John MacArthur and the Young Restless Reformed. A Fair Fight?

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[Editor’s note – this post has been revised after a commenter pointed out that the blog post by John MacArthur was one of a series.]

I recently read an article about the outcome of the recent Debt Ceiling debate in the US which questioned whether Obama was psychologically suited to win in Washington. The writer suggested that President Obama’s maturity and detached insight into the game of politics was the reason why he was unable to win the political and legislative war to decide the course of action the US would take to deal with its debt crisis. The article states that his aides describe him as ‘the only adult in the room’ during policy meetings. Essentially the writer is saying that Obama would not bring himself to engage in the emotive and foolish rhetoric that both Democrats and Republicans typically resort to in order to try and win support for their policies. The upshot of all this was that Obama was overpowered in the debate by Republicans who fought with more passion and aggressiveness than the even keeled President who saw through the foolishness of both sides of the argument but was unwilling to resort to their strategies.

If this is true I can sympathise with the President. Not in the sense of being the only adult in the room but certainly in the sense of not wanting to engage in an argument that is fast becoming more rhetoric than substance.  I believe I can argue, expostulate, reason, dispute, evince, squabble and verbally wrangle with the best of them. But so often I am simply discouraged and put off by the increasing trend of making emotional pitches to those who already support the speaker that even when I am confronted by issues that I am passionate about I find myself struggling for motivation to get involved. This goes every bit as much for debates within the church as it does politically based arguments.

For example, I recently read this blog from John MacArthur. MacArthur is a conservative by any measure, both from a worldly and from a church perspective. Perhaps more than any other he has been a voice of concern and opposition against what has been dubbed the young, restless and reformed (YRR) movement. MacArthur is a voice well worth listening to and I would recommend him as part of any balanced reading list for those who consider themselves reformed. I agree with his assertion in the above blog that Christians should not be overly concerned with the world’s opinion and that we as Christians should primarily seek to be known by our holiness and pursuit of Christ not our willingness to drink beer, gamble and get tattoos. But I disagree with the way that he has painted with a broad brush those who fall into the YRR movement.

Straw man generalisations like the one MacArthur subtlely constructs are, I think, detrimental to the church and the ability of different camps therein to learn from one another. MacArthur implies that those who are leaders in the YRR movement and dare to proclaim that beer, wine, tattoos, smoking, gambling and mixed martial arts are not sinful in themselves  are prone to drunkenness, worldliness, and driven by the concerns of man more than the concerns of a holy God. This is undoubtedly true in some instances but it is unfair and borderline dishonest for MacArthur not to acknowledge that this is not the case for all or even the majority. [Amendment: MacArthur does praise the YRR movement and states that he considers it a positive move on the whole here. This changes my perspective slightly but I still feel as though my statements about how MacArthur argues his point are valid.]

MacArthur attempts to preempt any argument that his views are legalistic and therefore dismisses the notion without actually addressing the argument in any real form. He then cites examples of sinfulness and idolatry and pain that I believe all members of the YRR would agree are destructive and not acceptable in the least. Finally Macarthur attempts to briefly deal with the fact that the bible condones the drinking of wine, that Jesus ate and drank with sinners and that the bible does not say that the above practices are sin.

My point is not to argue for the consumption of alcohol either recreationally or in ministry. Nor is it to argue for any of the other above activities that MacArthur criticises. My point is to criticise the way that MacArthur has sought to make his points and the division that it encourages. I would be equally critical of anyone who would identify themselves as YRR and who would seek to stereotype those who believe that Christians should not drink, dance or gamble as immature legalists who are repressed and terrified of anything they can’t control. That would be equally unhelpful and unfair.

I believe Mark Dever is a terrific example of someone who would share many of MacArthur’s concerns and is relationally connected to him but who engages with the YRR  and seeks to teach why he believes what he believes and not simply characterise and criticise within his own camp. I have heard him question and criticise the likes of Mark Driscoll, quite strongly at times, but he has also been willing to sit down and recognise that for the most part they are in agreement on the big stuff.

As Christians we are not to be quarrelsome or engage in foolish debates. I think this probably means as well that when we debate with each other that we should do so with a heart to educate and learn and pursue truth, not use argumentative method in order to ‘win’ the debate.

When you differ with another Christian are you arguing and debating with the pursuit of truth in mind or are you simply wanting to win a war?


12 responses to “John MacArthur and the Young Restless Reformed. A Fair Fight?

  1. : Straw Man occurs when. an opponent takes the original argument of his/her adversary. and then offers a close imitation. Now have you ever known John MacArthur to need a straw man to state his position. Really. He is rather straight forward. Of course he doesn’t always write the blog, Phil Johnson does that. So sometimes Phil will insert a link or two to illustrate what John wants to say.

  2. Hi James. I read that piece by Macarthur and I entirely agree with you. I thought perhaps that my reaction to it was wrong because I didn’t know the people involved (the side he was attacking). Perhaps, I thought, they are all getting drunk and going too far, etc. However if that is not the case, then he has very unnecessarily polarised the debate. Worse, he has gone beyond the Scriptures. I am tired of hearing the argument: there are alcoholics, therefore do not drink alcohol. It’s like saying: there are people who speed, therefore do not drive a car. Nevertheless he no doubt makes many fine points of warning that need to be heeded (I know you would agree and that your point is more about how they are arguing with one another). Bottom line: we all need to look carefully at what the Bible says and sit under it, critiquing our pagan AND church culture by it.

  3. Hi James (and my brethren at HBC),

    Been awhile since I have commented – that in no way diminishes my appreciation for this blog and the fond memories I have from the times my family and I fellowshipped with you.

    I have a few remarks on this post [and issue] that I would like to share;

    Obviously, this article that you refer to and comment on is of a series. I do think that needs to be taken into account. The full realm and sphere of the context of this one article can only be gleaned from taking into consideration the rest of them – particularly the first as that really lays down the reasoning behind why, what and how Dr. MacArthur writes.

    Personally I don’t like the term “YRR or Young Restless and Reformed”. It does not do it for me and seems like a term that may have been coined by those to whom Dr. MacArthur is addressing. Regardless, and I mean, regardless, of the the terminology used the real focus of all of this is upon those within the walls of evangelicalism who make it their mission to be culture accomodating and as one commentator on this blog (SDG) so perfectly put it;

    “The problem we have in the contemporary church scene is that we are being marinated in the spirit, values and attitudes of this age.”

    That is the crux.

    That is what compels Dr. MacArthur to write what he has in this series. Of which, as I mentioned, the article you refer to is one of several.

    Over here, there have been some who have got on the trigger real quick, not reading the articles (especially this one) without first taking off what I’ll call; their reactionary glasses and hat. Quick to label Dr. MacArthur as a legalistic and disconnected from this present age.

    Yet in no way do I want to simply defend Dr. MacArthur and come across as one who blind fully and zealously defends him cause he is my pastor and president. I am simply striving for balance when critiquing his words and motives for his confrontation of ‘YRR’.

    As he said, “He [Jesus] was indeed “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” in the sense that He specialized in lifting them up out of the miry clay and setting their feet on a rock. But He did not adopt or encourage their lifestyle. He did not embrace their values or employ expletives borrowed from their vocabulary in order to win their admiration or gain membership in their fraternity.”.

    The crux again. And the driving force in all he says and does regarding this issue at hand.

    Thank you for the article James, I hope family is treating you well.

    Many blessings,

    Matthew Johnston

    Ps. Please pray for us over here; that the Lord would sustain us and praise Him for doing so thus far. It is our desire to minister and shepherd the people of God.

  4. This is an interesting one, I must say! James, you have certainly struck an juicy issue – not only the straw-man issue, but the critique of the New Calvinist “YRR” movement.

    Firstly, I agree with you in that MacArthur has set up a straw man. His style of argument is in line with this (I have to disagree with Charles on this). This could have been caused by him avoiding naming people or specifics in the article, and in using the generic, he sets up a straw man. I think it would have better to name names and point at instances – he could have avoided sounding like he did. And, I think he could have. I think he's pointing to a possible culture problem in the New Calvinist movement. This leads to my second point.

    Heed the words of Tim Challies words on MacArthur's articles:

    "Now, with that context in place, let me share my great concern. It is this: That we will not give MacArthur a fair hearing. The irony is that this would just go to prove his point. The unwillingness to listen to the counsel of older men, the inability to be lovingly rebuked—this is a sure mark of immaturity (which Dr. MacArthur has already said is a mark of this YRR movement). And while we tend to pay lip service to those who are older and wiser, I am not convinced that we, the New Calvinists, listen very well. We are awfully excited about what the Lord has been doing in us and through us, but I am not so sure that we are seeking counsel and seeking wisdom from those who have accumulated it over many years. Are we seeking them and listening to them, even when it hurts and even when what they say seems old-fashioned?" (See here.)

    I have to agree with Challies, and I find myself agreeing with the "crux" (according to Matthew) of what he is saying. I believe he is right when he warns the YRRs about being marinated in the zeitgeist; it's a shame he's madly waving around a small scarecrow while he's doing it.

  5. “This could have been caused by him avoiding naming people or specifics in the article, and in using the generic, he sets up a straw man. I think it would have better to name names and point at instances – he could have avoided sounding like he did.”

    This issue has been discussed at length either in other blogs and on radio interviews over the past two weeks. This is now longer not a movement that has men who need to be called upon by “naming names”; it is a facet of Christianity that needs to listen to an older man.

    These articles (and I hope as as I said; you’ve all read them all as they are to be taken as such – to avoid dropping in mid conversation [the worst of mistakes]) are pastoral letters, written by a man who cares for these men but sees real issues within their ecclesiology. I struggle to see where all this negative talk comes from.

  6. I believe the fact that this post has stirred up the passion that it has somewhat underlines my point. My post was about argumentative debate and whether we construct them to seek truth or whether we do so in such a way that we draw lines in the sand and encourage division.

    MacArthur (and his supporters) want to frame this debate in the simple terms of ‘younger men need to listen to older men’. They want to frame it in terms of ‘the YRR is pandering to the world and needs to repent’. The YRR then responds with ‘older men don’t understand culture or the world’ and ‘we are reaching out to the world and you need to repent’.

    Both of these are oversimplified emotive rhetoric, which are not completely true although both contain some truth.

    The question of whether brewing and drinking beer is legitimate behaviour for Christians and whether we can use this to reach out to the world with the gospel is a good debate to be had. We can reason from scripture to make points and counterpoints and we can be passionate in this.

    The problem is that when we resort to oversimplified divisions, we imply that people are on one side of the other. The rhetoric of MacArthur’s post implies either you are pandering to the world through drinking beer and gambling etc, or you reject these things in true Christian maturity. There is no middle ground that suggests that there are mature Christians who, according to scripture and their conscience, have decided that it is for them morally okay to drink alcohol in certain situations and that one can debate theology over a beer.

    My point remains that MacArthur rejects this third option outright by his silence on the subject and therefore forces us to pick a camp and inevitably we defend our camp instead of seeking to learn and pursue truth. MacArthur does have a very valid warning to those in the YRR but the means by which he has chosen to express himself means that the YRR have to get past his rhetoric to hear it. Hence my criticism of this type of argumentative method and debate.

  7. Yep, absolutely, James. The rhetoric is not helpful for the debate. Perhaps the funniest thing about the articles is that when he talks about being ‘Reformed’, he ignores the ‘Truly Reformed’ camp – Presbyterians, Reformed Church types. They love a whiskey and a cigar! They epitomise the third option, in that they are traditional and orthodox in their practice and theology (more so than MacArthur is, even), and yet are comfortable in their enjoyment of beer, wine etc…. In short, I agree with you on your comments, James. He has unhelpfully passed over the other options, and “forces us to to pick a camp”.

  8. I enjoy a good debate too, but…

    whilst we ‘navel gaze’ over peripheral issues, Satan has us just where he wants us, expending our energy, time and intellect, 😦 sounding ever-so-much like Pharisees when all around us people are going to hell never having heard the gospel.

  9. Thats the problem that comes with blogs Don. So very impersonal sometimes. They often lacking relationship……and waste time.

  10. I had not planned to leave a comment on this subject, but Don’s comment pointed me towards something which I believe is worth saying.

    The Lord Jesus Christ is important to me, and in all disputes and debates I look to him for wisdom and example. It is all to easy to get heated up, and the focus then rests on egos, and it is not at all profitable for anyone.

    The Lord Jesus was once young. Could he be described as ‘Young Restless and Reformed’? Would that be important to Him? I suggest his preoccupation was never his youth, or his frustrated energy, but to please His Father at all times.

    There are a couple of lovely snippets about the Lord Jesus in his young days at home. He was a country boy in an inconspicuous town called Nazareth. His parents took him to the Temple once, and there was a bit of a fuss, because he became engrossed in LISTENING to the teachers, and ASKING them questions. Even the Lord Jesus was humble enough to listen and learn. How did he spend his young years before beginning his ministry at the age of 30 years? Lk 2:52 He increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man.

    Anyone in any culture recognises wisdom and stature in others irrespective of age, and God has a way of bringing out His wisdom from obscurity (Jesus came from Nazareth), and there are plenty of examples of his servants who have ministered in remote and obscure places, and He brings them to our attention.

    The problem of out time (as Martin infers) is that blogs are easily accessible, and are a gift for those who want to promote themselves and their ideas. We end up taking ourselves too seriously. Perhaps we would better serve the Lord and His Church as we devoted our time to the local prayer meeting to seek His face instead.

  11. If you missed it, our regular readers might want to read John MacArthur’s concluding words that he wrote on his blog in response to the controversy his post stirred amongst his Young, Restless, Reformed friends.

    I am greatful for MacArthurs reminder of the old Reformation slogan, “Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (“The church Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”). It’s one we should be proclaiming today.

  12. I am so glad Don posted the above link to MacArthur’s closing blog post in his series. I appreciate his heart so much in this post and feel edified and encouraged in reading it. While I still hold that my above criticisms are valid of the particular post of MacArthur’s that I was addressing I am blessed to read the words of a mature saint who wants to see the young and reformed persevere in their theology and ministry. We might differ on some ideas as to what maturity looks like but his father heart encourages me nonetheless for it.

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