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Sarah Lindsay

Erasing Lines Around Women in the Church

Lady Philosophy from Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Philosophy Instructing Boethius on the Role of God, from The Consolation of Philosophy | Coëtivy Master, c. 1460 - 1470 | via Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of January, John Piper argued that women should not teach in seminaries. While I vehemently disagree with Piper’s position, it does flow logically from the complementarian position that does not allow women to have personal, direct authority over men — and especially not authority over men who will become church authorities.

The problem with Piper’s argument, though, always comes down to how to draw the boundaries: if women can’t pastor, then it follows that they can’t teach seminary;1 but what about college-level theology to students who don’t intend to become pastors? What about Sunday School teachers, or the mothers of sons — at what point do they stop instructing young men? In other words, why do complementarians draw the lines they do?

I had never considered that question until I was in college, taking a required theology class that was taught by a woman. Although I grew up complementarian and was, at the time, opposed to women pastors, I never questioned the ethics of women as theology professors — just as I never questioned the ethics of women teaching any other subject.

However, this particular professor made a comment that stuck with me. I don’t remember the context; perhaps we were discussing women in the church, but perhaps not. Regardless, my professor said that if she really believed that Paul forbade women from teaching men in the church in all circumstances, she would have to quit her job teaching theology at a Christian college.

This comment exposed a tension in my thinking that I hadn’t noticed before: why did I have no problem with a woman teaching theology to not only myself but my fellow male students, while I did have a problem with a woman preaching? Or, to rephrase the question, what exactly did Paul mean by teaching in 1 Timothy 2?

To be clear, many complementarians don’t go as far as Piper, or may have reservations about women seminary professors but not women professors of bible and theology at an undergraduate level. After all, they argue, even a Christian college isn’t a church; a professor doesn’t take the same role as a pastor, or even a preacher.

But as disturbing as I find Piper’s comments on women generally, and as encouraging as I’ve found the responses (for example, here and here and here), Piper’s position is logically consistent. Teaching Greek may not be the same as teaching homiletics, but I assume that the Greek taught in seminaries is not taught in a contextual void — at the very least, a woman Greek professor is teaching men how to read and handle scripture and she clearly has authority over them in the context of their theological education.

So what’s my point?

Modern-day complementarianism, as propagated through organizations like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, has an unresolved tension at its core. Most complementarians distance themselves from straight-up patriarchy, arguing that women are equal in value to men, fully created in the image of God. They merely have different roles, which largely means that women are excluded from certain teaching and leadership roles in the church. (I’m addressing complementarianism in the church here; complementarianism in marriage has a different set of problems.)

But the problem always is: from what roles are women excluded? Senior pastor? Elder? Adult Sunday school teacher? Reader? Usher? Leadership council? Children’s Sunday school teacher? College theology professor? Seminary professor? And embedded in this question is the deeper question of why the lines should be drawn in these ways. Why would a church allow women to serve on the leadership council and to teach adult Sunday school, but not to preach or function as senior pastor? What reasoning lies behind drawing the line at any particular point?

Both patriarchy and egalitarianism offer simplicity: patriarchy sees women as actually inferior to men, less fully created in the image of God, more susceptible to deception and emotionalism. Patriarchy can thus exclude women from any position of leadership, influence or power because it holds that they simply are not capable of the tasks associated with those positions. On the opposite side, egalitarians see women as the equal of men, just as capable and just as likely to be gifted and thus not barred from any role in the church.

Complementarians, however, must wrestle with how to treat women as beings created in God’s image while also placing limitations on how they can serve and lead in the church. Some minimize those limitations, while others expand them, but regardless the scriptural basis for those limitations is shaky at best. Holding Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2 about women not teaching or holding authority over men as universal, not specific to a particular situation in a particular church, leads to significant interpretive gymnastics when women can’t lead churches but they can chair committees or lead small groups.2

I didn’t change my mind about women in the church after my college theology course; that change in my thinking took several more years. But my professor planted a seed that day. I started asking why churches drew the lines they did around the roles of women, and asking on what basis they would draw those particular lines.

Along the way, I discovered that God doesn’t fence me in with arbitrary lines, much less view me as a inferior version of men. God desires that I serve in my church and my community using my God-given gifts, whether those lead me to the nursery and kitchen or pulpit and lectern.

Thanks be to God.

  1. As several people have pointed out, part of the debate comes down to the purpose of seminary; Piper assumes that seminaries train pastors, but people without pastoral calls may also attend seminaries. This is an interesting debate, but it still splits hairs by implying that a woman professor teaching the same content is allowable in one set of circumstances (not preparing pastors) and not allowable in another (preparing pastors).

  2. And not just interpretive gymnastics with 1 Timothy — women like the apostle Junia, the deacon Phoebe, and the teacher Priscilla also have to be explained away.