Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Why John Piper's View of Women in Seminary Matters

A few weeks ago, noted pastor, writer and scholar John Piper published an interview on his blog (Desiring God) in which he explicitly stated his reasoning for believing that women shouldn’t be professors in seminaries. And let’s get this out of the way: as someone who believes in and contends for the full ordination of women in ministry leadership roles, I obviously have significant differences with his viewpoint. I mean, my last blog post was about the insidious effects of “patriarchy” on Christian institutions, so, yeah, you could say I don’t land in the same place as Piper…

But my point in writing this reaction is decisively not to lob exegetical-or-theological grenades at Piper, nor is it to expound my own scriptural-theological reasons for my perspective, which I have given significant thought to. Rather, I want to point to two specific ways in which his view should matter to us, particularly if you (like me) are concerned with the state of Christian witness in our cultural context.

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First, Piper’s consistency is actually to be admired, as it reveals the true point-of-disagreement in this conversation.

If you read the transcript of this statement, one of Piper’s key concerns is consistency of thought, and I actually found this refreshing, because inconsistency plagues conversations and debates of this issue in the Christian-church world. For example, I’ve found myself in plenty of conversations that end up with my partner responding with something like:

“Now, even though I don’t think women should be teach or be pastors, if I heard a woman in my congregation giving pastoral guidance or encouragement to a man, I wouldn’t stop her!”

Or, “...I wouldn’t stop a woman from ‘sharing her testimony’ before our church.”

Or, “...I think it’s fine for women to lead Bible studies or youth group meetings, just not teach with authority in front of the whole congregation.”

These rebuttals (and the endless variations) simply cloud the issue. It’s the speaker’s way of attempting to soften an ideological core belief by signaling their own practical belief that women actually can and should wield spiritual authority in line with their gifts. But it doesn't work. How exactly is a “woman giving pastoral guidance” to an individual man different from authoritative instruction, especially if that guidance is explicitly rooted in scripture? And how is a woman instructing male high-schoolers (who, incidentally, would have been adults in the world of the Bible) different from teaching men in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? Or, similarly, what about teaching a Bible study in a home on Thursday night where adult men are present? You can’t “have your cake” (women shouldn’t teach!) and “eat it too” (but, to avoid sounding like a chauvinist, I'll say they can lead Bible studies and youth group and share their testimony).

And this is where Piper’s consistency is actually helpful. It cuts through the middling back-and-forth, and highlights the true ramifications of a ruthlessly-consistent perspective: not only should women not be pastors, they should also not be part of the formal, institutional process of training and equipping said pastors. I’m surprisingly grateful for this, because I believe it’s an example of the type of honesty which could help us get out of the weird middle-ground in which many of our communities languish in half-baked ideas and hide from their unavoidable, practical conclusions.

So, if you would consider yourself a “traditional-complementarian” (in the line of Piper), but you are uncomfortable with his conclusion about seminary professors, then I hope his statement will provoke you to deeper reflection. If you are comfortable with it, then bravo! You have a consistent paradigm, and now we can lovingly talk honestly about our differences.

Second, this statement is wildly tone-deaf to our cultural moment.

Even though Piper’s post (and any blog post, for that matter, including this one) can and should be evaluated for thoughtfulness and consistency on its own terms, nothing exists in a vacuum. Such public statements can and should also be evaluated according to the context into which they are given. And on this count, Piper’s pronouncement here is a massive failure.

For example, imagine I receive an exciting promotion at my job. I would be excited to deliver this news to my friends, but imagine one such friend was currently unemployed and struggling with career opportunities in general. This reality would (hopefully) impact the way I deliver the news to him, and this would not be a betrayal of the good news I want to bring. It would, in fact, simply be more thoughtful and loving.

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Now, considering the prominence of the #MeToo (and even #ChurchToo) social movements in the wake of all the celebrity scandals, and the ongoing conversations in our culture about the importance of women’s voices and the difficulty women face in forging careers, I simply cannot think of a worse time to broadly argue that women should not be teaching in the major educational institutions that shape the leaders of the church.

Our role, as Jesus-People, is to proclaim (and embody) the Good News of his rule and reign among us today. And an important part of this role, as Jesus-proclaimers, is to carefully consider the context into which we are making this good-news-announcement. And though Piper would probably say he wasn’t endeavoring to proclaim the Gospel in this particular moment, he was articulating what he sees as an important outworking of the Gospel. And simply put, the timing of this was a tragic misstep.

So, regardless of where you personally land with Piper’s statement, I hope we can all learn in this moment. I hope we can be similarly honest about our convictions, and I hope we can display a better sensitivity to cultural moments. Ultimately, I hope we can all proclaim the Gospel of Jesus in thoughtful and winsome ways to a culture that is in many ways primed to hear it.