The Master’s Plan for the Church by John MacArthur is his application of the biblical blueprint for a true New Testament church that honors Jesus Christ and exists for the glory of God. MacArthur brings God’s Word to bear on the questions concerning how the church should be governed, how it should be led, and how it should operate. If you are looking for the next “40 Days of Your Best Prayer of Jabez Now,” then you had better head back over to the front section and best-seller shelves of your local Christian bookstore. This is not the book for those enamored with consumer driven models for church growth. MacArthur begins and ends with what has always mattered to him—what has God revealed in His sacred Word concerning His church.
It is difficult to think of any better candidate than Dr. John MacArthur Jr. for writing a book on the local church that is uncontaminated by the many trends and fads that have come and gone during his forty-five years of pastoral ministry at Grace Community Church (GCC) in Sun Valley, California. He has the track record of persevering in the labor that he began back in 1969. MacArthur has always refused to buy into the many church growth strategies that have been in and out of vogue during his tenure at GCC. Instead, during those decades he has expositionally preached his way verse by verse through the entire New Testament. Rather than cashing in on such an immense legacy, MacArthur has thrown the floodgates open and made his entire sermon archive freely available all over the globe through the internet.
One cannot help but feel that MacArthur would have little to say about how GCC grew so large. It is something that has never interested him. He has always been consumed with his passion for shepherding the flock, rightly handling God’s Word, and training up the next generation of Christian leaders. The vast church growth has been an accidental byproduct of his commitment to biblical matters. The great irony there is that his relevance is fuelled in large part by his failure to preach as a reactionary to the ever-changing cultural winds destined for the same scrap heap as old newspapers. Even his oldest sermons have a timelessness about them due to their use of Scripture for illustrations and complete lack of pop-culture references.
The Master’s Plan for the Church is the perfect outlet for MacArthur to lay out his manifesto—which he would argue is God’s clear biblical manifesto for the church. The book comprises thirteen chapters that are then followed by eleven appendices. The thirteen chapters are partitioned into the parts—Part 1: The Anatomy of a Church (chapters one through four); Part 2: The Dynamic Church (chapters five through ten); and Part 3: Qualities of an excellent servant (chapters eleven through thirteen). In much the same way that a building begins with its foundations and skeletal structure before being finished, furnished, and programmed to function, so too does this book follow a well organized progression of church structure, features, and governance.
The appendices warrant significant mention both because they comprise half the book and, more importantly, because they contain so much outstanding content. His appendices on answering key questions about elders (appendix one), an exegesis of 1 Timothy 3 on the biblical qualifications for church eldership (appendix three), elements of church discipline (appendix four), the restoration of sinning brethren (appendix five) and fallen leaders (appendix six), and MacArthur’s outstanding article on why he still preaches the Bible after more than four decades of ministry (appendix eight) are all worth the price of admission on their own.
It is hard to find anything within such a lengthy book that warrants serious criticism. I did struggle with the conclusive statement that men with older children who have had “the sovereign gift of salvation” (258) pass them by are not qualified to be elders. I found that overly simplistic and perhaps harsh considering that some may have the character qualifications for eldership, having discipled their children well, but in adulthood their children do not come to saving faith. Should that disqualify the prospective elder? I have not fully landed on the issue but the conclusions do not sit well with me. Such a call disqualifies the godliest man I ever knew on the mission field from the church planting work that we started together, and he now continues in Denmark. I realize that may seem like an anecdotal objection, but I do not know anyone who has labored so hard in discipling his children while maintaining such a godly character beyond reproach.
Aside from that minor objection, there was plenty in this book that stood out above MacArthur’s usual excellence and thoroughness. His opening four chapters on the anatomy of the church was a tremendous entry point into seeing the church through the lens of Scripture. Using the human body as its illustration, it directly follows Paul’s precedent laid out in his epistles where he describes the church with the metaphor of human anatomy on numerous occasions (Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 12:12–30; Eph 4:1–16; Col 2:18–19) with Christ as its crowning head. MacArthur argues that many who visit GCC go there hoping to gain some transferable insights by observing GCC’s “methods, tools, programs, and ideas and apply them to their own churches. However, that is like going to buy a steer and coming back home with just the hide” (21). His point is that the health of the skin is a direct byproduct of the body’s invisible anatomy and inner workings.
Importantly, MacArthur points out that just as skeletons give vertebrate animals their structure, the church must be committed to certain skeletal truths to maintain its structure. I appreciate that MacArthur starts here, laying out the non-negotiables for a church with a healthy bone structure: A High View of God; The Absolute Authority of Scripture; Sound Doctrine; Personal Holiness; and Spiritual Authority (22–27). This is the structure of a true church and the framework on which MacArthur lays out his book.
As MacArthur explores the distinguishing marks of an effective church, the reader is once again struck by Scripture as the driving force behind his conclusions. There is a complete lack of pragmatism and market driven strategies being brought to bear on the subject matter. An effective church will not be a magnet to the unchurched, but will be marked by: godly leaders; discipleship; an emphasis on penetrating the community; active church members; concern for one another; devotion to the family; biblical teaching and preaching; teachability; great faith; sacrifice; and right worship (114–129).
Importantly, part two concludes with the critical reminder that God’s work must be done His way. This connects strongly with the book’s title—The Master’s Plan for the Church. Amidst a tsunami of literature on pragmatic methodologies on growing churches, this book stands out because it gets the biblical point that the others miss—it is God’s plan and not ours. He founded His church, He purchased it, and He builds it. It is not a democracy, it is a theocracy—and our name is not Theo.
The book builds to the third and concluding part where MacArthur delves into the critical realm of church leadership. Interestingly, and out of step with most other books on church leadership, he begins by profiling apostates (chapter eleven). MacArthur certainly knows how to recognize an elephant in the leadership living room and he knows how to shoot it as well. He is careful to distinguish between apostates, and pagans and backsliders. Apostates depart from the faith while maintaining a veneer of spirituality. They are wolves among the flock and often reach positions of influence and power because they are gifted with skills of persuasion and cunning. Any church that does not take biblical eldership requirements seriously (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5–9) is a church where apostates can flourish. Those who are more enamored with leadership skills than godly character will find themselves sitting under the teaching of apostates. Refreshingly, and consistently with much of the New Testament, MacArthur feels the need to comprehensively deal with this issue before profiling what a true servant leader looks like in the body of Christ.
Chapter eleven beautifully sets up chapter twelve. MacArthur talks about true Christian leaders as servants; “anyone who serves in any ministry capacity must see himself as a servant of the Lord” (167). He outlines eleven qualities of the Lord’s true servants and starts with their willingness to warn of error. Other more notable qualities include expertise in Scripture, avoidance of unholy teaching, strong self-discipline, and authoritative teaching.
MacArthur’s thoughts on advancing his theological education through studying dead German liberals resonated so strongly with me that my inner man did a Mexican wave—“I met with the representative again and said, ‘I just want to let you know that I have spent all my life to this point learning the truth, and I can’t see any value in spending the next couple of years learning error.’ I put the materials down on his desk and walked away” (173).
Chapter thirteen is the final and crowning chapter as MacArthur profiles those entrusted with the highest (or lowest depending on how you look at servant leadership) offices of authority and accountability in the body of Christ based on 1 Pet 5:1–4. The true shepherds are rescuers, leaders, guardians, protectors, and comforters. He closes with the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the epitomy of everything the shepherd leader should ever aspire to. The final chapter also contains perhaps the most poignant moment in the book by including a lengthy excerpt from W.G. Bowden on “A Day in the Life of a Shepherd.” And that is exactly what he describes—a real shepherd’s routine from morning until evening. It is impossible to read without applying the obvious parallels to those who shepherd God’s flock. “The sheep sense familiar territory, their home field and their home fold. The shepherd precedes them, and stands at the sheepfold with the gate wide open. He calls them in, ‘come unto me … and ye shall find rest.’ The mob with little prompting streams through the portal to rest, to protection, and to contentment” (198).
What a tragedy that many of the millions who read “Purpose Driven Church” will never hear of this book about the Christ Centered Church. The pickings are slim when it comes to readable and biblically driven books on the church. This is one of them and would take up worthwhile residence on any Christian’s bookshelf.