Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

The Faithfulness Fallacy

Some Background

A little while ago John MacArthur did a series of posts critiquing the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ movement. Needless to say, it created quite a stir.

Those who disagreed with MacArthur argued that he was using sweeping generalizations that were unhelpful and uncharitable and that his tone was unloving and combative. We felt scolded as if by an absentee father who hadn’t invested in us, but stopped by to spank us anyway.

The response from those who sided with MacArthur was, by and large, ‘He has pastored faithfully for 40 years, you need to listen to him.’ To be sure, the response was more than that, and included biblical justification of gaining wisdom from elders, etc. In the end, I argued that the responsibility remains on the younger ones of us to make sure we’re listening, even if we’re not being addressed as we’d like.

History Repeats

Isn’t it interesting how history seems to repeat itself? Recently James MacDonald came under fire for his public schmoozing with TD Jakes. One of the responses to the criticism that I’ve heard has been this: ‘James has faithfully pastored for 30 years, has led Harvest, sent out church planters, and people have been saved! Let’s show some respect!’

Both times (with MacArthur and MacDonald) the defenders of these public figures appealed to past faithfulness as a defence for present action. That’s worth noting.

Ad Hominem by Any Other Name

In logic an ad hominem attack is when you criticize a person rather than their idea. What I find fascinating in both of the above cases is that the defence being used is actually ad hominem. In other words, rather than defending the actions or ideas of the person which have drawn the scrutiny, the defenders of these individuals have resorted to speaking about the men themselves. But who the men are and what they have done in the past was never the issue.

On Balance

We need to attempt to avoid extremes. On the one hand, wisdom acknowledges the experience of the aged and proven faithful:

The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendour of old men is their gray hair (Prov 20.29)

Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old (Prov 23.22)

And we must ‘walk’ with those who have a proven track record of faithfully displaying wisdom:

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm (Prov 13.20)

That being said, we must not pre-judge a matter based on past faithfulness or wisdom alone. Whether it is MacArthur, MacDonald, Don Carson or Tim Keller — or any of the heroes of that faith for that matter — we must hear a matter out fully, weigh the opposing views in the balance and prayerfully seek wisdom.

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame (Prov 18.13)

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him (Prov 18.17)

And let’s not forget that it was the youngest witness of Job’s sufferings who had heard all the others speak first, who finally answered with wisdom.

Berean Honour

While we must honour those who have laboured before us and for us, the simple truth is that we do not biblically honour them if we do not weigh the wisdom of their words and actions against God’s word. No matter how faithful a man has been in the past, he is still a man, and still in need of ongoing correcting and perfecting this side of eternity. We must show them love, respect, and the benefit of the doubt, but we must never turn a blind eye to present unfaithfulness simply because we’ve witnessed past faithfulness.

I hope the people of Grace Fellowship Church would honour me and honour God in this same Berean way.


  1. Great point

  2. Faithful words. Glory to God.

  3. Agreed, they were both defended ad-hominem, as was Piper in the "why are you hanging out with Rick Warren?" discussion, and rightly so! Should not faithful pastors be vigorously defended, weeding out truth from error and opinion?

    Huge difference between MacArthur and MacDonald, however, because Johnny was speaking out of personal and historical experience and wisdom in what he felt was a neccessary call to holyness and seriousness in the YRR – it was not a doctrinal issue! He offended people's sensitivities.

    On the other hand, MacDonald is offending several levels of central theological issues – Modalism specifically, along with revisiting established creedal matters, etc.

    Doctrinal vs. personal is why not a fallacy in Johnny's case, but in MacDonald's it is! (And Piper's case…well…oh, Piper…)

  4. Although I agree that ecuminicism is the devil's game… I would like to ask if you and Challies bitter because McDonald for some reason (ie- he left from TGC)? It sure seems you've got an axe to grind.

  5. This is wonderful observation. I am currently blogging through John Stott's book "Christ the Controversialist" and he makes the distinction between having a tolerant spirit and a tolerant mind. As Christians, we should have a spirit of love, charity, and respect for other people, but that doesn't mean we have tolerance for their ideas of they are inconsistent with God's revealed truth. In fact, we have a responsibility to refute error. We are called to speak the truth in love, regardless of a person's stature within the evangelical community or the size of their church.

  6. No man is beyond sin or mistakes. But the Bible does teach that you shall know them by their fruit, therefore it is fair to look at the fruit of the years in ministry as a foundation. The most important fruit to look at is how they have interpreted Scripture. I think you might see some difference in this between MacDonald and MacArthur.

  7. Very good thoughts, thank you!

    One way we often use ad hominem is the, “you’re doing that because” argument. We’ve got to be careful because we can’t read hearts, especially of those we don’t know personally. During the ER debacle, I heard “James is doing this in order to raise more money” or “promote the conference more heavily.” How do they know? Perhaps he was sincerely convinced it was a good, helpful idea (which I don’t agree with, but I do think it’s a Christian thing to give our brethren at least the benefit of sincerity).

  8. One thing missing from this post is a clear statement that neither John nor James played the "faithful for many years" card. I have not read all responses but I recall that supporters of these men played that card. I realize you said "the defenders" of these men made the point but I just think a very clear word is needed that neither man used this kind of argument.

    As to the wisdom/experience/age stuff, I think of Proverbs 16:31"The silver-haired head is a crown of glory, If it is found in the way of righteousness." If it is not found in the way of righteousness, there's no fool like an old fool.

  9. Very good word of wisdom (and from a young guy!). I came out of a church movement that was highly oriented/controlled by the personality of the leader/pastor. The "faithfulness" of the man was a continually nurtured theme used as a blanket cover, justification, and rebuke against those who would question any specific actions/choices. We need this type of self analysis / self-watch so thank you for your article.

  10. One of the things that has much bothered me in the past few years is the disrespect that seems to come from pastors (some of whom are well known) for those who have "plowed the fields in which we sow" as it were. Augustine, Calvin, Martin Luther are all fair game. I know of one very well known writer who named his dog "Calvin" so that he could yell "Bad Calvin!" when the dog did something wrong because he thought Calvin so wrong in his theology. I have heard another pastor essentially make fun of Augustine because he felt that Augustine erred on the side of condemnation rather than grace. It is essentially a "We are more enlightened" attitude that gives no credit either to their place in Church history or the context in which they labored. Whatever they may have "gotten wrong" we need to show respect for the shoulders we stand upon as we labor to build the next level of the church. Disrespect is NEVER the proper response. A "culture of honor" to quote a well-known church honors everyone, including those who've gone before, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with everything they taught.

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