During a conference last October, John MacArthur, well-known pastor, publicly rebuked Beth Moore for her Bible teaching based on her gender. This caused a great deal of controversy.
The Controversial Kick-Off
John MacArthur is a long-time pastor and seminary chancellor. MacArthur stands strongly for Biblical truth against the changing waves of cultural trends and opinions. MacArthur was on a panel at the Truth Matters Conference, honoring 50 years in ministry. The host of the panel discussion asked the panelists to play a word association game. The panelists were to respond to the host’s prompt with the first thing that came to mind. The first prompt was simply the name, “Beth Moore.” Moore is a highly popular women’s ministry speaker and Bible study writer. 2 John MacArthur responded to the name “Beth Moore” with the abrupt command, “Go home!” He was signaling his disdain for Beth Moore and his desire that she cease ministry. MacArthur continued, “There is no case that can be made Biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.” This made the Christian world explode with intense commentary and controversy. Again, Beth Moore is a women’s speaker and Bible study author, who has been wildly popular over the last decades. She focuses on relatively intense Bible studies, complete with lots of homework, which focus primarily on a female audience. In our church, we have women’s ministries that use Beth Moore’s Bible studies. I am (still) very much in favor of this as a pastor and overseer of our church. In our church, we also have bible study groups that use John MacArthur Bible studies. I am (still) very much in favor of this as a pastor and overseer of our church. The storm that MacArthur started brewing with his statements is really a stormy controversy between two theologically and Biblically conservative Christians, an argument of intricacies between people who share a very narrow camp. So, why did this controversy make my “Cancel Culture” blog series? The issue of the Biblical role of women in ministry is among the most controversial topics in Christian circles today. Many books have been written, arguments made, and positions carefully detailed with respect to what the Bible actually says on the subject. It’s also controversial because of the strong fight in contemporary culture for civic equality for women. In other words, tensions are high surrounding these topics, and emotions are raging on all sides of this issue. After MacArthur made the statement that Beth Moore should “Go home,” many, many Christians felt deeply offended. They were offended, even though they, with MacArthur, stand strongly for Biblical “complementarianism.” Complementarianism is opposed to “egalitarianism.” Egalitarianism proposes a flat equality between men and women, without distinction of gender roles. Complementarians believe the Bible views men and women as equally valuable, but the two equally valuable genders have different and complementary roles in the church and in the world. The offended, conservative and complementarian believers would agree that only men should hold the Biblical role of elder or pastor, for instance. They were offended, nonetheless, by what MacArthur said. Why? John MacArthur didn’t discuss the issue of Beth Moore with gentleness and respect. He also blatantly ignored the many nuances of Biblical teaching concerning women in ministry that, I believe, he himself would otherwise affirm. In this case, John MacArthur simply canceled Beth Moore as an individual. MacArthur also canceled all her teaching and Bible studies with one giant atomic bomb of a statement. He declared all discussion ended, without any constructive argument concerning what exactly was wrong with Beth Moore. Instead of building a conversation that might persuade people toward his position, he ‘canceled’ and disfellowshipped a fellow-believer. In effect, he also canceled all who would listen to her or use her Bible studies. He sowed strong emotion, and reaped strong emotion. In the whirlwind he reaped, the pursuit of truth was lost.
Full disclosure: I like John MacArthur and have benefited from his ministry. I also like Beth Moore, and I can say I have benefited from her ministry (even as a male!). Do I fully agree on every issue with either of them? No. Will I continue to engage with them both after this spat? Yes. I certainly will. Not only that, I will promote them both. Thomas Aquinas, a truly brilliant medieval theologian, with whom I also differ on some significant issues, once wisely said, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.”
Conversations and interactions with people with whom we disagree, are incredibly helpful to us as truth-seekers… as God-seekers. Yes, even debate – open, loving debate – can be the greatest boon to our faith, especially to the right understanding of our faith. When we interact with people who have different views from our own, we are forced to think-through our own views to a much greater extent. Our views become better nuanced, detailed, and stronger, or our wrong views are graciously destroyed by the weight of the truth. We should welcome this sharpening and seek it out. We Christians, as followers after the God Who is Truth, should be all the more diligent to keep those conversations open and flowing. We should also love people enough to draw them into closer relationship rather than push them away when we disagree with them. We will be better Truth-seekers. We’ll be better at keeping our God’s commandments to love others. We’ll be better at actually finding the nuanced Truth for ourselves, and we will prayerfully bring others along to the Truth while on the journey. I think anybody who studies the Bible and its rich theology in any depth will begin to form opinions on deeper second-level and third-level issues that don’t impact the central teachings of the Bible. The central first-level Christian teachings really define the essence of Christianity.
These first-level teachings include core doctrines: The inspiration and authority of the Bible, the teaching that there is only One God who exists in three persons, and the fact of the death, resurrection, and certain future bodily return of Jesus Christ, Who is both fully God and fully man. The first level teachings insist that there is only one way to God and that is through faith alone in Christ alone, who secured salvation as a gift of grace alone, all to the glory and praise of God alone. If we hold first-level truths and trust Christ for ourselves, then we can properly define ourselves as Christian. We should be loving and invite conversation with those who disagree with the essence of Christianity, and we should seek to gently and lovingly persuade them to embrace Christ and His Truth. This is simply carrying out the Great Commission, in which Christ commanded us to make disciples of all people.
Among Christians, we should have an even greater ability to have loving conversations, such that we can disagree on the less important second and third-level issues, while never pushing fellow-Christians away or breaking fellowship. This is all part of discipling one another to follow Christ better. Second and third-level Christian teachings may include questions of what the Bible says about the timing and practice of baptism, the timeline and detailed-circumstances of how and when Christ will return, and the issue of exactly what roles the Bible allows for women. We need to make the intentional choice to follow another path in our discussions as Christians. We need to recognize the need among Christians to have disagreements, to vigorously discuss 4 those disagreements based on the Bible, and to become better students of the Bible and better followers of Christ in the process. We can only do this if we disagree on those second-level issues without threat of disfellowshipping or excommunicating one another during our conversation. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way, into him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15 ESV)” This is an essential part of our discipleship! I love the way Augustine envisioned that Christians should treat one another as we speak the truth in love to one another. Sixteen hundred years ago, he pithily wrote a maxim for Christian discussion and disagreement: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”
The Choice: Clear Love, Confusing Cancellation
Whenever we’re involved in a discussion over a difference of belief, we really have two important options. We can focus on winning the argument or winning the truth together with the other person. When we focus on merely winning the argument, a self-promoting desire pushes us to win the argument at any cost, even if it costs the other person. With this attitude, there tends to be a lot of pride that desires to ‘score points’ or simply look smart or powerful in speech. I take pride, even exult, in my own ‘right-ness,’ when I take on this attitude. This is our default attitude as sinful human beings. When making our case from this self-centered attitude, we tend to throw around overstatements, emotional language, name-calling, accusations against the motives or morality of people who would dare hold another perspective. We also tend to reduce our opponents case to ‘straw men,’ meaning that instead of viewing their argument with all the nuances and arguments and caveats they would put forward, we instead paint their position in broad strokes, erasing the details of their case, in order to make a straw man that is much easier to fight against than the real man. So, for instance, if someone is arguing that we should reduce taxes on business owners in order to free them to make more hires and decrease joblessness, while growing the economy; we might make a straw man out of their complex position and simply say that they are in the pocket of the wealthy and just want to make the wealthy richer.
This argument is not only bad logic, it shows a heart full of selfish, close-mindedness, and a truly bad attitude that desires to confuse the real issues and simply ‘cancel’ those with opposing views by putting a verbal heel to their neck, not allowing them to speak their case to the full. Argumentation of this sort displays our cowardice and/or pride. We have all been guilty of this at one point or another! The other option is to be clear, instead of attempting to confuse the issue through overstatement and straw men. In our clarity, our concern is for the Truth to win, even if my opinion or self-image suffers a loss. This ‘clear’ option calls us to engage discussion, while desiring to speak the truth in love to the person with whom we disagree, instead of desiring simply to vanquish our opponent, to ‘cancel’ them. This is the way of Jesus, the way of truth in love. I hate to pick on MacArthur, because he has one big issue in common with me. He’s a sinner who needs grace. Moreover, when you’re in the public eye and make a gaff like this, you need even more grace. So, at the outset let’s all see in MacArthur’s example that we can be strong 5 Christians, and still mess up. Let’s give pastor John some love and grace, even while we use his public mistake as an example to learn from. That said, in our present examination of the MacArthur-Moore controversy, I think most people, even in John MacArthur’s ideological camp, would say that John MacArthur’s statement about women’s roles in ministry was an overstatement. His words did not communicate the appropriate nuance required for the subject, Biblically. As stated, what he said was clearly wrong. When John MacArthur said, “”There is no case that can be made Biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”
The main point of obfuscation, or un-clarity, that makes this sweeping statement confusing; centers on the use of the word, ‘preacher.’ If, here, John wants to say that the Bible allows no room for a woman to hold the church office of pastor/elder/overseer, then that would be a clear point, except that’s not what Beth Moore is doing or claiming for herself. What does he mean? It’s not clear. When we see the word, ‘preacher’ or ‘preaching’ in the Bible, particularly the New Testament, the Greek word ‘kerusso,’ usually is the word behind the English word, ‘preacher.’ I doubt, though, MacArthur wants to say there is no room in the Bible for a woman to preach in the ‘kerusso’ sense. This would result in removing women from the Great Commission, which sets all Christians on the project of telling everyone about the Good News of what Christ has done for us. Women are called, along with all of us to ‘proclaim’ or ‘preach’ the Gospel. For instance, in Mark 16:15, Jesus instructs Christians, “Go into all the world and preach (proclaim, kerusso) the gospel to the whole creation.” So, that’s not what he means, surely.
So what exactly is MacArthur trying to say? Is he saying that women should never have a teaching platform? Of course, this is likely not his meaning, because the Bible clearly instructs women to teach in certain circumstances. For instance, Titus 2:3-4 instructs older women to teach younger women: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children.” I know MacArthur believes this. I’ve heard him teach that women should teach younger women, just as men should also teach younger men to be good husbands and fathers. An important note here is that Beth Moore is trying to teach women, specifically. That is the audience to whom she directs her Bible studies and speaking engagements, complete with feminine artwork. So, this couldn’t be what MacArthur is upset over.
I believe, based on my knowledge of John MacArthur and his teaching, part of what upsets him about Beth Moore is something else. I believe he’s concerned about some of the content of her (second or third-level) teachings, especially the way in which she claims and uses personal revelation as part of her teaching. I would agree with him on this criticism, by the way. This may be why MacArthur’s sweeping and emotional statement isn’t directed toward such as Elysse Fitzpatrick, a woman who has a very similar ministry to Beth Moore, but who is more aligned with MacArthur’s theology. Still more central, I imagine the fact that Moore has spoken to mixed male and female audiences concerned MacArthur all the more. MacArthur believes it is never appropriate for women to teach mixed audiences. Other conservative ‘complementarians’ disagree. Some believe, for instance, that women can speak and even have teaching roles with a mixed gender audience, as long as they do so in submission to the oversight of a male pastor/elder/overseer. This debate is good, and it’s an important point of discussion among 6 those who hold the same high view of the Bible. If MacArthur, as I suspect, meant to make a strong plea, that Beth Moore should follow the position that Christian women should never teach a mixed gender audience, he at least should have said so more clearly and with more sobriety. Alas, we’re all sinners, and we sinners should readily forgive this faltering, even though it stirred up quite a storm!
Herein lies the point. We need to be careful not to allow our emotions to drag us into a mode of debate dealing in confusion and canceling people. We should run from the business of simply trying to score points and the selfish motivation to be the winner of the argument. We should view ourselves as servants of the Truth, who, following the God of truth, speak the Truth in love with clarity and humility. In a culture that cancels important truth conversation everyday, we believers need to be all the more diligent to persuade everyone for the cause of truth with the utmost care and love. I believe John MacArthur to be a Truth seeker and follower of Jesus. I also believe Beth Moore to be a truth seeker and follower of Jesus. I have some minor disagreements with them both, but I’m confident that they are both in Christ together with me, and it might even be possible that I’m wrong in some of the areas in which I disagree with these two believers! I doubt it, but it’s a possibility. (Please read that as an instructive joke, using myself as the punch line!)
I pray that as believers we all will draw closer to our Head, Jesus Christ, becoming more mature and more Christ-like. Christ-likeness includes learning His heart of grace. It’s this grace that enables truth-in-love conversations that draw us closer together in the midst of our disagreements. I hate to use a brother like John MacArthur as a negative example. He’s been such a good example in so many areas! May we all be able to see past those faltering moments, and emphasize the areas we see Christ in one another. Then, through loving, learning, truth-filled conversations, may we all see Christ better. Even through the strongest of disagreements, let us hold the essentials in unity, but in all things let us love one another, as we are loved in Christ, Who alone has all the right answers.
Pastor Kevin Rutledge is the Lead Teaching Pastor at First. He has a Bachelor’s in Biblical Studies, an MA in Theology, and nearly twenty years of ministry experience.