Last week mainstream evangelical magazine Christianity Today published a jaw-dropping article on their website detailing the egregious negligence of famed pastor & author John MacArthur. According to the article—which was sourced from dozens of survivors and chiefly one former elder and officer of the board at Grace Community Church where MacArthur is senior pastor—the church leadership has been doling out dangerous advice to women in abusive marriages for a couple of decades. While none of this is shocking, CT’s earnest representation of survivors of domestic violence within evangelical systems is a refreshingly honest shift in narrative when it comes to ye famous ole white men of American evangelical ire.
The story itself, however, is not shocking to anyone who’s spent any time navigating American white evangelical subculture in the last 20+ years. MacArthur has penned countless books and bible studies, not to mention his very own version of the ESV translation of the bible itself, and is famous for his stance in favor of the theology known as complementarianism. This is the belief that in the hierarchy of humans, women are beneath men and to be subservient to them in all things, but especially in marriage & family. Back in 2021, the just-as-famous Christian author Beth Moore tweeted out that this ideology can be harmful and perhaps shouldn’t be held on the pedestal it is. While she didn’t flat out denounce it (even though people praised her as such—and I wrote about that back then, here) she still sent shock waves through the conservative evangelical community, inciting backlash from MacArthur himself, who was filmed on stage at a conference telling her to “go home.” Sadly for ol’ JMac, that video went viral and only brought more supporters to her side calling for the ousting of the abusive theology in question. It should be noted that this was all on the heels of the release of Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, which examines the harms of complementarianism and asks Christians to question the roots of their belief in this oppressive theology.
Which begs the question, if someone as famous (in that world) as Beth Moore standing up to them hasn’t changed much, what will an article in Christianity Today do? Well, as we’ve seen already Grace Community Church has released a statement denouncing the article, calling the reporting by CT’s news & online director Kate Shellnutt nothing but “…attacks, lies, misrepresentations and anonymous accusations.” So far, Shellnutt is standing by her reporting and her sources, and the article remains up on CT’s website. But the question remains, how far will a powerful white male pastor go to keep his place at the top of the conservative evangelical food chain? And how long will a mainstream evangelical publication like Christianity Today stand with their feet to the fire?
It’s all the same old story. Or is it?
The last several years have not been kind to the white male pastors who’ve risen to the top. Between CT’s podcast covering Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, to the Hillsong documentary on Discovery+, and the continued embattlement of SBC leadership and the sexual abuse survivors in that system still waiting for justice—it might appear as if we’re seeing the end of an era. Then again, if you turn on CSPAN and see what’s going on in congress, it’s clear that appearances are deceiving. Because despite the number of us out here shouting from the roof tops, so many states are still electing officials who are stripping women and children of their basic human rights. And they all have one thing in common—their belief in the Christian bible. Sure they might have a different interpretation of scripture than you or your dear Aunt Ruth, but I assure you it’s the same scripture. And at the crux of it all is the belief that all human beings are inherently sinful in nature thereby needing a savior; enter Jesus. Entwined with that is the belief that women inherited their sinful nature from Eve herself and are therefore responsible for men’s sexual sins and desires.
That last bit about Eve has trickled down into less conservative churches and denominations for centuries, peaking in the 1990’s when the movement we call purity culture really took hold among high schoolers and college students in evangelical communities all across the globe. Riding the coat tails of the Culture Wars of the 80’s, purity culture taught young women they were solely responsible for men’s behavior toward them. It’s a large part of why women who come forward to their pastors or other church leadership about being assaulted, aren’t believed. It’s also the reason wives who are in abusive “Christian” marriages are often told to change their own behavior, instead of holding the offending husbands accountable. Which brings us back to John MacArthur’s church and their “biblical counseling” offered to couples struggling in their marriages.
The allegations against Grace Community Church entail everything from encouraging wives to remain in the home with their physically violent abusive husbands, to disciplining them in front of the congregation when they report the abuse to law enforcement. All while quoting scripture and verse to back up their choices, regardless of the ever-present danger to these women and their children. This is where Shellnutt’s reporting gets it right in my opinion, by calling out the hypocrisy of these pastors claiming to follow Christ’s directives—which the average lay person reading the New Testament would see are to love your neighbor as yourself, to protect the oppressed, the poor, women and children. But there is a bigger problem at play here.
Hate the sin,
love the sinner hate yourself.
The problems with men like MacArthur and churches like GCC are many, but at the root of it all is a core belief that their narrow, misogynistic interpretation of the gospel is the only valid one and should be adhered to at any cost. One of the survivors in the article even says “she was told that her situation may be “God’s will for your life.”” I’ll admit, several years out & on the other side, even I was taken back a little when I read that. But how many times had I been told that my own actions must have been the cause of my struggles, even when those struggles were clearly caused by extenuating circumstances? How many times had I heard that if I was struggling in one area of my life, it must be because I was hiding sinful thoughts or desires about something completely unrelated? The answer, dear reader, is too many to count.
This never ending loop of self-blame, which is rooted in the theology of sin itself, is the reason these churches get away with such abhorrent behavior. Out of everything Christianity is responsible for, it might be the most evil grievance against the human race. It is nothing more than a tool used by oppressors to keep the oppressed in their place, firmly under the thumb of those who desire power and control more than anything else. They have manipulated the text again and again to convince their followers that Jesus died for them—when in reality he was a victim of state violence for daring to stand up for the very people that today’s conservative evangelicals come for on a daily basis with sheer hate and disgust.
While we’re on the subject, I’ll admit to something I struggle to reconcile and that is this: There are plenty of progressive, affirming Christians who still very much believe we are all “sinners saved by grace.” And I would challenge them to examine their own beliefs about sin, and how much more harm than good those beliefs have inflicted upon centuries of innocent lives. I would ask them to think twice about the stories their kids are being taught in Sunday School, no matter how “woke” they think they are. As benign as you want it to be, at the end of the day, teaching a child they need a savior—is inevitably teaching them they must be broken in the first place in order to need saving. And that does more damage than possibly any other core belief you could instill in a human being. Ask me how I know.
Will we ever see change?
The moral of this story is that the belief system itself, the white evangelical machine as we know it, is rotten at its very core. Because when the John MacArthur’s of the world teach straight white cis gender men that they are the chosen ones and teach women that they cannot trust themselves or their own instincts, only bad things can come from it. Just like when you use a 2,000-year-old book to justify your hatred of something because you don’t understand it, only bad things can come from it. So, while I’m glad that a publication so widely read and accepted by mainstream evangelicals is reporting on this story and standing by survivors in this instance, I’m skeptical of its ability to propel real change on its own.
It’s going to take a lot more than one journalist at a Christian publication standing by her reporting. It’s going to take the pastors and leaders in Christian thought with the largest platforms and reach; believing women and listening to leavers and survivors. The problem is, they are the ones who benefit the most from this system. And so the problem of sin persists, doing far more damage than they’ve ever imagined their own version of sin has done or can do.
One thought on “Let’s Talk About Sin”
Isn’t this also warped into the Calvinist theology? As far as I can understand this theology, there is high worship of God’s sovereignty, a low theological life on free-will, and as I’ve at least heard about it, an understanding that when bad things happen, it’s God behind it judging you [like you’ve pointed out]. I’ve read crazy crap that like a 2 year old being harmed is God’s punishment on the 2 year old. From what I can tell, they already believe in a fairly cruel and controlling deity. I’m flexible here – still trying to understand these ideas of God so my apologies for whatever I have incorrect.