Pride and Preaching: A Medieval Perspective on John MacArthur

I almost didn’t write this post. After all, what more could I say? Sarah Bessey already voiced my outrage. The scoffing laughter of John MacArthur’s audience echoed in my head as I read her words. “It’s a sin to quench the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the lives of women. Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand!”

Kate Bowler already spoke up for the “precarious power” of evangelical women leaders like Beth Moore. “Unfortunately,” she told us in a spot-on instagram post, “this reaction to women leading, serving, and teaching is nothing new. While Beth Moore routinely outsells and outperforms her fellow evangelists, her power can never lie in the wooden pulpit of a brick-and-mortar church. She rules a theological kingdom that hates to need her.”

Todd Still already reminded us that “biblically” women did preach, teach, and lead, undermining John MacArthur’s claim that no biblical case can be made for women like Beth Moore. “As it happens,” he reminds us, “women have been preaching on mission fields, during Sunday gatherings and in various other Christian contexts ever since Mary Magdalene first declared to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ (John 20:18).”

Kristen DuMez already made it clear that John MacArthur doesn’t represent Christianity; he represents “white (Christian) patriarchy”–which, I think both Kristen and I agree, isn’t very Christian at all.

The real divide: Women who preach versus women who pastor - The Christian  Post

And Beth Moore herself, the woman who was so churlishly abused, already told us it was time to move on.”Hey, y’all,” she tweeted, using my favorite gender-inclusive word, “Let’s cool it on the slander toward JMac et al. Doesn’t honor God. Let’s move on.”

So what more could I possibly say?

Two pastors changed my mind. The first was my husband. He was loading the dishwasher. I watched as he shook the water from his hands and dried them. “For people so concerned about following the Bible,” he said, closing the dishwasher as he straightened up to face me (and I paraphrase his remarks from both of our memory), “I don’t know how they can focus on such a small number of New Testament verses about women and completely ignore the much larger amount of biblical text–both Old Testament and New–condemning arrogance and mockery.”

Mockery?–like John MacArthur’s “uncharitable admonition” for Beth Moore to “go home!” Mockery?–like the smug laughter of the audience following John MacArthur’s words. Arrogance?–like MacArthur’s boast, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of Discussion.”

Or is it just pride? As Proverbs 8:13 states, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” Or as Isaiah 16:6 describes, “We have heard of the pride of Moab–how proud he is!–of his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence; in his idea boasting he is not right.”

Do you know how often the Bible warns us about pride? Just go to Bible Gateway and click on the ESV (one of the Bible versions used for the John MacArthur Study Bible). You will get 51 hits for the word pride, including Proverbs 16:18–“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”–and 1 John 2:16–“For all that is in the world-the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life-is not from the Father but is from the world.” Not all of the verses characterize pride negatively (such as 2 Corinthians 7:4), but most of them do. Expand your search to include “proud” and you will get another 43 hits–such as James 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Again, not all of these verses use “proud” in a negative way, but, again, most of them do. Pride appears alongside arrogance, haughtiness, rebellion, evil, sin. If you remove the overlap verses between “pride” and “proud” as well as the verses that use “proud” positively, you are still left with roughly 80 specific condemnations in the ESV of “pride” and the “proud.”

Indeed, if you compare how many times the Bible condemns pride as compared with how many times it (potentially) prohibits female leadership and/or teaching, the numbers are striking–like 80 to 2.

John MacArthur’s teachings against women in leadership focus on two scripture passages: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (see his sermon, the discussion of women’s roles in his church, and his blog posts here and here as just some examples). He does argue that other scripture supports his interpretation of these verses. But, even taking together all of the verses routinely used to emphasize women’s subordination (Ephesians 5:22-24, Titus 2:5, 1 Corinthians 11:3, Colossians 3, 1 Peter 3), to emphasize male headship in the creation and fall (1 Timothy 2:14, Genesis 1-3), and to admonish women preaching and teaching (1 Corinthians 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-12), the number of verses used to prohibit female leadership in the church (10ish) still fall way short of the number of verses condemning pride (80ish).

I think my husband’s observation was solid. Evangelical leaders are so concerned about enforcing women’s “biblical” roles yet so unconcerned about following the far more plentiful biblical warnings against pride, arrogance, and mockery.

Is this being biblical? Or is it just selective biblicism?

As a medieval historian, I find it really interesting to compare the biblical priorities of medieval preachers with modern evangelicals. The verses typically used to prohibit female leadership and enforce female submission are extremely scarce in late medieval English sermons–only 5 manuscripts contain sermons that directly reference these verses (out of approximately 160 catalogued manuscripts in the Repertorium of Middle English Prose Sermons). And even the number of actual sermons that reference these verses is very small–less than 10 total sermons out of only 5 total medieval sermon manuscripts. In contrast, at least 18 medieval sermon manuscripts contain 45 sermons which focus on the sin of pride. Biblical text focused on the sin of pride are scattered regularly throughout late medieval English sermons. James 4:6, for example, which warns that “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble,” appears in 22 sermons found in 13 manuscripts. Likewise 1 John 2:16–“For all that is in the world-the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life-is not from the Father but is from the world.”–appears in 23 sermons found in 14 manuscripts.

And etc.

While evangelical pastors focus on limiting women’s leadership, preachers in late medieval England focused more on warning their congregants about the sin of pride. I find this medieval perspective so interesting…..

Which brings me to the second pastor. This one is a friend, an ordained youth pastor. I saw her post on Instagram and asked if I could quote her. She, like me, is a Baptist woman. She, like me, was shocked by the John MacArthur interview. The arrogant laughter, the self-righteous posture, the flippant use of harsh words like “heretic” and “narcissist” …. She, like me, realized that when John MacArthur told Beth Moore to “go home,” he wasn’t just talking to Beth Moore. As this young female pastor wrote, “I’ve listened to the John MacArthur audio and have read endless twitter debates and articles but haven’t been able to articulate the emotions and frustration I’ve been feeling as a woman in ministry…..” John MacArthur’s words were aimed at all of us–evangelical women called by God to preach, teach, and lead. He told all of us to “go home.”

Did you know a medieval priest once said something similar to a fifteenth-century preaching woman? When Margery Kempe refused to go home (literally) from the medieval city of York and stop teaching (essentially preaching), a priest dragged out his Pauline scripture to try and force her silence (you can find this in chapter 52 of The Book of Margery Kempe). But Margery would not be silent.

She told a parable to all the clergy examining her, including the Archbishop of York himself. Once upon a time there was a priest who dreamed of a pear tree–a beautiful pear tree blossoming with fruit. But then a great vulgar bear appeared. He greedily ate all of the beautiful blossoms before turning his fat body toward the priest and defecating almost in the priest’s face. The priest is totally grossed out. He is also confused. He finds someone to interpret the dream. He learns that he is the pear tree, beautiful and fruitful when following his pastoral calling. But because he has allowed sin to corrupt him, he has become the vulgar bear who defecates on the work of God. One of the priests who hears this story repents and confesses to Margery. Margery offers him absolution, “God forgive it you,” she told him. The man was so impressed with her that he came later, privately, and asked her to forgive him for how he had treated her; he–a priest–also asked her–an ordinary woman–to pray for him.

Margery Kempe, in short, turned the table on the masculine clergy. When they told her to go home, she refused. When they told her to stop street preaching, she argued that Jesus gave women the right to teach the word of God. When they called her heretic and swore at her, she drew on “the strength of Jesus” and rebuked them until they left ashamed. When they told her to be silent, she told a story about a hypocrite priest who defiled the work of God. And, believe it or not, this fifteenth-century preaching woman won. Even though she was shaking so hard from fear (she hid her trembling hands under her robes), she held her ground against her clerical accusers. She does eventually go home, but she (mostly) does it on her own terms. And she does it without compromising what she believes God has called her to do.

Isn’t the medieval perspective interesting?

What if evangelical leaders took a page from medieval sermons? Instead of focusing so much effort on silencing women, what if they focused on practicing humility? After all, the ESV reminds us so much more frequently that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” than it reminds us that women should be silent…..

Likewise–What if evangelical women took a page from the book of Margery Kempe? When Margery Kempe was told to go home, she didn’t let it worry her. She believed what God had called her to do, and she believed that God would be with her. In one of my favorite prayers ever, she cried out to God, “Lord, you brought me to this place for love of you. Have mercy on me, and help me.” Instead of going home, what if evangelical women, even more conservative Baptist women like me, followed the lead of Margery Kempe. What if we stood our ground? “Lord, you brought us to this place for love of you. Have mercy on us and help us.”

Indeed, John MacArthur not only showed us exactly what Christian patriarchy looks like (arrogant and demeaning toward women), he practically gave us a new hashtag–#notgoinghome. Sarah Bessey has already sounded the call, as has Megan Severns Huston. Christian patriarchy only works because women support it.

Isn’t it about time we stopped supporting it?

2 thoughts on “Pride and Preaching: A Medieval Perspective on John MacArthur”

  1. Very good. I’ve been studying pride for many years while working on a book, and had pegged MacArthur many years before the Beth Moore issue.

    Looked up your blog after listening to you on Unbelievable. I think there are more elegant arguments in support of your position if you are interested. Our home church is PCA but I don’t support their position. Our summer church is SBC and our pastor here is one of the good guys, totally support of Beth Moore and Russell Moore.

  2. “Christian patriarchy only works because women support it.” Wow! That’s a powerful and very sad statement. Unfortunately, it’s also very true! Within the patriarchal Baptist church that my husband and I have been attending (and finding increasingly frustrating) for the past few years, the women who support the status quo are, for the most part, those who grew up in the church and who attended one of the Bible colleges promoted by the church; in other words, those who have been indoctrinated into thinking that their role is one of subordination. #notgoinghome

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