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?
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