macarthur and separation

I guess this is old news by now, but I just got around to listening to John MacArthur’s opening message for the 2010 Shepherd’s Conference: “Separating from Unbelievers

I’d encourage you to listen to this message. Other than a few quibbles, I think that pastor MacArthur gives us good reasons for separating from unbelievers when it comes to any kind of joint spiritual enterprise.

However, I do have one major question about this message: Was it Paul’s original intent to limit the application of this passage ONLY to joint spiritual enterprises with unbelievers? Was this kind of thing really a problem in Corinth in AD 56 or so?

To listen to MacArthur’s message, one might be led to think so. But I can’t imagine that Paul was addressing a situation where the Corinthians were actually joining hands with the local idolaters in some kind of joint religious services, can you? Why would they, newly saved out of idolatry, need that kind of instruction?

Pastor MacArthur makes a point of their recent conversions directly out of idolatry, and he is right. From there he goes on to make application to joint religious efforts with unbelievers. I believe that application is a correct one, but it seems that he wants to limit the passage to that application only.

The Corinthians may have had some problems with cooperating with unbelievers, but these unbelievers would have been posing as Christians, the false apostles Paul was also contending with in 2 Corinthians. I am  not sure that it is these false apostles Paul has in view in 2 Cor 6, though he does deal with them later.

The Corinthians definitely did have problems in their relations with idolaters, however. We can see this in 1 Cor 8-10, in the famous meat offered to idols passage. There are various interpretations of how this particular compromise took place. Gordon Fee suggests in his commentary on 1 Cor that the Corinthians were actually eating the meat offered to idols in the idol temples! I tend to agree with Fee’s interpretation here (somewhat reluctantly, because I disagree with Fee a lot).

In any case, it does seem to me that the problems Paul is addressing in 2 Cor 6 include subtle compromises with idolatry such as those addressed in 1 Cor 8-10. It is these subtle compromises that are so easily made that trip us up spiritually, and Paul is dealing with them in very stark language in 2 Cor 6.

So yes, I agree with MacArthur, we can have no cooperation with unbelievers in religious services. That’s absolutely right.

But the passage has a much broader application than that. Surely it would include bringing the music of idol worship into the church as well, would it not?



  1. Keith says:

    The music of idol worship?

    You mean they’ll only use Garlock, Hamilton, Gustafson compositions?

    • Right, Keith. Glad you caught on so quickly.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Keith says:

    I admit I’m slow. What on earth is the music of idol worship?

    If it’s not “in-crowd” idols (like those I mentioned)
    If it’s not “American Idol” (which it obviously isn’t)
    What are you talking about?

    I know you don’t like contemporary, pop, rock, whatever you want to call it, but how is that the music of idol worship?

    And, even if you have some argument that establishes some connection between the Resolved Conference music and actual idol worship music, why would it not fall under the “meat offered to idols” teaching of Paul?


  3. I didn’t listen to his entire message but probably most of it. I also thought it was pretty good, surprisingly so, considering the topic. MacArthur made a point about separating from the world’s culture. He said something like that several times. I have no idea what he means by that, though, if he can then at the same time agree with what goes as his teen conference. It truly boggles the mind. To me, promoting rock music or rap music is just as much a gospel issue as anything else. What it says is that the mind that evaluates beauty was never corrupted by sin in the first place, or that the passions involved in appreciating that type of music must not be renewed. In other words, the gospel doesn’t or shouldn’t impact our view of music. If the gospel changes our view of culture and conformity to it, per Romans 12:1-2, how can that change not include our music or the whole trappings of the pop/rock culture of our age?

  4. Keith says:

    So which age had music with trappings not connected to the world of its time?

    Said differently, which age contained no worldliness?


    • Keith, I think that pop music is an innovation of the last 100 years or so. Prior to that, in the Western world, church music informed the culture. Where else would you go to get music, unless you were a part of the church culture that produced the music? The only other source was court sponsored music, but the Church dominated the scene for the most part. This is one area where I think Scott Aniol has helped our understanding a good deal. I just don’t agree with him regarding the extent to which this is problematic in the gospel song category.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  5. In addition to what Don has said, I would say that worldliness manifests itself in different ways in different ages and different cultures. So, Christians in every age and culture fight potentially different battles against worldliness than those in other ages. The corruption of music has not occurred to the same degree in every culture and in every age. This goes for association issues as well.

  6. Keith says:

    Yes, popular music is a product of mass media. It’s probably even less than 100 years old. Nevertheless, the gospel songs were the equivalent of today’s “Christian contemporary.” They used the forms and sentiments that were popular/contemporary at the time. That’s why they often seem so dated and cheesy.

    I’m not arguing for pop music in worship. I’m just asking where Andy and you think the church, in the western world, got its music? The “Western world” hasn’t been around forever. And, to you dispensationalist types, the church hasn’t either. So, did the Western church invent the music out of whole cloth sometime after the fall of the Roman Empire?

    The bigger point is that music falls under common grace — it is general revelation not special revelation. The just and the unjust can make good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate music. Music is not bad merely because it comes from the “world”. Worldliness flows from the heart — the heart corrupts good things, good things don’t corrupt the heart.


    • Western music, as I understand it, really only goes back to the middle ages. The information for its beginnings is rather sketchy. We don’t really know much about music in the first century or earlier. As far as I know, there was no musical notation system until relatively recently in world history. So music as we know it is itself a fairly recent thing, and was developed primarily through the church (although there has likely always been folk music).

      No, music isn’t bad just because it comes from the world. But music is good and bad. The bad music is a product of the corruption of human hearts.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. Keith says:

    “Western music” may only go back to the middle ages and notation systems may not go back even that far, but music is as old as time.

    Bad music can be the product of a corrupt human heart or it can be the product of a human with no talent or bad hearing or a multitude of other factors. You’ve got to stipulate your definition of bad. Do you mean morally bad, in bad taste, aesthetically bad, bad recording quality, etc.

    Yes, music can be used for evil. However, it’s not as simple as: This music good, this music bad.


    • Keith, I’m not saying its simple. But I am saying that there is such a thing as music that is inherently bad and music that is inherently good. And there is some that is in between. Of course, many don’t accept that premise, so if you don’t there isn’t much ground that can be gained in discussing it.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  8. David Barnhart says:


    I think you’ve touched directly on the issue — for those that believe that music can be inherently evil, they consider it a premise, not something to be proven or shown true. Those on the other side are asking why or how you know this to be true. I consider this to be a completely different question from whether or not the music is associated with the worldly aspects of culture. Whether or not one believes that music can be inherently evil, I don’t know how it is possible for someone to reconcile preaching on separation while ignoring the associations of the music being used.

  9. Joshua Allen says:

    Don, do you have pointers to some more commentary on the “eating idol food” issue? I would like to acquaint myself with some of the different perspectives on the incident.

    • Hi Joshua

      Well, the most intriguing commentary I have found is in Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians. Fee is a charismatic, so he has problems (from my perspective) on the gifts, and I think I found his take on 1 Cor 11 problematic also (can’t remember why). However, he has some very interesting things to say on 1 Cor 8-10.

      Tom Constable tends to follow Fee on these chapters, his Notes are available online somewhere, but I have it from Galaxie Software in Logos format. Constable will give you a good summary of Fee. He is much briefer, of course!

      I think the more traditional conservative commentators will give you good material, I’d recommend Hodge and Grosheide. I am personally kind of taken with Fee’s argument, though. I have studied this on my own a good deal and have a goal of one day really carefully working through Fee and writing some of my own stuff on this. I think it is a much misunderstood issue. (I also think Rm 14 is not really related but describing an entirely different issue. Not everyone agrees with me on this point.)

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  10. Joshua Allen says:

    Thanks very much for the pointers; I’ve read a bunch of commentary you recommended, including Fee, and it cleared up a *lot* for me. My questions were of a much more basic level than whether or not the Corinthians were actually in the idol temple when they ate the meat, so your pointers helped a lot.

    To summarize what I think I understand now: Some of the Corinthians were eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, for whatever reason. They proudly did this, claiming that they were free from the law. This was putting weaker brothers in peril, since these weaker brothers saw the eating of idol food as being a form of idol-worship — just as eating bread and wine in communion is an act of Christ-worship. Paul urged the Corinthians not to be arrogant and puffed with “knowledge”, and instead to abstain out of love for their brothers.

    Does that sound right? It sure seems related to the separation issue, to me.

    I was pretty confused by this — I couldn’t see how anyone would have considered it a sin to eat idol food; especially in communion with other Christians. Since, if the food is taken over and used for Christ’s purpose, it’s not exactly helping the idolaters, is it? The communion reference helped me a bit to understand why it was an issue.

    • Hi Joshua

      The meat-offered-to-idols passage is complicated. Your synopsis is accurate, I think, with respect to chapter 8 especially. I think the link with communion, as you observe, is a powerful argument in the passage, and it leads to Paul’s final word on the matter – don’t do it.

      I would add, however, that the argument is a threefold argument with increasing intensity. The Weakness of the Brother argument is basically chapter 8, the argument is offending weaker consciences (assuming there is nothing in the act that is intrinsically wrong. [I believe this assumption is for the sake of the argument.]) The Worth of the Gospel is the argument of Chapter 9, which seems to digress to other topics, but is really about this meat-offered-to-idols argument, I believe. In other words, the gospel is the primary consideration. We should never do or allow anything (even lawful things) that in any way taint or distract from the message of the gospel. The last argument, chapter 10, the Wickedness of the Heart argument, points out the spiritual failure of ancient Israel (in spite of many tremendous spiritual experiences) and says that if you think eating the idol meat is nothing, think again… this is where the communion issue comes in. So Paul says ‘don’t do it’.

      Finally, at the end of ch 10, there are two allowances where Paul allows for eating meat offered to idols in some private circumstances, depending on conscience issues.

      But as I said, the whole passage is quite complicated with many varying lines of thought. I think there is a lot of confusion over it, but I believe it is an argument against involving ourselves in certain activities that in themselves are not intrinsically wrong. They are made wrong by their worldly connection.

      I bring it up in this post only to note that the Corinthians did have problems with respect to interaction with idolaters, but participating in joint worship (as far as I can tell) was NEVER the issue for them. But subtle compromises with idolatrous practices were an issue. Hence the message of 2 Cor – come out from among them.

      MacArthur’s message, if I remember correctly, seems at one point to assume that the Corinthians were some how in some kind of alliance in cooperative religious activities with pagan idolaters. I think that is reading a whole lot into the text and missing the 1st century milieu entirely. I think we can make that application to the current world of Christendom, but that isn’t the primary issue of the passage and there are many subtle compromises with worldliness and worldly ungodly people that Christians constantly find themselves tripped up by. And of course, I think this is a major blind spot for MacArthur himself, with respect to the link I offer at the end of the post.

      Hope that covers what you are getting at in your comment and also adds a bit to what I said above.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  11. Joshua Allen says:

    Yes, that does help, and I agree with your points about the importance of the matter. My interest in the issue stemmed from my conviction that idolatry (sans statues and animal sacrifice) is alive and thriving today in Christendom, and from my desire to avoid “eating idol food” even with respect to the forms of idolatry that are practiced today.

    People say, “we don’t worship statues, so we’re not idolaters”, but I think they are just confused. So I wanted to understand exactly what the “eating idol food” issue was about, so that I didn’t fall into the same trap.

    I still think it’s worthwhile to evaluate Paul’s warnings about “idol food” in the context of modern idolatry. But I think I misinterpreted the spirit of Paul’s warnings and arrived at wrong conclusions. I’d love to hear if/how you think that Paul’s warning might be applied to modern forms of idolatry, where the idols aren’t statues, and where we sacrifice things other than food to the idols.

    Based on the commentaries you linked as well as your comments here, I would suspect that the modern applicability is more generally about separation, and not necessarily about specific prohibitions on consuming resources that have been donated by duped idolaters to their idols.

    FWIW, I had previously used Genesis 14:22-24 as my explanation of why it is wrong to eat idol food. Since the whole parallel to communion never occurred to me, and since I didn’t have good historical context, it’s the only explanation that made sense. However, it seems I may have been overreacting and being far too negative. If you’re interested, I wrote a post about my previous viewpoint here:

    • Hi Joshua

      My interest in the passage has been oriented around the separation question for a long time. I came up with my three “W” outline while I was in seminary and a weekend youth pastor. I was primarily interested in the passage with respect to the idea of separation from doubtful things.

      Your idea of idolatry and communion being keys are likely an important part of the mix. I will have to add that to my considerations when I do more work in the passage.

      A few years ago I ran across Tom Constable’s summary of Fee, which seemed to me a fresh new approach. New to me, anyway. So I went out and bought Fee to get it straight from the source. I have read parts of Fee, but not the whole thing. I have too many irons in the fire and it is sitting on my desk as a “project”. I want to do some in depth study of the passage in the future. (A likely time will be when I get to Romans 14 in our study of Romans, but that will take a while!) I am working on the subject of Godliness and Worldliness in our Adult Bible Study time, maybe I can work it in there… we’ll see.

      I say all that to say that my thoughts are embryonic… I have some idea of where I think 1 Cor 8-10 is taking us, but I think a good deal more needs to be said. I am going to post a couple of links to some work I have done on the blog on the passage. There isn’t a lot, at least as I recall.

      Here is an early article (before I read Fee, but after I read Constable) on 1 Cor 10.31.

      There is a note in this article about a comment Mark Minnick made regarding the passage. I think it bears some thought as well. He was using the passage as an illustration about how people come to understand fundamentalism. You’ll find the reference in the last main point of the article.

      This is the post where I mention getting Fee’s book. You can see how long my project has been languishing!

      Well, I think that is all that I have here. I have preached through 1 Corinthians in the past… quite a while ago. I may have copies of the outlines somewhere, but I don’t know how comprehensive they are. I’ll take a look and see if it might be worth posting them.

      If you do a search on oxgoad of the term ‘idols’, you will find the articles I mention here and a few others that might be tangentially related.

      You are getting me stirred up to get back to this project! Now if I can only carve out some time!

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3