Tuesday, December 15, 2009

12 Women in Gilded Cages?- A Critique of John MacArthur's "Twelve Extraordinary Women"

I'm in a book group with some of my gal pals, and we meet at a local coffee shop on Saturday mornings to drink coffee, laugh, encourage each other, and discuss a Christian study book. We recently finished up "Respectable Sins" by Jerry Bridges, which was very convicting and very useful. The next book we have just started on is "Twelve Extraordinary Women" by John MacArthur.


I knew going into this book I would probably have issues with it, because I'm familiar with John MacArthur's view of women and also his theology in general. Let's just say he and I don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. But after reading the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2, I realized it was much, much worse than I expected.

My critiques of his teaching fall under two categories-- 1) his antiquated, patronizing view of women (which could simply be a product of the generation in which he grew up); and 2) his poor exegesis and intepretation of the Biblical passages, which is a much graver charge.

I consider myself a "pro-life feminist," a differentiation that wasn't necessary in the 19th century, when most feminists were staunchly against abortion. I also support many aspects of the "modern feminist movement" that get criticized in church circles (as if the feminist movement were a monolith thing, but that's a discussion for another day). Yes, men and women are different, but you will have a hard time convincing me that a woman shouldn't do this or that solely because she is a woman. I agree with the idea that there are more differences within the sexes than between them. For instance, some think that women shouldn't be combat soldiers because they're "weaker," or "they can't handle the intensity of combat," or "what about if they are taken prisoner." I say that being a combat soldier is based more on a person's temperament than their gender. Some men would completely fold under the pressure, just as some women would. But many women would rise to the occasion and prove themselves "tough enough," just as many men would. On the flip side of that coin, if we are going to deny women the right to enter whatever field they want, then to be "fair," we should also deny men the right to certain fields, such as being OB/GYN doctors. Sure, men can do the jobs, but aren't women better suited? If someone doesn't like that last argument, then they should reevaluate their opinion on women doing "men's work."

This brings me to MacArthur's antiquated view of women. He talks often of "feminine virtues," by which, ironically, he means things like "hospitality" and "ministry to the sick." I was under the impression that those were Christian virtues that both men and women were to do. He reverences "feminine beauty," and while he does clarify that true beauty comes from having a good character, he spends a whole paragraph talking about how Eve must have been a real knock-out. ("Eve was the flawless archetype of feminine excellence. She was magnificent in every way.... Physically, too, she must have personified all the best traits of both strength and beauty. There is no doubt that she was a living picture of sheer radiance." More on this later.)

He also talks about women like they are dainty little creatures who need constant protection ("... women are now being sent into combat situations, subjected to grueling physical labor once reserved for men, exposed to all kinds of indignities in the workplace...") or as a special type of creature whose character is open for judgement and critique by men in general. In reference to "stunningly attractive" Sarah, Abraham's wife, he says, "Wherever she went, she instantly received favor and privilege because of her good looks. That kind of thing can spoil the best of women." (Emphasis mine.)

But more disturbing to me is how he is "teaching" from scripture when it seems like he is basing his opinion on conjecture and hypothesis. For instance, in the quote about Eve above, he is making a conjecture on her appearance, even when he admits that scripture "give us no physical description of Eve." If scripture doesn't mention it, I find it curious that he feels he needs to spend a whole paragraph hypothesizing on her looks. He often explains a verse and then throws something out there as if it is a foregone conclusion, even though the text doesn't support it. For example, when he talks about how God took a rib from Adam to form Eve, he says, "Adam would feel no pain, of course." Now, many assume there was no pain before the Fall, but I don't think that scripture implicitly says that--especially since later, in the curse, God said he would increase Eve's pain in childbirth, not introduce pain (a point MacArthur tries to explain away). He also makes conjectures about how Adam might have altered God's instructions about the forbidden fruit when he told Eve, since, as he says, "It is likely that Eve had heard about God's only restriction not directly from God, but from her husband." We can speculate about that, but we don't know what happened with any certainty. Now, I think it can be useful to think through the "what-ifs" and the "I wonders" in regards to scripture, but when your speculation cannot be clearly delineated from the facts, then that is poor teaching in my mind.

My biggest gripe, and the most disturbing, is how MacArthur portrays a woman's relationship with God-- He doesn't! He spends all his time describing Eve's relationship to Adam. He never says Eve was created for God's glory. He says, "Adam was created first; then Eve was made to fill a void in his existence." Eve "perfectly met every need Adam had, satisfied every longing he may ever have felt and delighted every faculty of his senses." Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up the truck. So Eve was created solely for Adam's needs and pleasures? In addition to the way this sentences objectifies Eve, it ignores the fact that she was created for God. In His image, both male and female He created them, for His (God's) own good pleasure, not his (Adam's) own good pleasure. Yes, Adam needed a helper, and yes, Eve met many of those needs. But if Eve could "perfectly [meet] every need Adam had," then why on earth would Adam need God? MacArthur also says that Eve was "Adam's complement in every sense, designed by God to be the ideal soul-companion for him," but he doesn't mention the reverse--how Adam was designed to complement Eve and be a companion for her.

Another troublesome sentence is when MacArthur is discussing the curse and says when it addresses Eve, "it deals with the two most important relationships in which a woman might naturally seek her highest joy: her husband and her children." Obviously a woman's most important relationship should be the one she has with God. A statement like this seems oblivious to the fact that not all women have children and not all women have husbands. Eve may be an example for women in many respects and the Fall certainly influences all humanity, but we must exercise care in applying the particulars of her situation as a general rule for all women everywhere.

The general idea I get from reading MacArthur's teaching is that woman is for man and man is for God. A woman must go through her husband to reach God, and God reaches woman through her husband. Now, in all fairness, I haven't read the rest of the book, so he may deal differently with single women. But his message for married women seems to be our sole purpose is to serve our husbands, meet their needs, and thus in that way, glorify God. Yes, we do glorify God when we support, respect, and help our husbands. But that's not the only way we glorify God as women, nor do I even think it is the most important way.

MacArthur seems to trace most trouble in our families and our churches back to women and men not fulfilling the roles he thinks they should have: "I'm convinced that if people today would simply embrace God's purpose and seek to fulfill the roles God has designed for our respective genders, both men and women would be happier, the church would be healthier, and marriages would be stronger." Does he really mean to say that before the "modern feminist movement," families and churches were healthier and stronger? When exactly was that, Mr. MacArthur? What golden age of utopia in our marriages and churches are you referring to? Even when men and women stuck to their "gender roles," there was just as much trouble in families and churches as there is today. I'm not a believer in the "good ol' days" and that somehow we are worse off or more sinful today in our modern age. Sin has always been sin, and to think that a change in gender roles has led to a more sinful time in the life of the church seems a bit naive to me.

I'm struggling with whether I should finish the rest of the book or not. If I do, it won't be to gain any insight but rather to critique the author and his teaching. I know I can't look at it objectively now that I'm riled up, ticked off, and upset. The thing is, I want to look at the Bible and see what it says to me as a Christian, not just as a woman. I get the feeling that MacArthur feels true Bible study is for men, and women can find a few nuggets just for them here and there. This book is a companion book to "Twelve Ordinary Men," a discussion of the twelve disciples. I haven't read it, but obviously it's not a manual on how to be better husbands and fathers, since the lives of the disciples as told in the scriptures do not reveal much about that aspect of their lives. Yet all I've learned so far is how MacArthur thinks I should live as a wife and as a mother, not as a Christian. I assume for him, being a Christian woman is synonymous with wife and mother unless circumstances absolutely prevent it, in which case God makes an exception. Maybe I'll read the rest of the book and see if I'm overly harsh in my criticisms. Expect more ranting if I do finish the book. =)


mobitz57 said...

Excellent critique! To think that I used to be there with John, rejecting all of the feminism of my mother and sister. Now I perceive the hate and abuse locked into the MacArthurian way of subjugating women.

Scott said...

Amen. That was wonderful. I knew I was going to love this post after simply reading the title. I appreciate your wit.

I don't understand why it is that MacArthur is considered such a theological heavy weight in many evangelical circles. His work is often shockingly naive as your post points out.

E. A. Harvey said...

I don't understand it either, Scott. Perhaps it's because MacArthur's ministry's tag line, "Unleashing God's Truth, One Verse at a Time," makes it sound like he's an expository preacher. But defining Hebrew or Greek words and working through a passage verse by verse only to offer up conjectures based on your own set of theological beliefs does not make one a Biblical scholar.

Have you read any of MacArthur's eschatological views? Whacked out, that's all I can say.

E. A. Harvey said...

mobitz57, I've been very encouraged in recent years to hear many Christian men voice their concern over how the church has viewed and treated women. They might not go so far as to embrace egalitarianism, but they certainly are questioning if the church's "gender roles" are really Biblical or just the product of misguided interpretation and application. That's encouraging to me.

Aimee said...

I wouldn't even have the patience to write a critique of something like this, so more power to you, because these things obviously need to be said!