Sunday Meditations: John MacArthur Is Not Very Smart

If you’re not aware of big news in the world of Christian evangelicalism, that sounds pretty great, actually.

But if you are, you probably heard this past week about John MacArthur, at his own church’s “Truth Matters” conference, making some dismissive and insulting comments about Beth Moore in specific and people wanting to allow women to be ministers in general.  Throughout, the audience laughed along with his blunt dismissals, which is the sort of thing that happens when you fill rooms with people who think exactly like you do for the purposes of reaffirming each other in your collective rightness.  I’m not going to link to the video because A) I don’t want to give it more press, B) you can easily find it via search, and C) I like to keep my blog reasonably porn free.

Many quarters of evangelicalism and not-so-evangelicalism reacted with varying degrees of outrage or at least disapproval, seeing as large amounts of evangelicals actually agree with his positions but considered his tone harsh and unloving and indicative of him not taking other arguments seriously.  Most of us were aware that this is pretty much how the J-Machine always runs, but this seemed particularly egregious to many.

So, there were two main prongs of dissatisfaction: his tone and his content.

His Tone

When Trump was on the campaign trail, a tape surfaced where, in an interview, he talked about how women let him have his way with them because he was so famous, and he could even grab them by their genitalia and they were totally fine with it.  This incident has a lot of interesting parallels with John MacArthur, but two points in particular stand out: 1) he made this comment in what he considered a safe space where he could speak freely, and 2) public outrage spiked – people still talk about this comment, today.

First off, whatever a person says when they are with people who they think agree with them, that’s who they really are.  It’s not a show.  When people think everyone around them will support them in what they say, they’ll say it.  You are getting an unfiltered look at what they really think.

For those of us who are Christians, take note!  What do we say in environments where we assume everyone agrees with us?  What kinds of comments or jokes do we make about other groups of people?  Would we make them if members of that group were sitting across from us at our dining room table?  If the answer is “no,” that means we harbor views that are intrinsically insulting and unloving and we should probably be seriously working on those.

Secondly, when everyone got so mad at Trump for that interview (as well they should – those were terrible things to say), I kept thinking, “Why are you so mad now?”

Because, all of a sudden, there was this huge segment of people who didn’t really express much of an issue with Trump up until that point.  Yet, prior to that point, his campaign was littered with incompetence and offensiveness.  That guy should not have been allowed to hold something with a sharp point on it, but somehow, certain segments of the population seemed to be totally fine with his bid for the presidency until they were shocked by his offensive comment about women.

Where was the outrage before that?  Why weren’t (some) people shocked at the gross ineptitude and overt classism, racism, and sexism before then?  It’s not that the “grab ’em” comment wasn’t offensive – it was terrible!  The outrage and disgust was well-deserved.  But the comment was also characteristic.

I admit a certain amount of similar dissonance at the wave of outrage against this latest incident with J Mac.

John MacArthur has always been a poor exegete, has always held untenable and destructive positions, and has always been mean about it.  For years and years.  His insulting dismissiveness to anything that is not his position is on display in countless videos and writings.

His fanbase is not repelled by this, but drawn to it.  They like it when he makes fun of opponents and pretends like there is no reasonable alternative to his views.  It makes them feel right and safe and superior – the noble vanguard against the forces of sin and foolishness in the world – the last defenders of the True Gospel – and everyone else is worthy of contempt whether they have the Spirit of Christ or not.  And if you disagree with J Mac, you probably don’t.

This has been his consistent message.  For years.  Why are all these evangelicals suddenly upset about it?

For years, he’s been saying that Pentecostals are servants of Satan.  For years, he’s been saying that God shows racial partiality.  For years, he’s been saying that the pursuit of justice undermines “the gospel.”  And if anyone has argued to the contrary, he treats them like a joke and encourages his disciples to treat them like a joke.

Why are we so angry, now?  All we’re seeing is classic John MacArthur.

Is this latest round of comments worthy of outrage and correction?  Absolutely.  Absolutely, no question.  But this isn’t an aberration.  This isn’t a normally thoughtful, loving man who is interested in struggling through biblical issues with the body of Christ whom he loves, and he just so happened to let some bad feelings out in an inappropriate fluke.  This is a consistently unloving, contemptuous man who couldn’t exegete his way out of a wet paper bag showing his typical contempt for most of those for whom Christ died because they have the audacity to understand the Bible differently than he does.

That, I might add, is a description of a not insignificant segment of evangelicalism.  It’s no surprise to me that JM has the influence that he does.  He’s not just a hero; he’s an incarnation of all of evangelicalism’s darker spirits.

In all honesty, I’m very forgiving of snark.  None of us should be snarky, but we all are.  We are all dismissive and contemptuous of the wrong people at the wrong times.  It’s definitely not a characteristic to admire, which is probably where I part ways with J Mac and Da Boyz, but it’s almost universal.  I do it.  You do it.  We don’t always do it in front of TV cameras, but we probably would if we had that kind of influence.  It doesn’t make it ok, but it’s easy to understand how it happens.

Whether you agree with Jahizzy about women pastors or not, what he said was wrong.  He should repent of what he said, and everyone calling for that is right to do so.

But where have those calls been for the past ten or twenty years?  This is just MacArthur doing MacArthur things, not some bold new escalation of his rhetoric.  He is always like this.  And the irony of all this – an even bigger irony than calling his ministry “Grace to You” – is that this is what he thinks it means to be Jesus in the world.

His Content

A long time ago, when I had the luxury of such discussions, a friend of mine and I were discussing the impact of Carl McIntire on Presbyterian history.

Carl signed up with J. Gresham Machen who had started the denomination known, today, as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  This denomination was started in response to increasing theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church USA.

This still wasn’t fundamentalist enough for Carl, though, and he shortly broke from the OPC to form the Bible Presbyterian Church where they could emphasize clear, biblical distinctives like total abstention from alcohol, premillennial dispensationalism, and total disassociation from any group who might disagree with you.  Or, as my friend put it, “It’s like he dug through the OPC’s theological trash can and thought, ‘Hey, some of this stuff is pretty good!'”

I’m not sure I could put together a better description of John MacArthur’s strange collage of theological positions.

That’s not to say he’s wrong about literally everything, but the sheer volume of things he propounds as clear biblical truth has a high degree of overlap with “positions widely discredited by anyone with even a modicum of biblical scholarship.”

“Oh,” but you say, “he’s the founding president of a seminary!”

This is true, but you have to understand that seminaries, like martial arts schools, are not regulated in any way.  You could start a seminary right now.  Anyone could.  Whether anyone would recognize your credentials as valid is another story, but you don’t have to meet any level of qualifications to open a seminary.

Further, as someone who perennially considers seminary, I can tell you that many of them were not founded to further inquiry, scholarship, debate, and vital pastoral skills necessary to care for hurting people and help them rebuild their lives.  Most of them are focused on passing down a collection of theological distinctives.  Being associated with a seminary or having a seminary degree does not make you a serious scholar of the Bible, although it can help in that journey quite a bit.

“Well,” you might reply, “just because he holds to many biblically shallow positions and reads the Bible basically the same way people read newspapers does not mean he’s wrong about this one.”

Also quite true, but let me tell you where I’m going with this.

When I was younger, I worked in a college’s physical plant.  One time, I had to attend a seminar on a new fire suppression system.  It was just as exciting as it sounds.

The vendor explained the various statistics and operations of the system.  When he got to the smoke detectors you installed in parking garages, he took some time to explain some of the differences, one of which is that cigarette smoke would not set off the parking garage smoke detectors, even though the internal building smoke detectors would react to cigarette smoke.

At this point, a gentleman in the front row sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and declared, “Well, all someone would have to do is set fire to your garage using a lot of cigarettes,” and grinned cleverly while looking around the room, convinced that he had discovered the fatal flaw in this vendor’s system.

This man was smug and convinced of his own cleverness and rightness.  He had seen what others had not seen and was able to point out the insidious danger of this evil vendor trying to sell us a bill of goods.

It did not occur to him that his observation was colossally stupid.

If you’ve ever been in a parking garage, you know that it is almost entirely made of metal and concrete.  In order to have a destructive garage fire using cigarettes, you would have to import a truly massive amount of cigarettes and somehow set the whole thing ablaze.  Further, unless you used other huge amounts of flaming cigarettes to light your imported huge amount of cigarettes, the detectors would detect your flames.

He might as well have said, “What if aliens set your garage on fire with lasers that don’t set off smoke detectors?  Answer THAT, you shyster.”

A scenario where someone would 1) want to burn down your parking garage, 2) realize the best way to do this was to burn it down with cigarettes so the detectors wouldn’t go off, 3) sneak in multiple truckloads of cigarettes, 4) place this massive quantity of cigarettes around the garage without anyone noticing, and 5) successfully set all these cigarettes ablaze without being detected is all just so crazy as to be astounding, and yet, this man was smugly self-assured that he was right and good – a protector of the less intelligent.

This is, more or less, the way I see John MacArthur: someone whose conclusions are so massively ill-founded that it makes their smugness both ludicrous and intolerable.  It’s offensive when someone calls you stupid; it’s intolerable when a stupid person calls you stupid.

When JM says that there is “no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher, period, end of discussion,” we have to understand the phrase “no case” entails “no case that I am capable of understanding or interacting with in any way.”  Obviously, people can and have made biblical cases for women preachers, but addressing them seriously is not something JMac is equipped to do, so he pretends they don’t exist.

A couple hundred years ago, white theologians were saying that no biblical case could be made against slavery.  Turns out that you can actually make that case!  Whether it’s convincing to a slave owner is another matter, but the arguments do exist.

Another analogy is when certain mythicists say things like, “There’s no evidence that Jesus existed!”  Well, yes there is.  You may not find the evidence convincing, but it does exist.  It’s not an assertion that came out of thin air.

But, like our man warning us about the Hypothetical Cigarette Arsonist, it’s hard to take someone’s claim about there being “no case that can be made biblically” seriously when this same person contends that the Earth is 6000 years old and, one day, all Christians will mysteriously vanish.  He also says things like this: “The New Testament talks about the fact that the twelve tribes of Israel will be identified. Over each of the tribes will rule in the behalf of Christ, one of the twelve Apostles and we as believers having been glorified coming back to earth will even under the leadership of Jesus Christ rule over the earth and over the living people of Israel as well.” (Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist, Part 2)

Do you remember that passage of Scripture that says an Apostle will rule each of the twelve tribes of Israel that will somehow be reconstituted in the future?  You DON’T?  Or how about when the church comes “back to earth” and rules “over the living people of Israel?”  You don’t remember that passage?

This is the man who says no biblical case can be made for women pastors.

Now, I think premillennial dispensationalism is what you get when you read the Bible with virtually no knowledge about the actual Bible while someone is teaching you premillennial dispensationalism.  When you don’t know anything about the ancient world or the historical events and concerns of the day or what a “genre” is, you get premillennial dispensationalism.

But even though I think J-Mac’s eschatology is the mathematical product of the raw text of the Bible and a massive amount of ignorance and cherry-picking, I’d never be bold enough to say that no biblical case could be made for premillennial dispensationalism.  You can make it.  People have made it.

Far more scholarship and respect for the Bible and awareness of its world have gone into the case for egalitarianism than in the entirety of J-Mac’s works put together.  He just has neither the authority nor the chops to make statements about the credibility (or in this case, the raw fact of existence) of biblical cases for women preachers.  Whether you agree with his position or not, he’s definitely not capable of speaking authoritatively on the state of the discussion.

Other than the fact that his arguments for complentarianism are bad, though, there was a point in his diatribe that really stood out to me.

He accused women wanting to be pastors of seeking power.  He even used the example that these women didn’t want to be plumbers; they wanted to be senators and pastors.  “They don’t want equality; they want power,” he said, and apparently the push for egalitarianism proves it.

This is just the dumbest line of argument ever.

Let me give you a slightly different situation.  I’ll even use J-Mac’s beloved plumber scenario.

Let’s say you have a group of plumbers, both men and women.  They have the same job title, same responsibilities, do the same work, operate the same complexity of scenarios – from a work perspective, they are completely indistinguishable.  However, the men make double the hourly rate that the women do.

If Johnny’s logic is correct, then if these women asked for equal pay, they wouldn’t be interested in equality.  They’d be interested in money.

Obviously, this is a ridiculous conclusion.  The money is where the inequity is.  You gain equality in this scenario by increasing compensation.  That’s what you’d ask for because that’s where the inequality is.  But I can hear J-Mac speaking out to those women, “You don’t just want a living wage, you want double your hourly rate!  You don’t want equality, you want money!  The Good Book tells us the love of money is the root of all evil, right after the story about the fox and the grapes!  A Christian woman shouldn’t be asking for higher salaries.”

This is a ludicrous criticism when the inequality is based in an unequal distribution of “power.”  (Incidentally, it says a lot about what MacArthur thinks about his role when he identifies “seeking to be a pastor” as a power grab.)  What else should they ask for?  Rubber ducks?  Free tickets to “Truth Matters?”  They have to ask for “power” because that’s what’s creating the inequality.

Now, you may think they shouldn’t have it.  That’s your opinion, but it’s idiotic to say that the fact that they’re asking to be allowed to hold a “power” position shows that they’re seeking power and not equality.  THAT’S WHERE THE INEQUALITY IS.

Women who want to be pastors (and senators, I guess) are only asking for something that men already have.  That’s seeking equality.  You can say they shouldn’t have it, but it makes zero sense to say asking for power means that they’re power-hungry and not interested in equality when the power is the thing that’s unequal.

When women ask for equal pay, does that make them money-hungry and not interested in equality?  When ethnic minorities wanted to use the same bathrooms, restaurants, bus seats, water fountains, and (gasp) colleges as white people, did that make them bathroom-hungry and not interested in equality?

John MacArthur has constructed a narrative where, if there’s an inequality, and you ask for that inequality to be rectified, that proves you aren’t interested in equality.  You’re only interested in whatever the heck you’re asking for that would make you equal.

I’m sorry; this is just the dumbest man in evangelicalism, and he considers himself the brightest.  He is the meanest, and he considers himself the most gracious.  If you are a complementarian, you need to find a new hero.

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