Report on a Shepherd’s Conference in California
M o s c o w – Russians too were shocked when the fundamentalist Californian church leader John MacArthur described Pope Francis as a “servant of Satan”. The setting was a side session at the annual, all-male “Shepherds’ Conference”, held from 9 to 13 March at MacArthur’s “Grace Community Church” in Sun Valley/California. In his sermon at the opening of the conference, the ever-combative MacArthur claimed that “Allah is not the same as God. Allah is a form of the devil.”
Men from 62 countries attended the conference, including the republics of Central Asia, China and Africa. Unofficial reports state that roughly 70 pastors from Russia were present.
Statements such as these are hardly surprising: The black-and-white-dualism pushed by MacArthur is not new. In a sermon at this conference on 17 March 2013, John MacArthur concluded that Roman Catholicism is “the kingdom of Satan wearing a Christian mask. . . . Every priest in the Roman system is an antichrist (sic)”. A study by the Russian theologian Andrei Kravtsev published in 2013 compares the theology of Rick Warren with that of John MacArthur. In it Kravtsev quotes MacArthur: “Every unsaved person in this world is controlled by Satan. (There is) no neutral territory.” Consequently: All which does not stem directly from God, must be from Satan.
In MacArthur’s theology, Protestants – and Pentecostals in particular — do not fare much better than Catholics or the Orthodox. In 2014, the California pastor called the churches permitting same-sex weddings “the apostate church, they are Satan’s church”. One of the churches he sites in this context is the Presbyterian “PC USA”, which is also active in Russia. MacArthur specifically calls Warren “an apostate” and the conservative Southern Baptist Convention a “dangerous compromiser”. Another speaker at the 2015 conference suggested that the movement pushed by MacArthur no longer describe itself as “evangelical”.
Kravtsev’s study claims that Warren and MacArthur “are stirring up two opposite trends discernible in Russian Baptist churches today”. While MacArthur pushes “submission, obedience and strength”, fellow Californian Warren stresses compassion. MacArthur emphasizes proclamation; Warren believes the Christian message cannot be made understandable without dialogue. Kravtsev quotes Warren: “If you do not have friends among unbelievers, then you cannot be like Jesus”. MacArthur views the “world” as ruled by Satan. Warren describes it in positive terms: “The border between good and evil does not coincide with the boundary between the church and the world; it rather, . . . lies in the heart of . . . each person.”
Prof. Gennadi Sergienko, dean of the Baptist flagship “Moscow Theological Seminary”, attended this year’s Shepherd’s conference at the host’s invitation. He noted that MacArthur on one occasion admitted that the graduates of his seminary had major difficulty retaining pastoral positions. The same tendency towards division is apparent among MacArthur-trained pastors in Russia and Belarus. This is not surprising, for the adherents of this theology combat other churches no less than they do the “world”. Two earlier quotes from Paul Washer, a speaker featured at this year’s conference: “Sunday morning in America is the greatest hour of idolatry in the whole week.” Or: “I would not send my child to a vacation Bible school in 99.9% of the Baptist churches in America.”
Gennadi Sergienko is concerned about growing separatist tendencies within his own Russian Baptist Union (RUECB). MacArthur’s 16-year-old “Samara Center for Biblical Training” is one of the two biggest theological institutions operating under RUECB auspices. The thought of Rick Warren fares best within the Evangelical-Christian movement headed by leaders such as Alexander Semchenko (Moscow) and Pavel Kolesnikov (Zelenograd near Moscow), both of whom were Baptists until recently. Warren also does well among Pentecostals and Methodists. MacArthur’s adherents though are largely within the Baptist Union. Illinois-based “Slavic Gospel Association” works closely with MacArthur and has strong, long-term ties with RUECB leadership. He also enjoys support among Baptists from the former USSR now living in Germany and North America.
The MacArthur movement cannot be described as explicitly political. Yet Sergienko fears that its separatist and antagonistic stance towards public life and the Orthodox could lead to serious political ramifications. Further divisions would significantly weaken an already struggling Russian Baptist Union.
Sergienko consequently utters a call for support from allied denominations and church organizations in the West. “We have so few other alternatives presently,” he complains. The non-involvement of reputable Western denominations over recent decades has allowed a fundamentalist fringe to make inroads.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 3 April 2016