A return to John Piper and prohibition on female seminary professors: the problem of parachurch

John Piper recently kicked off some controversy when he pronounced that women should not be seminary professors. You can read my comments on that here. You can also read a helpful roundup of both supportive, friendly-but-critical and outright opposed responses at the Challies blog.

I was chatting with a friend about this whole carry-on the other day. He, interestingly, referred to his own theological college experience. Notably, given that his particular college had specifically set out to be a ‘Christian community’, he commented that much of Piper’s problem stems from a sense in which we have set up places that aren’t churches, but that feel or look a bit like churches. Having done this, we run into all sorts of paradoxes and problems when we can’t decide which bit of scripture related directly to the organisation of churches should hold. He noted how his college held de facto church services every morning. Was this a church or was it an academic institution? The line was blurry.

Likewise, most mainline UK universities have a Christian Union on campus, typically (though not exclusively) associated to the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. In essence, Christian Unions are mission organisations intended to equip students to take the gospel to students. As an essential aim, this is entirely laudable. Most Christian Unions have a midweek meeting, small group bible studies and are overseen by an executive committee who are themselves guided by external UCCF workers.

The issue facing the theological college exists here in the Christian Union. Is this a church or not? The refrain that did the rounds was ‘we aren’t a church’. Well and good. The problem, of course, was that some of what they did rather looked like a church. The question of who should serve on the executive was always a live one. On what basis do we ask anybody to serve? Generally speaking, the eldership criteria were cited as the essential criteria. That was, of course, until it came to the question of whether women should serve, in which case ‘we are not a church’ reigned. But, either you are a church and the eldership criteria hold altogether, or you are not and they are – to some degree – irrelevant. Similarly, midweek meetings were run on the lines of what would take place in a church right up to the point it contradicted whatever we wanted to do, at which point ‘we are not a church’ was the mantra that held. The line between the application of church criteria and ‘we are not a church’ was pretty blurry.

I am heavily involved in a mission organisation where these questions are relevant. That organisation receives workers who are sent by local churches, undertake missions in conjunction with local churches and then direct those they contact to local churches. So far, so unobjectionable. But the organisation has a male-only executive, will only permit men to lead teams and hold daily bible studies for each team which are run by team leaders who are, yes you’ve guessed it, men. At their yearly conference, they even partake of communion together – an ordinance that scripture is clear belongs to the church alone and is one of the Reformed measures for the existence of a true church. Nobody really thinks this organisation is a church but a lot of what goes on feels churchy. Do the eldership criteria hold in such an organisation? Do issues of headship apply? Wherever one falls on the complementarian spectrum (see here), it feels blurry.

The problem Piper raised with respect to seminary professors is an issue that extends to almost every Christian organisation that cannot realistically be called a church. My friend wondered whether the problem we have caused in the West is that because so many non-church organisations exist, groups that have no biblical parallel, we find ourselves toing and froing over when and where to apply overtly church-based criteria to non-church organisations. Very often, we end up in one of two wholly unsatisfactory positions. Either we apply the biblical criteria for church life until such time as it contravenes our own sense of what would be appropriate, at which point we employ ‘we’re not a church’; or, we consistently apply the biblical church criteria and wind up locking people out of all sorts of things on the presumption that criterion written solely for the local church applies to things that we all accept are no such thing.

As I said in my previous post on Piper, I think he applies his own complementarian convictions in an entirely consistent way. Denny Burke quotes Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as stating:

We believed it was right in accordance with biblical teaching that the faculty members who would model the pastorate in the teaching of disciplines specifically for pastors would be qualified by Scripture to be pastors. This was not just an abstract theory. This also was what was advised to us in terms of the necessity of specifying which teaching positions must in all cases be qualified in this manner. So we defined all teaching positions in the school of theology as of necessity to be pastor-qualified.

The issue here is the teaching of theology. I’m not sure how SBTS is structured, so theoretically, women may be appointed to teaching roles in church history, children’s work, politics, culture, counselling, languages and a whole host of other areas outside of theology. But, as a theological seminary, every area might be considered theological and thus no area is permissible for women. Piper’s position, however, was much clearer. His view was that women should not teach at seminary, seemingly at all.

Though theological colleges may not like being associated with the term, this is the issue we face whenever we discuss parachurch organisations. Whether you view parachurch as ultimately good or bad – most, as far as I’m aware, would see examples of both good and bad parachurch groups – we must wrestle with this question. Scripture handles only matters of headship and teaching in the home and the church. The issue, then, is if these things extend beyond the home despite no scriptural warrant to say they do or whether, in other situations – in the absence of anything other than eldership/diaconate qualifications – what other criteria apply to any other role.

At the end of the day, we need something better. We need something better than extending a scriptural position to things it was never intended to address nor stringently applying the scriptural criteria until such time as it conflicts with our view as to whatever is best, at which point, ‘we’re not a church’ holds. Neither of these views will really cut it.