Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, c. 200-400
Today I listened to Rev. John MacArthur double down on his comments about Beth Moore and women in the church. I listened to nearly 75 minutes of doubling down. He discussed all the big “women’s roles” texts: 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Corinthians 11, Genesis 3, Titus 2, 1 Timothy 2. His remarks covered everything from women preaching and teaching to the named women in the Old Testament (Miriam’s prophetic role was, after all, really just “a musical event”; Deborah, the judge, was only chosen in light of the lack of male leadership, but she knew her place when she appointed Barak as general; such women, and others, are all “exceptions that prove the rule”), the centrality of childbearing, women’s long hair, disappointed angels, gender clarity, weak husbands, and the travesties of our culture.
I’m not sure why I listened. I certainly don’t want to pick a fight. I’m less interested in feminism or “women’s spirituality” than I am in what is universal to Christian faith and practice. I’m certainly not interested in overthrowing male leadership in the church, or usurping power, or dominating men. But since I am involved in preaching, teaching at a seminary, teaching men and women’s Bible studies, serving in church leadership positions, and I keep my hair very short, I am, according to MacArthur irreverent, shameful, and rebellious. I am contributing to the fall of our faith and our culture, doomed to sit there and wallow in “all my jewelry and junk.”
Rev. MacArthur is, I’m sure, a godly man, full of love for Our Lord. Such is the nature of the human soul that it can be both powerfully articulate for God and woefully mistaken about some things. Cue Bernard of Clairvaux, a man who spoke more gloriously about the love of God than nearly any other saint in history, and yet was quite miserably wrong when he preached the Second Crusade. We are complicated and rarely pure.
Mind you, I’m not here to prove that Rev. MacArthur is wrong or mistaken. He may be…or I may be. I don’t think I am, and if I lacked confidence in what I think of as acts of obedience, I wouldn’t be free to do what I do. Yet it is a constant battle to remain in a posture of humility, even when I have deeply held convictions and certainties. If I’m not prepared to accept the fact that I could be in the wrong (about this, about a lot of things), then my certainties have gotten in the way of my humility. Nevertheless, it is the Spirit who both teaches me, as Jesus promised, and the Spirit who reminds me to remain teachable.
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, Prince Caspian, there’s a scene when Aslan appears to Lucy, Lucy alone, and gives her instructions for the group. The others with her do not see him, and they dismiss her conviction as nonsense, dreaming, childishness, coercion, and plain naughtiness. At one point, Edmund tells Lucy, “You’ve got dazzled and muddled with the moonlight. … It’s only an optical what-do-you-call-it.” Though she tries hard to persuade them, they refuse to obey Aslan’s command, given through Lucy.
Later, Aslan appears again to Lucy, and her hubris around the others’ failure to cooperate is gently, but firmly, rebuked. He also chides her for not obeying him, whether or not the others did. He expected her to follow him. Period. End of discussion. The others must make their choices as they saw right. They were, of course, wrong, because indeed Aslan had called them, but it was Lucy’s wrongness, her failure to follow and her self-justification, that was at issue.
Later, when the children are all reunited with Aslan, he addresses each of them and their place of resistance. To Susan, who was the snottiest with Lucy, he quietly says, “You have listened to fears, child.”
I don’t imagine Rev. MacArthur consults the Narnia Chronicles much for his theology. But this is a curious little tale about the least and the smallest, a girl in fact, being called to do the Lord’s bidding, even when the leaders among them could not see or hear the call. I imagine Mary felt much of the same when she described her vision to Joseph and her mother and father. The women at the tomb, whose gospel message seemed to the apostles like nonsense, surely felt rebuked, though they spoke the truth. But then, Joseph was afraid, and so were the apostles. Rev. MacArthur has, perhaps, listened too much to fears.
Rev. MacArthur is right, however, to examine the scriptures for the truth. We dare not dismiss Paul as misogynist or cavalierly pitch out those scriptures that violate our 21st-century sensibilities. At the same time, it is important to recognize that there are other, viable, interpretations of the passages he addresses. Rev. MacArthur repeatedly uses the word “clarity” around his arguments—the scriptures are crystal clear around women’s roles in the Church, he insists. And so, I reach for my copy of Beyond Sex Roles, by former Wheaton professor of biblical studies Gilbert Bilezikian, and the exchange of letters with him that I have tucked inside. I am reminded, once again, of the distinct possibilities of different readings of these scriptures, and, indeed of the fact that the early church practiced such “different readings.” I think my old professor is still alive, and I thank him here publicly for his profound influence in my life.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Whatever else Paul says, this is the clearest, deepest, and most profound truth—that in the Body of Christ, the “natural” hierarchies of race, class, and gender have no meaning, and the results of the Fall, whether curses or consequences, are washed away in the blood of Christ. In the Body of Christ, the Spirit apportions gifts to each one individually as he wills.
Dr. Bilezikian closed his letter to me with this: “I am grateful for your interest in this issue and for your courage to tackle the hard work instead of supinely acquiescing to sinful interpretations of the Bible as so many intelligent women find it more convenient to do.” I might suggest that just as many intelligent men also find it more convenient to bury the supernatural beauty of Galatians 3.28 under layers of natural standards of flesh and blood.
Despite my confidence in these matters, however, I continue to tackle the hard work in my own small way and seek the truth … which is why, I guess, I really did listen to Rev. MacArthur’s sermon, when I probably should have been preparing for my next talk.