Just because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should (and other arguments)

Bronwyn, thank you for speaking into the question of application with such insight! I appreciate your openness and willingness to wrestle with these questions.

I also really appreciate your reminder, Hannah, that not all gender conservatives are complementarians. If I’m honest, I didn’t realize that until you explained it.

I can’t speak to the questions posed here from a complementarian point of view, as that is not my own conviction. But, the fuzziness of what it means to be in authority over a man is something I’ve wrestled with a great deal as I have tried to be faithful to God’s calling on my life.

As a recent college graduate preparing to head off to seminary, I met with a local pastor to talk about what might be ahead for me in my seminary journey. At that time I was adamant that I had no intentions to be ordained. I believed that women could not be called into ordained ministry. But, I did have gifts for teaching, and had been recommended by many of my professors to pursue an academic path. I also had a profound love for Scripture, and as God called me to seminary, I believed the Mdiv. would be step one on a journey towards becoming a professor.

I sat down on a couch in a dimly lit room with my husband by my side and a pastor in front of both of us. The pastor spoke kindly to my husband and to me about our upcoming seminary journey. He lauded my gifts for teaching and ministry, and he praised my husband’s faithfulness in pursuing his calling to pastoral ministry. And, then his face became very serious.

“April, I worry about you,” he said. “You’ve got gifts, to be sure, but you have to be careful how you use them. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Interestingly, he never gave the same warning to my husband. And, though he never specified why he addressed this concern only to me, I knew that he was worried I’d start sliding down the “slippery slope” and soon become an advocate for the ordination of women.

In that regard, he was right, I suppose, though I don’t really believe in the idea of a slippery slope. And though it was the first time I had heard the can vs. should argument, it would not be the last.

Though he did not say it directly, I think what the pastor was getting at was the idea that even though a woman theoretically could take a position as a pastor it does not mean she should. He was taking his interpretation of the way God speaks to women and men and was applying it to the realm of vocation. If the Bible says women are not permitted to have authority over a man, how do we apply this to a woman who has leadership and teaching gifts?

What about situations in which men recognize a woman’s gifts and ask for her direction?

How does one discern the difference between what can be done and what should be done?

I also want to admit that I struggle in responding to this conversation as someone who is convinced that women can (and are) called into positions of leadership in the church. I struggle because I do not believe women and men have no differences whatsoever. But, I do not think God speaks to men and women differently in the Bible. I think God speaks to each person regardless of that person’s gender differently because we are all different people.

This is why we read the Bible in community, rather than in isolation, because we are a body and what one hears may be what we all need to hear.

Not All Conservatives

In order to address Bronwyn’s first question,

To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?

we need to clarify something. I believe that part of the “greyness” results from using the term “complementarian” to refer to anyone who holds a conservative view of gender—anyone who sees distinct male/female roles in marriage and church office. But what if not all gender conservatives are complementarians?

Complementarianism might be better understood as one expression of gender conservativism. As a response to evangelical feminism, complementarianism developed and flourishes in a specific cultural context, namely a western, white, middle-upper class context; because of this, it will reflect western, white, middle-upper class assumptions about work, economics, and home. The fact that Pastor Piper is even concerned with answering the question “what jobs can a woman do” reflects this.

Consider how the Danvers’ Statement positions complementarianism against “feminist egalitarianism” (which itself was influenced by 2nd-wave feminism). Insofar as complementarians formed their identity in direct opposition to 2nd-wave feminism, they became a photonegative of it.  None of us should be surprised, then, that complementarians are asking “what jobs can a woman can do” because this is precisely the same question that 2nd-wave feminists asked. But even this question is loaded with assumptions about class, race, and agency.

I grew up in a low-income setting where people didn’t have much choice about which “jobs” they took. Today I live and worship in a working-class community where very few of the women in our church have the luxury of not working outside the home. Even fewer would have the luxury of turning down a promotion if it meant she’d find herself “leading” a male co-worker. And yet, these folks would be the first to affirm that “father is head of the home” and that the office of pastor is restricted to men. (These folks would also tend to be congregational in church polity so women—as members of the congregation—enjoy a form of representation that those in more hierarchical settings would not.)

I am a conservative, but I often find it difficult to identify with complementarianism. Not because I reject gender differences, but because I reject the incomplete definitions of work, home, and economics that are part of the cultural context in which complementarianism developed. Still, it does exists. And because Piper and Grudem were leaders in its development, there is a sense in which I do think they speak for it. But insofar as complementarianism exemplifies a specific cultural experience, I do not believe that they speak for all who hold a conservative reading of gender.

Acknowledging this leads to answering Bronwyn’s second question.

If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?

We start in context of our immediate relationships. We start at home. We start with our nearest neighbors. We start in our local churches. We start in our cultural context.

How my husband and I honor the gender differences between us, living here in Appalachia, will not be the same as how a couple in East Africa honors the differences between them. How my local church honors the differences between men and women will not be the same as how a church from a different ecclesiology honors the differences between men and women.

Admittedly, this requires more ownership of the issue as well as more male-female collaboration to honor those differences well. A pastor far removed from my home and local church cannot make a list of how men and women must relate here in my community. But we must wrestle with it. Pastors and leaders here must process it along with a whole host of other questions about human flourishing. And when we do, I believe we will honor these differences in terms of our relationships: my husband and my wife; my elder and my congregant; my brother and my sister.

And when we do this–when we live in community with each other–I believe much of the “grey” quickly comes into focus.

Lists of Things That Women Cannot Do: The Problem With John Piper (and Me)

file4171276032990John Piper made a bit of a splash with his podcast of last week: Should Women Be Police Officers? A female listener called in, saying she “is a woman who enjoys being a woman… and feels no desire to compete to be better than men at being masculine,” but felt she was “called to police work”. Was this wrong, she wanted to know?

Piper begins his response with a caveat:

“My sense is that it is unwise to make a list of women’s jobs and men’s jobs. There is simply too much diversity and too much flexibility in how many jobs there are and how the jobs are done and what the very relationships with men or women are in all the various jobs. It just won’t work to try to make a list like that.”

But then, as Benjamin Corey insightfully points out, he goes on to do just that. Using “biblical principles”, Piper elaborates on two general principles regarding masculinity and femininity, that being that women should, in general, not hold positions that are both personal and directive in their leadership over men. So, for example, a female traffic engineer may have a very directive job, in that she is telling (male) drivers where they may drive, but her leadership is not personally aimed at them. This may be contrasted with a female drill sergeant, whose leadership over men is clearly both directive and personal, and would “violate her sense of womanhood and their sense of manhood” in the discharge of her duties.

Like Aimee Byrd, I am grappling with this podcast. I, too, was deeply influenced by Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood when I read it fifteen years ago – but as time goes by I’m finding a deep discomfort with where the lines are being drawn, and I am more than a little irritated by the persistent theme that theirs is the line held by those who “deeply want to shape their whole lives by scripture” (the closing paragraph of the podcast). As if, by questioning his lines in the sand, this reveals something less than a deep desire on my part to seek and obey the Scriptures.

I remain a “soft” complementarian in that I am persuaded that the Scripture does address men and female distinctly and differently their relationships with one another and in the world. I admit that there are cultural filters to the context and worldview at the time we must consider (after all, we are not advocating for slavery according to the household codes of the NT letters), and that we are somewhere on the continuum of a redeemed view of humanity, with particular application to our expressions of sexuality. Whatever happened before, and in, and after the garden of Eden affected relationships between men, women, and God – and we have hard theological work to do to figure out where in that journey we are.

My own persuasion is that the Scripture still addresses me, as a woman, differently as it does to men. But what I don’t know, and what Piper’s list of what women should do in the workplace (and Grudem’s list on what women should do in the church) reveal to me is a deep problem in applying these convictions. The Danvers Statement states that “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men,” a fact which Grudem insists “draws a definite line.” My question is: is the line really so definite?

In my experience, it really is fuzzy.

In Piper’s example of a woman (acceptably) working as a traffic engineer, she may not be personally directing all those male drivers and thus violating their sense of masculinity (!!!), but in the real workplace, she would be presenting her plans to a state level department of transport. There would be committee meetings and managers, presumably a high number of whom would be male. And then there are the construction crews who will build those roads and put the signs where she demarcated they should go. In a day to day way: her job would involve some significant personal direction with male co-workers and subordinates. Like I said: fuzzy.

In my own marriage, my husband and I are persuaded by the servant leader/capable helper model, but I will own that in practice – it looks a lot like the healthy egalitarian marriages I see around me, because in truth: respect and other-person-centered love, which Scripture calls us to, lands up looking very similar in practice. In my nearly 12 years of marriage, I can’t think of a single example of a “when the rubber hits the road, final decision” where my husband needed to wield his manly decision-making authority over me. It really has always been more considerate than that. Fuzzy.

And what of teaching? So, I can’t teach the scriptures to men, but if I publish a talk on my blog, can men read it? Should they? I can teach children and women, but not men… but at what stage do boys become men? Can I teach a high school group? What about college? What if there’s a male pastor who says I am teaching “under his authority”? Is there a difference between my sharing my testimony in a Sunday school class, or sharing it in the main Sunday service? Can I teach church history (which surely should be instructive), but not the book of 1 Samuel (which is both historical and instructive)? Fuzzy.

My confession is this: Pastor John’s podcast shines a light on something of the slippery slope of trying to apply principles. I find myself wanting to put significant distance between my own views and his, but I have a hard time knowing how, or where, to draw those (broad, smudged) lines.

The questions I’d like to raise at our SaltShaker table are twofold:

  1. To what extent do Piper and Grudem (and the big names at CMBW) speak for all complementarians? How big, and how grey, is our grey area?
  2. If one does have a general commitment to a difference in male/female roles in church, family and the world… how in the world do we start trying to figure out what that looks like in practice without sliding straight down that muddy slope?