Women Preachers: A Response to John Piper image

Women Preachers: A Response to John Piper

A few weeks ago, as part of his excellent “Ask Pastor John” podcast, John Piper was asked about whether women were permitted to preach sermons, if they were doing so under the authority of the male elders. His answer was no:

The question was: does 1 Timothy 2:12 leave open the possibility that women are permitted to preach in the weekly gathering of the local church, as an extension of, or under the authority of, the male elders of the church? And my answer is no. Neither of those qualifications (as an extension of, or under the authority of) overrides the teaching of verse 12. Paul would say: a female is not a proper extension of male leadership. That doesn’t make sense. That’s a contradiction of male leadership, not an extension of male leadership. And a woman teaching men, with authority, week in, week out, or every other week, or regularly in an adult Sunday school class, or whatever: a woman teaching men, with authority, under the elders, is not under the authority of the New Testament. She may be under the authority of the elders, but she’s not under the authority of the New Testament. And neither would they be, for putting her in that situation. So I would conclude no, it would be inappropriate for churches to do that.

Well: I have the utmost respect and affection for John Piper, who has not just been a great blessing to me theologically but also a great encouragement to me personally. But we have women preaching sermons at Kings, and that’s something I have argued for and defended publicly in various contexts. So I think it’s worth explaining where I differ with Piper on this one.

Put simply, in this podcast answer, I think Piper is actually begging the question. The question is whether 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits preaching a sermon in a local church under the authority of the elders. In response, instead of demonstrating that it does, Piper assumes that it does, and then explains why appealing to the authority of the elders doesn’t allow us to circumvent the authority of Scripture. Put differently, he gives no reasons for his belief that “preaching a sermon in the local church under the authority of the elders” necessarily involves disobeying 1 Timothy 2:12. That, as far as I can see, is the specific point at issue. (It may be worth saying that this stage: this seems to be common in complementarian circles in the US. A few months ago I had dinner discussing this point with Jim Hamilton and Denny Burk, both of whom know a fair bit about both biblical interpretation and the gender debate in America, and neither of them had even heard of a complementarian argument that “preaching a sermon in a local church” wasn’t necessarily prohibited by 1 Timothy 2:12. The next hour was great fun.)

I don’t know who asked the original question, nor what they had in mind when they did. But my guess is that they were not asking whether we are allowed to circumvent the authority of Scripture by saying we are “under the authority of the elders.” I suspect they were asking whether 1 Timothy 2:12 actually prohibits women preaching in a local church, under the authority of the elders, at all. Piper obviously believes that it does, but he gives no reasons for this belief here. And there are at least three good arguments – not watertight arguments, perhaps, but good ones, and good enough to merit a thoughtful response – to suggest that it doesn’t.

First: preaching a sermon in a local church is not the same thing as “teaching”. In many contemporary contexts those two things can look the same, but biblically speaking, they are not necessarily identical. By no means all public speech in New Testament churches was “teaching”: it could be described as a “word of exhortation”, like both Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch and the letter to the Hebrews (Acts 13:15; Hebrews 13:22), or as “prophecy” (as in 1 Corinthians 14, where it is defined as “speaking to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation”), or as evangelism (which, as John Piper has rightly said in other contexts, is much of what “preaching” is really about), or the slightly mysterious “word of wisdom” or “word of knowledge” (as in 1 Corinthians 12). There are no New Testament prohibitions on women giving words of encouragement, knowledge or wisdom, or preaching the gospel, and we know for sure that women in the New Testament church prophesied (Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; etc). So prohibiting someone from “teaching” is not necessarily the same thing as prohibiting them from preaching the gospel, delivering a sermon, speaking uninterrupted to the church from the Bible for thirty minutes, or whatever.

Second: the word “teaching” (didaskein) may have a much more specific referent than Piper implies, or even than I implied in the previous paragraph. This is the argument of John Dickson in Hearing Her Voice: “teaching” has to do with the preservation and transmission of the authentic apostolic witness to Jesus, in the era before the New Testament was written down, rather than (as we generally use it) a catch-all term for talking about the Bible in a church meeting. Dickson’s book, and in particular his thought experiment about early church worship, are well worth considering. This raises important questions about the notion that 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits what Piper’s questioner called “preaching.”

Third: there are several places in which Paul talks about “teaching” without restricting it to men and/or accredited leaders, and in fact encourages the whole church to do it, as Tom Schreiner points out. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing each other in all wisdom ...” (Colossians 3:16). “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in serving; if a teacher, in teaching ...” (Romans 12:6-7). “When you come together, everyone has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a language, an interpretation: let all be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). This is the main reason for my belief that Paul uses the word didaskein in two subtly different ways, which I have called big-T and little-t teaching: sometimes he encourages everyone to participate in teaching each other (which I take to mean “explaining the Scriptures to each other in a peer-to-peer way, according to gift”), and sometimes, notably in the Pastorals, he is talking about Teaching (which is more like “the definition and defence of Christian doctrine, by the church’s accredited leaders”). In our context, incidentally, we work this out by asking all non-elders in our church who preach to submit their sermons to an elder, get their feedback on it, and only then deliver it publicly; that way, the speaker is doing the little-t teaching, and the elder is doing the big-T Teaching.

In other words, I think there are several good reasons to believe that, when Paul says didaskein de gunaiki ouk epitrepō oude authentein andros (1 Timothy 2:12), he is not necessarily prohibiting women from preaching in the weekly gathering of the local church, under the authority of the elders. That’s why we do it, anyway.

An interesting twist on all this is that Piper himself, in a previous episode of the same podcast, explained why he thought it wasn’t a problem for men to listen to women preachers like Beth Moore or Elisabeth Elliot. His explanation, with which I entirely agree, was that there is a difference between preaching to people occasionally and functioning as their elder or pastor. That might, on the face of it, sound like it contradicts what he has just said about women preaching on Sundays. But my guess is that, because of his ecclesiology and his vision of what a Sunday gathering is, Piper regards preaching on Sundays as qualitatively different from preaching at conferences, such that the latter is not elders-only territory and the former is. (Again, Jim Hamilton and Denny Burk also see public Sunday ministry as a male-elder-only thing.) Personally, I disagree – I don’t see that distinction in the New Testament, and it wouldn’t apply in our, somewhat more charismatic-flavoured, Sunday context – but I can see the consistency of his position.

Anyway: I disagree with John Piper’s answer. I think women can (and should) preach sermons in local churches, even as I maintain that the elders who guard and protect the church from harm (and ensure its doctrine remains faithful) are intended to be qualified men. I think Paul thought that, too. But I wouldn’t want anyone to take my (or even John Piper’s) word for it. Think about these things.

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