How Did We Create John MacArthur: Conflating the Bible with My Reading

This is Part One of a series.  Here’s a link to Part Two. Here’s Part Three.

I realize the whole John MacArthur rage has died down a little and John Crist is the big thing, currently, but I don’t have a lot to say about John Crist since I only found out who he was last night.  I watched a compilation of “The Best of John Crist” last night, and if that’s the best, I’m not real impressed.  I think more of the jokes would land if you’re white, conservative, and marginally racist.

On the other hand, I sure wish evangelicals held their Presidents to the same standards as their comedians.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I talked about John MacArthur and how nobody really needs to care what this guy says about anything.  He has a collection of deeply flawed positions and bullies people with them.

But that got me thinking: how is it that such an obviously ridiculous person ends up being a hero and a leader for so many in evangelicalism?  Granted, there are a decent chunk of evangelicals who think that guy should take a long walk, but his influence in evangelicalism as a whole is disproportionately large.

How does this happen?  How did we create a man like this and make him an icon?

There are many things that have occurred to me as I’ve pondered that issue, but I’m just going to pick three, lest this turn into an epic saga.  My three are: conflation of the Bible with my reading, tribalism and an anemic gospel.

Conflation of the Bible with My Reading

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

Why do you hate God’s word? Why must you twist the acts of the faithful women mentioned in scripture into something they are not?

That was a quote from a comment thread discussing an article arguing that there were women leaders in the early churchScot McKnight wrote the article in question, and if you have any familiarity with Scot McKnight, you know he’s hardly a bastion of theological liberalism and most certainly does not hate the Bible.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I assure you this kind of thing is a very common feature of evangelical discourse.  It may not be stated as overtly as the quote I used, but the sentiment is very present: if you disagree with me, you disagree with the Bible, ergo God Himself.

No evangelical would claim that they are God’s direct mouthpiece or that they have been gifted with infallibility.  Many evangelicals functionally operate this way, however, because they do not make a distinction between the content of the Bible and their understanding of that content.  The Bible, to such people, is crystal clear on various matters that comprise evangelical theology, so to disagree with an evangelical theological position is functionally the same as saying that you don’t care what the Bible says.

Take the quote above, for example.  This person has a passage of Scripture in mind that they believe is crystal clear and authoritative and no other thinking needs to be done.  It says what it says, that’s the end of the discussion (“Period,” some might add).  It’s impossible that someone else might also consider that passage authoritative but come to a different conclusion, perhaps in light of other Scriptures, historical context, genre, copyist notes about source text, etc.

When you cannot make a distinction between your understanding of the Bible and the Bible, itself, this by nature of the case makes an enemy and a rebel out of anyone who might understand the Bible differently than you do.  The only “logical” explanation for why someone might not agree with you is if they held the Bible in disregard or contempt.

Take another look at the quote, above.  The question isn’t, “Why don’t you understand this passage to be prohibiting women ministers,” the question is, “Why do you hate God’s word?”

In a similar vein, I once pointed out to someone that some of Paul’s advice to churches reflects a concern for scandal and survivability in a first century world, and someone asked if I was an atheist.  In their minds, because a scholarly concern led me to a different reading than their own, the only other possible option is that I must actually be an atheist trying to undermine the Christian faith.

Anyone who holds a different position is automatically caricatured as someone in open defiance of God who hates the Bible, even in cases where this is obviously ridiculous.  Scot McKnight does not hate the Bible.  I am not an atheist.  Yet, evangelicals (#NotAllEvangelicals) find themselves forced into ludicrous claims like this because that’s the only alternative they’ve allowed themselves.

In this way of seeing the world, your opponents are not thoughtful people.  They do not have the Spirit.  They do not love the Bible.  They are a group of people who have invented values that they prefer and do not care what the Bible has to say about them, because, in your mind, that’s the only other possible option.  The one option that is not possible is that the Bible actually means something different than how I understand it.

I believe what “the Bible teaches,” ergo, if you disagree with me, then you are directly flaunting Scripture, which means you are directly flaunting God Himself.  You can see how, if this is your thought pattern, any kind of discussion is virtually impossible, and the only way to handle disagreement is to treat it as rebellion and an incursion of the Enemy.

I blame modernism, although I will also say in the era of the Internet and sound bites and people being sharply divided on various issues, we seem to have lost the ability to believe we are right while also acknowledging that we might be wrong and making that a genuine possibility.

You can absolutely believe your position is completely correct and maintain it with passion while also acknowledging that you could be wrong (and mean it).  You can acknowledge that “the other side” has good points without having to surrender your position.  There have been plenty of times where I’ve had to acknowledge, “That’s a very good point, and I don’t really have any good response to that.  Overall, though, I’m still not convinced.”

This is one of the privileges of being an adult human being; you don’t actually have to justify your positions to anyone else’s satisfaction but your own.

But getting back to the issue, this dynamic of assuming that my position is the clear, biblical one, and therefore everyone who disagrees with me just doesn’t care what the Bible says is a major, major issue in evangelical discourse.

So, you can see how this dynamic leads us to a John MacArthur.  This is John MacArthur’s take on almost anything you might imagine.  Pentecostals are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who understand certain passages differently than you do; they are possessed by Satan.  Christians working for social justice are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who believe Jesus teaches us to address social evils; they are threats to the gospel.

In many ways, his words and life’s work, really, are the logical conclusion of a failure to differentiate between a reading of the Bible and the Bible, itself.