Sunday's Cool: The Predictability of John MacArthur
The Grace Community Church leadership is doing what powerful men always do.
“Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.”
John wrote that in his first letter, an eerie note in an otherwise very sweet, short little letter. It’s a slight twist on something John himself heard at the Last Supper, when Jesus said “if the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.” It’s easy to understand why those words might have stuck with John, since Jesus was arrested just a few hours later. Hatred in action!
And it’s easy to understand why those words stick with us too. It’s a comforting thought in tough seasons. If you’ve been around many churches, you’ve probably heard them apply this willy-nilly. Any sort of outside pushback from non-church entities gets chalked up to “hatred” and, therefore, a sort of fulfillment of prophecy requiring no introspection. Christian movies getting harsh reviews? “Well, the Bible said the world would hate us.” Journalists sniffing around some shady tax dealings? “They hated Jesus first!” LGBTQ people angry about being excluded? “God said there’d be days like this!”
This is what comes of a certain type of Christian theology that claims to see the Bible as living and active but in practice sees it only as a rusty old mallet. Not every problem is actually a nail, but if a mallet is the only tool you’ve got, what else can you do but hammer until it stops moving?
You stop thinking about not being surprised if the world hates you and start thinking that the world definitely does hate you, and should hate you and that in fact you might be doing something wrong if it doesn’t hate you. You start thinking any reaction you don’t like is evidence of this “hatred” and if anyone is challenging your authority or calling you out? Well, they must be the world, and they’re hating you, just like the Bible said they would.
I think some of this mentality helps explain what we’re seeing from Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and their living legend-y pastor John MacArthur. Over the last few years, numerous allegations have been raised around Grace’s treatment of women who came to the church seeking help for their abusive relationships. One woman, Eileen Gray, was publicly disciplined and kicked out for refusing to take her husband back, and that husband is now serving time for abusing and molesting children. When a lawyer on the elder board named Hohn Cho looked into the case, he says he told church leadership it was time to apologize and make things right. MacArthur told him to “forget it,” Cho says. He was told to either walk back his findings or resign. He chose the latter.
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We don’t have exact numbers on how many women have similar stories, but they seem to keep coming out and every new one is a gut punch. When Kate Shellnut reported on a few of these stories for Christianity Today, Grace leadership refused to respond to her requests for comment. After the story came out, the elder board released a statement saying that they “do not respond to attacks, lies, misrepresentations, and anonymous accusations.”
“Our church’s history and congregation are the testimony,” they continued.
The obvious rejoinder is that the church’s history and congregation is exactly what they are being asked to answer for here. If Grace wants its legacy to speak for itself, then that legacy is speaking very loudly and the words are damning.
But this misunderstands Grace’s way of looking at things, doesn’t it? They are not surprised when the world hates them, and any pushback is hatred, just like the Bible said. In this framework, all of Shellnut’s scrupulous reporting, all the court documents and the multiple witnesses aren’t evidence of anything. They’re just “attacks, lies, misrepresentations and anonymous accusations.”
And if you’re bringing these allegations and challenges from inside the church? Well, surprise, now you’re outside the church, no longer a part of our family. You clearly hate us, so you’re not one of us. You’re with “the world” now. See how easy that was? Anyone else care to question our way of doing things around here?
You get the sense that these evangelical churches’ posture of suspicion against women seeking justice for abuse is buttressed by a larger suspicion against the broader culture. The #MeToo situation has its origins in Hollywood, the New York Times and other such elitist, God-hating institutions. So the people coming forward now aren’t women feeling emboldened to stand in solidarity with others sharing their stories, but a trendy cultural fad that can be dismissed as easily as bell bottoms and Tamagotchis.
What’s particularly pathetic about all this is how, beneath the high-minded biblical rhetoric being used, it’s all exactly the opposite of courage or boldness. You can tell that MacArthur and his acolytes are proud of themselves for taking a stand against the wokeist revolution of women seeking justice against abuse, but they really don’t have to bother with biblical justification. They are doing exactly what men always do, have always done, with or without a slip of doctrinal excuse. Evangelicals fancy themselves above cultural norms, but this attitude puts them squarely within the most boorish, obvious cultural norm of all time. It aligns them with Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Tate, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and an endless parade of other boorish names stretching back to the dawn of history. They are, to use their own parlance, being about as “worldly” as one can get. It would be boring if it wasn’t so evil.
“Do not be surprised if the world hates you.” No, I suppose we shouldn’t be. It is not so hard, after all, to be hated. Most people end up being hated for something, in some capacity. Some people get to choose what they’re hated for. Many Christians have decided they want to be hated for doubting abused women, for protecting their abusive friends, for opposing LGBTQ rights, for dragging the parents of trans kids off to jail. They are confident that these flexes of power and influence are what the Bible meant when it tells us to be prepared for hatred.
But then I think about the original audience for Jesus’ words. They had no say in what they were hated for. Poor, uneducated losers. Sex workers. Ethnic minorities. These were not people who had to seek out hatred. They were born into it. They were hated for the color of their skin, their gender, their poverty, their sexual history. They weren’t believed. When Jesus told them “the world hated me first,” they would have seen this not as a call to invite more hatred by oppressing others, but as Jesus identifying with them in their own oppression.
So, yes. I think the Bible’s words about being hated do apply to the situation at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley. But I don’t think it’s the elder board, circling the wagons around their leadership, who should be reassuring themselves that Jesus said there’d be days like this. Rather, it’s the women who’ve been dismissed, doubted, belittled and banned who can turn to Jesus, who surely takes them full in the eternal embrace of his nail-scarred hands and whispers in their ear “they hated me too.”
I was trying to think of something smart to write about the Super Bowl and the big He Gets Us campaign you’ve probably seen, but realized that the excellent Josiah R. Daniels had already said pretty much everything that needs to be said about it over at Sojourners. I’m so thankful for Josiah’s writing.
I’ve enjoyed the George Santos show as much as anyone but didn’t think the situation warranted much reflection beyond “get a load of this clown.” But David Roth’s piece here is insightful and just crackerjack writing to boot.
I spent a few days up in NYC this week and got to see my friend Avery Carpenter Forrey, whose debut novel is dropping in a few months. You can and should pre-order it here so you can brag about how you read it before everyone else.
Boring if it wasn’t so evil. I’m seeing one of the threads of your writing, exposing the banality of evil. Prophetic.