Men, Learn From Women

Yesterday, Desiring God posted their most recent episode of “Ask Pastor John,” tackling the question of whether women should teach at seminaries. In the episode, John Piper cast some doubt on the wisdom and methodology of women teaching men to be pastors. Unsurprisingly, the evangelical (and in particular, the left-leaning evangelical) twittersphere exploded. Into the flood of outraged twitter threads, hashtags, and blog posts, I now offer my own thoughts.

Why say more, when so much is already being said? Because, in all the conversation, I haven’t seen very many hot takes coming from the perspective I’m about to share: I’m a complementarian, I love John Piper, and I disagree with him. 

That’s right, I’m a complementarian; that is, I believe that God has assigned different roles to different genders. While men and women are equal in dignity and value (see, among others, Genesis 1:27 and 1 Corinthians 11:3), I believe the Bible is also clear that God has assigned men and women different roles. I follow the historic understanding of such passages as Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Timothy 2:12-14 that God has ordained, in certain spheres, for men to lead and women to submit.

Now, I don’t think these gendered roles apply across the board; the New Testament only applies them to the institution of the family and the church, and I see no reason to extend them further. I’m thrilled to see women in other leadership roles; I’m enthusiastic about women taking leading roles in business and government and elsewhere. I’ve had female bosses whom I respected and appreciated. I believe it’s high time for a woman to be President. Frankly, there are some institutions that I think would be much better off if women were in charge.

And yet I’m constrained by Scripture to limit leadership in the family and the church to men. I believe, if you follow Paul’s line of reasoning in those passages, that the family and the church play unique roles in God’s economy of redemption, and that the purpose built into their structure is to reflect truth about the God and the gospel. Hence, in marriage, husbands and wives play differing roles representing the church and Christ, in which they submit and lead and love and follow in a dance meant to put the relationship between Jesus and his bride on display.

There is, however, a grave danger inherent in the leadership structure of complementarianism. When only men are in charge, their perspective and style of leadership ends up being exclusively shaped by their male-centric worldview. On one hand, this is completely natural; I bring a male perspective to my life and ministry (which isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing). But if I’m in a position where I’m surrounded by other male leaders, and female voices and perspectives aren’t heard, my leadership inevitably will become an echo chamber of my own preconceptions, and my natural biases and blind spots will continue unchecked.

This is, I believe, the root of most of the abuses of complementarianism: a lack of input from other voices and perspectives. This is why, for example, male leaders often respond with cringeworthy tone-deafness (or worse) to issues of sexual abuse in the church. Men, even those who deplore sexual abuse, approach the topic very differently from women. Sexual abuse disproportionately affects women; every single woman I’ve ever talked to about this has firsthand #metoo stories. Most men, on the other hand, are completely oblivious to the epidemic. Therefore, what men prioritize and how they articulate those priorities will be radically different from what women prioritize. So if pastors aren’t intentionally and relentlessly seeking input and guidance from women on this topic (and topics like it), we will inevitably fail to shepherd in a way that effectively cares for the 90% of women in our congregation who deal with sexual harassment.

This is just one example of the problem that Piper’s application of complementarianism utterly fails to address. Here’s how I would summarize the problem and my proposed solution: since I believe that pastoral ministry is restricted by Scripture to qualified men, one of my most urgent the most urgent roles of seminary should be to shape those men with influences outside of and different from their own perspective. Men like myself (I’m a white, Reformed pastor) desperately need to be rescued from our own theological and cultural blind spots. Complementarianism becomes patriarchy when it tunes out other voices.*see end of post for clarification of terms

Complementarian pastors like myself would benefit tremendously from theological training from women, for the simple reason that at least half my congregation is female. How will I lead them if I’m not willing to be shaped by their voices, to put myself in their shoes and be led down the roads they walk? Even women who are stringently orthodox see God differently than me. They read their Bibles differently from me. Their relationship with Jesus is different than mine. I need the instruction of women to lead me out of my natural male-centric way of looking at the world. I need women to teach me how to counsel, how to learn, how to lead, even how to preach. When complementarian leaders like me cut ourselves off from such insight and diversity, we impoverish both our own souls and Jesus’ church.

While we’re at it, here’s another application of the same principle: as a majority culture evangelical, I desperately need the input of minority and people of color voices into my theology. So much of my theology is captive to my cultural biases, and I need those voices to free me. I’ve spent much of the past year simply listening to the experiences and perspectives of African-American brothers and sisters in Christ. Their understanding of the world, the church, and the gospel has often proved to be fuller and richer and more multi-faceted than mine, because they bring an entirely different cultural lens to the Bible. In learning from them, I’ve begun to understand just how racially and culturally narrow my understanding of Christianity has been. Just like I need female voices to break me out of my male worldview, I need minority voices to break me out of my white worldview.

I think this principle extends far beyond seminary, and beyond pastoral leadership. If you’re a man, you should be reading theological books written by women. Read books on marriage and family written by women. Read books on the character of God written by women. Devour everything written by orthodox, theologically sound women like Gloria Furman, Elise Fitzpatrick, Rachel Jankovic, Nancy DeMoss, and others. Do a Beth Moore Bible study. If you’re white, seek out books from minority theologians and pastors– everyone from Augustine to Thabiti Anyabwile. Don’t look at this as merely an incidental, side benefit, like, “If this book happens to be written by a woman, that’s okay.” No, seeking out the theological perspective of female and minority authors is a worthy end in and of itself, because those are perspectives that you need the most.

Such a pursuit of diversity, I believe, would make me a better pastor and better leader, and would do more to equip the saints and build the church than the narrow complementarianism that Piper argues for. At the end of the day, it’s that simple: this is Jesus’ church, which he has promised to build by distributing gifts to all his people. What a tragedy it would be if the men whom he calls to leadership fail to learn from those who are different than us. So men, learn from women. The church depends on it.


*(update 1/24/18): Several readers have asked me to clarify how I’m using the term patriarchy in relation to complementarianism. I apologize if my use of those terms was confusing. The dictionary defines patriarchy as “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” I am aware that some proponents of complementarianism use “complementarianism” and “patriarchy” synonymously, but that dictionary definition– as well as its common usage– leads me to make a distinction between the two terms. The way I am using the terms is this: “patriarchy” is the subjugation and exclusion of women, while “complementarianism” refers to the specific gender roles proscribed by Scripture. I think this is a helpful distinction, because many opponents of complementarianism equate it with patriarchy (by which they mean the subjugation of women). Distinguishing the terms makes it possible to clarify what complementarianism is and isn’t, and what abuses would lead it to become patriarchy. I’ve found this to be a helpful way to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with me.

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