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 to the Israelite slave girl (2 Kings 5:1-14)
- Saul to the woman of Endor (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:
- Zeresh (Haman’s wife) (Esther 5:14)
- Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10)
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.
(9/10/18 Editing note: Several friends in academia alerted me to an error I made with the word I originally 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 stand. 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.)