked.
He looked at me incredulously and said, “What kind of a minister doesn’t visit the sick and shut-ins?”
A minister with John MacArthur’s “12 marks,” that’s who. His nose is too stuck in the book to take the time.
But what really gets me about this is that John MacArthur is held up as a model of expository preaching.
This message, my friends, is not expository preaching. Expository preaching explains what the text meant to its original recipients, discusses the context in which the words were given, and only then — cautiously — draws lessons that we might learn from it for our lives today.
John MacArthur doesn’t do that. His message, based on 1Timothy 4, asserts that this is THE description of a Christian minister for all times and in all places.
This is a topical sermon. It sets forth John MacArthur’s idea of what a pastor should be, and cites biblical material to support it.
So, not only do I disagree with his portrayal of a pastor, I find his method of proclaiming that deceptive and unethical. In essence, he is stating that his own view of what a pastor should be is “biblical” — it’s “what the Bible teaches.” And anyone who disagrees with him disagrees with the Bible.
The problem is, this is so common in evangelical preaching everywhere that I have little hope it will ever change. And people eat it up, thinking their pastor is preaching and teaching the Bible.
Believe me, I know whereof I speak. I’m no innocent here. I have file drawers full of these kinds of sermons — of which I now repent.
But I also have little patience for this kind of preaching and teaching anymore. Especially when the one doing it is so insistent that he is proclaiming the whole counsel of God.