An article in Christianity Today caught my eye recently with the report that John MacArthur, prominent evangelical pastor of Grace Community Church, celebrated his 50th year as a pastor – and used an event honoring that milestone to denounce certain procedures carried out at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention in June. That action, MacArthur declared, meant that the SBC had moved beyond biblical authority, asserting, “When you literally overturn the teaching of Scripture to empower people who want power, you have given up biblical authority.”
“Supporters of slavery and supporters of complementarity both insist that those who reject their hermeneutic as applied to slaves or females distort the gospel and weaken the church.”
Thinking he was referring to the SBC and Donald Trump, I read on, only to discover that he was actually taking issue with the decision to allow women to address the convention, specifically the popular Southern Baptist Bible teacher, Beth Moore. Moore’s “preaching” (a word she hesitates to use) in various Baptist contexts has made her the subject of considerable condemnation by those who believe that her pulpit presence undermines the doctrine of complementarity which defines female “submission” to males in the home and the church.
MacArthur’s two-word prescription for Moore was “go home,” apparently meaning that she should stop violating the doctrine of complementarity, defer to the voices of men at all churchly gatherings and return to the homeward tasks divinely prescribed for her by the “order of creation.”
The Christianity Today article cited one of MacArthur’s supporters who attributed the remarks to the Grace Church pastor’s “belief in the high authority of Scripture,” a doctrinal position that for MacArthur means “if you budge on the grammatical, literal interpretation of the Bible in any of these areas, the whole thing begins to fall apart.”
Far be it for me to challenge the California megachurch pastor and televangelist, an outspoken evangelical whom I neither know, nor need to. But MacArthur’s reported comments open a door to issues that confront us all when it comes to faith and doctrine, biblical authority and hermeneutics, church and family.
Is the veracity of Christian faith dependent on protecting a specific biblical interpretation from which one “departure” can cause the collapse of the entire gospel enterprise? If so, what happens to faith when we discover that certain dogmas we felt compelled to defend in one era turn out to be wrong, even horrible, in another? What if it’s not the Bible we’re protecting, but our own hermeneutical interpretation surrounding certain biblical teachings?
“In the end, none of us who have been overtaken by Christ’s gospel is immune from hermeneutical misperception.”
Which brings us to the twin dogmas of slavery and complementarity, one dealing historically with Africans who were forced into submission to their “masters” and the other with women forced into submission to various males who bear spiritual responsibility for them. That linkage was not lost on 19th-century, pro-slavery advocates the likes of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor (ironically) of the telegraph. I discovered Morse’s defense of the two “biblical” dogmas recently while doing research for an article on Baptist hermeneutics.
In his 1863 essay, “An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery in the Social System, and its Relation to the Politics of the Day,” Morse set forth his biblical interpretation of the “perfect system” God had ordained for human society. It included: “First, CIVIL GOVERNMENT; in which the relation of Ruler and Ruled is ordained. Second, THE MATRIMONIAL; in which the relation of Husband and Wife is ordained. Third, The PARENTAL; in which the relation of Parent and Child is ordained. And Fourth, The SERVILE; in which the relation of Master and Slave is ordained.”
If human slavery, the fourth element of that “perfect” social system, were abolished, Morse argued, then “to be consistent, all the other ordained relations must be denounced, for each has the essential idea of Slavery in it, to wit, Obedience to authority. Remove that, and the relation has no soul.” Morse asked 19th-century abolitionists, “By what course of reasoning, then, or by what authority of the Bible, do they venture upon this glaring mutilation?”
Over my years of research related to Baptist hermeneutics, it became clear that the 19th-century pro-slavery biblical hermeneutic utilized by Baptists and other Southern Christians in support of chattel slavery is strikingly parallel to the 21st-century hermeneutic regarding the “male and female” relationship in complementarity. This parallel is evident accordingly:
Both assertions are related to ancient biblical curses.
- “And Noah said, cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Genesis 9:25, KJV).
- “For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (I Timothy 2:13-14, KJV).
- In both approaches, the Christ Event, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is apparently not enough to cancel ancient curses declared against specific segments of humanity. Paul wrote: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2, KJV). Is that a statement only to be spiritualized rather than applied to actual human relationships?
“What if it’s not the Bible we’re protecting, but our own hermeneutical interpretation surrounding certain biblical teachings?”
In both slavery and complementarity, the spiritual assertions of equality are compromised by the affirmations of subordination.
- Richard Furman wrote: “Many of these [slaves] with their masters, were converted to the Christian Faith, and received, together with them into the Christian Church, while it was yet under the ministry of the inspired Apostles. In things purely spiritual, they appear to have enjoyed equal privileges; but their relationship, as masters and slaves, was not dissolved.”
- The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood asserts: “Male and female were created by God as equal in dignity, value, essence and human nature, but also distinct in role whereby the male was given the responsibility of loving authority over the female, and the female was to offer willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man.”
The biblical hermeneutic on both slave and female “submission” moves from submission to non-negotiable bondage with a status that is attributed to a divine mandate required in perpetuity as dictated by the “created order.”
Supporters of slavery and supporters of complementarity both insist that those who reject their hermeneutic as applied to slaves or females distort the gospel and weaken the church.
Chattel slavery ultimately came to an end, but not without additional efforts to perpetuate its “principles” in white supremacy and racial segregation, often with accompanying “biblical” support. Apparently, elements of that hermeneutical method remain, applied in this case to half of humanity!
In the end, none of us who have been overtaken by Christ’s gospel is immune from hermeneutical misperception. The biblical text is what it is. We all read it with our own interpretive spectacles. And we’ve all got theological stigmatisms.
Best to own that, humbly.
Alan Rudnick | Sister, don’t ‘go home.’ Go preach!