John Piper caused a bit of a kerfuffle on Christian Twitter the other day with a podcast episode in which he said that only men should teach at seminaries. Though much of the discussion that followed was both boring and predictable, the question raises a number of interesting points, many of which will only become more important for the church as our position within American culture continues to deteriorate in the short-term.

First, the underlying problem here is that we don’t know what we expect from seminaries.

The biggest problem behind the debate is that it is not clear what we expect from seminaries within the current evangelical context. Ostensibly they are pastoral training programs, but then many seminaries are now also awarding academic degrees and counseling degrees, neither of which are necessary for ordination.

Moreover, even the elements of training for pastoral ministry can be broken down into separate components because of the large and eclectic skill set a pastor needs to possess. Much of what is expected is academic knowledge—a clear handle of dogmatics, a correct understanding of Greek and Hebrew, and so on. Piper’s case seems to be contingent on the assumption that the work of the pastor and the work of the person training the pastor are similar enough that we should have the same standards for both. But that seems manifestly false to me, as the skills required to be a good Greek professor are quite distinct from the skills needed to be a good pastor. Indeed, the differences are significant enough that I don’t see why our requirements for the former should be the same as the latter, though I’d be curious to hear Piper say more about that.

I also suspect this problem of mission drift at seminaries is going to become sharper as seminaries continue to struggle with funding and some have to shut down. Speaking in purely business terms, one of a seminary’s primary revenue streams is tuition. One way to increase revenue is to attract more students who will pay tuition, but this will inevitably require expanding your degree offerings because there simply aren’t that many people looking to get an M.Div at any one time. That’s a fine thing to do, of course, but once you start offering counseling degrees and more purely academic degrees, it creates real questions about the exact purpose of the specific seminary. If you are also adding more think tank-type functions on top of that, as a place like Southern has, then it creates even more ambiguity.

And all of this assumes that these ancillary programs—counseling, academia, think tanks—remain secondary to the work of training pastors. But what happens when a seminary has more counseling students than divinity students or when PhD students consume more faculty time than M.Div students? At that point, I’m not sure the institution is primarily for training pastors.

Again, that may not be a bad thing: We need counselors. We need scholars. We need public intellectuals. But it seems to me that all those tasks would be best done by other separate institutions. Unfortunately, because we are very bad at building and funding institutions, that isn’t usually what happens. The result is that the work that should be getting done by several institutions is all done—less effectively—by a single over-taxed institution that inevitably struggles with mission drift because it is being asked to do too many divergent things.

Second, the counter-argument that the Bible does not explicitly say that seminary professors must be male misses the point.

The best response I saw from Piper’s critics is that they disagree with him precisely because of their high regard for Scripture. If Scripture doesn’t say it, you shouldn’t bind consciences.

Here is Bethany Jenkins making this point:

The principle Jenkins is describing above is a good one, of course. But it over-simplifies the issue in this particular case by tacitly suggesting that the only time it is licit to say “ought” about a thing is when we have a prooftext that refers to our very specific situation. In the absence of such a text, we shouldn’t make firm declarations. This is a rigid and unhelpful form of biblicism that fails to think about the world in the way the biblical authors do and that would, if practiced consistently, invalidate the entire enterprise of dogmatic theology.

In The Divine Imperative, Emil Brunner writes of the “inner infinity” of particular divine laws, something you see reflected in the Sermon on the Mount. If we take a legalistic approach to the 10 Commandments, for example, we might stop at saying “don’t murder,” and condemn anyone that says the command means more than just that. After all, the text itself doesn’t say anything about hating people; it just says “don’t murder.”

But, of course, Jesus himself condemns such a narrow reading of the text. He wants us to see that the command not to murder is itself tied to the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. So we have violated the command even if our only offense is hating our brother. The hatred is a violation of the great commandment, which is the whole point of this lesser commandment.

So the point of the Pauline texts is not to provide us with a narrow list of rules for how men and women ought to function. That’s the same sort of legalistic reading of the text that Jesus is undercutting in Matthew 5-7. The idea is rather that because God made men and women differently, you cannot collapse down all distinctions outside of those which are explicitly sanctioned in Scripture. To do so is to adopt a legalistic reading of Paul. In other words, it is not unreasonable to try to observe the unifying principle behind Paul’s thought and apply that principle to other arenas, which is what Piper is doing.

When Paul is explaining his understanding of men and women in his epistles, he always appeals to creation, toward a natural order that exists in the world and reflects the truths he is presenting. He notes that man was made before woman in 1 Timothy 2 and in 1 Cor. 11 he argues that man is the glory of God and woman the glory of man, which suggests something about natures and which will apply in more directions than just a narrow list of clear biblical commands about a few particular arenas. This emphasis echoes the creation account in Genesis, of course, which goes to great lengths to emphasize the differences between men and women. Thus these differences are not a thing that can be safely confined to a small range of issues. They are, rather, hardwired into creation and thus must be acknowledged as having universal import.

Certainly, it is good to be cautious when we argue for something that is not explicit in Scripture. But we must not be hard biblicists—if we are, we would have to give up the Trinity. Indeed, it is striking to me that in other debates it is this very sort of tone-deaf biblicism that gave us the aberrant trinitarian theology of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem.

The discipline of dogmatic theology presupposes the validity of man’s attempt to reason from the Scripture toward certain conclusions that may not be explicit in any one biblical text. And if we are going to reject such reasoning as invalid because it adopts concepts and terms that are not themselves used explicitly in Scripture, then it seems to me that we will need to dispense with far more than just Piper’s views given in this podcast. We would likely need to expunge the Nicene Creed from our church services and its language from our statements of faith—and that would be just the beginning.

Finally, both of these problems are indicative of broader issues facing evangelicals today.

The first issue we raised above—the uncertain status of the seminary—reflects the strange and uncertain relationship evangelicals generally have to institutions. To be fair, much of this is a funding issue. Many churches are under-funded and do not have enough pastors to do all the things that must be done. Many seminaries are similarly under-funded. And organizations that should be doing a lot of the academic and think tank work that seminaries are increasingly trying to do, are, surprise!, under-funded.1 This lack of personnel and financial resources inevitably creates the sort of institutional confusion I am describing above because too many ministry leaders are expected to wear too many hats.

Similarly, the hard biblicist tendencies in evangelicalism have been there for a very long time. This move contributes to the aversion to dogmatic theology, which is a long-standing problem which, as we already noted, also announced its existence during the trinitarian controversy. And it is precisely our refusal to reason from Scriptural principles to appropriate application that drives the reaction to arguments like Piper’s.

To be sure, Piper’s approach is wrong-headed because it minimizes the significant differences between a faculty job in a seminary and a pastoral position in a local church. But to object to his argument on those grounds is not the same as objecting because the Bible doesn’t say what Piper is saying. That is not the problem with Piper’s case. Piper’s argument, whatever else you want to say about it, is an attempt to reason from clear biblical principle to sensible, wise application. And on that count, he is doing much better than his critics.

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  1. It’s OK if I just stick a plug here for the Davenant Institute, right? If you want good ecclesial think tanks, you need to fund them. Give us money. We’re trying to fix these problems. Oh, and Mere O has a Patreon too, and we would love your financial support.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • I think you are dismissing Bethany’s point too easily. It isn’t just that the bible doesn’t speak about something so we shouldn’t. But as she say in her broader set of posts, the bible actually has examples that seem to counter Piper.

    Her immediate follow up tweet was “I’m fine with women teaching theology. I agree with Redeemer’s philosophy: a woman can do anything an unordained man can do. If an unordained man can teach adult Sunday School, so can a woman. This makes it about the office, not the gender.”

    And Mika Edmonson in that thread pointed out three different biblical examples of women teaching men. And Bethany affirmed them.

  • hoosier_bob

    I don’t see where Johnson is advocating for a kind of biblicism. She’s making the rather unremarkable assertion that the church ought not to be binding consciences of Christians on issues where Scripture fails to provide unambiguous guidance. Even if one accepts that Scripture forbids women from serving in certain leadership roles within the church (which I don’t), it’s hard to see how that principle can be extended unambiguously to seminary training.

    This strikes me as a further example of how the CBMW “theology” of gender is rather unmoored from any kind of biblical principle. I can see from Scripture where someone may arrive at the position espoused by Tim Keller. I disagree with Keller on that point. Even so, I can at least connect the dots between the biblical witness and Keller’s view. For the life of me, I can’t see where Scripture commends the kind of principles advocated by the CBMW crowd under the banner of “complementarianism.”

  • Nathan Williams

    Hi Jake, thanks for your insights. I wonder if you have any recommendations for reading that critiques the sort of hard line biblicism you described above?

  • I’ve read a number of rebuttal’s to Piper’s position, and none seem to address the fundamental flaw of his logic, itself. He claims to be relying on two things: complementarity and epistle passages. But the portion that relies on the complementary aspects of femininity seem to be reasons women SHOULD teach those who would become clergy.

    Here’s my elaboration on this. Please delete if you find it inappropriate to include.

    John Piper Unwittingly Proves That ONLY Women Should Be Seminary Teachers https://www.buzzfeed.com/sdewitthall/john-piper-unwittingly-proves-that-only-women-shou-1uopo?utm_term=.bopyeydy0

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  • calebroberts811

    I’m surprised that you’ve given so much credit to Piper’s framing of the issue as one of adherence to Scripture (and you think that the “first and underlying problem” is… what we think of seminaries??? How about sexism?). This is the guy who once had to do a couple thousand words of chin-stroking on whether men should even *read* books by female theologians or biblical scholars. He finally made an exception, because with a book you can just access the information directly, thereby conveniently ignoring the gender of the author, which is different than a lecture, for instance. In short, you can read a book written by a female scholar because you don’t have a female body in front of you to get in the way of your access to her insights. Perfect!

    I bring this up only to show that this has very little to do with the sort of deep theological reasoning you think is going on. Piper himself completely avoids such reasoning, going out of his way to clarify that his proposed prohibition of women teaching in seminaries has nothing to do with competence (i.e. “natural” realities). You can tell that even he is uncomfortable with extrapolating out any kind of rationale beyond an unwavering adherence to a divine command, because to do so would only lead to outright sexism. So he doesn’t bother, instead just sticking with an appeal to “obeying the Bible.”

    His is the purest and logically final stage of biblicism, and the deficient ethic that arises from it gives you nothing to show for your obedience other than the satisfaction of being obedient.

  • I have a crazy idea: let women be pastors. That way they don’t have to be *only* or *just* seminary professors and guys don’t have to lift the whole burden of leadership by their lonesome. If the women are going to pay to keep the institutions running, you want to be sure that there are plenty of jobs outside of seminary professor for them to do, as odds are there are more pastor positions available than seminary professor positions available at any given time.