The John MacArthur cult?

(Photo: Unsplash)

By Elizabeth Prata

Recently, it was shared that Pastor-Teacher John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Santa Clarita CA became short of breath while ascending to the pulpit during a Sunday sermon, and appeared for several moments to struggle for breath. He later asked the elders not to preach the second service, and these two facts sparked a worldwide concern and prayers for the 83 year old.

Grace Community Church (GCC) elder Tom Patton said at the second service: “Just so you know, Pastor John had a bug this week and preached our first hour but asked if he might be able to take a break for the second hour. So Mike Riccardi is going to be answering the call.

Since the Pastor usually preaches 2 services and is quite active elsewhere and everywhere, and since MacArthur said he plans to preach and not retire, and is committed to preaching if at all possible, the news that he requested absence from the pulpit that morning sent shock waves around the world.

The incident was reported by news organizations from Fox News, Black Christian news, Christian Post, and many others. The news was tweeted and retweeted, shared on Facebook, and posted on many other social media outlets. It was a big deal.


Most of the commotion was centered on the fact that MacArthur, or JMac as he is affectionately known, is beloved and/or respected. He has preached through the entire New Testament verse by verse, a feat only completed by John Gill in the 1700s. He has led GCC as its main pastor-teacher faithfully since 1969 – 54 years! He has stood firm on the scriptures without wavering or compromise for 5 decades. He has had a global impact with his study Bibles, his complete New Testament commentary, and ~4000 sermons. His material has been absorbed from north of the Faroes at the Arctic Circle, to rural Nigeria, to the south at Patagonia, and from China in the east to Europe in the west.

His other main commitment after preaching, is to raise up men to preach, and in this, he has led The Master’s Seminary for decades. These are just a few of his accomplishments, ones he’d be the first to attribute to the Holy Spirit’s feeding and sustenance.

In other words, many see him as the Spurgeon of this century and the last, and rightfully so. His positive impact for the kingdom has been tremendous.

Thus the deep concern and prayers for this faithful elder statesman of the faith when people heard he was ill. Fortunately the Grace Church Elders issued a statement to their church members:

Dear Grace Church, Many of you are praying for Pastor John’s health as he felt lightheaded on Sunday morning in the pulpit. We are pleased to report that he is doing well. He was under the weather last week but after seeing a doctor on Sunday and getting much needed rest from a busy holiday week, he is now much improved and feeling fine. We are grateful for your continued prayers for our pastor. The Grace Church Elders.

And another statement was posted for the general public. A great sigh of relief went up along with more prayers in thanks to the Lord for gifting us this solid pastor a while longer.

Yet I’d said at the top that most of the commotion was centered on concern for his health due to this positive contributions to the faith. But not ALL the attention stemmed from that. There are JMac detractors. Vocal ones. Vicious ones. They too flooded social media with their unified scornful chorus: “John MacArthur leads a cult!” “Just look at all the idolatry!” These folks believe that the folks who love JMac are deluded idol worshipers, and they say so at every opportunity. They seized on his absence from the pulpit and subsequent concern, flocked to social media to callously push an agenda so obviously laid upon a foundation of hate.

Due to JMac’s age, one is always concerned that an illness might be the last illness and the man may depart from the earth. Of the detractors, their attitude betrayed a barely veiled glee that this might indeed be the case. They charged his pastorate as a cult, claimed the elders were making up lies, and accused the people praying for him and the church as deceived cultists.

Indeed when the elders did publish the “He’s OK!” post later in the day, they refused to believe it, publicly calling them liars.

During the hubbub, I was asked by a reader if I believed the people spewing such venom against a godly pastor were saved or not. I said probably not, but I can’t be sure of course. Here is why I believe it. Let’s unpack this.

The lesson here when interacting with people who hold a view that seems angry or ‘off somehow’ is to ask one’s self some questions. Listen not only to their words but look at the way they behave- and whether their behavior contradicts their profession of faith.

If they say the church is a cult, and in fact it is NOT a cult, then they are speaking against the Spirit who raised up the church and the man leading it. Would a person with the Spirit in them speak against the Spirit’s work?

  • Cults usually tend to isolate their members from society by employing polarizing views, such as ‘us vs them, and become myopic, looking inward,
  • Cults tend to have a leader who lies and manipulates so as to attract and retain members,
  • Questioning and doubt is punished,
  • The group claims exalted status for itself,
  • The leader is not accountable to anyone.
  • More here on The Characteristics of a Cult.

I was also asked, “Is it a cult of personality?

Answer: No. The outpouring of love & respect for JMac is what double honor looks like-1 Timothy 5:17.

The elders who lead well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor at preaching the word and teaching. (1 Timothy 5:17).

The honour due to those who were not idle, but laborious in this work; they were worthy of double honour, esteem, and maintenance.” Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2357). Hendrickson.

Double honor exists in many churches, of course, not solely GCC. But not many churches have such a public presence as GCC. So we see it more there. Was Paul nurturing a cult of personality when he prepared to leave Ephesus? Look at the scene when he left and they knew they would likely never see Paul again:

Paul was beloved this way: Acts 20:36-38When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again.”

Cults of personality is defined asthe result of an effort which is made to create an idealized and heroic image of a leader by a government, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.”

Shepherds are supposed to be humble, teachable, and respond to constructive criticism in a godly way. Cult leaders do not. Are you able to speak with your pastor or deacon or elder genuinely and naturally? Or do you have to pick your words and couch everything in a flattering manner? Is doubt or criticism punished?

Cults do happen in religion, even ones that start out as a normal church or para-church organization. The Pharisees were a cult. They twisted the word, forced people out of the synagogue, made people afraid, punished criticism, centered around one man (Annas), and their views caused them to become twice the sons of hell they themselves were.

Cults of personality occurred too. The Church at Thyatira hosted a woman who prophesied falsely, taught deception, and lured the church members into sexual immorality, and she was tolerated! She must have been a powerful personality to have formed such a cult around her that the church in cowardly manner tolerated all her sins. So ask, is the person being honored luring people into dark sin, or is his/her teaching bringing people to the light of the true Gospel?

People who claim to be Christian yet chortle with glee at a brethren’s potential demise, or who discredit a good church and its people, who call brethren liars in the face of facts, are fighting against the Spirit of Christ. No, these people are aligned with the spirit of the age, and thus most likely, are not saved. Their words betray the darkness of their heart. Anyone who chooses to publicly deride an aged Christian in ill health and wish for their death, instead of praying for their good, betrays the evilness of their heart. If they truly believed GCC was a cult and were truly Christians, would they not instead pray for their deliverance? That is the difference between a heart of light and a sinful heart.

Further Reading

Below are some links to true cults and their leaders. These men were very dangerous. If you believe you are in a cult, please refer to these articles:

Qualities and Characteristics Associated with Cults“, and

How to Leave a Cult“.

Focus on the Family has an article aimed at family members who have joined a cult: “My Child Has Joined a Cult

Recent Cults: (Personally, I’ll never forget the shock at the first images emerging on the news from Guyana of the 909 dead in the Peoples’ Temple. They drank cyanide laced Kool-Aid, parents gave it to their children. Heartbreaking. It’s where we get the phrase ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid’)

Jim Jones Peoples’ Temple cult (909 died in mass suicide)

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians (ended in FBI siege, suicides, and fire)

Charles Manson and the Manson Family (ended in murder, law enforcement capture, and jail)

Bonnie Nettles and Heaven’s Gate (ended in mass suicide)