(0/9/18 Editing note: Several friends in academia alerted me to an error I made with the word I chose to describe TMU/S ‘ accreditation status. I used the word “suspended”, believing it meant “at risk of being revoked if identified issues remain unaddressed”, as that is where things are. The term I should have used is “on probation”. Both TMU and TMS remain accredited while they are addressing the issues. I’ve updated the post and regret the error. It was not from any intent to mislead or misrepresent the facts in any way.)
The flames over Dr. John MacArthur’s announcing his intention to write about why growing Christian concerns about justice issues are a threat to the gospel were still smoldering when news broke that both The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary (TMU/S) had their accreditations placed on probation last month for administrative infractions (Dr. MacArthur serves as the president of both). Doctor MacArthur famously eschews most things Internet-related personally. But there is an entire cottage industry of websites and online communities dedicated to lionizing him or pillorying him over the things he teaches. Historically, it’s been his teachings – about the Charismatic movement, the Emerging church, complementarianism and most recently social justice – that have been the center of the controversy. Last week’s news about TMU/S was the first controversy that has even come close to involving him personally.
For Dr. MacArthur’s numerous detractors, this moment is the one they’ve been building their Internet platforms for. For his equally numerous and even more passionately committed followers, it’s just another day of Satan doing what Satan does.
But for me, as these overlapping controversies unfold simultaneously, it’s personal. And it’s painful.
Some you know some of the story of my journey to, through and then from TMU and Grace Community Church (GCC). Some of you know a lot more, because we’ve walked portions of it together – whether in person or online.
The Cliff notes version of my story is that I attended TMU (then TMC) from 1990 to 1994, and was a committed member of GCC for all of that time and 5 years after it (until I married and moved to Northern California, where I live today). When I first came to TMU from Australia, I passed for a Christian as only a Reformed Baptist pastor’s daughter could. In reality, I was a committed, albeit closeted, unbeliever, who planned to bide my time at TMU until I could transfer to UCLA to become a psychology major. I didn’t know that my plan to move halfway around the planet to get away from God was really God’s plan for me to run straight into Him. Through a series of providences, I came to be persuaded that God was real. It logically followed that everything the Bible said about Him, myself, and what I must do to be right with Him was true as well. So one night shortly before Easter in 1990, I confessed my sin of unbelief, asked Jesus to save me and committed to following Him for the rest of my life. But it would be over 12 years before I began to understand just what I had actually done (or more importantly, what God had done in me).
The grace of growing up in a home where the Bible was read regularly and deeply revered meant I was blessed to be more familiar with the basics of Biblical doctrine than the average new believer. But I carried some pretty deep wounds from how it had been applied in certain contexts. Now that I was actually a Christian, I was determined to do the Christian life right. And, as I repeatedly heard in TMU chapel and at church, there was no better place on earth to learn how. All that was required was to follow the Biblical blueprint TMU would teach me.
One principle that was essential to this blueprint was the concept of authority and submission. It was “built into every dimension of personality relationships”, and was characterized by two distinct features:
Authority and submission were absolutes. Christ’s perfect, unqualified submission to His Father as His Son was to be the model for our unqualified submission to human authority. No matter how unrighteous and antithetical to God’s design the earthly authority was, unless directly commanded to disobey God, our call was to be like Jesus and submit to it.
Authority and submission were ontological dimensions of gender. Authority, or leadership, was inherent to being male, while submission was inherent to being female. The justification here was the order of creation in Genesis 2, and the parallels with God the Father and Jesus Christ as his Son in 1 Corinthians 11. Men were inherently called to be leaders, and women were called to submit to them.
(The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians, pgs. 253-254)
The picture Dr.MacArthur painted of authority and submission was a study in contrasts: of safety, stability and happiness when it was followed, and sinful, anarchic institutional chaos when it was rejected, like the difference between the nostalgic vision of Thomas Kinkade (whose paintings were notably popular with GCC families) and the dissipated, apocalyptic one of Hieronymous Bosch. Authority and submission was the glue God created to hold the institutions He designed for the flourishing of the world – the church, the family and the government – intact. Without them, chaos would reign.
I was drawn to this blueprint for happiness, especially its promise of blessing and affirmation from God. I had often struggled as a child to believe that God loved me or was pleased with me. I was ready to sign on for any system that a path to God’s approval. So the early years of my Christian life were built to its exacting specifications – through college, in post-graduate life as a reluctant career woman, and (finally) marriage and motherhood to 3 daughters in 5 years. And it was the circumstantial and spiritual burdens of early mothering that finally sent the whole edifice crumbling to dust. But then God stepped in, clearing away the rubble and helped me rebuild my theology on a more solid foundation. To borrow Brennan Manning’s quote of Lloyd Ogilvie, my life changed from living to earn God’s love, to living because, in Christ, I already possessed it.
Over the next several years, I went on a kind of Bible study pilgrimage, to understand what it meant to be a restored bearer of God’s image through Christ, not just as a person, but as a woman. That pilgrimage inevitably lead back to this issue of authority and submission and what the whole Bible really taught about it. The answers I found in the Scriptures were far different than what I’d been lead to believe.
Without question, the theme of authority and submission does appear constantly throughout Scripture. But the depictions of human authority and human submission are hardly ones of absolutes.
The Bible regularly positively depicts men and women who resist human authority, in word and deed:
- The Hebrew midwives with Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21)
- The woman of Endor with Saul (1 Samuel 28:21-23)
- Abigail with David and Nabal (1 Samuel 25:25-31)
- Vashti and Esther with Ahasuerus (Esther 1:10-12, Esther 7: 4)
- Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego with Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1-30)
- Daniel with Darius (Daniel 6: 1-24)
- Pilate’s wife and Pilate (Matthew 27: 19)
The Bible positively depicts those with authority submitting to people under them, in word and deed:
- Naaman and the Israelite slave girl (2 Kings 5:1-14)
- Saul to the woman of Endor14 (1 Samuel 28:23)
- David to Abigail (1 Samuel 25:32-35)
The Bible positively depicts women speaking with authority. It affirms the men and women who listen to them, while the ones who do not become object lessons:
- Deborah with Barak (Judges 4:6-8)
- Esther with Ahasuerus (Esther 8:5-8)
- The Samaritan woman (John 4:28-29, 39)
- Mary with the servants and Jesus at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-8)
- Pilate’s wife with Pilate (Matthew 27:19-24)
- The women at the resurrection with the Apostles (Luke 24: 9-11)
The Bible even negatively depicts women who submit to their husband’s authority absolutely:
All of these stories find their culmination in Christ, who, while he was still a child under Jewish law, reminded his mother that his ultimate authority was his Heavenly Father, not his earthly parents (Luke 2:41-50). Throughout His ministry, he regularly exposed and refuted the extra-biblical authority of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-14). And on one memorable occasion, he took a whip to Temple employees and property (John 2:13-17) to make his point.
To be clear, the Bible clearly teaches that resistance to unrighteous authority is no more of an absolute in the Christian life than submission is. Peter uses Sarah as an example of someone who submits to her husband even when he is not exercising his authority rightly (1 Peter 3:5-6). And again, the ultimate example is Jesus, who for the joy set before Him didn’t despise the shame of being put to death on trumped up charges of blasphemy because a weak-willed Pilate capitulated to an angry mob (Hebrews 12:2).
The thread that ties the theme of authority and submission together in the Bible is not absolutism. It is the supremacy of God over all things, including human authority. Where human authority is shaped and exercised like God’s, we rightly obey it. When it is not, and as God gives us the means and the opportunity, we work to resist it in God’s name so that its shape matches His. When the opportunity doesn’t come, or those in authority resist us in return, we submit, not just to unrighteous authority, but also to the One who judges rightly, for God to do what He wills in His time.
Over and over again, the Bible shows that submission to God’s authority can include humble, faith-filled resistance to human authority, when it is not being exercised like God. It is not a resistance that is rebelling against God, but serves as an appeal to those in authority of the danger of God’s judgment for their own rebellion against Him in not exercising their authority righteously.
The more settled my convictions became, the more I wanted to understand the theological foundations of Dr. MacArthur’s views. That study sent me down two connected, but distinct paths.
The Eternal Subordination of the Son
One of Doctor MacArthur’s notable qualities is the constancy of his convictions. Said differently, he rarely changes his position on anything. On the occasion of the one notable time he did change his mind, he wrote about it here.
Dr. MacArthur once believed that Jesus was not eternally God’s Son, but that he became God’s Son through the incarnation. In this article published in JBMW in 2001, he explains how he came to change his mind, and to believe that Jesus’s “sonship” is eternal. Elsewhere, he describes the nature of Jesus’ sonship as eternally obedient, or submissive. Consequently, through Jesus’ relationship with His father as a Son, He is eternally submissive or subordinate to His Father.
This argument will be familiar to those who followed the Internet debate several years ago over the doctrine described variously as ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son), EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination), or ERAS (Eternal Relationship of Authority and Submission). The controversy ignited partly because a group of Reformed women writers, including myself, had traced varying threads of problematic teaching in women’s’ Bible study materials back to this same place. It’s a position held by other conservative theologians, such as Wayne Grudem. It’s also a position many other conservative theologians argue is unorthodox, outside the bounds of the Nicene Creed.
Authority and Submission as Gendered
Dr. MacArthur’s remarks at the GTY blog were far from the first time he has used Roman 13 as the textual lens through which to view contemporary issues related to civil authority.
Romans 13 was the leading passage for a sermon he preached at a special Sunday morning service to honor the LAPD in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter activism in 2015.
It was a featured passage (alongside 1 Peter 3) in a sermon series he preached after the LA riots in 1992.
It was the leading passage in a sermon he preached in the aftermath of the LAPD’s aggressive arrests of pro-life protestors in 1985.
Modern English translations take two approaches to interpreting the article that modifies “authority” in Romans 13: 4. The NKJV uses “he”, as does the ESV. But the NASB uses “it”, and so does the CSB. It’s a distinction with a difference worth considering.
Over the years, Dr. MacArthur has read this verse from both translations. But when he expounds on it, he invariably equates authority with the people – the men – possessing it.
The belief that authority is ontologically attached to personhood, particularly manhood, will shape the way you view any number of issues our country is focused on today – domestic abuse, clerical abuse, police brutality, and civil disobedience.
It will shape the way you interpret America’s troubling legacy of slavery and segregation, its lingering effects, and the Protestant church’s passive complicity and active participation in it.
It will justify telling a sanctuary full of police officers on a Sunday morning that they’re ministers of God, without telling them that they’re also sinners who rebel against God’s authority, especially when they abuse their authority or knowingly cover up its abuse by others. It will have them leave the service ignorant of their accountability and culpability, instead of convicted and driven to repentance and restoration through Christ, the one to whom all authority has been given by His Father.
Now, Dr. MacArthur’s arguments about absolute authority and submission are being put to the ultimate test, as the two institutions he leads are themselves accused of not submitting to civil authorities. The charges vary in type and in degree, but their unifying theme is that the leadership of TMU and TMS has repeatedly chosen to do or not do things required by federal law for them to be fully accredited. Ironically, many of the requirements in question are designed to properly contain authority and ensure that it is properly distributed and not misused. These are the issues they must address and make right to have their accreditation restored.
It remains to be seen Dr. MacArthur and the administration of TMU/S will submit to these mandates – whether they will recognize the damage this belief in absolute authority and submission has done to their institutions, let alone the hundreds and even thousands of men and women who have served and been taught in them.
The damage is not just from the doctrine itself. It’s the way Dr. MacArthur is drawing a line from this doctrine to differing Christian perspectives about how to faithfully pursue justice like Christ, and calling those perspectives a danger to the gospel. It implies that pastors who are attempting to faithfully shepherd their congregations to better align their understanding of justice with Christ are somehow going “off message”. It implies that church members who humbly raise these issues with their elders and pastors or other church members are somehow sowing division, instead of pursuing greater faithfulness to Christ.
I have watched over the last several years as the different branches of my spiritual family – my GCC family, my TMU family, my local church family, my Christian Internet family – are not just growing apart from each other, but growing antagonistic and suspicious of one another’s fidelity to the gospel. There is a dividing wall of hostility being built against those who are working to tear it down in the name of the One who put such hostility to death on the cross (Ephesians 2).
What I am thankful for, in the midst of the shame of our factiousness playing out in front of a watching world, it has no power to defeat the actual gospel. As my pastor, Josh Camacho, wrote to me when I wrote to him about all this last week:
“There is no legitimate threat to the gospel, there is no worthy opponent to the gospel; the gospel has outlasted empires, emperors, and will outlast immortal creatures that defy it. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe and it is marching forth to the ends of the earth by the Sovereign will of Christ who is determined to build His church by the regenerating and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel will be fine. We might get ourselves into trouble…but the God who offered His only begotten Son for sinners will not be thrown aside by errant theology.”
And to him and to all of us, I say “Yes and amen.”