I recently had the honor and privilege of asking Phil Johnson, a well-known and accomplished writer, blogger, editor and preacher, several questions about ministry, practical church issues, theological concerns etc. Phil was gracious enough to take the time to respond and interact fully with all my questions.
My questions are in bold, with Phil’s responses in regular text.
Phil Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981, and edits most of pastor John’s books. But he may be best known for several popular websites he maintains, including The Spurgeon Archive, The Hall of Church History, and (formerly) the Pyromaniacs blog. Phil has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Moody Bible Institute (class of 1975) and was an editor at Moody Press before joining Grace Community Church. He is an elder at Grace Church and pastors the GraceLife fellowship group. Phil and his wife, Darlene, have three adult children and five grandchildren.
What, in your opinion, are one or two of the most pressing theological threats to evangelicalism today?
Here are three: 1) Apathy about sound doctrine; 2) the utterly false notion that if the gospel is properly contextualized no one will be offended by it; and 3) a ministry philosophy based on worldly values.
What is the importance and impact of a conference such as the Strange Fire conference?
The goal is to bring a note of clarity to fundamental truths like the authority and reliability of Scripture. With wave after wave of outlandish chicanery coming from the charismatic movement (on the one hand), and (on the other hand) so much confusion left in the wake of postmodern “emergence religion”—someone desperately needs to speak a word or two of correction without hedging, and no one else seemed to want to.
In the scope of large-scale evangelical opinion, we are merely a whispered voice of dissent—and every effort will be made to silence that whisper. People who claim to be “Spirit-filled” and people who tout the virtues of tolerance are awfully quick to get angry, aren’t they? That’s because in a culture like ours where diversity, inclusivity, and tranquility are deemed higher values than truth, there will be strong resistance to any message that exposes the fallacies of popular opinions—or unmasks fraud in popular movements. But we persist. It’s a matter of biblical conviction and conscience.
Aside from being informative for those who already agree with the conference’s position, what kind of impact do these conferences have on people who may disagree? Do these kinds of conferences effectively persuade and lead people to the truth?
A conference like “Strange Fire” isn’t going to stymie the wholesale charlatans or slow down the large movement much. But it does help lots of individuals who are caught up in prosperity teaching or other charismatic doctrinal oddities. And a voice of biblical clarity is a much-needed lifeline for discouraged souls who have been told they didn’t get healing through some fault of their own—a deficiency in their faith; failure to sow a generous enough seed offering; or whatever. Those are sinister teachings, and they need to be opposed and denounced regardless of whether this or that person or group might be pleased, persuaded, or provoked.
Nevertheless, people are influenced for good. I have met dozens of people in the months since the “Strange Fire” conference who have told me that the conference helped change their thinking and led them out of charismatic confusion. Just last week I spoke at an event on the east coast where I met one family who had left a prosperity-gospel-style church because of what they learned at “Strange Fire.” I also met another woman who told me “Strange Fire” gave her the courage to face what her conscience had always been telling her: that there was nothing supernatural about her “tongues-speaking”; she was just saying random nonsense syllables. She’d been afraid to question what she was doing, lest she be guilty of an unpardonable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But to her surprise, when she finally confessed the truth, her soul was uplifted by a great sense of liberty, and her passion for Scripture was now greater than ever. One case like that would be worth all the scorn that has been aimed our way in the blogosphere. But I know there are thousands more like her, because we hear from such people almost every day.
By the way, despite the noisy public controversy about “Strange Fire,” the direct feedback we have received (letters and e-mails sent directly to Grace to You) has been almost completely positive.
How much would you agree with, or qualify, the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity?”
That would take a much longer answer than I can give in a paragraph or two. In short, I do completely agree with the famous cliché, as long as we have a proper understanding of what’s essential and what’s secondary. Most believers simply do not know where to draw the line. John MacArthur dealt with this issue in Chapter 4 of Reckless Faith. (Reprinted in chapter 6 of Truth Matters.) I agree with him.
What is your opinion on 2nd or 3rd degree separation? How do you discern between those whom we may associate with or minister alongside of, and those pastors, churches, organizations or theologians who are too far left or compromising to endorse or associate with?
Again, that’s a huge issue that would require volumes to cover adequately. First-degree separation is clearly commanded in 2 Corinthians 6:14. There is no place for spiritual partnerships with unbelievers. But what do we do with disobedient believers? In a perfect world, a stubbornly unrepentant person would be excommunicated from the church—in effect making separation automatic. But we all know instances (including some very high-profile cases) where church leaders have sinned, compromised on some crucial point, or done things that ought to disqualify them from church leadership—yet they have stayed in their pastoral role. Their sin is sometimes even celebrated or waved around like a banner by people in their churches.
Suppose a well-known minister has publicly embraced and formally affirmed a well-known Sabellian heretic (or some theological miscreant of similar enormity). Or suppose it comes to light out that a celebrity pastor who has run up a massive debt in his church is also secretly a high-stakes gambler. Now suppose that when his moral turpitude is exposed he remains in his position of leadership and influence. Suppose he is not only unrepentant about his own actions, but also aggressively critical of anyone who refuses to affirm him.
I would never publicly affiliate with someone like that, even if I was fairly confident he himself is a genuine (albeit disobedient) believer in Christ, not an utter apostate.
Some would argue that my refusal to join arms with that guy is a form of second-degree separation. Fine. There are times when separation from a notoriously ill-behaved, over-tolerant, or doctrinally errant fellow Christian is clearly warranted (1 Corinthians 5:10). Separation from a disobedient brother seems even more vital when the disobedient brother is in a prominent position where he might influence people in my own flock. Of course, the ideal would be for the man’s own congregation to correct him or discipline him. But what if they don’t? And let’s be honest here: nowadays, most mainstream evangelicals simply do not demand either holiness or accountability from their leaders—especially those leaders that attain some degree of fame or celebrity status.
It’s a shame churches are so negligent in the duty of spiritual discipline, but the fact that the wider evangelical movement is worldly and impure does not obligate me to pretend that our fellowship in Christ renders all sin moot.
To be clear, I’m not a zealot when it comes to the issue of secondary separation. The meltdown of fundamentalism in the second half of the 20th century shows the danger (and the folly) of making a high degree of separatism the quintessential test of one’s piety or orthodoxy. But I also think the course of neo-evangelicalism during that same period of church history shows the utter fallacy of viewing separation as a sin or a defect rather than an unpleasant necessity. There clearly are times when some kind of “secondary separation” is advisable and justifiable—and even those who say they don’t practice it really do. Rick Warren and Andy Stanley aren’t exactly going out of their way to seek partnership with R. C. Sproul or Al Mohler, are they?
In preaching/teaching from the pulpit, how do you discern when you should name a dangerous/false teacher that may be influencing those in the congregation?
It’s subjective. I should point out that that in my preaching—when I’m handling the word of God—I’m not usually as polemical as I would be on a blog or in an article dealing with some specific point of controversy. But if I am going to be publicly critical about anything (or someone) in a sermon, it should be something truly important, not trivial.
Even then, however, I don’t name names if I can give a description of whatever false teaching or dangerous trend I’m dealing with and be fairly sure that the people who need to know what I’m talking about will understand who or what I have in mind. I don’t like to name names if I can reasonably avoid it. But I don’t shy away from naming names if it is necessary for clarity’s sake.
I realize that calls for a subjective judgment. So be it. But if I err in this, I hope it’s on the side of restraint.
Next, I ask Phil about church discipline, addressing doctrinal error, and more!