Friday, April 24, 2009

When John MacArthur Gets It Right!!

One of the joys of being a constant student and son of God is that the Holy Spirit is constantly tweaking and adjusting prejudices in my life and I always know when it is Him. Because He does so, so utterly gently and tenderly. After leaving Bristol (as many know) I struggled a lot with unforgiveness and bitterness towards Sovereign Grace Ministries and the church in particular for their harsh legalism. And if I dared to share what I was struggling with, I was told (mainly by SGM-ers) that I should "just get over it". I am indebted still to Pete Day for dealing with this excellently in a blog post.

But probably in the last 18 months or so I've discovered that the Holy Spirit has taken away that bitterness and that anger without me even noticing or making any attempts to "just get over it". That's true sanctification surely! That as Ryan Rufus said in his sermon on Sunday - God wants us to focus on Him and His heart and then He will adjust the externals that He wants changing. Rest! Anyway that's a bit of an example as to how constant gentle change goes on in our lives so gently by the Spirit within us.

I've never had much time for John MacArthur since reading his "Charismatic Chaos" back in the days when our home church was marching steadily towards a functional and theological cessationist position. I hated his aggressive attitude and judgemental intolerance of charismatics (ironic that the Holy Spirit's gently pointed out in my life recently how aggressive and judgementally intolerant I have become of those I didn't like for being such!!). However I was very impressed with some articles that MacArthur published earlier this month dealing with the Song of Solomon - and in particular Mark Driscoll's approach to them.

Here's a brief summary of what MacArthur wrote;

1. "The Rape of Solomon's Song".

"Apparently the shortest route to relevance in church ministry right now is for the pastor to talk about sex in garishly explicit terms during the Sunday morning service ... These are schemes that make daily sex obligatory for married couples over a specified time—usually between seven and forty days".

This was exactly the question I asked my family at dinner last night. "Relevance". I was shocked to hear that Driscoll's worship pastor used a swear word from the CCK platform when he was there for the Worship School recently. Now I am no prude! I'm a nurse and am well aware of swear words. Like Rob Rufus said once - I too can swear like a poet if I am so inclined. But I was asking my family if we need to use such words in church to be "relevant"?

MacArthur isn't saying we should stay in the Dark Ages of Victorianism and avoid sex in church;

"So there's simply no way to preach the whole counsel of God without mentioning sex. But the language Scripture employs when dealing with the physical relationship between husband and wife is always careful—often plain, sometimes poetic, usually delicate, frequently muted by euphemisms, and never fully explicit".

He then went on to get more specific with the way that the Song of Solomon is used in this "relevant" approach to sex;

"But it has become popular in certain circles to employ extremely graphic descriptions of physical intimacy as a way of expounding on the euphemisms in Solomon's poem. As this trend develops, each new speaker seems to find something more shocking in the metaphors than any of his predecessors ever imagined ... We're assured moreover that the shocking hidden meanings of these texts aren't merely descriptive; they are prescriptive. The secret gnosis of Solomon's Song portray obligatory acts wives must do if this is what satisfies their husbands, regardless of the wife's own desire or conscience.

I was recently given a recording of one of these messages, where the speaker said, "Ladies, let me assure you of this: if you think you're being dirty, he's pretty happy." Such pronouncements are usually made amid raucous laughter, but evidently we are expected to take them seriously. When the laughter died away, that speaker added, “Jesus Christ commands you to do this.” That approach is not exegesis; it is exploitation. It is contrary to the literary style of the book itself. It is spiritually tantamount to an act of rape. It tears the beautiful poetic dress off Song of Solomon, strips that portion of Scripture of its dignity, and holds it up to be laughed at and leered at in a carnal way".

That was exactly my concern and my heart when I wrote my blog yesterday. Something is wrong when women who were created and given to be protected by man are being treated like this surely?

Anyway MacArthur ends the first part by mentioning that he feels Mark Driscoll is the main proponent of this view and treatment of the Song of Solomon. That may be true - I don't know. But in my opinion it was C J Mahaney who first brought this to the discussion table.

2. "The Rape of Solomon's Song - Part 2".

Again I couldn't agree more with his opening lines;

"It's frankly hard to think of a more appalling misuse of Scripture than turning the Song of Solomon into soft porn. When people can no longer read that portion of Scripture without pornographic imagery entering their minds, the beauty of the book has been corrupted, its description of righteous love perverted, and its role in sanctifying and elevating the marriage relationship deflected. That preachers would do this in public worship services is unconscionable".

MacArthur quotes Tremper Longman saying;

"Tremper Longman III says this about preachers and commentators who interpret the Song's poetic imagery in overtly explicit ways: "[Their] free association with the images of the Song is so prevalent that we learn far more about the interpreters than we do about the text".

He then goes on with some more specific comments about Driscoll which can be read but aren't the object of this post. This isn't meant to be a dig at Driscoll. I don't like the guy but I know he is touching thousands with his style and that's great! My querying is more about this issue of do we have to become like the world and speak like the world to attract the world? Or should there be something rather different about us?

3. "The Rape of Solomon's Song - Part 3".

MacArthur makes some comment on the interpretation of Song of Solomon that I'm not quite sure about. He says;

"I emphatically agree with those who say the Song of Solomon is not mere allegory. It is best understood when we take it at face value, like any other text of Scripture. Many interpreters whom I otherwise hold in high esteem (including Spurgeon and most of the Puritans) have unfortunately done more to confuse than clarify the Song's message by treating it in a purely allegorical fashion that eliminates its primary meaning. Solomon's Song is, as I've said from the outset, a love poem between Solomon and his bride, celebrating their mutual love for one another, including the delights of the marriage bed. To interpret this—or any other portion of Scripture—in a purely allegorical fashion is to treat the interpreter's own imagination as more authoritative than the plain meaning of the text".

I agree that it's not helpful to take everything in an allegorical fashion. But my gut feeling is that we must see marriage as it's God-given intention - that of a picture of Christ and His Bride! The supremacy of the relationship between God and us surely sets the tone for everything else. After all - why else would there be no "giving and receiving of marriage" in heaven? If marriage was that supreme then surely it would go on into eternity? Why does God get so upset in the Word of God when His picture of marriage is abused through sexual sin? Because it reflects on Christ and the Bride. Why did Moses get forbidden from entering the Promised Land? Simply for abusing a picture of Christ on the Cross.

MacArthur quoted Driscoll saying this about the allegorical approach to Song of Solomon;

"Some have allegorized this book, and in so doing, they have destroyed it. They have destroyed it. They will say that it is an allegory between Jesus and his bride the church. Which if true, is weird. Because Jesus is having sex with me and puts his hand up my shirt. And that feels weird. I love Jesus, but not in that way."

MacArthur goes on;

"Driscoll has said almost the exact same thing in at least three other sermons. For example: “Jesus keeps making out with me and touching me in inappropriate places.” “Now I’m gay, or highly troubled, or both.” “As a guy, I do not feel comfortable with Jesus, like you know, kissing me and touching me and taking me to bed. Okay? I feel sort of very homo-erotic about that kind of view of Song of Solomon.”

Some of Driscoll's supporters have tried to stand up for him saying that he's toned down in his recent "Peasant Princess" series that some of my family have liked so much. MacArthur thinks not - quoting Driscoll;

"Now what happens is some say "Well, we do believe in the book [of Song of Solomon], and we will teach it, but we're gonna teach it allegorically." And there's a literal and an allegorical interpretation. They'll say, "Well the allegorical interpretation, it's not between a husband and a wife, Song of Solomon, love and romance and intimacy; what it is, it's about us and Jesus." Really? I hope not. [Laughter from crowd] If I get to heaven and this goes down, I don't know what I'm gonna do. I mean it's gonna be a bad day. Right? I mean seriously. You dudes know what I'm talking about. You're like, "No, I'm not doing that. You know I'm not doing that. I love Him [Jesus] but not like that." [Laughter from crowd]"

Er ... no. This "dude" doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. But I won't go on otherwise I'll be writing stuff that I will later regret. MacArthur (while not taking the allegorical approach to Song of Solomon) writes something that I really found helpful and interesting;

"Thus even a non-allegorical interpretation of Song of Solomon, (simply taking the love-song between Solomon and the Shulamite at face value) ultimately points us to Christ and his love for the church. The text ought to be handled by the preacher accordingly, not as an excuse to bathe in the gutter of our culture's easygoing obsession with crude sex-talk and graphic sexual imagery".

I think if Mahaney and Driscoll had pointed to Christ and His love for the church then I wouldn't have had half the problem I do with the "literal" approach.

4. "The Rape of Solomon's Song - Part 4".

In his final article MacArthur begins by responding to questions that arose from the many comments left as a result of these articles on his blog. Just prior to that MacArthur quoted Tim Challies who's reaction to this view of Song of Solomon was;

"I have a real problem with anyone interpreting Song of Solomon like that . . . . To be honest, words fail me when I even try to explain myself—when I try to explain how I just cannot even conceive of Song of Solomon like that. The poetic nature of the Song is entirely eroded when we assign such meaning to it: such specific meaning. And I think as well of what it may do to a couple to be able to say “Look, this specific sex act is mandated in Scripture. So let’s do it.” That may be said to a spouse who has no desire to do that act or who even finds it distasteful. And yet with our interpretation of Song of Solomon, which we really have no way of proving (at least beyond a reasonable doubt) we are potentially bludgeoning an unwilling partner into doing something. I just … again, words really fail me here".

One interesting question I noted was this (followed by MacArthur's answer);

"2. Song of Solomon is a very explicit erotic book. How can you possibly argue that this book of the Bible, which is God's Holy Word, is anything but "fully explicit"? Isn't it a denial of the obvious to claim that the Song of Solomon is not a pretty graphic description of sex?

explicit -- ek ● SPLIS ● it -- Distinctly expressing all that is meant; leaving nothing merely implied or suggested; unambiguous

Since there is not one explicit mention of a reproductive body part or sexual act in Song of Solomon, no credible commentator on the Song would ever make such a claim about that book. Furthermore (and this is the key point of the whole discussion) Song of Solomon is not "erotic" literature in any sense—i.e., it is not intended to arouse readers sexually. Clearly it should never be preached in a way that has that effect. That is so obvious a point that only an exploiter of the book would ignore it for prurient interests".

One important question was raised;

"4. Could it be that your scruples about graphic descriptions of sexual acts are cultural and generational? Perhaps the culture in which you minister isn't as uninhibited as the subcultures other preachers are trying to reach".

This surely is a fair point. MacArthur is a lot older than Driscoll. However I think Mahaney isn't that much younger than MacArthur and he seems to be very much in agreement with Driscoll. But even though I'm 31 - and I don't have scruples about discussing sex - I still have the same problem in graphic descriptions of sexual acts from the pulpit. How on EARTH is that fulfilling the Ephesians 4 mandate that these gifts of the ascended Christ are meant to be doing? To bring the body of Christ to maturity? To giggle in repulsion at the idea of the glorified and risen Christ trying to "put His hand up my shirt" sounds like it belongs in the gym changing room at school. Not the church. And certainly not from the platform.

Anyway. I promised myself I wouldn't get into a rant. Here's MacArthur's answer to that question;

"Sex is not something new in the postmodern era. Every culture and every generation has dealt with the same obsessions and perversions as today—though not always with the same unbridled self-indulgence our culture encourages. Every Christian has always faced the same lusts and temptations that assault us: "No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Those who think pornography and unrestrained debauchery weren't commonplace in the pre-Internet era ought to visit the ruins of Pompeii and see what life was like in the culture of Rome during the apostle Paul's generation. Paul ministered in cultures that were far less “inhibited” than ours. Yet when he found it necessary to deal with sexual topics—whether giving positive instruction about the marriage relationship or a negative exhortation about sexual sins—he never spoke in sexually graphic terms".

In many ways our generation is more prudish than some of the generations that MacArthur mentioned. MacArthur makes a very important point;

"The truth is that God’s Word never gives specific instruction about the details of a married couple’s personal preferences in their sex life. Sermons that pretend to find such instruction, like the sexual preoccupation demonstrated in these assaults on the Song of Solomon, are more damaging than helpful—because they elevate the imagination of the preacher to a higher position of prominence and authority than the true revelation of God".

This is something I've worried about time and again. The two churches that formed the bulk of my Christian experience were both led by very dominant (some might say domineering) church pastors. Even if they didn't intend it - there was a culture in both churches where church members would take the word of the pastor as the Word of God. And that wasn't just the preached word. That was throw-off comments and opinions that said pastors had.

We discussed Driscoll's views on the Song of Solomon last night (mainly me and my mum) and this question actually came up in conversation;

"6. Was Driscoll’s sermon really as bad as you say? Aren’t you overreacting to what is ultimately just a difference in style?".

MacArthur gives a link to the two sermons Driscoll preached in Scotland - and I duly read them. Why is such an issue made of this? Well here's why according to MacArthur;

"That’s why I am making such an issue of this. Because the New Testament makes an issue of it. It is not simply a difference of opinion, generation, preference, style, or methodology. It is an issue that arises from clear New Testament mandates related to the character of an elder. If anything, I don’t think I have reacted strongly enough".

Finally someone asked MacArthur why he is dealing with this matter publicly and why he hasn't approached Driscoll privately (he has and was ignored). The questioner knew that both John Piper and C J Mahaney are having some degree of input into Driscoll's life. Here's what MacArthur said;

"I am pointing out something that should not be the least bit controversial: pastors are not free to talk like that. In response, a flood of angry young men, including several pastors and seminary students—not one of whom has ever attempted a private conversation with me about this topic—have felt free to post insults and public rebukes in a public forum, declaring emphatically (with no obvious awareness of the irony) that they don’t believe such things should be handled in public forums".

He quotes Scripture to back this up;

"When 1 Timothy 5:20 says, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all,” it is talking about elders in particular. Those in public ministry must be rebuked publicly when their sin is repeated, and public, and confirmed by multiple witnesses".

On Driscoll's tongue, MacArthur said;

"Mark did indeed express regret a few years ago over the reputation his tongue has earned him. Yet no substantive change is observable. Just a few weeks ago, in an angry diatribe leveled at men in his congregation, Driscoll once again threw in a totally unnecessary expletive. A few weeks before that, he made a public mockery of Ecclesiastes 9:10 (something he has done repeatedly), by making a joke of it on national television. So here are two more inappropriate Driscoll videos being passed around by young people and college students for whom I bear some pastoral responsibility. In their immaturity, they typically think it’s wonderfully cool and transparent for a pastor to talk like that. And they feel free to curse and joke in a similar manner in more casual settings".

That's something I've noticed. I know a church in Wales that has adopted the "Driscoll-style" in church life (and the pastors certainly aren't immature) and I've heard the MP3's and the same cursing and joking seems to crop up there too.

And finally on Mahaney and Piper's involvement;

"Finally, it seriously overstates the involvement of John Piper and C. J. Mahaney to say they are “discipling” Mark Driscoll. In the first place, the idea that a grown man already in public ministry and constantly in the national spotlight needs space to be “mentored” before it’s fair to subject his public actions to biblical scrutiny seems to put the whole process backward. These problems have been talked about in both public and private contexts for at least three or four years. At some point the plea that this is a maturity issue and Mark Driscoll just needs time to mature wears thin.

In the meantime, the media is having a field day writing stories that suggest trashy talk is one of the hallmarks of the “New Calvinism;” and countless students whom I love and am personally acquainted with are being led into similar carnal behavior by imitating Mark Driscoll’s speech and lifestyle. Enough is enough. Yes, I did inform John Piper and C. J. Mahaney of my concerns about this material several weeks ago. I itemized all of these issues in much more thorough detail than I have written about them here, and I expressly told them I was preparing this series of articles for the blog. To those asking why pastors Piper and Mahaney (and others in positions of key leadership) haven't publicly expressed similar concerns of their own, that is not a question for me. I hope you will write and ask them".

I'm glad that someone of MacArthur's statesmanship wrote these articles. Not because I am rejoicing that someone else is taking a pop at Driscoll - because I said before that wasn't my concern. He is who he is. And God can work all things together for good. But because the whole issue of Song of Solomon is being dealt with properly and in a concerned manner for the glory of God and for His Name and for His fame.

The world isn't very impressed when the church starts speaking in a smutty manner. They can do it far better than the church ever can. The world isn't very impressed when the church starts speaking explicitly about sex - not when explicit sex is available anywhere and everywhere. In my experience non-Christians expect the church to be different. And when they are not - even non-Christians know something is wrong.


Mark Heath said...

I never listened to Driscoll's Song of Songs series so I can't comment on whether he overstepped the mark or not. I agree with MacArthur that Driscoll does go too far with crudeness on occasion. His forthrightness and humour are as much a liability as an asset.

As for a good approach to Song of Songs, I like the way Charlie Cleverly of St Aldates Oxford preaches on it. He preaches both a romantic interpretation and an allegorical one without apologising for either. This seems to me to be a very sensible and balanced approach.

Those who go solely for a romantic interpretation end up having to be a little bit "shocking" to give their preaching any impact. Similarly those who go for the purely allegorical approach (and believe me there are some, including one commentator who wrote that the Song was "in no way to be taken literally"), end up coming up with some quite ridiculously speculative interpretations (the two breasts being the Old and New Testaments being my favourite example).

I also think that primarily the allegorisation should be about Christ and the church, rather than Christ and the individual believer, which may alleviate the discomfort about overly intimate language. (without in any way wanting to downplay the importance of a personal love for Jesus)

Dan Bowen said...

Thanks Mark, I'll make sure to listen to the St Aldates sermon. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

jul said...

Wow, Dan, that was excellent! I'm not a big MacArthur fan either but I do like some of what I've heard on occasion. No denying he's bold! And when he's right, he's right. He's got more guts than most of the bigwigs out there obviously because most of them won't risk their own popularity to speak the truth, even in love. And from what you've written I can actually sense a real and genuine concern on MacArthur's part. Seems to have a decent take on the Song of Songs as well.

I'm very concerned to see pastor's so phobic about intimacy with God, if they're not living in an intimate relationship with Jesus, then where is all the stuff they're saying every week from the pulpit coming from? It's as if the only form of intimacy they consider legitimate is sex. And go John on defending the value and decency of women! It's sadly funny that Mark doesn't want the S of S to be used by Jesus to force himself on him but it's ok for husbands to use it that way with their wives...

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Jude said...

Okies, I'm a non-Christian girlfriend of Dan's. So I've got no holds barred on swearing and on explicit talking. I asked if I could comment and he gave me the go-ahead but if anyone's offended by what I write then please don't blame him ... rather me.

I heard the Driscoll sermon along with Dan, and I wanted to comment on the utter and disgusting way that he used some verse of the Bible (dunno what - wasn't listening) to tell men that oral sex is okay and that they "deserve" it from their wives.

Well I noticed a glaring "something" missing.

He never talked about Christian husbands giving oral sex back to their wives. It's all one-way.

Maybe Christian women take this sort of stuff. But I can tell you - if I ever had the misfortune to encounter a man like MArk Driscoll who really believes the sole role of the Christian wife is to give their husbands oral sex ....

Then he might find himself missing a vital organ dear to him.

Just my two-pennieth.

jul said...

Jude! Hi, I've seen your beautiful pics on facebook with Dan! I'm laughing quite loudly in agreement with your comment. I'm a Christian wife, and I do NOT take this sort of stuff, believe me. Though at one point I thought it was somehow my duty to be my husband's slave due to such ridiculous and false teachings, thank God I'm back to my real self and marriage is wonderful again! My husband is a good one and would NEVER treat me like this, but if he were so inclined I do have a bit of a violent streak as well haha.

Peter Day said...

I've said all along that I have no problem with an interpretation of Song of Songs which shows it as a poetic expression of the love between a man and a woman. It is beautiful and tender, an expression of what married love is meant to be.

In saying that, I totally fail to see how it can be used to justify husbands acting as sexual predators towards their wives. MacArthur rightly says that Song of Songs doesn't us explicit sexual language. Intimate, poetic, yes - but descriptive of specific sexual acts, no.

Such abuse of scripture and of precious women, made in the image of God, is appalling.

I wonder if these people would actually agree with the proposed new law in Afghanistan. Or perhaps, because this Afghan law only requires wives to have sex with their husbands every four days, these so-called Bible teachers would think it doesn't go far enough!!

While Song of Songs is a poetic description of marital love, it is also very much a picture of the love between Jesus and the church (and I believe the personal intimacy between Jesus and each believer). The language is poetic and illustrative. I don't imagine for a moment that Jesus is going to put his hand up my shirt or whatever He is being accused of, but He is going to overwhelm me with His glory so that I am faint with love. And what's wrong with that? I've been saved for intimacy; why would anyone want to run away?

Sheila said...

Incredible blog-article, Dan! Well written, with thoughtful quotes, just a great presentation of the issues at stake. I wish everyone would read it!

I agree with you down the line. NO elder or pastor worth his salt should be speaking like that - it gets my blood to boiling. WHERE, oh where, is the image of Christ seen in that?

I better stop. I am *so* not without words on this subject. HA!

(And yes, I can and do speak rather "poetically" myself, from time to time. I love the old Mark Twain quote, saying, "Every home should have a swearing room".)

But the misuse of colorful language, sexual or otherwise,by a leader, *in the act of leading* (not some private moment of exhibiting his or her sense humor) does NOTHING to "by love serve" the people of God. The Bible says, "Do you have freedom in an area? Have it TO YOURSELF." Keep it to yourself. Do NOT, over meat or language or any carnal thing, offend one for whom Christ died. Hellooooooo! My heart burns for this...oh...oh, the sacred foolishness of preaching! "Be not many teachers"...

Preaching grace and Christ crucified and risen, preaching the precious-beyond-measure gospel!... it deserves better than Driscoll has given it.

PS. Jude, I loved your comment!

Jon Sidnell said...

Hmmm, I'll be re-thinking my way through this one. I've tended to be on Mahaney and Driscoll's side in this particular debate, but there are some troubling things that MacArthur picks up on that I probably need to work my way through.

That said, there's definitely some misrepresentation of what Driscoll teaches going on here. Particularly related to what Jude picks up on regarding oral sex. I don't remember Mark talking about husbands 'deserving' oral sex, or about wives not giving oral sex being sin. That doesn't mean he hasn't, but I just don't remember it. On the other hand, he does talk about husbands giving their wives oral sex and about how it is right for wives to ask for and initiate this if this is something that is desirable for them.

I can see how some people would understand what Driscoll teaches as prescriptive, but I've always understood what he teaches as opening up the options of what is commonly seen as permissible within Christian marriage. I've always interpreted what he says as "When you're married, these are all things you *can* do. They're not dirty, they're not shameful, they're not wrong. So long as they build oneness, increase the love between husband and wife, and don't bring a sense of shame to either partner, it's all good!"

But, as I say, I'll go off and continue praying and thinking :)

janelle said...


This was very well put together. You've obviously spent a lot of time thinking about it! Kudos. I totally see what MacArthur is saying. I agree that Driscoll steps over the line, and has an unfortunate voice in the media for our generation, one that is only interested in him specifically BECAUSE he steps over the line. Where is gets interesting is when we start to speculate on the influences in Driscoll's life, like Mr. Piper and Mr. Mahaney. I don't think that really matters...Driscoll is an adult, and will someday answer for every word he's ever said. So will we.

My personal take on Song of Solomon has always been both allegorical and literal. I think its a beautiful picture of the love shared between Solomon and his bride; I think it speaks VOLUMES that there is never anything explicit in what Solomon is communicating! He's not communicating like the world does, he's doing it in such a way that makes his words separate from the culture and emphasizes a love that is righteous and pure and not derogatory. That's what bothers me about Driscoll; he's made it explicit.

I also think its an allegory for the love Christ has for the church. Why make it sexual when its not? In this case I think we can have it both ways, since marriage is intended to represent Christ and His bride! We can't forget that when we see a tender Christian marriage!

Lastly, I don't think its fair to lump Mr. Mahaney into what Driscoll is doing, which you alluded to. While he does take the side of it being literal, what he preaches isn't even comparable to what Driscoll does.