John MacArthur gave complementarians a bad name last week. But the problem is worse than that: he gave Christians a bad name. And he gave Christ a bad name.
Complementarianism is the belief, held by many Christians including John and myself, that men and women are created equal in value but with different roles in the church. The key area of difference is that complementarians believe the Bible teaches that women should not preach or lead churches.
John MacArthur is a prominent American pastor whose church is part of the conservative Southern Baptist denomination. Beth Moore has a teaching ministry that has blessed and encouraged many – male and female – sometimes through preaching on Sundays. For the past several months Moore has been the target of an increased level of flack and often outright abuse over this. MacArthur's comments last week, where he told Moore to "go home", were simply the most prominent example.
Is this proof, as many have seen it, that complementarianism is inherently a system of oppression designed by mankind (and males specifically) to denigrate women?
Absolutely not. It's just that the many, many lovely, kind, godly, honouring complementarians don't make the headlines.
We complementarians root our beliefs in the Bible. We may be misinterpreting it, though obviously we don't think we are. We recognise that other godly, scholarly people study the same scriptures and come away with a different understanding. But being on the unpopular side of the argument has forced us – has forced me – to go back to the scriptures many times, to read them again and again, to cross-reference and study and examine and explore them. I've come away convinced that from Genesis 1 through to Revelation, God has a wonderful plan for men and women and it involves them working together in ways that perfectly complement each other.
To complement (not compliment) someone is, according to the Oxford dictionary, to “contribute extra features to [them] in such a way as to improve or emphasize their qualities”. It is to show them off to their best advantage, to work together so as to ensure each is the best it can be.
It is deeply honouring to someone to actively enable them to flourish in all God has for them. All believers should be seeking to do and be this for one another. It is a central Christian belief that we are best able to flourish when we are living in obedience to the laws and boundaries God has laid down for us. And God, in his creation design, his covenants and his commands, lays down some boundaries that are different for men and for women.
This can be hard for us to understand – and even harder to submit to – in the 21st Century West. We are used to believing that men and women should have equal access to jobs based on aptitude and character alone, and regardless of their sex. Surely a loving God couldn't be so far behind our cultural wisdom, could he?
When we hit upon puzzles like this, it forces us to return to the scriptures and to what we know about God. God is love (1 John 4:8). That is a non-negotiable. He does love and deeply honour women. That is obvious in the way Jesus treated them, and in the way Paul showed great respect and honour to the many women who laboured alongside him for the sake of the gospel. And we know that God is for us and is working for our good (Romans 8:28) as well as for his glory. But what if it doesn’t feel good? Just as when we are going through difficult circumstances we may not understand or enjoy God’s methods, still we trust his heart. We know, as an absolute certainty, that he loves us, with a perfect, all-embracing, self-sacrificing love. So we can say with confidence and hope that although his way may feel painful, he is good, he is in control and we can trust him.
So where does that leave us with John MacArthur? Neither his words nor his attitude towards Beth Moore displayed even a basic respect, let alone the kind of godly, honouring love that Christians are required to show even to their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). He was not seeking to enable her to flourish, or "contributing extra features to her in such a way as to improve or emphasize her qualities". He wasn’t defending a complementarian view of the Bible. He might have been speaking at a conference entitled 'Truth Matters' but he wasn't defending truth, he was insulting a woman (and one who wasn’t even there to defend herself). In doing this, he betrayed the model of biblical leadership that he claims to believe in.
MacArthur’s attitude was not reflective of complementarian theology. It wasn’t even reflective of Christian theology.
He hasn’t won anyone over to his beliefs. He has given them a bad name, and by implication he has given the God who designed them a bad name.
Complementarianism is a biblically defensible, life-giving, God-honouring position. Rudeness and disrespect are not.
Jennie Pollock is a freelance writer and editor who lives in London and works wherever there’s a comfortable chair, an internet connection and a good cup of tea. She blogs at jenniepollock.com and tweets as @missjenniep.
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