I’ve read a number of rebuttals to John Piper’s recent declaration titled Is There a Place for Female Professors at Seminary? Each response addresses the groaningly geriatric nature of the concept that women shouldn’t teach fledgling clergy, but none of them addresses the point which seems most obvious:
If you closely read what Piper demands, you have to conclude that only women should be teaching in seminary.
The central refrain in Piper’s sermon is that training up pastors is different than other teaching. He returns to this point four or five times, saying things like:
“When a student with the pastoral call arrives at the level of seminary preparation, something is different… he is now submitting himself to a community of teachers who, by their precept and example, are called to shape his mind and his heart for vocational pastoral ministry.”
“…seminary is not just the transfer of information. Machines can do that. But machines can’t form a man for the pastoral role by being those who, in their teaching, embody that role and model that role and inspire for that role…”
Piper opens his treatise by discussing complementarianism; the idea that men and women are created by God foundationally different from each other, and are therefore suited to different tasks in the home, life, and church. In a 2012 sermon titled God Created Man Male and Female: What Does it Mean to be Complementarian? Piper says “A woman is a woman to the depth of her humanity. And a man is a man to the depths of his humanity. And this is a grand thing.” This week’s article returns to this concept, citing New Testament epistles like 1 Timothy 2:12 in order to define gender roles within the church.
Those who ascribe to complementarian views believe in traditional roles for men and women, with men out hunting mastodon, and women having babies and keeping the cave clean and cozy. Men are seen to be universally created with an internal desire to take charge, fight for loved ones, and be the boss. Women are seen to be universally created with an internal desire to birth, comfort, nurture, and submit. (These are drastic oversimplifications but make the point.)
Piper doesn’t seem to realize that by arguing complementarianism, he’s actually showing that women are better suited for pastoral teaching. Because what is the role of pastor?
Dictionary.com has two definitions. The second reads:
“A person having spiritual care of a number of persons.”
If we examine gender through the binary complementarian lens, which of these two stereotyped personas is likely to make a better spiritual caretaker of persons?
More importantly, which of these images is modeled by Jesus himself, the God/Man all pastors are called to emulate?
Let’s look at what Jesus thought about women as teachers, in one particularly luscious example:
In John 12:1-8 we hear the gorgeous story of Mary of Bethany who interrupts a dinner to wash the feet of Jesus. This is an intensely intimate act, and one of subservience. In Jesus’ day, guests washed their own feet upon entering a house, or in wealthy homes, the task was assigned to servants. But Mary didn’t wash Jesus’ feet when he entered. She waited until after Martha served the food.
She waited until the students were assembled and attentive before beginning her master class.
In the chapter that follows, Jesus mimics Mary’s action during the last supper (John 13:1-16). He waits as Mary had until dinner had been served, then gets up and begins washing the disciples’ feet.
Jesus asks “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them (John 13:12-17 NRSV).
This lesson is not merely one of many classes Jesus offered to his friends. The Last Supper is the consummate seminary moment. Church tradition calls it the establishment of the priesthood. It is Jesus’ final set of instructions before commencing his Passion. The final symposium before graduation. How important, therefore, must these instructions have been?
And yet, they were taught to Jesus by a woman.
Piper says that seminary professors don’t just transfer information to their students. They embody what being a pastor means. In these passages, we see that Mary of Bethany didn’t just transfer information to Jesus about the Law and the Prophets. The scrolls could do that. She embodied pastoral care, coming as a servant to perform an action of love. She taught a master class to The Master, and then Jesus passed along her example of intimate servanthood, and instructed the disciples to do the same.
Piper’s closing statement wraps up the entirety of his argument in a tidy word bundle:
“The issue here at the seminary level is largely the nature of the seminary teaching office. What do we aim for it to be? Is it conceived as an example and model and embodiment of pastoral vision, or not? That will lead us in how we staff our seminary faculty.”
Jesus’ pastoral vision is servanthood. He uses the lesson Mary taught to demonstrate it in a very tangible way. Mary showed complementarian femininity through caretaking and desire for relationship with Jesus throughout the gospels.
Therefore, according to Piper’s own logic, seminaries should be staffed solely by women.
Who’s going to tell him?
photo credit: Bishop Yvette Flunder, CTUCC, cc.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Where True Love Is: An Affirming Devotional for LGBTQI+ Individuals and Their Allies. She also wrote the Rumplepimple books; hilarious illustrated stories featuring a misunderstood doggy hero, his tutu-wearing sidekick cat named Mr. Noodles, and his two moms.
You can follow Suzanne on Facebook and Twitter, or check out her website.