On John Piper and his prohibition on female seminary professors

John Piper has, once again, set tongues wagging. In one of his recent Desiring God interviews, Piper has argued that women should not teach at seminary level. You can read his full comment here. But, the key conclusion he states thus:

If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded? I don’t think that works. The issue is always that inconsistency. If you strive to carve up teaching in such a way that it’s suitable for women, it ceases to be suitable as seminary teaching.

He does emphasise that the issue has absolutely nothing to do with competency, skill or intelligence. He is very clear on that point. However, he concludes from his complementarian convictions that women should not teach at seminary level.

One of the issues for complementarians that egalitarians do not face is the range of positions held under the banner. Egalitarians, by and large, argue that whatever men can do at home or in the church, so can women and vice versa. Complementarians wants to argue that God makes a distinction between the sexes and thus gives them different roles/functions. The questions that complementarians then face are, a) what is the distinction and b) what is the scope of its affect on male-female relations.

As far as I can see, there seem to be four broad complementarian positions:

  1. The distinction between the sexes is absolute. Thus, man is considered the head of woman in any setting. Therefore, women are not permitted to hold any position of teaching or authority over a man in any setting.
  2. The distinction between the sexes is specific to marriage and the church. Thus, a husband is head of his wife but not all women. The elders of a church are heads over their church family, but not all people in general. However, teaching from scripture is inherently authoritative as pertaining the church. Therefore, women can hold positions of authority in any setting outside of the formal gathering of the church and the family home but the teaching of scripture to mixed sex groups is prohibited for women in any setting.
  3. The distinction between the sexes is specific to marriage and the church. Thus, a husband is head of his wife but not all women. The elders of a church are over their church family, but not all people in general. Only teaching in the gathered church is considered inherently authoratative. Therefore, women can hold positions of authority in any setting outside of the formal gathering of the church and the family home and may teach in any setting outside the formal gathering of the church.
  4. The distinction between the sexes is specific to marriage and the formal teaching of the church. Thus, a husband is head of his wife but not all women. The elders of a church are over their church family, but not all people in general. However, a distinction may be made between different kinds of teaching within the church, some of which is legitimate and some of which is not. Therefore, women can hold positions of authority and teaching in any setting outside of the church and the family home and also within certain areas of formal church gatherings.

All of these could be considered forms of complementarianism. There is also a reasonable degree of wiggle room in each position. Position #1, for example, might wrestle with the question, ‘what constitutes a position of authority and teaching?’ Likewise, three out of four of these positions take no line on the diaconate and may draw conclusions about whether that position is authoritative of itself or necessitates teaching responsibilities or other authority within their particular fellowship. That is to say, people who hold to positions 2-4 might or might not permit female deacons. None of the positions speak to a woman’s permission to teach children (most across the range would accept this is permissible).

In respect to the matter at hand, how would each of these positions handle the question of women teaching at seminary level?

  1. The distinction between the sexes is absolute. All teaching is inherently authoratative. Therefore, women should not be seminary professors.
  2. Issues of headship – which pertain only to spouses and elders – are not relevant to the question. However, teaching from scripture is inherently authoritative. Therefore, it would depend what is being taught as to whether it is appropriate.
  3. Issues of headship do not pertain to seminary. Given that whatever is being taught is not taking place within the formal gathering of the church, there is no reason for women teaching at seminary level to represent a problem.
  4. See #3 above.

Based on his latest comments, and previous writing around the topic of headship, it seems apparent that Piper is firmly in category 1. Judging by most of the comment I have seen, the majority of complementarians sit somewhere further down the scale.

For my part, I share Carl Trueman’s view of this whole area, which he wrote about in response to the last time Piper caused the issue to rear its head. You can read his full comment here and is perhaps worth reading his further comment here. But, most specifically, he notes:

I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household. I am a firm believer in a male-only ordained ministry in the church but I find increasingly bizarre the broader cultural crusade which complementarianism has become. It seems now to be more a kind of reaction against feminism than a balanced exposition of the Bible’s teaching on the relationships of men and women.   Thus, for example, marriage is all about submission of wife to husband (Eph. 5) and rarely about the delight of friendship and the  kind of playful but subtly expressed eroticism we find in the Song of Songs.  Too often cultural complementarianism ironically offers a rather disenchanted and mundane account of the mystery and beauty of male-female relations.  And too often it slides into sheer silliness.