One of the first viral videos I watched featured John Piper declaring he is bad. Speaking on depravity, Piper said: “John Piper is bad,” with dance music playing in the background. Piper himself saw the video and later laughed about it.
In recent days, Piper was once again labeled a bad man when he argued in a short Ask Pastor John piece that seminary professors should be men. Piper based this view on 1 Timothy 2:9-15; since men are called to be the preachers and teachers of Christ’s church, then elder-like men should train these future shepherds. Here’s a snippet of his argument:
Probably the best defense of that position still, with regard to the role of women teaching and preaching in the church, would be Tom Schreiner and Andreas Köstenberger’s Women in the Church. Just to be clear, the issue is not whether women should attend seminary in one of its programs and get the best biblical grounding possible. The issue is whether women should be models, mentors, and teachers for those preparing for a role that is biblically designed for spiritual men. … [H]e is now submitting himself to a community of teachers who, by their precept and example, are called to shape his mind and his heart for vocational pastoral ministry.
Piper, like me, is glad for women to study at seminary and enter the ministry. He certainly is not silencing women. In articulating this position, he is not promoting a controversial position in the history of the church, despite the way this view was framed and mischaracterized on social media. In fact, it’s not merely non-controversial, it’s overwhelmingly the historic practice of Bible-loving evangelicals. If you think about pastoral training in Calvin’s Geneva, the students were trained by preachers like Calvin (men). When we come to the era of modern seminaries and divinity schools in the 19th-century, you will be very hard-pressed to find female faculty members at schools like Yale, Andover, Southern Seminary, and Princeton Seminary (though this changes with the rise of Protestant liberalism). In the twentieth century, orthodox and evangelical schools like Westminster, Master’s Seminary, and Reformed Theological Seminary hired men to train the future elders of local congregations. Today, this is the standing practice of these and many, many other confessional, church-loving seminaries like Midwestern, Southern, Southwestern, Southeastern, RTS, Westminster, TMS, and Puritan Reformed, to name a few.
So, let us be clear: if John Piper is a dangerous and bad man for holding his view, countless other leaders and teachers are bad and dangerous as well. But let us not heed this rhetoric. Piper is not out of step with historic evangelical seminary practices; he is right in the mainstream of historic Protestant practice, and certainly aligned in very close terms with the view of ministry preparation held by gospel-loving evangelicals of the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Bible-church type, to say nothing of numerous other groups.
Complementarian institutions are generally speaking the largest institutions in evangelical circles. As a very large group, it is important to note that complementarians do not all hold the same precise views on all the outworkings of biblical doctrine, as CBMW President Denny Burk has helpfully noted. There are warm-hearted complementarian leaders and scholars who differ with Piper (and with me) on this matter. Many of this ilk did not torch Piper on social media; though they would not hold his position, they also would not wish to join a social-media fracas, either. Sadly, there were some intemperate voices who accused Piper of evil deeds and foul character. Instead of viewing his commentary as a mishandling of Scripture (from their perspective), they made the matter personal. This was unfortunate, and was seen all the more so in light of Piper’s refusal to fire back at his critics.
Even if the online conversation quickly overheated–shock alert there–this is a valuable conversation to have, and we welcome it. Is complementarity–male leadership in the home and church, especially–a matter of gifting, or a matter of essence? The position staked out by leaders like Piper and Wayne Grudem, and held by tons and tons of pastors, ministry leaders, and laypeople today, is that manly leadership of the home and church is dependent not on teaching ability or emotive intuition but on divine intention. God made the man to be head of his wife; God formed the man to take leadership of the church (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Tim. 2:12). This calling does not waver due to talent or interest. It is God-given. No one can overturn it; no one can countermand it. (So Gavin Peacock and I have argued in our short book The Grand Design.)
In response to Piper, some folks argued that he (and others like him) try to effectively cut women out from shaping their brothers in the faith. But this is surely not the case. Think of men in the Bible–Paul and Timothy, for example. Paul specifically calls attention to the godly women who raised Timothy–his mother and grandmother–and praises them for doing so (2 Tim. 1:5). But Paul is also Timothy’s mentor in a unique, God-assigned way (2 Tim. 1:6). Beyond Timothy, Apollos discussed the Christian faith with Priscilla and Aquilla in private, but we know nothing of this discussion, and we cannot take from it any summons for women to teach men in public (Acts 18:18-28; see this careful article on the matter). Above all other examples, the very head of the church, Jesus Christ, was raised by God-fearing parents. Mary loved God and loved her son (Luke 1:46-55; John 19:25-27). Did her faith affect Christ? Yes, it surely did. (What a marvelous thing to ponder, by the way!) But when Jesus himself began his public ministry, and gathered his apostles–cornerstones of his body, the church–he did not appoint any women to this office. He was their teacher; they, in turn, would be the teachers of his church, the foretaste of the new covenant pastor, who would preach the apostolic kerygma.
All this matters for Bible-honoring ministry training today. There is no woman who is a public teacher of the gathered church in the New Testament. There is no place in the New Testament where elders are directed to listen to women before shepherding the church. There is no place in Scripture, in fact, where women shepherd and lead the body. We are a kingdom of priests, performing valuable every-member ministry, and raising women up to serve in appropriate ecclesial roles, but we mark what the New Testament teaches women specifically. Women must submit to godly congregational leaders (1 Tim. 2:9-15), be silent in terms of leadership and authority (1 Cor. 14:34), and exude a gentle and quiet spirit as wives (even if their husband, we note, is an unbeliever–see 1 Peter 3:1-7). If these “hard words” of the New Testament sound like they clash with a feminist age, it is because they do. The Bible gives us a powerful sense of the essence of biblical womanhood in these and other texts.
But handle with care here: the Bible is not teaching that women are weak. Take note: a woman is never stronger than when she rejects Satan’s whispered counsel and obeys God’s declared will. A woman is never acting with more agency than when she follows the Lord and rejects sin. A woman is never more liberated than when she is, like her brothers, a slave to Christ, living in submission to him (1 Cor. 7:22; James 4:7).
This complementarians have known for generations. It is not for nothing that leaders like Piper and Grudem have sought to raise up women who will teach women–not in the sense of an elder (as if the church has male elders for men and female teacher-elders for women), but in the sense of a Titus 2 discipleship context. Look at the foundational text of the modern complementarian movement, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, as one important example. Dorothy Patterson, Dee Jepsen, and Elisabeth Elliot each contributed a chapter to this text. These three women offered in this book and well beyond it sound biblical teaching of women. How important such work is. Elliot’s books are really the undiscovered gems of the late twentieth-century. Let Me Be a Woman shaped multiple generations of God-fearing, Bible-loving women. In her footsteps have come numerous very gifted female teachers, women like Mary Kassian, Nancy Wolgemuth (formerly DeMoss), Jodi Ware, Mary Mohler, Susan Hunt, Carolyn Mahaney, Noel Piper, and the list goes on, and we pray will extend into coming years.
Rock-ribbed complementarian women are not dying out. They are gathering steam. (Here’s one example of a program aimed specifically at training godly and gifted women for ministry. My own seminary, Midwestern, has many such women studying to know Christ and serve in his kingdom. Praise God for this!)
For his part, John Piper has made it his mission to help men and women alike by preaching and applying the whole counsel of God. He has done so with close attention to the Bible and with fearless courage in a secular age. In this sense, he reminds me of a character from the movie Dunkirk. The famous evacuation of the British troops off the French beach is largely complete. But Admiral Bolton, the man overseeing the dangerous enterprise, declines to leave his post. The last boat bearing British officers takes off, and the camera sweeps back to Bolton, hands clasped tightly behind his back. He stands as a watchman on the wall, refusing to leave his post, refusing to be intimidated by the enemy, full of hope and conviction, ready to face down death and evil. For me and many, many others who love the gospel and its 10,000 implications, this is what John Piper represents. From the moment he preached “Look at my shells, Lord,” he gripped us, and he drew us into a deep and joyful engagement with the wisdom of God, wisdom that includes a soaring vision of biblical complementarity.
In 2018, the battle for truth may be fierce, and complementarians–a sprawling, huge global movement–may not agree on all the fine points. But Piper is for us a watchman on the wall. Though, in Adam, he may be a bad man, in Christ, he is a faithful soldier indeed.
Whatever social media decides today, know this: Piper will have his reward in the age to come.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons by Micah Chiang)