Periodically I write an unusually long blog because the issues are so far-reaching that I think they demand extra attention. I don’t like to break such blogs into multiple parts, so if you have the time to work this through with me, here we go.
Many have reacted, both negatively and positively, to comments that John MacArthur made recently about Beth Moore. This happened at the Truth Matters Conference, held at MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in California. At that event, those on stage were asked to respond briefly in a word-association game. When the moderator said “Beth Moore,” John MacArthur responded, “Go home.” Phil Johnson said, “Narcissist.”
MacArthur went on to say, “There’s no case that can be made biblically for a woman preaching. Period, paragraph, end of discussion…Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel, doesn’t mean you should be preaching. There are people who have certain hawking skills—natural abilities to sell—they have energy and personality and all of that. That doesn’t qualify you to preach.”
Only God knows our hearts, but to many, including myself, it appeared presumptuous and condescending to seemingly compare the work of Beth Moore, and by implication other female Bible teachers, to those using hawking skills to sell jewelry on TV. But before moving on to what else Pastor MacArthur said, I want to take five paragraphs to clarify a few things so you don’t have to wonder what I’m thinking as I address this situation.
Women in Scripture
First, I need to make clear that I do not deny—rather I affirm—that there is a clear biblical teaching about husbands being humble and loving leaders of their wives (Ephesians 5:22-23). I also believe Scripture teaches men are to serve as elders and lead the church and carry the primary preaching responsibilities (1 Timothy 2:11-15). Many deny the straightforward interpretation of those passages, but I don’t. However, I am equally convinced from Scripture that women have vital roles in the church, including speaking roles, that do not necessitate them being the primary Sunday morning preachers.
Women are told to use their gifts to teach other women (Titus 2:3–5). First Corinthians 11:5, no matter how you interpret it, assumes that women were using prophetic gifts in the church assembly. (The passage does not forbid them from prophesying when the men and women of the church assemble, but lays out conditions for how it should be done.)
There are many passages, Old Testament and New, that show women in prominent roles. We are told the gifted preacher Apollos “began to speak out boldly in the synagogue.” Then Scripture tells us, “But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). The fact that Priscilla is mentioned first in a culture that normally placed the wife’s name after her husband’s suggests that she had every bit as much, and likely more, theological knowledge and teaching skill as her husband. The two together used their gifts to offer biblical correction to Apollos and his teaching.
God incorporated the words of a number of women in the inspired text of Scripture—including Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, Esther, Mary, and Elizabeth. Since God’s Word has His authority, these passages throughout history have used the words of women to teach and lead all who read them, pastors included.
There is much more to be said about this; one resource is Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear’s “Should Women Teach in the Church?”, and another is the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I would also recommend Gavin Ortlund’s article “Four Dangers for Complementarians.”
Now that I’ve given grounds for many different readers to disagree with me, I’ll return to John MacArthur’s statements. (By the way, some people always respond that it is unbiblical to talk publicly about people if you haven’t talked to them privately. But this is not a Matthew 18 issue, as John MacArthur has not sinned against me. In fact, every writer and public figure automatically invites public responses whenever they write books and blogs and speak at churches and conferences. People publicly disagree with me online often, and they are not violating Scripture. In fact, if they came to me I wouldn’t have time to talk with all of them! So it’s not unfair for me to write this blog about an issue that John made public. And God knows I certainly wish John MacArthur well, and in no way wish him harm. If anyone would affirm the right for people to disagree in the public forum, it’s John MacArthur.)
My Heavyhearted Concerns
At the Truth Matters conference, after his “Go Home” comment about Beth Moore, Dr. MacArthur went on to express concerns about feminism and the church. He also made some comments about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). You can listen to the audio clip from the conference here.
I listened to the full clip twice, start to finish, and to be honest, it made me very sad—not only because of the unnuanced statements, but also because of the laughter and applause of the audience. There was no attempt to treat Beth Moore with respect and kindness. Therefore, the inevitable impression was chauvinism and even misogyny. There was also no attempt to affirm women and their gifting and true equality in a complementarian framework.
Basically, complementarianism is the belief that men and women have different but complementary and equally important roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:3 male leadership is compared to the Father’s role in relation to the Son. They are one, they are utterly equal, yet they have different roles. (For further insights on complementarianism, see this article.)
Someone might say, “But MacArthur didn’t have opportunity to give a larger context or to balance his response, because he was required to give a super-short answer.” That raises the question, why are Christian leaders subjecting themselves to word associations from a moderator that require them to give answers without qualifications, when the design is obviously for them to give a controversial response? MacArthur actually said he felt like he was being set up, and indeed he was. Unfortunately, he seemed to willingly dive right into the set-up. (If you listen to it, you’ll see what I mean. It’s clear the moderator knew MacArthur doesn’t like Beth Moore and is expecting him to say so, and MacArthur appeared to gladly comply.)
But the fact is that Pastor MacArthur chose to say a great deal more beyond “Go home,” giving him plenty of time to qualify or back down on his response. Instead, he goes deeper and broader in his criticisms without saying one word to affirm respect for women or the value of female Bible teachers within the church’s ministry, even though he doesn’t think they should be preaching. As a professional communicator and a shepherd of both men and women, why not say something, anything, to clarify that you mean no disrespect for women or their gifts, roles, and callings to serve Jesus both inside and outside the church?
Now, I do not agree with everything that Beth Moore has said or done or written, just as I do not agree with everything John MacArthur and nearly everyone else has said, done, and written. (Obviously there are many good people who frequently disagree with me, and sometimes they are right to.) From time to time, I retweet both John MacArthur and Beth Moore. Whenever I retweet something from Beth Moore I know what’s coming—some people will tell me I shouldn’t. But I believe Beth is a genuine lover of Jesus who affirms God’s Word. I am troubled by a panel of Christian leaders speaking of her derisively, including calling her names and making demeaning comparisons (e.g. “narcissist” and TV jewelry saleswoman).
I am also troubled that a Bible-believing and Christ-affirming audience found all this so funny and entertaining and worthy of applause. As I said, I listened to this front to back twice to be sure I was hearing accurately and being fair. Both times I felt defensive for my own wife and daughters and the very gifted and capable women I have worked with in ministry. In a blog last year called “Dismissive and Disrespectful Attitudes toward Women Should Have No Place among Evangelicals” I agreed with Beth Moore when she called out the troubling presence of misogyny among some Christian evangelicals, including church leaders. Sadly, this incident will go down as a prominent and memorable example of that.
Both Biblical Truth and Careful Communication Matter
Now, I have read some treatments of this episode from people who appear delighted to take down John MacArthur, because they hate his affirmation of biblical authority and his willingness to publicly point out theological heresy. This blog is very difficult for me to write because I deeply appreciate John MacArthur and his dedication to biblical truth. John has said and written many Christ-honoring and helpful things over the years, and I gladly affirm the majority of his Bible teaching and insights in his many sermons and books and most of the notes in his study Bible. Both of our daughters and one of our sons-in law attended the Master’s College (which MacArthur was then president of and is now the Chancellor Emeritus). Francis Chan is one of many Master’s graduates I know and appreciate. Under John’s leadership, Master’s has held fast to the authority of Scripture when countless “Christian” colleges have abandoned their belief in God’s Word. (I have spoken at a number of these colleges and know firsthand how far they have strayed from recognizing biblical authority.)
I have only had two conversations with John MacArthur, once when Nanci and I visited Master’s because my oldest daughter was considering attending there, and once again years later when I was speaking at a Desiring God event, where I enjoyed a long lunch with him, John Piper, and Jerry Bridges. Both times I found John to be not only interesting but likeable.
However, as much as I have loved and appreciated him, and still do, I fear without intending to he sometimes sabotages his own message. People do not hear the good things he says because of the manner in which he says them.
I think this is unfortunately true in this area of the role of women in the church. With grace and empathy and careful communication, he could better represent Scripture and his beliefs about women pastors and preachers, and at the same time, show respect and kindness toward Beth Moore (and other women) as a fellow image-bearer and follower of Christ. Even if you agree 100% with John MacArthur’s interpretation of Scripture, surely there is a better way to treat people and convey that position. Look at what Scripture has to say about how we are to communicate with others:
“But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, CSB).
“Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11).
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV).
“Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5, CSB).
“Who among you is wise and understanding? By his good conduct he should show that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13, CSB).
I greatly respect pastor Max Lucado for his steadiness and humility as he follows Jesus. Max is one of MacArthur’s few equals among evangelicals in terms of being prominent and prolific. In a blog entitled “Are We Listening?” Max responded to John’s words by saying “the bride of Christ is sighing.” He said, “Really? Dare we be dismissive? The message of #metoo is a sobering one.”
Max said that when it comes to how Christians speak, “tone matters” and it is important to disagree with love, because “words can wound.”
Indeed words can wound, and in this case they have. But Scripture makes clear that words can also heal, and I pray that John MacArthur, and others who wholeheartedly believe God’s Word just as I do, will heed the Scriptures we love: “Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words can heal” (Proverbs 12:18).
No Place for Chauvinism in the Church
As I said, I believe Scripture teaches that husbands should tenderly lead their wives and male elders and pastors should lead the church. But how elders and pastors treat and speak of women, privately and publicly, will model for our men how they should treat their wives.
The widespread perception among both unbelievers and believers in our culture is that conservative Bible-believing churches—especially those that are also politically conservative—are the last bastion of cultural chauvinism, dedicated to stereotyping, subjecting, and minimizing the equality, worth, intelligence, and gifting of women. We are thought to foster disrespect and, indirectly, abuse. And every story of an evangelical pastor misusing his power and committing immorality with women in his church furthers that stereotype.
While I don’t see much outright hatred of women in the church, I do see a lot of dismissiveness, mistrust, and prejudice. I also see disrespect and condescension toward women, especially those with leadership and speaking gifts and strong personalities (which seem to be respected in a man, but resented in a woman).
Unless we intentionally demonstrate an authentic (not merely superficial) respect for women as intelligent and gifted students and teachers of God’s Word, many of our girls and young women will drift away from complementarian churches. (I base this not on speculation, but on long heartfelt conversations with such young women.) In some cases they will end up in churches that reinterpret and modernize Scripture to go along with the current drift of culture, including the defense of abortion and homosexual marriages, and affirming universal salvation, along with many other unbiblical beliefs. Some will believe the only way they and their gifts can be valued is to leave Bible-believing churches—how tragic is that?
Others may stay in Bible-teaching churches but never discover and use their gifts, which lay dormant and buried for lack of opportunity and encouragement. Many women will be unfulfilled; some will feel guilty for wanting to use their gifts for Christ’s glory and the good of the church! Furthermore, there’s a large segment of the culture we won’t reach. What woman (or for that matter, what kind of man) wants to come to a church where women are ignored, marginalized, and even demeaned? I don’t.
We shouldn’t ever violate what Scripture commands in an attempt to be relevant, but we should exercise the freedom to do what Scripture allows to grant women the widest and deepest and most meaningful roles in Christ’s body. (See the article “Delighting in Authority: How to Create a Culture of Happy Complementarians” by Whitney Woollard, which I shared on my blog. Also see my response to the question “What Is Your Stance on Women in Leadership?”)
In 1 Peter 3:7 husbands are commanded to “live with your wives in an understanding way…showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life.” Isn’t it true that the men who lead churches as pastors and elders should “live with women of Christ’s church in an understanding way…showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life”? Husbands are warned if they fail to understand and honor their wives, their very relationship with God will suffer: “…so that your prayers will not be hindered.” It’s no stretch to say that church leaders who fail to understand and honor women will also have their prayers hindered—apparently God is not prone to listen to men who don’t make a point of understanding and honoring women.
What’s at stake here? Many Bible-believing churches are held in suspicion of disrespecting women (valuing them only as cooks, clean-up crew, nursery workers, and singers). Women comprise over half of the church but appearances suggest men are far more important in the body of Christ, and that God has gifted men to study and teach Scripture, but not women. Compared to society, the church appears chauvinistic. How sad, when by His example, Jesus was truly revolutionary in His demonstration of the value and worth of women.
Christ’s View of Women
In the Gospels, we see that women disciples were more prominent than men at the cross and tomb, and it was the prophetess Anna who announced Jesus as Messiah.
The Knowing Jesus Study Bible says this:
Luke showed a great interest in women and included in his Gospel numerous stories about women, many of them unique to his account of the life and ministry of Jesus (he also included more specific names of women than did the other Gospel writers). He continued this interest throughout Acts, the sequel to Luke (see Acts 1:14). Luke related stories about healing (Luke 4:38-39; 8:1-3, 40-56; 13:11-17; 17:11-17) and faith (Luke 4:26; 7:36-50; 8:48; 18:1-8; 21:1-4) of women and emphasized stories of women involved in discipleship (Luke 8:19-21; 11:27-28), particularly in the detailed account of Jesus’ dialogue with Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) and in the reports of the female disciples who traveled with Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). Women are prominent in the stories of the births of both Jesus and John the Baptist (Mary, Elizabeth and Anna; Luke 1-2) and are described in both the passion and resurrection narratives (Luke 23:49; 23:55-28:12).
I love what Dorothy Sayers writes in her book Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.
Questions for Church Leaders
So how can we reflect Jesus’ love for and respect for women? I suggest that male church leaders ask, “What can we do to…”:
- empower our women to exercise their God-given gifts (in God’s prescribed way) for the benefit of the body?
- uncover and maximize—not cover or minimize—their gifts, not just the gift of helps, but teaching and leading and exhortation and prophecy, exercised in the right spheres?
- understand and know them better?
- listen to the women in our congregation, ask for their input, and benefit from their insights?
- treat them with more respect as fellow-heirs, equal partners?
- show girls and women that our church offers them more respect, not less, than the world?
Pastors and elders, why not invite in wives, female ministry staff, or laywomen and give them the floor, for whatever’s on their mind, then ask for their input on current agenda and issues?
Please though, whatever we say and do about the role of women in the church, let’s obey God’s Word: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
There are many differences both among Christian complementarians and egalitarians, and we should not assume otherwise. I am a complementarian who believes that we should affirm freedom for women to exercise their gifts in every area Scripture does not explicitly forbid, and that is maybe 95% of them. Sam Storms has a similar view and I highly recommend his article “10 Things You Should Know about Complementarianism.”
I’m well aware I will receive many criticisms for sharing these disagreements with John MacArthur and for “siding with” Beth Moore. I will also receive criticisms from people who think I’m wrong to affirm the great majority of what John MacArthur has taught. (I am an equal opportunity offender!) Many complementarians will think me too permissive; all egalitarians will think me too restrictive. So be it. The truth is, I am not seeking to please potential critics. I am seeking to please Jesus, who is full of grace and truth. Paul says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
Every time we function with grace-only, we dishonor Jesus. Every time we function with truth-only, we dishonor Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We need Christians who, like Jesus, are full of grace and truth. People with both sound doctrine and warm hearts. Those whose hearts are warm but who lack sound doctrine will trample the truth of Jesus. Those whose doctrine is sound but who lack the grace of Jesus will trample people. Christ’s heart is equally grieved by grace-suppression and truth-suppression, by grace-twisting and truth-twisting. Grace and truth are both necessary. Neither by itself is sufficient.
One final quote from Sam Allberry: “If it’s lacking in charity, it’s not orthodoxy. If it demeans and mocks women, it’s not complementarianism.”
Note: To read one viewpoint on the differences between complementarianism and egalitarianism, see this article. Also, Bruce Ware offers an excellent summary of the two positions, and the objections to each of them.
If you want to explore egalitarianism directly (without complementarian comments), see Christians for Biblical Equality. Also, if you wish to see and hear my informal presentation of key Scriptures on the biblical role of women in the church to a small group of leaders of my home church, see this video.
Added Note: Let me emphasize again that I believe we should exercise biblical discernment about Beth Moore as we should any teacher, certainly including me. Disagreements with Beth Moore are not the problem. John MacArthur could have said, “I have some concerns about Beth Moore’s teaching. She affirms the gospel, but she also spiritualizes texts and at times exercises faulty interpretation. I have other doctrinal concerns as well. And while I agree that women have a vital place in the life of the church, I disagree with her position on women preaching from the pulpit.”
Had he said that, then people could have agreed or disagreed and there could have been a civil discussion. I certainly wouldn’t have blogged about it, and I doubt others would have said much. But that’s not what happened. It was about women wanting power in the church, and Beth Moore being called a narcissist and compared to a TV jewelry saleswoman. If you have doctrinal concerns about Beth Moore or anyone, you can certainly express them, but for the honor of Jesus please do so without attacking, demeaning, ridiculing or stereotyping them in particular, or in this case, women in general. Not only is that right, which is most important, it’s also smart, because otherwise you’ll never persuade anyone.