What do you do when church discipline is no longer implemented? That is the question that I find myself asking in regards to Phil Johnson.
Grace Community Church & Grace To You, under the leadership of Pastor John MacArthur, have been one of the leaders in teaching and implementing church discipline. They believe, rightly so, that there is a system laid out in Matthew 18 that Christians are supposed to follow to bring someone to repentance. This is not necessarily to punish someone, but for the goal of bringing them to repentance.
Let me make this very clear, just like I have in previous posts: I was born into Grace Community Church. I grew up listening to Pastor MacArthur sermons, and he has really shaped my theology. When I went into ministry, I attended the Shepherds Conference, and Phil Johnson was always my favorite speaker every year. After I got married, my wife and I attended Grace Community Church. My wife's family are personal friends of Pastor MacArthur. He's even slept over at their house (my parents called the couch he slept on the "Holy Couch"). I have no ill-will towards John MacArthur or Grace To You. The only reason we stopped attending the church is that we moved away.
Like I said, Phil has always been one of my favorite speakers. I was a follower of his over at Pyromaniacs, and I always felt like he was a strong person and had no fear in confronting error. But he typically stuck to that... confronting error. He didn't get into personality fights or petty squabbling with other ministries unless it was over a serious theological issue or some blatant unrepentant sin. I always appreciated that about him... he knew where the line was, and I don't remember ever seeing him cross it.
But something has changed over the recent years since he stepped away from the Pyromaniacs blog. I've seen him get more cutting. I've seen him make more personal attacks. But I always gave him the benefit of the doubt because I trusted his judgement. After reflecting on this issue, I realized that I gave him the same pass that Justin Peters gave to James White... Phil's one of the good guys, so he must have the right motivation.
But then this whole Interfaith Dialogue fiasco went down. When Pastor Johnson interjected himself into the debate, he said that it was to correct Brannon Howse’s application of John MacArthur’s sermon towards James White’s IFD.
(Side note: Many pastors that I’ve spoken to have confirmed that Brannon’s application of 2 Corinthians 6 is accurate, and that the points that Pastor MacArthur made in that sermon should apply to this issue.)
Whether or not this is true, Phil chose to insert himself into this situation and he ended up not bringing clarity to the situation, but simply made personal attacks against Brannon Howse and, thus, created more confusion on this issue.
Then it was personal attack after personal attack, not only against Brannon, but against myself and others, including other pastors. I believe that this included gossip, slander, and simply an attempt to discredit any of his opposition, even though, on the surface, we all seem to be in agreement on the issue of IFD... except for giving Mr White a pass because of who he is, that is.
I had already attempted to discuss my concerns with Phil privately during our email conversations. I addressed my concerns over his behavior, and he was unrepentant. I have personally spoken to many others who have also tried to reach out to him regarding his behavior. No repentance. So, the next step would be to speak to an elder regarding these concerns.
I called Grace Community Church and asked to speak to a pastor in regards to Pastor Phil’s behavior online. I was told that anything having to do with Phil would have to go through Grace To You, as he’s not on staff at the church, but at GTY. I thanked the receptionist, and called GTY on Friday afternoon.
The woman who answered the phone at GTY was very nice and understanding. However, when I explained that I had called GCC and was directed to GTY to speak to someone regarding Phil’s behavior, I was told that all calls regarding Phil’s conduct online are to be directed to him and him alone. I kindly explained that I’ve already spoken to him privately via email, so the next step should be to speak to an elder or superior. She said that their policy is to direct all calls like mine directly to Phil.
I pressed her one more time by explaining Matthew 18, and that the next step in the process is to speak to an elder. She said that there’s nothing that she can do and that she’s just following orders. I don’t want to post her name, because that’s not relevant to this issue. Like she said, she’s just following orders. I ended up not speaking to Phil because he was out of town speaking at a couple conferences back East.
So let me get this straight: Phil Johnson accuses Brannon Howse of not being accountable to any elders with his ministry. But then when I call to discuss Phil’s behavior, it turns out that he’s not really accountable to anyone either or else a pastor or elder would have taken my call! If the church won’t deal with any potential sin issues with one of their pastors, and the only person to talk to at the ministry is the person who is potentially in sin, then what is the next step in regards to church discipline?
Let me lay out a scenario for you that I believe is a parallel situation. Let's say that you find out that the principle of your child's school is bullying your child. Let's say that he's calling your child names and saying mean things to other students about your child. So, as the parents, you go to the principle to deal with the situation. He is unrepentant and says that your child deserves it. As parents, you know that this is inappropriate behavior. So the next step would be to call the school board. Now what do you do if the school board says that the only person who can deal with the principle bullying your child is the principle himself? It is completely unbiblical and there's absolutely no accountability for the behavior of the principle. That's what I believe is occurring with Grace To You based on the fact that Phil and only Phil can field calls about his behavior online.
Again, this is not an attempt to “punish” Phil… this is an attempt to bring him to repentance. Like I said before, he’s always been my favorite speaker at Shepherds Conference every year. I don’t like seeing this kind of behavior from a pastor and the Executive Director of a ministry that I have followed and respected my entire life!
The only reason I am writing this is because this type of policy for a ministry is completely unbiblical and is not allowing Phil to be accountable to anyone. He can now say and act however he wants, and there’s no recourse for the recipients of his tirades. There's no chance of bringing him to repentance if the church and ministry refuses to talk to someone who has followed the proper steps in regards to Phil's behavior towards them. I hope that someone at GTY or GCC will see this and make the appropriate changes to the structure of their ministry.