I have recently been considering John Piper’s prohibition on female seminary professors. In my first post, I noted that a range of views exist among complementarians and thus others who firmly hold to male-led churches and homes may draw different conclusions to Piper regarding seminary without departing from their complementarian convictions.
In my second post, I noted how some see a problem particularly in parachurch organisations which is a category, broadly speaking, seminaries fall under. We, particularly in the West, have set up a whole host of groupings that look, feel and act enough like churches to make us want to apply church-based criteria to them but are not, in reality, churches and thus there are times we want to say the criteria does not apply. This leads to nothing less than a complementarian dog’s breakfast.
In this post, I want to sketch the broad problems that apply to the four complementarian positions I outlined in pt I. For reference, those positions were:
- The distinction between the sexes is absolute. Thus man is considered the head of woman in any setting. Therefore, women are not permitted to hold any position of teaching or authority over a man in any setting.
- The distinction between the sexes is specific to marriage and the church. Thus, a husband is head of his wife but not all women. The elders of a church are heads over their church family, but not all people in general. However, teaching from scripture is inherently authoritative as pertaining the church. Therefore, women can hold positions of authority in any setting outside of the formal gathering of the church and the family home but the teaching of scripture to mixed sex groups is prohibited for women in any setting.
- The distinction between the sexes is specific to marriage and the church. Thus, a husband is head of his wife but not all women. The elders of a church are over their church family, but not all people in general. Only teaching in the gathered church is considered inherently authoratative. Therefore, women can hold positions of authority in any setting outside of the formal gathering of the church and the family home and may teach in any setting outside the formal gathering of the church.
- The distinction between the sexes is specific to marriage and the formal teaching of the church. Thus, a husband is head of his wife but not all women. The elders of a church are over their church family, but not all people in general. However, a distinction may be made between different kinds of teaching within the church, some of which is legitimate and some of which is not. Therefore, women can hold positions of authority and teaching in any setting outside of the church and the family home and also within certain areas of formal church gatherings.
Taking each in turn, what are some of the problems associated with the positions listed.
There are several issues with this position, chief amongst which is the way in which it stretches well beyond the text. Paul is evidently addressing the local church and marital partners. Whilst he grounds his conclusion in the order of creation – thus proving his conclusion is not simply a matter of the prevailing culture of the day – it seems apparent that he intends his instructions to be applied to the settings of church and marriage.
The absolutist line on headship leads to the kind of whataboutery that descends into sheer silliness. This whole discussion was originally kicked-off by Piper answering a question about whether women should be police officers. As you read the piece, and other articles by Piper on this issue, we find a series of jobs ruled out for women based on little more than questionable definitions of headship/authority and the application of verses from the Bible clearly concerning eldership and the marital home. Aimee Byrd offers a helpful response to Piper’s original article pointing out the sort of nonsense we end up spouting if we go down this line.
Limited headship; Absolute teaching
This position follows the Biblical context that headship issues pertain to church eldership and the marital home. However, it argues that teaching from scripture is an absolute form of authority that the Lord invests in men alone. Therefore, whilst most the tasks open to able men in the church would be open to able women, the latter would not be permitted to preach sermons or lead bible studies. This prohibition also continues outside of the church setting. Thus teaching scripture in other fora is also prohibited.
The problem with this view is that we get into problems seeking to distinguish between forms of teaching. For example, it might be assumed that a female seminary professor should not teach theology or biblical studies but would be fine teaching church history or sociology of religion. But what do we do when church history overlaps heavily with historical theology? Can women teach authoritatively about historical events but not the history of theological interpretation which inform those same events? If it is permissible for them to teach about the Evangelical church in a particular place and time, does it become wrong for them to then draw lessons and conclusions from the theology of those churches? Likewise, is preaching in the open air formal teaching or is this something else? This position suffers from, what some would consider, arbitrary distinctions between forms of acceptable teaching.
Church and home authority/teaching alone
This position mirrors the scriptural context that male headship applies only to the church and the home. Further, it distinguishes itself from position #2 by arguing that Paul was only seeking to prohibit women teaching in the formal gathering of the church. Therefore, women are able to do anything that men can do in the church save for becoming elders and formal teaching.
Whilst there is no what-iffing about authority positions outside of the church and home, this position has two main problems. First, it must distinguish between the formal teaching of the gathered church and informal teaching therein as well as formal teaching that is not part of the gathered church. Whilst most who hold this view would see preaching on a Sunday as formal teaching to the gathered church, there is a much wider discrepancy of opinion on things like home groups, midweek meetings, mixed-sex special interest groups run by the church, and a variety of things like these. Are these authoritative, formal aspects of the church’s teaching programme or not?
Second, following on from the above, how do we avoid answering that question in a way that is not arbitrary or ad hoc? This view must offer a reason as to why teaching scripture in a pulpit on a Sunday is verboten whilst, at the same time, delivering exactly that same talk either on a different day of the week or in a different building is OK. Just as view #2 may fall into arbitrary distinctions between forms of teaching, this view can fall into such distinctions on setting.
Eldership authority alone; formal preaching alone
This view is the most open complementarian position. It argues that the only role not open to women in the church is that of eldership. Further, the only teaching role not open to women would be formal preaching. This means women may serve in any role and conduct any teaching outside of these areas.
Like some of the above positions, this view has to explain why only formal preaching is prohibited given that Paul does not dictate preaching alone, but forbids the wider issue of teaching. Again, as on other views, it must avoid arbitrary distinctions between forms of teaching. Why, for example, would a women teaching in a Bible study be permissible but standing in a pulpit represent a problem? How do we distinguish between formal and informal teaching when it is organised by the church for the church?
My purpose in this post is not to offer any solutions. It is to highlight that all these positions have questions to answer. There are some touting their particular position as the silver bullet to the complimentarian conundrum. I am less convinced by their certainty.
I think there is a consensus among complimentarians, and a level of clarity in scripture, that church eldership should be male-only and that authority in the marital home is vested in husbands. Beyond this, however, scripture does not speak so clearly and each complimentarian position has questions to answer. There is no consensus on the bounds what women may or may not teach, whether in the church or anywhere else. There is no consensus on what constitutes formal teaching or appropriate settings for teaching, though there is a broad consensus that the teaching of children is permissible.
For my part, I do not think the issues of headship are particularly difficult to discern. Scripture seems clear that the church is to be led by male-only elderships and that authority in the home belongs to husbands. The question about headship that remains is simply, what constitutes authority and how should it work out in practice (but plenty of good things have been written on this such that, without saying any of it here, the question is fairly well worked out). However, the question of teaching is the much trickier of the two related matters. It is here that I think much more work needs to be done because, so far as I can see, all positions struggle on this question and face the problem of arbitrariness.