Dear John (Piper), by Ruth Tucker

Dear John (Piper), by Ruth Tucker November 5, 2018

Dear John (as in Piper, Pastor John, the advice columnist),

Do “gender roles” apply beyond marriage? Most of us would confirm that biological differences have a specific place in defining the relational dynamics of husbands and wives within a marriage covenant. But what about gender distinctions in broader society and in the workplace?

The question is from anonymous young woman. Piper’s response is HERE.

­The question is a very serious one that all complementarians should answer straight up—what about women’s roles in society and in the workplace? Piper, however, devotes most of his words to his standard reading of Eph. 5, regarding husbands and wives—all of that preceded by psychological studies and amazing things on YouTube: 

 Just go to YouTube and type in almost anything, like, “Are men and women different?” Or, “What’s the difference between men’s and women’s brains?” You’ll get all kinds of amazing documented research about how different men and women are in their very biological, psychological natures. . . .

Piper’s reading of Eph. 5 is well known, that being, his focus on the husband’s leadership and his wife’s glad support for that leadership.” And his citing psychological studies is common among complementarians. In fact, I have used their very same studies (as have other egalitarians) to point out the very importance of these differences being represented equally in leadership in the home, church and society.

But I’ve come to realize that this focus on gender differences is overstating the case. When I was the only woman on a seminary faculty, I recall the differences among my male colleagues in faculty meetings. Some were forceful in stating their opinions and demanding to be heard; others were very submissive in their demeanor. That was simply the way they were and it was all part of their manhood.

I was recently talking with a brilliant scholar whom I much admire. She told me about the struggles she faces at the seminary where she teaches. This has included lack of gender awareness among colleagues and an academic dean who was dismissive of her and her work. She enumerated some of his blatant comments. I asked her if she had challenged him on these issues. Her eyes flashed. Of course. She had fearlessly stood up to him. “I’m Canadian.” To her, that explained it all. She simply wasn’t going to let him walk all over her with false accusations. Her strong response, with the support of others, has already made a difference.

Canadian? I smile. Maybe the President is sending his 15,000 troops to the wrong border! Seriously, though, Canadians come in all stripes—as many personality and psychological types as did the faculty at the seminary where I taught.

So, the psychological studies may be helpful in understanding gender differences, but they should have no bearing on women’s God-given equality in the home, the church, the workplace or society.

That a woman must submit to her husband and that she should hold no church office is standard complementarian fare. But taking that kind of submission and inequality into the workplace and society is not universally preached by complementarians. Piper, however, has long held such views. Years ago he and I debated each other on gender issues before a standing-room-only crowd at Edman Chapel at Wheaton College. I quoted a homey example that he had written about the necessity of a woman’s deference to a man even in the smallest details of life:

A housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get to the freeway. At that point she is giving a kind of leadership. She has a superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance. But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.

I pointed out that a man asking for directions “in itself seems to be an oxymoron” and wondered aloud why the “housewife” should have to be careful about keeping her mature femininity in tack and why the man would be so insecure that his masculinity would be threatened. Just give him directions, I concluded, “simply tell him where to go.”

The most controversial aspect of Piper’s latest rant on women’s submission actually relates to girls as well, that is, her womanly submission properly developing “all her life.” Likewise, a boy develops his manly headship “all his life.” The text from Ephesians 5 thus becomes the rules for girls and boys. “[T]there is nothing magical about a wedding ceremony that turns a man into a man, or a woman into a woman. . . and they can’t turn on manhood . . . [or] womanhood like a switch on their honeymoon.” Actually, some people do think there’s something magical about a wedding ceremony, but maybe that’s just for us romantics.

But the issue of when womanly submission begins is fraught with complexity for the typical complementarian. An interesting observation comes from Kathy Keller, wife of Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage. She reflects on the sudden change that came with marriage. “Up until then, we had pretty much lived in a unisex world, as [seminary] students taking the same classes, competing for grades on a level playing field. . . .” It wasn’t easy for her. But if Kathy had been groomed for submission beginning at a very early age, how would that have affected her relationship with boys and boyfriends?

Interestingly, Piper’s final section of his gender-role piece, titled “How to Date,” is comprised of four short paragraphs. Here the advice columnist runs out of steam. Yes, both male and female are to observe each other and in doing so “fix our eyes on men and women who walk in the most biblically mature way.” This is the advice he gives, not even a Have a good day.

The anonymous young woman is saying Huh? What kind of advice is that? I would first of all advise her to acquire a different advisor.

Piper has reasons to give short shrift to dating. We’re talking here about boys, whether fifteen or twenty-five with hormones raging—boys who have been practicing manly headship. I’ve asked Mary Kassian (and other complementarians) when male headship begins and I’ve never gotten a straight answer. Piper gives the straight answer but then he cops out on dating. Why? I suspect the reason is because a boy’s hormone-raging headship and a girl’s hormone-raging submission leads to too many pregnancies, perhaps followed by what we used to call shotgun marriages.

Of course, Piper would insist that these boys and girls must behave in a “biblically mature way.” Tell that to a couple of kids in the back seat of a Subaru.

For someone like myself who believes in gender equality, I am sad about wives who must always submit to their husbands. But I like to assume that they knew what they were getting into. For girls, however, this is downright dangerous. And that grooming spills into marriage and to the workplace, where Piper insists this mature femininity of submission ought to continue. No wonder we are now hearing so many #MeToo stories. And too often the perpetrator is a minister who believes the way Piper does—a man who has been schooled from childhood to believe in manly headship. Of course, not all men who believe this kind of reasoning and faulty biblical exegesis are perpetrators. But the rationale can only exacerbate the problem.

I’m sure it’s just coincidence that John Piper’s podcast and text appeared less than a week before the mid-term elections. The Christian Republican party could wish that his rules were the rules of society. There are more than three times as many women Democrats running for House seats than women Republicans, and there are similar percentages among those running for the Senate. So if we keep women in their proper places, we might truly have a Christian nation. Indeed.

But perhaps that wouldn’t solve all the problems. For example, if the incumbent Republican Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, followed the Piper rules, would she have to publicly submit and switch her campaign ads to the support Fred Hubbell, her male opponent, the manly man oozing with headship genes.


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  • You can search through Piper’s archives and see him tell women that they cannot be so many things… pastor, seminary professor, police officer (!), just to name the first few that come to mind… but I struggle to find any kind of job above the lowest rung on a company ladder that they definitely CAN BE according to Piper. What can they be? Can they be a shift supervisor at a fast food restaurant? If so, are they always supposed to walk on eggshells around male subordinates and treat them differently from female subordinates, simply because they cannot offend the males’ “God-given masculinity”? What can they be?

  • Jamin Andreas Hübner

    Pipers masculine men are such wimps. They have to have their masculine identity regularly affirmed by all the women in the room at any given time, constant monitoring of people’s speech and gestures is essential (lest it disrupt someone’s headship), and it limits entire swaths of life experience because so much of life is viewed as threatening to ‘Gods eternal order.’

    It’s like the perfect toxicity of a boss-employer relationship – the old white guy walking around cubicles hypersensitive and paranoid about those troubling female workers ‘getting out of line,’ while everyone is walking on egg shells worried that something they say is going to cause the patriarch to either lash out wrath or break down and cry.

    Who, again, is oversensitive and obsessed with identity politics and political correctness?

  • Tony Whittaker

    I can understand your frustration, even though here in UK, the situation is much more nuanced and I can’t think of anyone of the profile of John Piper who would take such a strong position. I have recently been researching the life of an early woman pioneer pastor in 1900s Wales, Clarice Smith. She never quite became an ordained Congregational pastor, being officially ‘lay pastor’. The progressive Welsh Congregationals headhunted her from bible college, and put her straight into a large Cardiff church (never having been an assistant or anything!!) And not just any Cardiff church, but one in Tiger Bay, the docks area, with doubtless social problems galore. Where she prospered. Her local church, and the Congregational Association, wanted her to be fully ordained. And amazingly the UK national committee initially agreed, only to reverse the decision a month later. (To their credit, they officially allowed women’s ordination just a few years later, the first Trinitarian UK denomination to do so, depending on your precise definition of ordination) Yet at that time, there were already 4000 ordained women in USA. 100 years later, and the Australian Lutherans have just rejected women’s ordination. Again.

  • Thanks for writing this – where the logic of complementarism can take you. Not such a great place for women!

  • Amy Farrer

    Like a career politician, a theologian must get out in the real world to experience life, otherwise he lives in a cloud of dreams where, in the end, everyone stops listening.

  • I definitley lean more comp (I just haven’t found the egalitarian argument very convincing), but John Piper is scary and and takes it too far. I can’t believe he actually says some of the stuff he says.

  • Barb

    What does “lean comp” mean to you. As a woman I hear “ I want women to submit to me”.

  • I am a woman too so I understand how it sounds too 🙂 I would say I read the verses that address these topics (marriage and pastoring) traditionally. I haven’t been presented with a convicting enough exegetical argument to interpret them otherwise. I refuse to resort to eisegesis when I don’t like what the Word says. As of right now, I think biblically speaking, the complementarian view is much more compelling. And I’ve heard and read a lot for both sides so the “as of right now” means I will abide by complementarian until/if I feel convicted otherwise. However, I would disagree with much of what John Piper says regarding gender roles in society, answering a man asking for directions, thinking a woman can’t have muscles, etc. I think women can be police officers, lift weights, and give men directions without being worried about hurting their ego.

  • sbf

    Thank you for referring to the Word as your basis for your thinking.

  • Tucker

    I was—in another life—-also a “complementarian” (though I’d never heard that term), so I also know the arguments on both sides, and I certainly won’t go into them here. But I do believe an egalitarian position is far more consistent with a broad biblical perspective as well as in its practical application. I find complementarianism very inconsistent in its “biblical” application. What can and what cannot a woman do officially in a church? If you call it by one name and not another, some complementarians will let you do it. It sometimes gets downright silly. For example, I was told once that according to denominational polity I could not preach from a pulpit (which denotes authority) but I could stand behind the pulpit and expound (the two being very different). Really. One of my seminary colleagues was lecturing me on that. So I said, what if I’m invited to preach, should I just say no. He said, tell them you won’t preach but that you would be willing to expound. I said I won’t do that—that I’m not going to offer an alternative on what is apparently two very different things. He didn’t like my answer. So I said it would be like a church asking me to “expound” and I say no, but I’ll do a liturgical dance. I’m not sure he got the irony. Maybe that’s one of the many reasons that I ( (the first full-time woman professor in 125 years) was fired.

  • Barb

    Have you read Scot’s book “Blue Parakeet”? He has a whole section on “What did women do” in the Bible.

  • Thank you for your anecdote. I know there are “inconsistencies” or some hard questions regarding complementarianism. Another example would be women being able to teach Sunday school and even youth but then all of the sudden the boys are “adults” and can no longer teach them. I recognize that I don’t have an answer and I probably won’t have one that will satisfy me while I’m on this fallen earth. But when I read the Bible, I cannot escape the vivid imagery between Father/Son, Husband/Wife, Jesus/Church. Neither (view) will ever be able to satisfy all of my questions but I feel convicted to remain traditional to listen to what I understand to be true until/unless God shows me otherwise. I will continue to pray about it and seek His will, not mine regarding issues where my emotions could so easily become entangled. I’m sorry that you got caught up in church politics and that you were fired. That must have felt like entire abuse of power, which I definitley do not support, endorse or agree with. If only “leaders” were more humble and sought counseling from both genders. The proverbs would do them well.

  • Tucker

    Thank you for your kind words, Rocksy.

  • JohnM

    What about Piper scares you? In what way do you see him as taking it too far?

  • I mentioned it a bit above, but I think his thoughts about women not being able to be police offers, have muscles or be hyper aware of their approach when giving a man directions is all too far and in my opinion, not biblically supported.

  • JohnM

    I don’t know all of Piper’s thoughts, nor have really followed him. Taking some things too far, could be, but what little I know, he doesn’t come across as scary at all. Some preachers do. Of course the things you mentioned, supported by specific biblical references or not, are common sense observations.

  • Sorry, perhaps “scary” isn’t the word. When I think about it, I can think of many other preachers I would describe as scary anf he wouldn’t be one of them. Extreme and a bit misogynistic? Yes. I think what can lead him to being on the line of “scary” is just how big of an influence he has and these ideas that he could be pouring into men and women could be damaging in the long run.

  • Tucker

    Well, I guess a delayed correction is better than none at all. I wrote the above in a hurry, and it just dawned on me as husband John and I were discussing something related that I used the word “expound” rather than the word “exhort.” So I take it back. I was not permitted to preach from a pulpit, but I was allowed to exhort. Not really so much difference than expound, but it sets the record straight.

  • Barb

    This no longer the case but when I was a young life leader in the 60’s not only could I not give the message, I also could not lead songs!

  • Bungarra

    I have been a Pastors Wife at one point in my career. I did cause a small consternation when the Denomination’s Pastors Wives announced that they had organized a ‘makeup’ afternoon one Saturday. I suggested that as I had a fairly full beard at the time, that I may not gain much from the event. Often I ran into people suggesting that it was OK for her to be a pastor as she was under my covering.

    Likewise my Mother went to China as a single missionary in about 1936. Korea was under attack from Japan. She has put herself though Bible College at the during the Depression and worked hard to do so. She met my father in SW China and I was born there. The Japanese bombs did take out the neigbours house. She was a tough lady whom Dad supported totally in what she felt called to do.

    I find the position promoted by John Piper et al to be totally heretical. God made humans male and female – see Genesis, and in the NT there is the observation that before God all are equal. The concept that all Christians are give gifts for the benefit of the Church. So why does God give the gifts eg. of teaching, evangelism and prophecy only to males? Sure there are biological differences re reproduction.

    I would strongly suggest that the current issue of “Me Too” which is also plaguing the Church to be partly accentuated by the more extreme concepts of complementarianism. To extend these ideas into secular society would also be consistent with the concept of slavery. Note also that the1945 Yalta Conference near the end of WW2 agreed to not include the value of work performed by home makers and child raisers – mostly women in the GDP. This has undervalued the input of women in our societies.

  • Paperboy_73

    Piper’s hesitancy to talk much about dating probably stems from the belief that dating is superfluous. Why should women have a say in who they marry? Biblically, that was normally sorted out between the husband and the father, after all.

    This sounds facetious, but now that I see it written down, I’m not convinced that it’s entirely false. Instead, he might be just smart enough to know it’s probably not the sort of thing he should say outright.

  • John Purssey

    And in patriarchal times you could send off a servant to find a wife for your son. Wells are a good meeting spot.
    If if someone comes asking for your daughter it’s ok to trick him into working for you for seven years and then give him the wrong daughter. And in another seven years he can marry both.
    And its OK to have children by your servants.
    That’s unless you think we should live differently from the way the patriarchs lived their marriages.

    IIRC there are three styles of marriage in the Bible. Interesting to think about, but not prescriptive. They are very culturally distant. Matthew changes Mark’s version of Jesus’ answer on divorce to suit the culture he was addrssing which was different from Mark’s.

  • Paperboy_73

    I hope you didn’t think I was agreeing with Piper’s stance on this. Or with Piper on anything. Ever. If I gave that impression, it’s a pretty spectacular piece of miscommunication on my part.

  • John Purssey

    Sorry. No, I was just adding further information that agreed with your post

    ISTM there is sufficient diversity in what has been canonised to demonstrate that many different perspectives have been collected together. And just as their understanding changed to suit their changing culture, so must ours.