John MacArthur and the dangers of biblical literalism

Christians must accept that the only way to take the Bible seriously is to stop taking every word literally.

Pastor John MacArthur speaks at Grace Community Church on Sept. 6, 2020, in Sun Valley, California. Video screen grab via Vimeo/Grace Community Church

(RNS) — The Bible says that the truth will set you free, but according to popular pastor John MacArthur, the Bible also leaves plenty of room for enslaving people.

Last month, the news website Baptist News Global published a catalog of past comments on race and slavery made by MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. His views felt like something out of the antebellum South. “It’s a little strange that we have such an aversion to slavery because historically there have been abuses … ,” he said in a 2012 video accompanying the article. “Slavery is not objectionable if you have the right master. It’s the perfect scenario.”

Once named one of the “25 Most Influential Preachers of the Past 50 Years” by Christianity Today, MacArthur has claimed that Jesus and the apostles “did not upset the social order” and that “Christianity does not give equal social rights.” He has promoted “The Curse of Ham,” a debunked idea derived from the biblical story of Noah that asserts that descendants of certain races “are doomed to perpetual slavery.” It was historically used by Christian slaveowners as moral justification for their actions.

Repugnant as they are, MacArthur’s comments are unsurprising. A self-proclaimed biblical literalist, he believes every part of the Bible should be understood literally and obeyed completely, no matter how outdated, offensive or harmful. His thoughts on slavery offer a warning about the dangers of reading a religious text written thousands of years ago with naïve absolutism.

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The Bible itself says relatively little about how it should be read and applied. St. Paul’s letter to Timothy refers to Scripture as “God-breathed,” a beautiful word-picture but a far cry from the literalist slogan, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Biblical literalism first began to take hold during the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther and others undercut a corrupt church hierarchy by asserting the Bible to be the sole and superior authority on all matters of faith.

Today, it persists mostly among conservative and fundamentalist Protestants. The last time Gallup polled Americans on this topic, only 24% said the Bible “is to be taken literally, word for word.” By contrast, 47% said the Bible was “inspired by God, not all to be taken literally.”

But taking Scripture literally is hardly a clear-cut matter even for devout believers. Most literalists are inconsistent at best. Some verses — such as the command to “love thy neighbor” — are faithfully espoused and literally applied. Others are reasoned away. Few Christians follow commands regarding foot-washing, Sabbath-keeping or surrendering physical possessions. Women rarely cover their heads when praying. Plenty of Christian bankers ignore the Bible’s repeated prohibitions on loaning money at interest.

In the four years I spent as a minister at a conservative Southern Baptist church in my 20s, I met many “literalists” who cited the Bible according to their own values. Once, a young couple rebuked me for allowing a woman to teach a mixed-gender Bible study class, claiming it violated the New Testament’s Second Letter of Timothy: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” it says in Chapter 2.

But they grew quiet when I asked why he disregarded the command in the same chapter requiring men to lift their hands during prayer, or why she disregarded verse 9, which prohibits women from having fancy hairstyles or wearing gold jewelry and expensive clothing.

The couple left our church soon after, still stubbornly convinced they were biblical literalists.

When prominent New Testament scholar Scot McKnight studied Christians who claimed to follow the Bible exactly, he observed that everyone “adopts and adapts” the Bible’s teachings. Most so-called literalists, McKnight also found, can’t tell you why they pick and choose what they do.

The desire to take the Bible literally no doubt derives from noble intentions. Those who are deeply committed to their faith endeavor to receive their sacred texts seriously. But the insistence on biblical literalism is more than rigid; it can be dangerous.

Texas pastor Dillon Awes recently said homosexuals should be tried for their crimes and put to death, citing a law from the Book of Leviticus that prescribes the death penalty “if a man has sexual relations with a man.” As Awes claimed in his sermon, “That’s what the Bible says. You don’t like it? You don’t like God’s Word, because that is what God says.”

As The Washington Post reported recently, evangelist Franklin Graham counseled a domestic abuse victim to return to her husband. The Bible allows for divorce in the case of infidelity and abandonment, but grants no similar provision for those who experience violence or other forms of abuse at the hands of their spouses. One can only surmise that Graham’s advice was based on the Bible’s silence.

Similarly, MacArthur’s derives his view of slavery from a literal reading of the Bible, which addresses slavery hundreds of times. Numerous verses endorse slavery, with some reading like an operator’s manual for how to regulate it. Exactly zero verses explicitly condemn it. As MacArthur said, “the Bible is abundantly clear” on the topic, and he isn’t wrong, if you read the text the way he does.

The Apostle Paul commands slaves to “be obedient to your masters with fear and trembling,” a command echoed by Peter, who added that slaves should submit “not only to (masters) who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” In Paul’s letter to Philemon, the apostle even commands a runaway slave to return to his master. Which is why true biblical literalists have a hard time defending Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Luckily, there are many faithful nonliteralist ways to read the Bible. Discerning readers can account for the humanity of scriptural authors who, though inspired, were not devoid of biases and blind spots. Some Christians take a “Jesus-centric” approach, centering the red-lettered words of the Gospels when making interpretative decisions about the rest of the text. Others deal with tricky issues such as slavery and women’s equality by mapping the Bible’s trajectory as it moves toward positions of greater freedom and mutuality. What a single verse says is thus less important than where the Bible takes us over time.

In the late 19th century, Christian abolitionists countered the literalism of white supremacists by appealing to the Bible as a whole. According to historian Mark Noll: “This (abolitionist) position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures.” In the hands of abolitionists, and the civil rights leaders who came after them, the text was refashioned from a tool of subjugation into a force for liberation.

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Wilda Gafney, a professor at Brite Divinity School, has taught her students to shift from asking “Is the Bible true?” to “How is the Bible true?” After determining what the text said to its original readers, modern Christians can then determine how its values and themes apply today. This treats the Bible as the beginning of a conversation about matters of faith, not its end.

“If all that sounds like hard work, it is,” Gafney writes. “Not every reader is willing to delve into questions about the genre, rhetoric, and interpretive possibilities of a text. Many prefer simplistic formulas.”

Those who opt for simplistic formulas and flat literalism aren’t just taking the easy road, however. They are opening the door to moral justifications for a range of social evils — trapping women in abusive relationships, executing homosexuals, even slavery. In this moment when the stakes are so high, Christians must accept that the only way to take the Bible seriously is to stop taking every word literally. 

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