A Response to Piper’s Confused Anti-Feminism

Posted: 05/18/2013 in Church, Philosophy
Tags: , , , , ,

A few weeks back, I posted onto my Facebook an article written in Christianity Today about John Piper’s comments regarding women in leadership positions. I received some comments asking for my reactions, and I think that now that my semester has wound down I have had some time to formulate a response that can hopefully be helpful.

I want to begin by saying that I have much respect for John Piper and his ministry.  I have many friends who have been affected positively by his work, and I do not wish to diminish the work that God has done through that, nor do I intend to reject all that Piper has said or done.  The article I posted (linked here:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/april/hey-john-piper-is-my-femininity-showing.html?start=1 )

written by Rachel Pietka, is extremely critical of Piper’s views and even goes so far as to attack his character because of it.  I do not wish to engage in the current environment of “pastor bashing” (of which Piper is sadly a full-fledged participant), so I will not be questioning his character, the effectiveness of his ministry, or his personal faith in Christianity – despite my personal disagreements with his theology extending even beyond the topic of women’s roles.

Just had to get that out of the way, because I don’t want an opportunity for fruitful engagement to turn into a personal attack.

Also, I would encourage you to not only read the article but to listen for yourself the podcast referred to by Pietka. I’ve listed it here:

http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-written-by-women

In this podcast, Piper is asked the question, “Do you use Bible commentaries written by women?” To understand why this question matters, one must first have an understanding of Piper’s theology of men and women. Piper believes in what many current scholars call a “complimentarian” philosophy on the relationships between men and women.  This means that women and men each have God-given roles assigned to them regarding how they relate to one another and to society. Often, this means that men are granted authoritarian roles over women (regardless of giftedness, desire, or personal sense of calling) because God has universally ordained it to be that way.

It is this philosophy that denies women to be in positions of authority in church, in government, or in the home. Complimentarianism is intended to be a supposed middle-way between male or female domination and egalitarianism (viewing men and women as equal partners in marriage, church, and society).

Though I admit that I personally have an affinity for egalitarianism (which I can explain if anyone is would care to know), I have witnessed many life-giving and God-honoring relationships built on complimentarian ideals.  While receiving premarital counseling, our counselor (who also preferred egalitarianism) instructed to us that some couples who abide by complimentarian structures tend to have less complicated marital problems because roles and expectations are already assigned and because couples can easily be held accountable to these roles. Many egalitarian couples fail to do the difficult work of navigating and discovering such undefined roles, causing issues that can lead to abuse, neglect, and conflict.  In much the same way, many who claim to be complimentarian can use such a philosophy to propagate domestic violence and abusive manipulation of power and control. Both systems can be misused, and I have witnessed both positively used to honor God.

However, Piper claims to stand firm on biblical grounds as to why complimentarianism is the ONLY viable option for Christians, and this is where we disagree. Traditionally, there are two biblical explanations for why complimentarianism is the preferred philosophy for people like Piper.

(1) Paul’s charge for women to be silent and not obtain authority over a man in 1 Timothy 2:12.

(2) The household codes in Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, and 1 Peter 2.

Since Piper appealed to the first explanation in his podcast, I’ll tackle that in this post and save the household codes for a later date (if anyone’s interested).

1 Timothy 2:12 is one of the most complicated sections of scripture on gender roles, and it should neither be ignored nor handled lightly.  We run into problems when we take this verse uncritically without looking at its context in the letter and within the whole of scripture. Within the letter itself, we must keep in mind that this is written primarily for pastoral reasons.  Paul is writing to Timothy to address particular situations and not to articulate a systematic theology. In particular, he was addressing an issue of false teachers.  In his second letter to Timothy, Paul clarifies that there were false teachers who were particularly targeting women in the community (3:6) and leading them to a falsified gospel message. Paul’s charge against women exerting authority over men in 1 Timothy appears to be related to this situation.

What is interesting is that Paul appeals not just to the situation but to the story of Creation and the Fall. Paul claims that since Eve sinned first, not Adam, then man should have authority over women. Piper uses this to claim that there is something inherently God-given about these gendered roles.  Because of Eve’s sin, things just have to be this way.  However, in Romans 5, Paul claims that all sin came through one man (Adam), not one woman.  Paul appears to inconsistently appeal to the logic of the Fall, and I honestly do not have a simple solution for this other than to say that Scripture as a whole is not as black and white as Piper would lead people to believe.

To further complicate Piper’s view, he makes a distinction between a woman having “direct authority” and a woman having “indirect authority.” For example, a woman could be a city planner (working meticulously behind the scenes in a leadership role), but she could not be a drill sergeant (barking orders at inferior men). He believes that women can have these types of leadership roles because her “female personhood” is out of sight and out of mind. The problem with Piper making such a distinction between direct and indirect authority is that such a distinction does not exist in scripture.  I sense Piper is attempting to reckon with the notion that he has seen women exercise authority in positive ways that he cannot quite fit into his scriptural interpretations. Rather than embracing that tension, he is trying to make Scripture say things that it does not say. He creates these categories outside of Scripture while attempting to hold to biblical literalism.  If he is attempting to read the Bible as literal, he should at least be consistent. Instead, he creates categories that are neither literal nor biblically or logically consistent.

With all of this in mind, I cannot seem to come to terms with Piper’s interpretation of this text or with his vision for gendered leadership roles. Again, I’m not telling anyone to reject Piper entirely, but there is considerable reason to question his vision of gender. If you scour the Scriptures, you will find positive examples of women throughout the Old and New Testament exercising authority (both political and spiritual authority) over men.  We must remain faithful to their stories and to the whole vision of God’s story so that our fellow brothers and sisters will not suffer oppression, neglect, or exclusion at the hand of teachers propagating false doctrines.

I urge you to reject Piper’s notion of women in leadership and embrace the teachings, wisdom, and faithfulness of our mothers and sisters in the church. They are a true blessing to the body of Christ that must not be silenced.

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Comments
  1. feminismtrue says:

    Please read my “The taming of the Shrew” article.

    • JE Misz says:

      Feminismtrue,

      I read your article, and I appreciated your honesty and humility. Thanks so much for sharing your personal experiences related to the ideas behind complimentarianism. I am very glad that you are now in a marriage that is satisfying and that you feel honors God. You embody a great example to my point that egalitarianism can become corrupted and complimentarianism can work well in some couples.
      I did not get the chance to read much else from your blog but it seems like you have thought a lot about this. Is there more that you would care to add to the conversation?

  2. Culture’s loud voices of feminism may have trained us to bristle at Paul’s words to women, but God’s created order of authority, functioning healthily inside the church, is not a reason to recoil. It’s reason to rest.

    • JE Misz says:

      Stanley,
      Thanks for sharing your opinion, although I must disagree for a variety of reasons. The first is that Scripture does not say that God created with an order of authority. Both Genesis 1 and 2 appear to see male and female as functioning equally. It isn’t until after the Fall that authority becomes an issue, which complimentarians should find deeply troubling. Second of all, it appears that you aren’t even referring to complimentarian relationships between men and women, but you are suggesting that women submit to the authoritarian rule of men, which is neither biblical nor healthy… and certainly no reason for women to rest.

      I hope that I have not appealed primarily to any sort of cultural feminism, as you seem to be suggesting, but am trying to share my scriptural exegesis. Please alert me where you think I have strayed from that task. And, as it seems you disagree, I would love to hear your scriptural commentary on the matter.

      I also wonder what your fear is of feminism and why you believe it is so dangerous to listen to these voices who have actually done a lot of good in making sure women are safe and valued. Those would seem to be biblical ideals as I understand it. Thoughts?

  3. “In 1 Timothy 2:12 the TNIV adopts a highly suspect and novel translation that gives the egalitarian side everything they have wanted for years in a Bible translation. It reads, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man’… If churches adopt this translation, the debate over women’s roles in the church will be over, because women pastors and elders can just say, ‘I’m not assuming authority on my own initiative; it was given to me by the other pastors and elders.’ Therefore any woman could be a pastor or elder so long as she does not take it upon herself to ‘assume authority’… So it is no surprise that egalitarian churches are eager to adopt the TNIV” ( p. 260 ).

    • JE Misz says:

      Bruce,
      While it is common knowledge that the TNIV was intended (among other things) to provide more egalitarian language, it was not intended to provide an exact translation mimicking the original language. I have never heard the TNIV (nor the NIV) in any sort of scholarly debate on the topic of women’s leadership roles and would question anyone’s attempts to do so. Regardless of the translation, one does not need to appeal to any sort of clever language tricks in order to believe that egalitarianism is an exercise in biblical faithfulness. I also know of no churches or denominations who are attempting to adopt the TNIV as the official translation, do you??

      Furthermore, what you are describing as an interpretation of the TNIV text does not sound like egalitarianism. If a woman needs approval of other men in order to justify her leadership, this is simply another form of complimentarianism, is it not? Maybe I need some further clarification on what you seem to be suggesting.

      I’m also curious about the text you seem to be utilizing and quoting from. Could you list your source?

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