Why John Piper Was Right but Mostly Wrong Women in Church Leadership and Authority


John Piper deserves all the respect that comes his way. He has been one of the loudest proponents of the gospel for many decades. We might not always agree with him, but when we do disagree with him he at least forces us and challenges us to solidify why we disagree with him. And when we agree with him, we see in him a great love for Jesus Christ. In his essay ‘Who Is John Piper’ in the collection For the Fame of God’s Name, David Mathis says of Piper:

“I could never tally all the benefits [from working with John], but at the top of that unfinished list is John’s infectious love for, admiration for, praise of, and delight in Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us. In this is Jesus supremely magnified. And in this, and only in this, are our hearts most deeply satisfied.” (p. 45)

But when John Piper recently said that women should not teach in seminary, and reiterated his view about female pastors, you just knew that the world was going to turn on him. Why? Because the world no longer views the Bible as a legitimate source upon which to base your beliefs. The majority of people – and a fair number of Christians – have relegated the Bible’s authority to secondary status and inflated personal experience and cultural “norms” as more important to defining a personal world-view.

The crux of Piper’s opinion rests in these words, found towards the bottom of his answer:

Let me put it another way in the form of a question. If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded? I don’t think that works. The issue is always that inconsistency. If you strive to carve up teaching in such a way that it’s suitable for women, it ceases to be suitable as seminary teaching.

It’s worth reading the whole article, if for no other reason than to place Piper’s comments in their proper context – rather than whatever you only read on Twitter. It’s also important to remember that Piper is not here espousing some random, half-cocked Biblical idea, rather, his point of view stems from “the assumption of complementarianism, which I think is not merely an assumption but a well-founded historic understanding of Scripture.”

But here’s my response to Piper – I think he was right in his underlying premise, but wrong on the specifics.

I think Piper was wrong when he said that women can’t teach in seminary/bible college. I think that is taking what the Bible does say and forcing it to say something else. This is not just a case of creating a rule out of the Bible’s silence, but rather challenging (if not directly contradicting) something the Bible says.

Two things are important to know here. Piper is basing his Biblical point of view in 1 Timothy:

“A woman should learn in silence with full submission. I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to be silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve.” 1 Timothy 2:11-12

I’ve included verse 11 in this quote because I think it’s important to understanding what comes next. Unlike what some may think on a first reading, the focus of verse 11 is not that women must be silent or submissive, but that they are commanded to learn – a counter-cultural idea for women of the time Paul was writing. And, importantly, at the time and in the place to whom Paul was writing, the ones who were equipped to teach were mostly men and they should not be interrupted by the unlearned (as was common at the time among some belief systems).

So, when Paul says “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” there is something very specific being said here. As Ben Witherington says in his Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (Volume 1):

“The verb here … is present continual tense. Paul does not say, ‘I will not/never permit,’ but rather, ‘I am not [now] permitting.” (p. 226)

In other words, “I do not allow” could easily be written “In this situation I do not allow”.

There is also a much larger and weightier discussion to be had around this passage which weighs the definitions of “teaching and authority” and suggests that this does not restrict all teaching and authority, but unGodly teaching and authority. To quote again, but this time from the legendary John Stott in his beautifully succinct The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus:

“If then a woman teaches others, including men, under the authority of Scripture (not claiming any authority of her own), in a meek and quiet spirit (not throwing her weight about), and as a member of a pastoral team whose leader is a man (as a contemporary cultural symbol of masculine headship), would it not be legitimate for her to exercise such a ministry, and be commissioned (ordained) to do so … ?” (p. 81)

This book, part of The Bible Speaks Today commentary series (which, for the record, costs around $5-15 depending on where you are and, for his discussion on this section alone is worth the price of admission) was written in 1996. So, when Stott speaks of “a meek and quiet spirit” he is not promoting the idea that “women should be quiet” but rather, Stott would also remind men to teach in the same manner. Stott speaks repeatedly of the importance of gender equality – with the exception that the pastoral team is to be led by a man “as a contemporary cultural symbol of masculine headship” set out by 2 Timothy 3:13: “For Adam was created first, then Eve.”

But even if we were to put aside this foray into my commentary shelves and just look at the examples we have in the Bible, we would see that the training up of Godly teachers and preachers is not restricted to men. Two examples come to mind. I’ll quote again from Stott to explain the first one:

“Nor was Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos inappropriate, because she gave him private instruction in the home, and Aquila was present, sharing in the instruction.” (p. 80)

Stott here refers to Acts 18:26 where it says, “After Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos preach], they took him home and explained the way of God to him more accurately.” Note the author’s formatting? Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, is placed in priority. Apollos went on to become a great voice for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Consider also the story of Timothy. Paul writes to his young disciple, “clearly recalling your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois, then in your mother Eunice, and that I am convinced is in you also.” (2 Timothy 1:5) This same faith that was highlighted to Paul in Acts 16:1 was nurtured in Timothy by his grandmother and mother. Timothy would go on to train with Paul, before being given the church of Ephesus – but the man of God who Paul first met, and who likely had his own responsibilities in the church, was the work of two women.

The list goes on – one need only read the conclusion to Romans in chapter 16 to see the role of women in building the church in Rome, the capital of what would quickly become Christianity’s greatest enemies.

From my own personal experience, I can look at Timothy and see myself. I am only the man of God I am today, by the grace of God, because of my mother. My mother was my only earthly role model of a Godly person for most of my life; it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I was introduced to a few men who represented a Godly role-model for me – and even then, not so much as to displace my mother as my number one earthly role model for living a Christ-centred, God-focused, Spirit-living life.

I do not believe that John Piper would contradict anyone who points to a woman who has helped grow them and train them. The many examples that flooded Twitter following his comments are proof that women are as much an image-bearer of God as any man is. But let that be a proof for a woman’s role in the church and seminary – not as a contradiction of what the Bible says. Human experience does not outweigh the Bible’s teaching – whether it is my experience, yours, Timothy’s, the church in Rome, etc. God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. There might be plenty of examples of women who have been instrumental in building up men and women, but this does not serve as proof enough to disabuse what the Bible says about what John Stott called the “contemporary cultural symbol of masculine headship”. There might even be examples of effective and Godly women who have been the head or lead pastor of a church. Again, however, this does not serve as proof against what the Bible says.

So, while I agree with John Piper’s underlying assumption that a church is to be led by a male, I do not believe this gives us the right to reinterpret the Bible to restrict women from any other role in the church or seminary/bible college. I believe that – as I hope I have shown – the Bible’s authors wrote in a way that did not restrict female leadership and authority, in its right place, and the early church exampled this in the vital role women played throughout the church.

Christian belief is a difficult road to tread these days. There is significant pressure from outside the church (and distressing pressure from within) to bend and adhere to cultural “norms” and “run with the crowd”. Unfortunately, the trend that has seen many churches and believers flock to these “norms” has sometimes resulted in the more conservative raising their hackles and entrenching themselves even further into narrow-minded theology. If we are to live a life lead by the bible in the 21st Century we must be willing to bring everything back to God’s Word and walk the road between extremes, where Jesus’ love walks hand-in-hand with obedience to God the Father, directed by the Spirit of God.