Pastor John MacArthur's two most serious errors

New Warhorn Media post by Tim Bayly:


“There are a host of things [that could be] said which would have comforted a woman who herself, or her friend, had experienced a pastor exercising ‘some undue authority.’”

There are few things that drive me battier that the idea (which I vividly recall first encountering over 30 years ago) that because someone has experienced bad fatherhood, what they need is no fatherhood (including no mention of God’s Fatherhood). This is just a subset: the notion that an experience of bad pastoral authority will be mitigated by no pastoral authority whatsoever. It’s like saying that because someone was the victim of medical malpractice that made her condition worse, she shouldn’t have to endure the treatment of any other doctors. As if that will mean she is magically cured! Argh! As someone who has experienced abdication and/or abuse from father, brothers, and more than one shepherd, I vehemently resent the notion that what I need is zero authority. Grrr. :rage::face_with_symbols_over_mouth::facepunch:

(OK…I’m done. We now return you to your regularly scheduled cheerful Valerie. :grin:)


Truth! Under-girding, the entire ridiculous notion is the overriding anxiety “What if the [insert authority figure here] is wrong or even evil?” What is conspicuously absent in that anxiety is the corollary notion “What if I am wrong or even evil?” The anxiety unintentionally displays an intense intellectual/practical pride: “I can trust me, but I’m not so sure about God-given authority figures.” To which I respond,“Gimmie a break! Do you even know you?”


My original comment on that video: “MacArthur’s answer is confused and confusing. Our ultimate authority is indeed the word of God. However, it is precisely this word of God which establishes offices in the church with real (subordinate) authority.”


The Puritans were masterful at preaching to the conscience.


As usual, thank you for your love for the church as demonstrated in such pieces, brother @tbbayly.

Though I have many things that I disagree with him about, I actually really appreciated brother John’s answer to the question. So what I’d appreciate is what does this actually mean for an elder to exercise authority (apart from teaching from the pulpit) in practice?

I mean, let’s get really specific. Do you think an elder has authority to tell one under his care whether or not he should take job X? Or Move to city Y? When brother John says he doesn’t have any authority, it sounds to me like he’s talking about these kinds of specifics which the Scriptures don’t give us black and white answers to (unless there’s black and white sin associated with taking job X or moving to city Y). As he put it well, an elder can and should offer counsel but I agree with him that he cannot and should not give commands in these kinds of particulars that Scripture isn’t black and white on.

I see a distinction between the authority that an elder has in a congregation vs. the authority a father has over his children and wife (notice that the word obey in Hebrews 13:17 is different–more literally “be persuaded by”–than the word obey in 1 Peter 3:6, for example, which is the stronger subordination term). I’m reminded of the spheres of authority that you speak of so helpfully in Daddy Tried and I think what brother John is referring to is a very real danger: elders can easily overstep their God-given sphere of authority by beginning to wield authority in the particulars of the lives of the saints.

Also, what I appreciate about brother John’s answer is that it allows any saint to speak authoritatively into the life of another saint when doing so on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture. I believe this is what should be the norm in a healthy church community (e.g. Colossians 3:16), not only the elders speaking authoritatively (which they should be doing!) into the lives of the saints on the basis of God’s Word.

Could you please help me understand better if you see the elders having a greater authority (I think this would be what @jtbayly calls “subordinate authority”) than the authority mentioned in the previous paragraph that all the saints should have in the lives of each other as they faithfully bring the Scripture to bear on each other? The only way I’d see the elders authority as “greater” in this case is simply by virtue of them being the ones to more frequently be teaching the saints the Scriptures. But I’m not sure I’d call this greater authority per se. In this sense, I see the saints having “subordinate” authority in each others’ lives just as much as the elders do.

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This is not what he’s saying. Not at all. If you can’t see it, I can’t make you do so. If men we admire say things we cannot imagine any other father of the church in or outside Scripture would ever ever every ever say, that’s a clue. I have no authority. Full stop.

Then add that he believes he should not apply the text to this flock and we have a consistency that is clear.

If the only thing a pastor or elder could ever say in application of the Sixth Commandment was that a man should not shoot another man in cold blood, a vast number of the Larger Catechism’s Q&As would never have been written. Almost any pastoral counsel can be denounced as going beyond the text of Scripture.

I’m sorry, but I have no patience for your demurral. To suggest that Pastor MacArthur is simply saying he doesn’t have authority to tell a man where he and his family should live is beyond belief. To me at least. Calvin is right.

John MacArthur is wrong. Woefully so.

You disagree and I’m sad.


PS: One thing that might be instructive to you is to read and compare John Calvin’s sermons on a text to John MacArthur’s. It would blow your mind. It’s the difference between eating meat and eating good computer code.


Thank you for responding, brother. Hmm. Well in a sense I’m sad too because I really would like to better understand the issue you’re raising but clearly I’m not understanding fully. I respect that you have more important things to focus on so, truly, thank you for taking the time to write the article in the first place and to respond to me. I love you brother and look forward to continuing to benefit from the gift of wisdom that the Spirit has given you to serve the church.

Perhaps someone else might care to weigh in?

I think that elders absolutely have the authority to tell you not to move or change jobs. I think that a responsible loving man who is an elder would not place restrictions in those areas unless he believed very strongly he was doing the right thing. Trust him and respect his authority.


Let’s talk. You’ve got my number, right? Love

Yes. An example of a similar text would be “submit to one another” in Ephesians. But then the particular is given to three groups, children, wives, and slaves.

An even better example would be “confess your sins to one another” but then it goes on to talk about the elders specifically having a special place in that work of hearing confessions.

Here’s a practical example that connects the issue with applying texts: Suppose a young man in my church starts dating a non-Christian. The Bible never says not to date nonChristians. However, I have no problem applying the text to tell him he must stop. Of course, any Christian could tell him that. But if I tell him that as an elder it comes with the power of the keys of the kingdom behind it.

At first I was inclined to say a pastor or elder couldn’t tell a man not to move, but of course, it’s not that hard to come up with an example. A man is moving to, in the judgment of the elder or pastor, be closer to the woman he just supposedly cut off an adulterous relationship with. I forbid it.

Almost every example of excommunication for contumacy would be similar.


Thank you for giving me concrete examples, brother. That’s exactly what I was interested in.

I assume you’re referring to Matthew 18 when you speak of it coming with the power of the keys. If not, where? My struggle is that I see the entire congregation exercising those keys after one and then two or three saints call a brother to repent. I don’t see elders specifically given any keys here.

Do you have another text to point me to? Or do we just agree to disagree on the meaning and application of Matthew 18?

I can’t speak for Pastor Tim, but I believe I can take a pretty good stab at what he is getting at.

First off, I greatly appreciate John MacArthur in regards to his expositional skill and his devotion to the text of Scripture. I have benefited much from listening to his preaching, and reading his books. I’ve never met the man, but I have benefited from his ministry.

The irony though, is that what I just said in the sentence above is probably about the same testimony you would receive from talking to the vast majority of the members of his congregation. And that’s a problem.

Here in the age of the pulpit ministry, most pastors have largely neglected the work of being personally involved in the lives of the specific sheep that God has entrusted to them. Pastors devote thirty-some hours of their time each week to study in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, while living life largely separate from the flock. They don’t know the congregation. The pastor no longer regards preaching as a part of pastoral ministry (significant and essential as it is!). Instead, preaching has become the totality of his ministry.

At best, today’s pastor accurately exegetes the word of God from the pulpit on Sunday, while knowing virtually nothing about the individual souls in his congregation.

Today’s pastor knows nothing about Bill and Tammy’s crumbling marriage. He knows nothing about Bobby’s pornography addiction. He doesn’t know that Sally, who has been a regular attendee at this church for two years, has sinfully divorced her husband. Today’s pastor doesn’t visit the families of the church to get to know them, and find ways to stir them up to love and good works.

Should the congregation all be loving one another in these areas? Of course, yes! But the congregation aren’t the ones who will be giving an account to God for the oversight of the sheep. The elders will, though, and most don’t tremble at this like they should.

Today’s pastor doesn’t think of himself as a shepherd. He thinks of himself as a preacher. Ivory tower theology, even if it’s sound theology, is still ivory tower theology. Pulpit ministry.

If Scripture commands us laymen to obey our leaders and submit to them, it’s implicitly understood that this is because our leaders will actually be involved in our lives in such a way that commands obedience. True pastors don’t deal only in the realm of the abstract. They deal with persons. Sheep. Souls.

And I think what Pastor Tim is getting at is that Pastor MacArthur doesn’t do that. And I think Pastor Tim is disheartened that this is the paradigm of pastoral ministry being fostered by MacArthur’s example.

So yes, is there a form of pastoral authority that oversteps? Yes. But as our forum motto states (I just made that up): we must be careful not to sacrifice the normal on the altar of the abnormal. Yes, abuse exists. Pastors shouldn’t be telling their congregation what color car to buy, or what kind of salad dressing to use. We get it.

But today’s problem is not that pastors are overstepping their authority. They are simply abdicating their authority. And the church is suffering because of it.


Not indefinitely, but for tonight, yes. Although, I will add that you’ll have to give thought to what exactly it means to leaders in the church to give an accounting to God in a way that others in the church will not.

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Thanks @jander. Really well said and helpful, brother. I totally agree. But I think we’re conflating issues here. Being intimately among the sheep and exercising authority in their lives are definitely related but I don’t see them as one and the same. But you make a very good case that I very much agree with. That’s why I asked for clarification. I definitely wasn’t understanding brother @tbbayly to be saying this.

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He wasn’t, but it is another issue closely connected to the other two mentioned. However, it’s one that cannot be judged just by looking at the sermons. @jander is guessing I think. And it’s a good guess based on the issues mentioned in the original post.

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Totally guessing, hence the premise that I can’t speak for Tim. But I’d like to think I’m at least sort of tracking. :slight_smile:

Before we get to a discussion of the pastoral application of church authority in the day to day life of a congregation, we do need to have some basic agreement on Scripture’s teaching about that authority. The following excerpts are from James Bannerman’s Church of Christ. (You can download an ebook version here. I made a quick browseable version here.)

“The power of the keys” has a twofold meaning: one more extensive, implying the whole power belonging to the Church, as contradistinguished from “the power of the sword,” belonging to the civil magistrate; the other a more limited meaning, implying the ordinary power of government and discipline exercised by the Church.

When we moderns read about the “the power of the keys”, we assume that it refers to a power that is given to each and every Christian. We think this only because we are rabid egalitarians. Bannerman certainly doesn’t think so, and you can see it in how he connects church discipline with Christ’s delegation of authority to his church:

There are three occasions more especially on which we find our Lord intimating the grant of such power [that is, of church discipline and ecclesiastical censures] to His Church.

  • First, on the occasion of the remarkable confession made by Peter, our Saviour declares to him: “I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
  • Next, when speaking of the treatment of offences, our Lord, on another occasion, declares to all the Apostles: "If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, then tell it unto the Church: but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."2
  • A third time, and after His resurrection, we find our Lord conferring on His Apostles the same authority in connection with their commission as Apostles: “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”

In other words, Bannerman uses each of the passages listed above to prove that the church today has the right to discipline its members. And what does “discipline” mean? I think it’s very helpful in this context to focus on the sacraments. It clarifies the discussion. Who has the right to decide who may receive the sacraments?

Bannerman devotes Part 4 of work to answering that question by going into a discussion of various forms of church government and arguing, ultimately, for the presbyterian form. But, leaving aside the question of which form of government is the best, it should be noted that he takes for granted that the church has real authority to discipline it’s members. And if that’s true, then that authority must be vested in particular men within the church.

How could it be otherwise? Are we going to take a vote to see who should be allowed to take communion this week? Of course not.

In reality, what happens in most Evangelical churches these days is that everyone and anyone is allowed to take communion. And that’s simply to say that there is no authority anywhere.

So, yes, the elders (church leaders, if you don’t like presbyterian polity) must have an authority that is greater than others in the congregation. To argue otherwise is to argue authority out of existence in the church.


Good point. Agreed. I don’t believe Matthew 18, for example, gives us this kind of individual authority but rather a corporate authority that is tied to the Word of God.

Thank you for taking the time to share this, brother. I haven’t read Bannerman extensively, though I do know of him and some of what he promotes.

This is a much bigger conversation but this article by Jonathan Leeman highlights some of the key points of discussion: Putting in a Good Word for Congregationalism : 9Marks

I generally agree with Leeman and this segment in point #3 on kingdom authority vs. the authority of oversight is pertinent as it relates to my question to @jtbayly regarding where in Matthew 18 we see the power of the keys particularly exercised by elders:

Nowhere is the discussion of elder authority in Acts or the Epistles tied to the kingdom (that I’m aware of) or to the keys. And nowhere in Matthew 16 or 18 are elders mentioned. Exegetically, in other words, there’s no reason to think that the authority of the keys is the authority of oversight.

Does me being a congregationalist in this sense necessarily mean that we are unable to “have some basic agreement on Scripture’s teaching about that authority” and thus can’t proceed in this discussion?

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If you could, would you mind taking some time to describe what the pastoral authority in your congregationalist church looks like, in practice?

I ask this not by way of rebuttal. I’m part of a congregational church as well, but I’m not sold on this method of polity and would genuinely benefit from you sharing your own experience.

Are the pastors of your church actively involved in overseeing the lives of the individual members of the congregation, or are they moreso like distant officers who manage and execute the liturgy, and oversee the administration of the church programs and finances?

What would it look like if an elder in your church was in unrepentant sin? Does the congregation have to wait until his office term is up and then vote him out? Similarly, does the congregation vote the elders out if the elders implement practices that the congregation doesn’t like? What does that interaction look like.

Genuinely interested. Thanks.