John MacArthur is an influential pastor, author, teacher, and voice on the American stage today. He turned eighty years old last summer and has, for fifty years, served as the pastor of Grace Community Church, a mega-ministry in suburban Los Angeles. The congregation embraces the tagline, “Unleashing God’s Truth, One Verse at a Time, since 1969.” If he is anything, MacArthur is a student of the Word; his life’s ambition has been to be an expositor of Scripture, faithful and true to the holy writ. His radio program (launched in 1977), Grace to You, is a staple for millions of listeners. Although a proponent of reformed Baptist theology, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Los Angeles Pacific, a Free Methodist school grounded (as is the Church of God) in Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of the Bible. Los Angeles Pacific was merged (as was our own Arlington College) into what is now Azusa Pacific University in 1965.
I stumbled onto MacArthur’s name years ago when I picked up the first edition of one of his books, The Gospel According to Jesus (1988). I was grabbed by his boldness, direct and authoritative writing style, and his call to Christian discipleship that could be measured by its fruit, not just intellectual assent. MacArthur’s clarity has always been one of his strengths.
Last month, MacArthur made his views about women in ministry crystal clear, at the Truth Matters Conference, hosted at his local church. Seated on the platform in a panel with two other men, MacArthur was asked to participate in a word association game; as the moderator threw out a name or idea, each panelist was invited to respond with a word or short phrase, the first that came to mind. MacArthur’s responses, captured on tape and posted on YouTube, have gone viral.
The moderator said, without further framing, “Beth Moore.” MacArthur replied with the words, “Go home.” He then added, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion.”
Next, he went on to say, “Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel doesn’t mean you should be preaching. There are people who have certain hawking skills, natural abilities to sell, they have energy and personality and all of that. That doesn’t qualify you to preach.”
MacArthur’s position on women at the fore of ministry was made perfectly clear. Ouch.
Beth Moore is a hugely popular Bible teacher with deep roots in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Her books, workbooks, videos, conferences, and public teaching (before audiences once largely limited to women, but now drawing large numbers of men, too) have been the stuff of tension in her own tribe, as the SBC does not theologically embrace women preachers. Beth Moore has, in some quarters, become an exemplar of anointed Kingdom women preaching, teaching, and leading in the church; she has become a thorn in other quarters, illustrating the abandonment of Scripture.
Ah, the Scriptures. We in the Church of God are a people who give primary authority to the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. From our earliest days, the Church of God proclaimed its allegiance to the Bible, supremely above any kowtowing to human tradition or books of discipline. We understood our understanding of biblical exposition to be the last stop before Jesus returned; ours was “the evening light,” after which no further light was needed. The original Church of God band was united by its single-mindedness and comprehension of the Truth. Our hubris has abated somewhat, but we’re still a community alleged to the Bible.
This foundation in the Word has not wavered over time. But, reading the Bible and applying its precepts to everyday life sometimes has led different members of the body of Christ to different conclusions. My grandmother never entered a house of worship without a hat “covering her head,” (see 1 Corinthians 11:5); she never wore jewelry, either (see 1 Timothy 2:9). That said, my grandmother always looked sharp, put-together, not in any way backward. She was at peace conforming her dress to her understanding of these texts. She was born in 1890.
Alternatively, I see few hats and lots of jewelry in our churches today. My wife rarely has her head covered (and then only at the beach) and is no stranger to jewelry. I do not believe she dishonors the Lord or me in so doing; neither does she. And neither do most others in our church family. The principles of Scripture (honoring one another and our Lord with the way we dress) are transcendent; the expression of those principles may be different from one place (or epoch) to the next.
People filled with the Holy Spirit, committed to a biblical pattern for Christian living, can still (in our finiteness) legitimately come to different conclusions on how some texts should define us. We need to be respectful of each other and resist the temptation to dismiss others, instead “deferring to one another,” humbly.
This is where MacArthur first missed the boat, I fear. His response to “Beth Moore,” was not respectful to her sense of calling and place in the Kingdom. Just because she might be engaging in a secular role on television or anywhere does not mean she is qualified for the ministry, of course. The same can be said for men. But, the fact that she is a gifted communicator who can persuasively move an audience does not disqualify her, either. If that were the case, MacArthur would have to step down, too.
Furthermore, to unequivocally state that no biblical case can be made for women in ministry is a step too far. Yes, there are some biblical passages that forbid women from teaching men (most famously, the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 2:12). But, there are also passages which contend otherwise. Philip, for instance, had four daughters “with the gift of prophecy” (Acts 21:9)—which is to say they were supernaturally empowered by God to declare His truth. Women were also identified as prophets in the Old Testament (think Miriam, Deborah, and Hulda, as examples). Luke 2:36–38 tells us that “Anna, a prophetess” authenticated Jesus as the “promised King,” and told “everyone” about it (teaching both men and women in the Temple). Priscilla (with her husband, Aquila) taught Apollos (one of the New Testament’s most eloquent teachers, it seems) “the way of God more accurately” (see Acts 18:24–26). And so the stories go, in both Testaments.
We in the Church of God, as deeply devoted to Scriptural mandates and understanding as anyone, have always believed that both men and women can be equally anointed by God for Christian ministry. We are a people who have never contested gender equity in ministry, standing tall on the Pentecost balcony with Peter, as he quoted from the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God said, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy…in those days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all my servants, men and women alike, and they will prophesy.” These are “those days.” You can read more in Acts 2.
The original Greek word used in Paul’s letter to Timothy (forbidding women from teaching men) has been translated by some scholars as “dominating” men. There’s a fine line, in the nuance of language, between “teaching,” “dominating,” having “authority over,” and so on. I understand Paul to be a champion of women, but not an advocate for anyone to be “dominated” by another. This is the same guy, after all, who wrote, that in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians—you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Nobody is dominating the other; we are all brothers and sisters, submitted to our Father in heaven.
And so, my brother MacArthur, I get that you do not see the Scriptures on this point in the way we do. But, please do not dismiss us with the sweep of your hand, because we understand otherwise. I respect and appreciate all the ways you have given your life to honoring Christ. Beth Moore has, too. And, so have many more women in the Church of God (and in the body of Christ beyond us) who have led with courage and heaven’s wisdom, by heaven’s appointment. Thanks for respecting us, too.
Our commitment to women in ministry is not a fad. It is not a compromise, informed by popular social or political trends. It is not new. We have always been in this place. And we will continue to be, whatever others may say. Our commitment to women in ministry is a countercultural work of the Spirit, grounded in the Word. Period.
As a footnote: Church of God Ministries is a proud sponsor of Arise, the ministry initiative to encourage, support, and open doors for women in ministry, led by Arnetta Bailey and in partnership with Christian Women Connection. Learn more about Arise.