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Sarah Lindsay

John Piper and the Value of Women

Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434 | public domain | via Wikimedia Commons

When I wrote about the #MeToo movement last week, I looked at attitudes towards women in America broadly. But the church is often no better than the surrounding culture at valuing women as human beings, and this tendency is exacerbated by complementarian theologies that affirm male headship and male leadership.

I found a perfect example of this tendency earlier this year in an episode of “Ask Pastor John,” John Piper’s podcast in which he addresses theological questions. In this episode, Piper attempts to reassure a woman who finds that complementarian theology intensifies her feelings of inferiority to the men around her. Here is her question in full:

“Hello Pastor John, my name is Jennifer and I live on Long Island. I have a question about complementarianism. It is something I have struggled with for a long time, and it is something I need to have worked out before even considering a relationship or marriage in the future. I know the Bible clearly states that men and women are equal in their standing before God as far as salvation. But in other areas of life I still struggle with feelings of inferiority, because of certain comparisons used in the Bible. For example, regarding submission, the Bible says that the servant is not greater than his master, and wives are called to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. However, servants are not equal to their masters, and the church is not equal in worth to Christ. In almost every area of life, those in positions of authority are considered more valuable than those under that authority. Just like the President is more valued than the secret service men, and in businesses, managers are more valued than the workers under them, and throughout history women have always been treated as less valuable than men. In light of these things, I greatly struggle with feeling inferior in worth to men. Is there something that you might be able to see that I am missing, as I read through Scripture? Thank you.”

In his response, Piper rightfully affirms the equal standing of men and women before God. But from there, his answer highlights the ways in which complementarian theology cannot address Jennifer’s concerns and instead reinforces the inferior position of women, largely because Piper refuses to acknowledge the way we humans perceive and value leaders and followers.

First, Piper begins with the question of whether men and women are truly equal. He points out the biological differences between men and women: men tend to be larger and stronger, while only women are capable of bearing children. After an unfounded dig at the scientific community for allegedly obscuring other differences between genders, Piper concludes that the sum total of the “superiorities and inferiorities” of men and women is equal.

On one level, despite sniping at studies of gender differences (which not only exist but permeate pop culture psychologies of men and women), Piper is right. Men and women have different biologies; men’s greater testosterone levels give them an undeniable strength advantage, and obviously possessing a uterus is a prerequisite of childbearing. How, and even if, these biological differences affect other differences — in language, analysis, emotion, etc. — is much less clear, but biological differences without a doubt play a large role in our experiences in the world.

On another level, however, Piper’s point is so broad as to be almost meaningless. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and no one person is good at all the things — regardless of gender. Imagining each gender with a balance sheet of strengths and weaknesses that ultimately even out seems odd and unnecessary when we could simply say that everyone is different, due to complex mixes of biology and sociology. Regardless of their personal strengths and weaknesses, each person is created in the image of God and valued by God as much as any other human being.

Moreover, imagining a balance sheet for each gender erases the way in which society values these differences, biological or conditioned. We can argue that intuitive thinking is as valuable as rational thinking, or cooperative leadership as valuable as command leadership, but are we under any illusions about which one is valued more in society? And which one is associated with women?

I don’t want to pick on Piper too much in this point, since he is fully affirming the equality of men and women in the eyes of God. But he misses the point that society values men and women differently, and that the church tends to follow suit. We see this clearly in Jennifer’s letter: she feels inferior because society has been telling her that she is inferior to men and then, when she turns to the church and the complementarian interpretation of the bible, she does not find a different message.

In short, I agree with Piper’s point that God loves men and women equally. But this isn’t really Jennifer’s problem; she is concerned that the very human and socially embedded institution of the church sees her as inferior, and Piper’s response has, up to this point, failed to address that issue.

And he continues to fail to address Jennifer’s sense of inferiority in a meaningful way. Piper next turns to the scripture passages that particularly trouble Jennifer, those about servants and masters and about marriage reflecting Christ and the church. In the context of servants and masters, Piper reads these passages as affirming the spiritual equality of servants, thus sidestepping the question of superiority and inferiority. I wish that Piper had made explicit what seems to be his implicit point: the master-servant dynamic is socially constructed and thus cannot reflect the value of a person. But this argument would become problematic for his reading of Ephesians 5, in which male headship is God-ordained rather than a more malleable social construction.

When Piper turns to the Ephesians 5 passage about marriage, he reinforces the socially imposed power structures of Greco-Roman marriages. He says:

“owing to God’s design in creation, the point of comparison [between Christ and the Church] is that godly, mature manhood and womanhood are of such a nature that they both experience a sense of fitness and suitableness and appropriateness in the roles of manhood as humble leadership and protection and provision and womanhood as gladly affirming that leadership and partnering with a man in the use of her gifts to carry it through — and whether that fitness lies in some overall superiority or inferiority need not be implied in this text about husbands and wives. I don’t think it is implied.”

This is hardly a resounding affirmation of the equality of men and women. In her question, Jennifer is struggling with the fact that leaders are seen as more important than those who are lead — and with the fact that her female anatomy bars her from leadership roles. Piper reaffirms that men are to be the leaders and then asserts that this doesn’t imply superiority. But the problem is that in our society, as in the apostle Paul’s, leaders are valued above followers.

In many realms of life, this valuation of leaders doesn’t leave followers feeling inferior; most of us have a variety of roles in which we may lead or follow, and those roles are fluid as we progress in careers or take on new responsibilities. But when someone is barred from a leadership position on the basis of some quality beyond their control — like sex or race — it’s almost impossible not to see that prohibition as an indication of inferiority.

Following what he says about servants and masters, Piper could have noted that loving one’s wife as Christ loved the church is a distinct subversion of the power dynamic that Paul’s audience would have expected between husbands and wives. Even if a marriage outwardly conformed to first-century Roman norms, telling husbands to lead in mutual submission to their wives (Eph. 5:21) and in imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificing love subverts the power dynamic of leader and follower, or superior and inferior.

But Piper doesn’t say this. He simply affirms that men are to lead and women are to follow, asserting that couples who follow this pattern will find a sense of “fitness” in these roles that, apparently, mirrors the fitness we feel as Christians following Christ. Piper ignores the value we place on leadership and, by extension, leaders. Moreover, Piper isn’t merely granting nominal leadership, as Paul may do — that is, the position of leader without the power. He intends for men to have the power in the relationship: the power of the final decision, the power implied in protection and provision. Women are excluded from that power on the basis of their biological sex alone.

Piper thinks that Jennifer can and should believe two things simultaneously: that God sees her as the equal of men, and that God has decreed that she must only follow and support men. He believes that the value gained in the first belief negates any inferiority implied in the second; or, that if Jennifer’s sense of inferiority lingers, it should be vanquished by the belief that this arrangement is God’s good plan. But his inability to consider either the social value placed on leaders (one held by the church no less than the world) or to consider the implications of the power dynamic means that he cannot assure Jennifer that she isn’t actually inferior.

At the end of the day, Piper can only answer that God intends for women to be in a position not only judged by society as inferior but also truly lesser in terms of power and influence, while still insisting that this doesn’t make women actually inferior to men in the eyes of God. This paradox at the core of complementarian theology leaves women like Jennifer feeling less than men and prevents leaders like Piper from acknowledging the harm caused by their theology. And I will turn to this harm in Friday’s post.

Tagged: theology | feminism