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Topic: Complementarianism

What the debate about female seminary professors is NOT about

January 27, 2018
Share: posted the podcast heard around the evangelical world earlier this week. In the podcast, John Piper responds to the following question from a listener: “Should women be hired as seminary professors? What is your best case?” In response, Piper makes the case that women should not be hired as seminary professors. Why? Because the seminary professors who train future pastors ought themselves to be qualified as pastors. The calling of a seminary professor is not merely to download information. Piper argues,

“The proper demand on the seminary teacher is to be an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office… The attempt to distinguish the seminary teaching role from the pastoral teaching role in such a way that the biblical restriction to men does not apply to the seminary teaching results in a serious inconsistency… If it is unbiblical to have women as pastors, how can it be biblical to have women who function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded?”

It has been interesting to watch the responses to Piper over the last week. There still seems to be some confusion about the precise point of debate. So I thought it might be useful to point out four things that this debate is NOT about.

1. This is not a debate between complementarians and egalitarians. Don’t get me wrong. Complementarians and egalitarians obviously do have differences over who should be teaching seminary courses. Yet Piper specified that his answer assumes a complementarian position on gender roles in the church and the home. His answer, therefore, is meant to address differences of application among complementarians. He is trying to show how the Bible’s teaching about gender roles might apply in a seminary setting, but he admits up front that his argument can only possibly appeal to those who share a common complementarian conviction.

It is important to keep this in mind as you watch the debate unfold. There are some egalitarians and feminists weighing-in. They will reject any and every argument that proceeds from a complementarian understanding of scripture. Egalitarians and feminists have a different agenda in this conversation, and their participation potentially muddies the waters. Keep in mind that our differences with egalitarians and feminists are more fundamental than the intra-complementarian dialogue about seminary instruction.

2. This is not about whether women can be seminary professors. I know, I know. The initial question was framed that way, and Piper faithfully tried to answer it within that frame. But to do so, he also had to set forth his assumptions about what a seminary ought to be. Those assumptions reframe the question in a way that has less to do with biblical gender roles than it does with philosophy of education in seminaries.

In particular, Piper believes that seminaries do best when they focus on the training of pastors. That is the exclusive focus of Bethlehem Seminary. It is the exclusive focus of other seminaries as well, like the Master’s Seminary in California. Other seminaries do not have that exclusive focus but include the training of other ministry workers in addition to pastors. Even in such a setting, however, those schools are often clear that their core mission is to train pastors. For example, Reformed Theological Seminary’s statement of “purpose” expresses it this way:

“The purpose of RTS is to serve the church in all branches of evangelical Christianity, especially the Presbyterian and Reformed family, by preparing its leaders, with a priority on pastors, and including missionaries, educators, counselors…”

Because schools like RTS are training ministry workers more broadly, they may sometimes have programs or courses of study that do not implicate the complementarian question. The real issue is not so much whether seminaries ought to employ female professors. The real issue is whether it is appropriate for a complementarian seminary to employ female professors to mentor and train pastors.

The question of female seminary professors, therefore, is first a philosophy of seminary question before it is a complementarian question. If your philosophy of seminary involves an exclusive focus on the training of pastors, then the complementarian issue arises for every faculty position. If your philosophy of seminary includes a broader focus on other ministry workers, then the complementarian issue arises for some positions but not necessarily for others.

For example, I can think of two complementarian seminaries that hire female professors for some positions but not for others. They both believe that professors most responsible for training pastors should be qualified men. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it this way:

“We have identified certain positions that closely parallel the office of the pastor, the elder, the overseer, that we would only look to call and hire men for those particular areas. Those areas include preaching, pastoral ministries, theology, and biblical studies. I could not imagine that we would hire a woman to sit in one of those professorial positions as an instructor over men.”

Albert Mohler describes a similar situation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

“We believed it was right in accordance with biblical teaching that the faculty members who would model the pastorate in the teaching of disciplines specifically for pastors would be qualified by Scripture to be pastors. This was not just an abstract theory. This also was what was advised to us in terms of the necessity of specifying which teaching positions must in all cases be qualified in this manner. So we defined all teaching positions in the school of theology as of necessity to be pastor-qualified.”

Again, the heart of the issue is not whether women should be seminary professors but whether it is appropriate for a complementarian seminary to employ female professors to mentor and train pastors.

3. This is not a debate about women receiving formal theological training. Piper says as much in his remarks, “The issue is not whether women should attend seminary in one of its programs and get the best biblical grounding possible.” Even Paul—in one of the most contested texts—clearly encourages women to “receive instruction” in the faith (1 Tim. 2:11). Both sides of the gender debate celebrate and encourage women to receive formal theological training. There is no real dispute about that.

Some see an inconsistency in this:

This is not really an inconsistency at all for complementarians. It is often the case that professors most responsible for mentoring and training pastors also have other ministry workers in their classes. There is no inconsistency for that professor to train and mentor both male and female students. It happens all the time. I do it myself in my classes, and I hold the same convictions that Piper does.

4. This is not a debate about whether the seminary equals the church. Critics of Piper’s view often point out that the seminary is not the church and then conclude that Piper is wrong to bring church standards to bear in the seminary classroom. It is true that the seminary is not equal to the church. Both sides agree on that much, and there is no real debate about it. That is why, for example, we don’t do baptisms or the Lord’s Supper at the seminary where I am employed. Those are ordinances of the church, and we are not the church. But are we really going to conclude from that observation that none of the church’s teachings apply to how we structure seminaries?

Simply observing that the seminary isn’t the church doesn’t end the argument about gender roles in a seminary’s teaching ministry. It only begs the question, “Then what is the relationship of the seminary to the church?” Does the seminary serve the mission of the church, or does the church serve the mission of the seminary? If it is the former and not the latter, then it is entirely reasonable for the church to expect the seminary’s teaching ministry not to contradict the norms and discipline of the church’s teaching ministry. And if it is a complementarian church, then it is reasonable that such churches would expect to see complementarian principles exemplified in the seminary’s teaching ministry. After all, what would be the point of a seminary that consistently flouts the complementarian commitments of churches that it serves?

And that brings us back again to the heart of this intra-complementarian debate. Given that the seminary is not the church but rather serves the mission of actual churches, is it appropriate for a complementarian seminary to employ female professors to mentor and train pastors? That is the question before us.

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