John Piper’s article critical of female seminary professors kept popping up on my social media feeds last week by folks condemning his behavior. I’ve heard Piper’s arguments before, on how women cannot be pastors, on how they should not teach men who want to be pastors. Women, according to Piper’s mindset, cannot have spiritual authority over men. Men have said similar words to me, relatively recently in fact.
By now, I usually do not click on these articles. Minds aren’t easily changed, especially when men perceive potential loss of power.
But what I did find interesting is out of all times, why was this the topic Piper chose?
Instead of articulating how his theology may perpetuate and uphold white supremacy in a rising tide of white nationalism, Piper argues against female seminary professors.
Instead of examining how church practices and theology contribute to rape culture and sexual harassment in the wake of #metoo, Piper deems the issue of women teaching men as a top priority.
Instead of addressing how theology intersects with care and advocacy for immigrant and refugee families, many of whom scriptures would consider “hungry” and “lowly” (Luke 1:52-53), Piper considers the question of female professors most pressing.
In light of what’s happening in the world, this feels petty.
Part of me thinks that Piper selected this topic perhaps because he doesn’t want to deal with his own sin. It is easier to create “sins” than to realize how we might participate in systemic sin. We all share this temptation, to refuse to look within our hearts and the evil that lurks within them. Jesus critiques this behavior in John 8, calling out folks concerned about a (seemingly random) woman’s sexual practices (while ignoring her partner), but had not addressed their own shortcomings.
Might Piper’s concerns also be idolatrous?
As the 16th-century Reformer John Calvin observes in his Institutes of Christian Religion, our hearts are perpetual idol factories, creating things to occupy our minds and conform to our comfort rather than confronting the more sinister parts of our souls. He writes “[humanity’s] mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” Anne Lamott, citing her “priest friend Tom” frames idolatry another way in Bird by Bird: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
So what does Piper idolize? Quite frankly, Piper idolizes men in power, and utilizes a static theological paradigm that supports such power structures. His comments reveal a theology intending to maintain power and status quo. If one assumes their own theology never changes, and that they possess the correct answer, how can one possibly experience sanctification? A theological paradigm insisting on its correctness will not be able to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
Further, Piper’s disavowal of women in leadership denies the witness of the Spirit in Scripture and the world. Women have always been preaching, leading and teaching, from Deborah in the book of Judges to Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, from Hildegard of Bingen to Jarena Lee, from Lottie Moon to Prathia Hall. (This feels like a good time to remind Baptist churches to celebrate Martha Stearns Marshall Month by inviting a woman to preach in February).
Since the Holy Spirit is omnipresent (everywhere), all of life is subject to theological reflection, and everything can potentially fall under the study of theology proper. But I think we should discern carefully what garners our attention. Choosing to reflect on how women should be controlled rather than on current events that are life and death for many persons in the United States is unwise and unfruitful.
If anything, Piper’s reflections serve as a warning and reminder. They warn us that narrowing in on minutiae serves as a distraction on how we participate in and perpetuate sins we’d rather not face — sins that require repentance, change and sacrifice. These sins dishonor the imago dei in all creation and the command to love our neighbor. Piper’s words remind us how easily we can cast stones, and how difficult self-reflection can be. Let us, taking a clue from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, address the logs in our own eyes before creating specks in our neighbor’s.