A little over a week ago (Wednesday, March 8, 2023), Megan Basham asked me a question via text message. I immediately realized it would be difficult to give her an adequate response via text, so I told her I’d respond by email.
As I was working on the email, it took longer than I expected. Along the way, it occurred to me that Don Veinot often asks me if I could write something for the MCOI blog, and the longer I worked on it the more the email was looking like a blog article. After sending it, I asked Megan and Don if it would be alright with both of them if I simply posted the email, as is, as an article. They both agreed.
Some background on Megan’s question is in order here. It was prompted by a series of tweets from Rachael Denhollander in which she referred to a now-deleted article on The Gospel Coalition web site which Denhollander suggested placed husbands “in a priestly or salvific type of role.” She was attempting to show that quotes she provided (in screenshots) from John MacArthur do the same sort of thing. The MacArthur quotes come from a recent question-and-answer session at his church which is available online both in video and transcript form. In the following three paragraphs that I’ve copied from that site, I’ve put the words Denhollander highlighted in bold text and added underlining to the ones I think supply helpful context:
I think you have to look at yourself—and this may help—you have to look at yourself in the way that Paul described marriage in Ephesians 5. He basically says that a husband is like a savior to his wife. That’s essentially what it says. And I think the burden really lies with men to see themselves as those who rescue women from loneliness, who rescue women from being in an unfulfilled—being in a place where they aren’t protected, they aren’t provided for, they aren’t cared for, they aren’t loved, they aren’t given the opportunity to have children. So from what I would experience in our society, it’s the men that have to step up. And I honestly do not know what in the world they are waiting for. I have threatened many times to line up all the single women on one side, all the single men on the other side, and assign you a wife.
But instead of looking for someone who is some kind of trophy, you need to look to someone who loves Christ, that you can be a savior to that person and a protector and a provider and a lover, and be what Christ is to His church—because that’s the picture. And I’d strongly exhort young men to find a wife, because in that finding is God’s greatest gift in this world. And it allows you to raise up children who know and love the Lord; that’s the purpose of marriage: to procreate. And to do so in Christ is the highest calling in life.
I want to do all I can to encourage the men to step up. And I know there have been enough bad marriages in our society that there’s a certain amount of fear and trepidation. But you have to look at marriage as the way the Lord looks at His church. He knows the bride has problems, but He is her redeemer, He is her rescuer. And I think if you can find a godly woman, that reward is the greatest reward that life can offer. Just don’t let the world define what that woman should be. OK? Really good question.
Denhollander has major problems with what MacArthur said here. According to her, MacArthur,
…specifically uses the word “redeem”, which is a reference to Christ’s salvation of His church. He encourages this young man to view himself towards a wife, the way Christ redeems the church. Context also for how he encourages men to view themselves as “a savior”.
This simply restates her view that MacArthur sees husbands in a “salvific” role, that is, a role leading to salvation. Later she wrote,
I do believe, however, that MacArthur did intend to communicate a redemptive and salvific archetype from husband to wife (while yes, affirming eternal salvation by grace through faith.)
But when we read him in context, that’s not what he’s saying at all. Concerning Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5, MacArthur says: “He basically says that a husband is like a savior to his wife” (italics added). MacArthur is drawing a comparison, not establishing an identity. He doesn’t say a husband is to be a savior to his wife in the sense that Christ is the Savior of His people, but as his clarifying remarks fully establish, a husband is to be a kind of “savior” to his wife in the much more limited sense of protecting, providing for, caring, loving, and being willing to parent children with her.
In the tweets that follow, Denhollander does her best to assume an evenhanded posture. She even cautions against using a straw man fallacy against MacArthur. But in providing one of the most uncharitable possible readings of him, she has done precisely that. She ignores his clear indications that he’s speaking only in terms of analogy and writes, “He specifically uses the word ‘redeem’, which is a reference to Christ’s salvation of His church. He encourages this young man to view himself towards a wife, the way Christ redeems the church.” Well, no he doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t use the word “redeem” in connection with mere human husbands at all. That’s a straw man. As you can see in the extended quote above, the only time he uses “redeem” in his answer is when he’s referring directly Christ and the church, when he says, “He [Christ] is her [the church’s] redeemer,” and he makes no suggestion that earthly husbands redeem their wives in the same way, nor that wifely submission is required for salvation.
Sadly, the straw man fallacies do not end here in Denhollander’s Twitter thread. But before I proceed, I need to provide full disclosure: I am a certified Biblical Counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), an organization founded by Jay E. Adams, whom Denhollander has recently seen fit to attack, along with his Nouthetic school of counseling. I have also done extensive research on Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and my conclusions are not positive. Furthermore, in case anyone is wondering: I am not a follower of John MacArthur. My theological views differ from his at key points. Not that I’ve gone out of my way to avoid them, but I don’t recall listening to more than perhaps one or two of his sermons, and that would have been decades ago. I don’t even own a copy of his Study Bible.
I make these disclosures because later in her Twitter thread, Denhollander attempts to make “relevant” connections between MacArthur on the one hand and Nouthetic counseling (and implicitly Jay Adams) and Bill Gothard (and explicitly IBLP) on the other. Grouping these three men together like this is absurd to anyone aware of their personal interactions with each other. As Phil Johnson recently pointed out, MacArthur has never supported Gothard and the only time they met they clashed significantly on biblical teaching. Ironically, as one of the “notable alumni” of the Gothard-co-founded unaccredited Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy, it seems Denhollander has a closer connection to Gothard than MacArthur does. And Adams both endorsed in writing our highly negative evaluation of Gothard and privately reported to us his own significant face-to-face disagreements with him. One might wish that Denhollander demonstrated a habit of consulting knowledgeble sources before constructing her disparaging narratives.
Once again, I took longer than I expected to explain the background to my answer to Megan’s question. In my opinion, it raises significant questions about Denhollander’s ability to be objective concerning MacArthur (and by extension, Adams). And when we examine the specific content of MacArthur’s words apart from her distortions of it, we find it lines up very well with the historic Christian interpretation of Ephesians 5. (Note: I didn’t realize until after I sent my email that Megan had already provided the Matthew Poole quotation I supply below).
So, here is the email:
– – – – – – – – – – BEGINNING OF EMAIL – – – – – – – – – –
Sorry I wasn’t up when you texted me last night. I’m glad you did.
For some reason totally unknown to me, Rachael Denhollander blocked me on Twitter sometime before I wrote my article on her “David raped Bathsheba” thesis, but I couldn’t help but notice the storm she’s decided to create concerning biblical counseling. I think she’s involving herself in something she doesn’t know enough about. And, of course, this inevitably involves John MacArthur, given his strong support for biblical counseling.
“Hey Ron, I don’t have a lot of theologian/apologist types at my disposal, but I’m wondering what your thoughts are on Rachael Denhollander‘s thread. I was sort of thinking that MacArthur‘s impromptu answer there might’ve been calling to mind Boaz as the kinsman redeemer.…But I don’t know Greek and Hebrew. But that’s by the by. Is this sound?”
I don’t think MacArthur had the kinsman-redeemer concept in mind because the kinsman-redeemer was only required to marry in cases of the death of a near relative, particularly a brother, and for the specific purpose that the firstborn by the relative’s widow would be counted as offspring of the deceased (cf Deut 25:5-10, which doesn’t mention the kinsman-redeemer but is generally treated as connected to the legislation in Lev 25:25ff). I haven’t confirmed this, but I’ve heard that MacArthur’s theology became more Reformed due to his reading, decades ago, of the Puritans and other Reformed writers from that period. So, when I first read this quote, I suspected it had been influenced by that reading, and when I considered my answer to your question about MacArthur’s soundness on this point, my next thought was, “Where do I start looking for a Puritan or Reformed antecedent to this?” And my next question was, “Where in their writings should I start looking?”Well, one of the verses central to this discussion that I haven’t yet seen Rachael Denhollander or anyone else dealing with but which they obviously should be is right in the passage that clearly prompts MacArthur’s remarks:
“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”
[Ephesians 5:23 NIV]
Simply reading this verse in the context of Rachael Denhollander’s tweets raises significant questions:
- Why did Paul tack on “of which he is the Savior” at the end of Eph 5:23; why didn’t he simply end it with the words “his body?”
- How can we reasonably interpret the reason for Paul seemingly going out of his way to mention this at the end of the verse?
- How is it supposedly not reasonable to see this final phrase in Eph 5:23, as MacArthur does, as clarifying in some sense how the husband is to go about being the head of the wife?
- Can you imagine what Complementarians like MacArthur would have done with this verse if Paul had ended it with “of which he is Lord” instead of “of which he is the Savior?” 😉 Wouldn’t the idea of the husband being like a “Lord” to his wife be more likely to be misused to promote spousal abuse than the concept of the husband being like a “Savior?”
- Based on the previous question, do you sometimes get the impression that no matter how MacArthur interprets any biblical text on marriage, a certain group of people will always find something in it that offends them?
OK, so I established the biblical text I’m going to focus on—Eph 5:23—so where should I start looking among the older Reformed commentators that MacArthur may have read? Well, Matthew Poole (1624-1679) was a Non-Conformist rather than a Puritan but remains one of the most widely-read Reformed commentators of that period (I’d be surprised if MacArthur hasn’t read him), and he wrote:
“And he is the saviour of the body; i. e. Christ is the Saviour of his church, implying that so likewise the husband is given to the wife to be a saviour to her, in maintaining, protecting, and defending her; and therefore the wife, if she regard her own good, should not grudge to be subject to him.”
[Matthew Poole, Annotations upon the Holy Bible, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1853), 677. Italics is in the original; bold font added by me.]
Well, that didn’t take long! And if we move on to the generation after Poole and after the end of the Puritan era, we find the following in a son of a Puritan minister whose name was Matthew Henry (1662-1714):
“The apostle adds, and he is the Saviour of the body. Christ’s authority is exercised over the church for the saving of her from evil, and the supplying of her with every thing good for her. In like manner should the husband be employed for the protection and comfort of his spouse; and therefore she should the more cheerfully submit herself unto him.”
[Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2317. Italics are in the original; bold font added by me.]
While Henry doesn’t duplicate Poole’s “the husband is given to the wife to be a saviour to her” language, it’s clear he means the same thing Poole meant, “in maintaining, protecting, and defending her.” He explains the phrase “and he is the Saviour of the body” in terms of the husband protecting and comforting his wife, which he says gives her all the more motive to submit to him.
My next impulse was to see how far back this approach to Eph 5:23 went, and that naturally took me back to John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote:
Calvin is clear that his primary concern here is with the wife’s “advantage” and “comfort.” This is not a “salvation issue” for her. She would not be eternally lost simply not failure to submit to her husband. His use of the word “saved” toward the end does not imply that, and it would be obnoxious to understand Calvin that way given how he is so clear about salvation being apart from works. He’s already made it clear he’s talking about the wife’s “advantage” and “comfort” in this life. Nevertheless, the language which links the wife’s submission to her husband with being “saved” from temporal difficulties is perhaps even stronger than Poole’s: “To refuse that subjection, by means of which they might be saved, is to choose destruction.” Maybe future printings of this should put a trigger warning on that page?
I can only imagine (apologies to Mercy Me) what Rachael Denhollander and her fans would have done with this! In my mind, I see long tweet threads about how the roots of the toxic evangelical approach to marriage goes back all the way to the Protestant Reformation! This would no doubt earn them the scrutiny of actual church historians and historical theologians who’ve extensively researched the treatment of marriage during this period and may have, to put it mildly, an alternative view. (I have some of their books, one of which tells me that Calvin’s Geneva was considered “a woman’s paradise.”) To see such a spectacle unfold on Twitter would be well worth the cost of the mountains of popcorn I’d consume as it played out.
One can dream.
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Good response. I think it’s hard for so many people to simply have to deal with what the Word says. I am thankful for JMac because he is never ashamed of the scriptures.