It can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the pronouncements of John Piper that when he was asked recently, “Is there a place for female professors at seminary?” his unequivocal answer was “No.”
According to Piper,
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.
We have all seen Piper stir things up by making outrageous, even unbiblical statements before, like soft-peddling on domestic abuse. Similarly, this latest ruling has sparked an uproar in the blogosphere.
Clearly Piper is swimming against the current. Today, most evangelical seminaries (conservative and progressive) have female faculty (resident and adjunct) teaching male students. I suppose Piper sees himself as the last of the faithful prophets crying out against the rolling tide of culturally shaped political conformity. But we are risking too much to let his opposition to female seminary professors go unchallenged.
The Deeper Issue
Piper might like to hear the sound of seminary doors slamming shut in the faces of prospective female professors in response to his judgment. But Piper’s timing is very bad indeed. Women in general, including evangelical women, are in no mood to be marginalized in society, church, or seminary. The issue is far more serious than women simply wanting a place at the table. The current cost of marginalizing women is proving to be calamitous.
Given the current #MeToo crisis and the damning flood of #ChurchToo stories that followed, the church—and seminaries too—have some serious self-examination to do. These stories expose far too many church leaders as inept and even complicit in this crisis. Not only have ministry leaders abused and oppressed their own, they’ve often circled the wagons to protect the men and ministries involved in the abuses. More than one situation has been disastrously mishandled, including among some of Piper’s closest theological allies.
Piper’s controversial admonition actually provides Christian seminaries a crucial opportunity to ask what is lacking in the preparation they’re offering future church and ministry leaders. Could at least part of the problem be the fact that it’s possible for men to complete their seminary education without significant input and influence from a female point of view?
Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t “should” women be seminary professors, but whether we have enough of them.
Women as Models of Pastoral Ministry
Ironically (at least compared to Piper’s perspective), some of the most profound pastoral moments in the Gospels center on the pastoral ministries women offer men.
Mary of Bethany got her seminary training directly from Rabbi Jesus. She sat at his feet as a rabbinical student. Her theology—her understanding and trust in Jesus—took quantum leaps forward in the crisis with Jesus over the death of her brother Lazarus. Jesus wasn’t simply giving her “the best biblical grounding possible,” which Piper thinks is permissible for women. Jesus was equipping Mary for ministry which, as it turned out, directly benefitted him.
So when Jesus’ own crisis was looming, and his male disciples were in denial, arguing over who of them would be greatest in his kingdom, Mary broke Jesus’ isolation by publically affirming his mission. She anointed him with nard—a perfume the ancients used to pour on a corpse. Against a barrage of criticism from his male disciples who were present, Jesus defended Mary’s actions and linked them to the gospel. “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial…wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Lest anyone miss the significance of her actions to him, Jesus added, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Mary’s actions demonstrated a more profound theological grasp of Jesus’ teaching and mission than any of his male disciples and a deeper sensitivity to the pastoral needs of the moment. She offered pastoral ministry to Jesus in a roomful of male leaders, and Jesus openly embraced her ministry to him. (To read more, see When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference.)
Another powerful pastoral moment occurred when the resurrected Jesus sent his female disciples to tell his male disciples the glorious good news. Those women weren’t merely depositing information, which Piper says “machines can do.” They were on a pastoral mission to a shattered group of male disciples whose world had collapsed and who were fearing for their lives. Just imagine the comfort, reassurance, and rebirth of hope they forfeited by refusing to listen and learn from the women. Furthermore, recall whose rebuke they drew by their refusal.
Then ask again if women should be teaching men in theological seminaries.
Instead of discouraging seminaries from hiring female professors, John Piper should be urging seminaries to hire more women. Jesus’ parable of the talents casts a sobering light on this discussion. Who of us wants to stand before Jesus trying to explain why we held back? “Well, John Piper said my gifts and competencies weren’t needed,” sounds a little feeble.
Wouldn’t we all be much better off if we resolved instead that when we see Jesus, we’d rather be explaining why we did too much than why we did too little?
This article was original published at MissioAlliance.org
This is one of the best articles I¹ve read in a long time. Thank you so much for your ministry, Carolyn James. You are one of the all-time greats! (I never could get into Piper¹s books/sermons. I think I¹ve figured out why.)
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One of the best professors I ever had in Bible College was a woman, Maxine Williams. I am very glad I had the privilege of sitting under her teaching.
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John PIper isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, to exploit the Bible to marginalize anyone who might challenge the power structure of patriarchy. Contrast this article to the one you penned last year in tribute to Stan Gundry – an advocate for women. It’s my belief that there really are two camps of Biblical interpretation: Those who use the Bible to toss others out of the boat and those who use it to pull others aboard. Piper is definitely of the first camp. Sadly.
That about sums it up.