“This whole genealogical effort could lead to a new genre of bumper stickers, I think, like ‘My forefathers were Philistines’ or like ‘Goliath was in my family’ or ‘I come from a long line of Hittite kings’ or here’s a good one, ‘My ancestors killed your ancestors.’”
In 2001, John MacArthur delivered that line to roaring laughter from his congregation. In a sermon dealing with slavery.
This and other cringe-worthy things MacArthur has preached about race and slavery came to the attention of social media users last week when Illinois pastor Sharon Autenrieth tweeted, “I have just read a long sermon in which John MacArthur promoted the ‘Curse of Ham’ racial theory in 2001. He was in his early 60s at the time. Can we PLEASE stop talking about this guy like he’s the assistant manager to the Trinity?”
In the world of conservative evangelicalism, MacArthur is held in that kind of high esteem.
After he spent three years at the notoriously segregationist Bob Jones University from 1957 to 1959, he returned to Los Angeles to follow in the footsteps of his father as a pastor. He completed an undergraduate degree at Los Angeles Pacific College and a master of divinity degree at what then was the brand-new Talbot Theological Seminary.
In 1969, at age 29, he became pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, a post he has held ever since. He also leads The Master’s University and The Master’s Seminary, which boasts of having graduated “more than 1,800 men.” He’s the voice of the international radio ministry “Grace to You,” a bestselling author and editor of more than 150 books and was named by Christianity Today as one of the 25 most influential pastors of the past 50 years.
It is impossible to overstate the power MacArthur wields and the influence he has had on shaping the world of conservative evangelicalism today.
“It is impossible to overstate the power MacArthur wields and the influence he has had on shaping the world of conservative evangelicalism today.”
But while many conservative evangelicals look up to MacArthur for what they consider to be his boldness in preaching the Bible through the lens of conservative evangelical Reformed Baptist theology, Autenrieth’s tweet opened a larger conversation about this influential pastor’s views on race and slavery and the Bible.
Scott Coley, who serves on the philosophy faculty at Mount St. Mary’s University, retweeted Autenrieth and went on to add: “John MacArthur has been at the forefront of the anti-justice movement within white evangelicalism (which has spilled over into right wing politics at large). And here he is, using the Bible to craft a myth that legitimizes racial hierarchy. He and his colleagues deny that systemic racism is to blame for racial disparities in wealth, income and opportunity. So what explains such disparities? According to John MacArthur, it’s the curse of Canaan. … Not incidentally, 10 out of 10 white supremacist theologians used *precisely* this logic to justify race-based, chattel slavery in the 19th century, as did segregationists in the 20th century. … Whatever you do, stop listening to John MacArthur. He regularly manipulates Scripture to legitimize his own extra-biblical social agenda.”
Sociologist Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma tweeted, “Wow. Just one of the most famous contemporary evangelical radio preachers and authors promoting the Curse of Ham like it was 1850.”
Naked Noah, cursed Canaan, and a justification of genocide
In a series of sermons from Genesis preached during the summer of 2001, MacArthur laid out the case that many white supremacists have used throughout history to promote racism and defend slavery.
He began by sharing the story of Noah getting naked in his tent after the flood, discovering that his son Ham had seen him, and cursing Ham’s son Canaan to be “a servant of servants … to his brothers.” MacArthur pointed out that Canaan would serve Shem, while Japheth would be “enlarged.”
“MacArthur laid out the case that many white supremacists have used throughout history to promote racism and defend slavery.”
He then moved into a discussion of Israel’s destruction of the Canaanites. And while many conservative evangelicals try to find other ways to describe the Canaanite conquest than to call it “genocide,” MacArthur is totally fine setting aside his own humanity and embracing it as genocide.
“To any normal person, the thought of genocide, going in and massacring an entire population of people, was a frightening thing,” he said. “Natural human affections would cause some revulsion against such a command. It must have been a very, very severe challenge to their righteousness thinking to see themselves going into a land and committing genocide. It’s massacring the Canaanites. Taking their land, taking their homes, and taking their lives.”
The reason MacArthur gave to justify this genocide was that “Canaan and his progeny was cursed. … And so when Israel heard this read, they knew they had a cursed ancestry, and that they were acting on the basis of divine judgment which had already been determined, giving them historical justification for being the instrument of judgment on Canaan.”
The ‘wickedness’ of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Africa
As Brock Bahler, a philosophy of religion professor at the University of Pittsburgh, points out, in the Middle Ages, “a dominant map of the world in Europe was the T-O map that associated three known continents — Africa, Europe & Asia — w/ Noah’s three sons. This doesn’t become racialized until after [the] colonial era.”
MacArthur echoed this misunderstanding from the Middle Ages, asserting: “Japheth is the father of what we call Indo-European nations. … Our forefathers in Europe, obviously, were the descendants of Japheth.” He also claims that Japheth’s descendants migrated through Russia to Alaska and down through North and South America.
He claimed Shem’s descendants are Semites who became the Jews.
“He claimed Shem’s descendants are Semites who became the Jews.”
And what of the cursed descendants of Ham? MacArthur confidently proclaimed: “If you study the territory of Ham, the territory of Canaan coming from Ham, it included Sodom and Gomorrah … afterward, the families of the Canaanites were spread abroad. … Wicked, wicked people. Corrupt and corrupting.” Then the following week, MacArthur added, “Ham settles the south: Africa and to Asia.”
During a Q&A session from 2010, somebody asked MacArthur how we have so many races. And according to the text from the “Grace to You” website, MacArthur responded, “It seems that Ham became a more servile people and may have moved south and wound up in Africa.”
However, the audio version of MacArthur’s response does not include that section. Either somebody from “Grace to You” added that section to the text of the page when MacArthur never said those words, or MacArthur did indeed say them and somebody edited those words out of the audio version. So it would seem that “Grace to You” either has something to add or hide regarding MacArthur’s views about race.
Pseudoscience about the Tower of Babel and genetics
Bahler goes on to describe how “biblical literalists came up with all kinds of wild theories to get white supremacy to work w/ the Bible,” with some claiming that “Blackness was the curse of Cain,” others calling it the “curse of Ham,” and others claiming skin color was determined by “a divine act created at the Tower of Babel.”
MacArthur decided to go with all of the above, while mixing in his own shot of pseudoscience.
“All human beings came from Adam through Noah, which means that all there is in the genetic code for all human races was in Adam and Eve, and all that there is of genetic coding that is in all the races that exist today was in the family of Noah,” MacArthur assumed. “That has all kinds of interesting implications because in the world you have so much diversity: you have very dark-skinned people, very light-skinned people. You have various features of certain kinds of people that are identifiable: Caucasoid, Negroid, Austrailoid, etcetera — Mongoloid — particular descriptions of physical features. And you have all these differences in skin color, and all these differences in facial look and body design. And the question is often asked, ‘Where did this diversity come from?’ And the answer is the genetic code for all of that was in Adam and Eve. And the genetic code for all of the humanity in all of its diversity today was in the family of Noah. Everyone from pygmies and dwarves and aborigines to seven-foot-two Zulus and basketball players came from Noah and his wife. All physical features, all skin colors, all physical characteristics, all eye shapes, noses, eye colors, hair colors, etcetera — all the necessary genetic coding was in Adam and Eve, and all of it was in those eight people.”
“And whatever the features were that God designed, in his sovereignty, in those genetic groups then became normalized in those groups. And so, various characteristics began to appear.”
Unfortunately, MacArthur suggested, because humanity supposedly lived as one big family with “no barriers to marriage,” there was very little diversity in skin color. In order to get diversity in skin color, “You’d have to pull people off and isolate them, and then they would begin to be dominated by the genetic features that are within that people group. …The Tower of Babel did that. God separated the languages, scattered the people all over the planet, and they were isolated. And whatever the features were that God designed, in his sovereignty, in those genetic groups then became normalized in those groups. And so, various characteristics began to appear.”
He added in another Q&A session, “Now, though, I believe the direct act of God, God distinguished between those people.” At the Tower of Babel, “God scattered all those nations, scattered all those people. And I believe in scattering them, he developed, by his own supernatural, providential will, distinctive characteristics of those people to identify them uniquely to their own areas and their own culture. In other words, God was trying to eliminate amalgamation and make them distinct. And I think there is some adaptation — isn’t there? Darker-skinned people living in areas where the sun was more severe. I don’t think that’s a process of evolution; I think that was a supernatural act on God’s part. So, the answer to your question is God made the races the way they are, and God put them in certain places of the world and adapted them to that in a distinction.”
In an odd statement that seemed to reflect Bob Jones University’s historical ban on interracial marriage, MacArthur said the Assyrians “became racially mixed,” even though elsewhere he denied opposing interracial marriage.
‘Stabbing pigs in the jungle naked’
MacArthur tried to say that because we all descended from Noah, “we really are one family. There shouldn’t be any racism.” But the way he separated African descendants as cursed by God to serve European descendants might suggest otherwise.
In addition to his dehumanizing pseudoscience, MacArthur has also given rather offensive descriptions of people. He spoke of “pygmies in Africa” and “primitive people” that “have painted their faces with some kind of plant — these people that run around stabbing pigs in the jungle naked.”
And lest we’re unclear about what MacArthur thinks about nakedness, he proclaims, “Nakedness leads to wickedness. Nakedness leads to vice, every imaginable and unimaginable kind. Nudists, primitive people, exhibitionists, pornographers — they all advocate nakedness as if it was a virtue.”
‘Slavery … it’s the perfect scenario’
It would be one thing if MacArthur simply interpreted the Bible as a slavery promoting document from two to three millennia ago. But he wants to use that interpretation to defend slavery today.
In 2001, MacArthur declared: “The curse falls on Canaan. And the curse is that he would be a servant of servants, and he would wind up enslaved under the dominant rulership of others. … And here we find that in God’s purposes, children of Ham through Canaan would be servants to the descendants of Japheth and Shem.” He added that their descendants “are doomed to perpetual slavery because they followed the moral turpitude of their ancestors, Ham and Canaan.”
“Here we find that in God’s purposes, children of Ham through Canaan would be servants to the descendants of Japheth and Shem.”
In a 2012 YouTube video, MacArthur showed his true colors, stating: “It is a little strange that we have such an aversion to slavery because historically there have been abuses. There have been abuses in marriage. We don’t have an aversion to marriage particularly because there have been abuses. There are parents who abuse their children. We don’t have an aversion to having children because some parents have been abusive. … To throw out slavery as a concept simply because there have been abuses, I think, is to miss the point … . There can also be benefits. For many people, poor people, perhaps people who weren’t educated, perhaps people who had no other opportunity, working for a gentle, caring, loving master was the best of all possible worlds. … So we have to go back and take a more honest look at slavery and understand that God has, in a sense, legitimized it when it’s handled correctly. … Slavery is not objectionable if you have the right master. It’s the perfect scenario.”
Dispensationalism and white supremacy
In one sermon, MacArthur described the descendants of Japheth — whom he identified as Europeans — as being in “a peaceful partnership with Shem.” Is it any wonder then why MacArthur would happen to promote dispensational theologies of the end times as well as popular Republican policies regarding Israel?
When President Donald Trump moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017, he declared at a rally, “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that — the evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people.”
In a Q&A about dispensationalism, MacArthur joked, “People used to say of me that ‘his hope is built on nothing less than Scofield’s notes and Moody Press.’” He went onto explain, “There’s a difference between the church and Israel. Period. … That demands a kingdom. And that makes you pre-millennial. … The promises of a kingdom to Israel have to come to pass. And that’s why you have to have a kingdom.”
In other words, MacArthur’s theology that white people are descendants of Japheth who are in a peaceful partnership with Israel as the descendants of Shem, combined with his theology that Israel must have a literal kingdom has led him to use the full force of his own media kingdom to promote political policies among evangelicals that would affect the decisions of President Trump.
“Japheth is enlarged, as a peaceful partnership with Shem, and is served by Canaan who’s a descendant of Ham.”
And where are the descendants of Ham —whom MacArthur identifies as Africans — in all of this? According to MacArthur, “Japheth is enlarged, as a peaceful partnership with Shem, and is served by Canaan who’s a descendant of Ham.”
Glorifying slavery as the gospel
For MacArthur, slavery appears to be more than simply a secondary issue Christians can disagree about. He believes slavery is central. In fact, he believes slavery is the gospel. So for MacArthur to reject slavery would be to reject the gospel.
In The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur said, “The gospel is an invitation to slavery.”
He added in another article, “The Bible is abundantly clear — slavery is the heart of what it means to be a true Christian. … Slavery to Christ is not a minor or secondary feature of true discipleship. It is exactly how Jesus himself defined the ‘personal relationship’ he must have with every true follower. In fact, the fundamental aspects of slavery are the very features of redemption. We are chosen, bought, owned, subject to his will and control, called to account, evaluated, and either chastened or rewarded by him. Those are all essential components of slavery.”
Leave slavery alone
Since Jesus said he came “to set the oppressed free,” one might assume MacArthur would desire to see slaves set free.
But instead, MacArthur says: “Christianity does not free slaves. Christianity does not give equal social rights. … Jesus did not propound equal rights and he did not upset the social order. Neither did Peter, neither did Paul, neither did John, neither did any New Testament writer. Rather, they all affirmed that with great fear of God and great respect you are to be submissive to your masters, whether they’re good and gentle or whether they are unreasonable. You are to submit.”
“Jesus did not propound equal rights and he did not upset the social order. Neither did Peter, neither did Paul, neither did John, neither did any New Testament writer.”
In The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, he continued: “Although slavery was carefully regulated under Mosaic law, neither the Old nor New Testaments condemns slavery as such. Social strata are recognized and even designed by God for man’s good. Some people will be served, and some will serve others. New Testament teaching does not focus on reforming and restructuring human systems.”
And for those who might wish to reform such systems, MacArthur objects: “Nowhere in Scripture is rebellion or revolution justified in order to gain freedom, opportunity or economic, social or political rights. The emphasis is rather on the responsibility of slaves to serve their human masters faithfully and fully.”
Human rights seem to mean nothing to MacArthur. He says there is “no place for asserting our rights. … It’s not our concern to have rights in this world. It is our concern to be obedient and submissive in this world. … If you’re a slave when you’re saved, stay a slave. … The system stands.”
Of course, MacArthur admits slave masters can be abusive. But to those who suffer under physical abuse and starvation, he advises: “Now here’s a guy in the workplace and he’s a slave. And in the Roman world he might be getting whipped unjustly. He might be getting deprived of his food unjustly. He might be working long hours beyond what is reasonable unjustly. He might be punished in a number of ways unjustly. But if for the sake of his consciousness of God he endures all of those sorrows, God is thankful. Did you get that? What pleases God? When you protest? When you strike? When you picket? When you walk out? No, what pleases God, what finds favor with him is when you bear up under the sorrows that come when you suffer unjustly. That pleases God.”
“What pleases God, what finds favor with him is when you bear up under the sorrows that come when you suffer unjustly.”
MacArthur isn’t ignorant
Given the amount of sheer absurdities that pour from MacArthur’s mouth, one might wonder if he’s simply ignorant of history, genetics and edifying language. But MacArthur isn’t ignorant. He knows full well what he’s doing. He brags about studying anthropologists, linguists and scientists.
John MacArthur is pastorally careless. He is a pastor with decades of experience. He should have the pastoral wisdom to know you don’t say the things he’s said about race and slavery in a country that’s given itself over so much to racism and slavery.
John MacArthur is a racist. His entire framing of world history and the gospel itself as God’s slavery design where Africans are to serve Europeans in perpetuity, while the Europeans are enlarged and in partnership with Israel, is a sacralization of racism and white supremacy.
John MacArthur is a dangerous man. He claims, “The facts that are here are potent and greatly informative to those of us who want to understand the world the way God views it.” To MacArthur, the curse of Ham wasn’t merely part of a dispensation in the past or the way God used to work, but a revelation into how God presently views the world.
Notice his use of the word “potent.”
That’s what all of this is about. It’s not about “unleashing God’s truth one verse at a time.” It’s about MacArthur’s power.
When MacArthur told Beth Moore to “go home,” he said of women who want to be pastors, “They want power, not equality. This is the highest location they can ascend to — that power in the evangelical church.”
In that quote, MacArthur revealed his own cards. He identified how he sees his role as a pastor. To him, the office of being an evangelical pastor is an ascension to power. In MacArthur’s world, he is the master to whom others must submit.
The reason MacArthur so easily sets aside the humanity of others is that he is disconnected from his own humanity. And his disconnection from self poses a very real threat to all of us through every power wielder his empire sends out.
John MacArthur has built an entire theology that glorifies slavery and defends genocide against a people group he claims must serve Europeans and Israel in perpetuity. His dispensationalist theology brings his views of slavery in the Bible through today all the way to the end of the world. And he has showed during the COVID crisis that he believes he is above the law. It’s time his charade of a ministry be exposed and shut down. It’s time for MacArthur to go home.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a bachelor of arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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