by Dr. Carrie Miles
John Piper posted an interview this week stating that women should not teach seminary.
No surprise there, as John Piper is well-known for promoting traditional gender restrictions on women. What I find shocking about this particular post, however, is that he justifies restricting women by touting the extraordinary spirituality of those men he believes should be allowed into the pastorate.
Piper quotes Samuel Miller, one of the founders of Princeton Seminary, who said, “A professor’s example as a devoted, laborious, faithful minister, was above all else a record of requisite for his successful training of ministers.” (Ironically, women teach at Princeton Seminary, and in fact, Princeton Seminary “celebrates, honors, and remembers” women associated with the seminary through its Women in Ministry Initiative, which is part of the Center for Theology, Women and Gender at Princeton.)
Piper adds: “Now, this implies that seminary teachers be more than competent historians, competent linguists, competent exegetes, educators, or theologians. The proper demand on the seminary teacher is to be an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office.” Since women should never, by Piper’s lights, fulfill the role of pastor, they cannot provide that example of spiritual superiority to seminary students.
Since Piper’s proposal is apparently motivated by a quest for consistency, consistency provokes a few side questions: Are all current, male, seminary teachers also experienced, ordained pastors? Is experience as an “embodiment of the pastoral office” really necessary to teach technical subjects, such as Hebrew? HR law? How useful or practical today is the advice of Samuel Miller, who died in 1850? And are we obliged to honor Miller’s attempt to inspire seminar faculties some kind of extra-scriptural directive?
Beyond consistency, however, underlying Piper’s statements is the supposition that pastoral leaders are spiritually superior to the rest of us. After all, the interview starts with the statement that only a “few” “spiritual” men are qualified to lead a congregation. For these men, Piper says, becoming a pastor signifies an additional stage in growth and maturity, analogous to moving from boyhood to manhood. This idea that some people are superior to others girds up the hierarchy that is a major tenet of Piper’s theology.
Exalting a “few” men as spiritually superior smells idolatrous to me. Gender does not have much to do with it. I would object to such an exaltation of professional clergy even when the positions are held by women. Claiming that pastors are “superior” can, and often has, lead very quickly to claims to exceptional privilege, and then to the abuse of those presumed to be inferior.
Such claims to superiority is anti-scriptural. Consider, for instance, that we call our leaders “pastors.” This is a reference to those who keep sheep. The original, non-metaphorical, pastors were sheepherders. This was never a lofty, or even respected, profession. Intended to send a strong message, the angels call shepherds to witness the birth of Jesus because of their lowly station. Jesus tells his disciples repeatedly that they are not superior to other people. He says that if you want to be first, you must choose to be last, to be the servant of all—as Jesus himself did.
If Africa and India, we are privileged to work with people who know that Christianity requires them to transcend their cultures. Unfortunately, Christians in developed countries have no similar insight. We continue to read the patriarchy and hierarchy of the fallen world back into our readings of the scriptures. This sets us all up for abuse, and unfortunately for those in culturally-privileged positions, the temptation to abuse.
Dr. Carrie Miles is the President and Executive Director of Empower International. She holds a doctorate in social and organizational psychology from the University of Chicago, and regularly teaches Bible and theology classes via Empower seminars around the world.