How not to engage the evangelical gender debate

I was taken aback by a recent article that appeared on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. The author, Rachel Pietka, is a Ph.D. candidate at Baylor University, and she criticizes John Piper’s recent remarks about whether men ought to read Biblical commentaries written by women. On the basis of 1 Timothy 2:12, Piper argues that while women ought not be pastors, men might well benefit from reading a commentary written by a woman.

On the basis of Piper’s remarks, Pietka deduces that Piper has some sort of a hang-up with the physical presence of women. Women can teach men, she charges, so long as their bodies aren’t physically present during the teaching. She therefore concludes:

Piper’s reasons for preferring an indirect and impersonal encounter with a woman point to one factor: the offensive presence of her body.

Pietka goes on to suggest that Piper’s alleged offense at the female body results in the objectification of women:

Piper’s affirmation, consequently, of women who teach indirectly and impersonally shows his overt rejection of and implicit obsession with women’s bodies… Although Piper would likely condemn the pervasive plastering of sexualized images of women on television, magazine covers, and billboards, his resolve to hide their bodies perpetuates, rather than challenges, their objectification. It teaches men to fixate on women’s bodies.

If you think her words imply an accusation against Piper’s character, you would be right. Pietka says as much near the close of the article. In her own words:

Women would do well to consider Piper’s ethos. What kind of person fixates so intently on women’s bodies and insists on their removal from his sight? What kind of person recommends subservience in women, dominance in men, and so quickly equates authority with force? What does his implied affinity with an era that notoriously oppressed women say about his character?

Although no person’s ethos should be determined solely by a six-minute discussion posted on the Internet, Piper’s podcast nevertheless serves as a reminder that one’s strategies in argument are indicative of one’s character. The words and images behind his message reveal assumptions about women that should not only unsettle us, but drive us to consider the manner in which he discusses women in all his works.

In short, Pietka believes that Piper’s complementarian views stem from a deficiency in his character, and the deficiency in his character stems from his fixation on women’s bodies.

I’m a little surprised that an article like this one appears on the Christianity Today website. It is the kind of thing that one might expect to encounter on a personal blog and not on a site with the editorial filters of Christianity Today. The entire essay rests on an ad hominem argument that assaults Piper’s character without engaging the substance of his argument.

Pietka’s critique actually says very little about John Piper’s actual views on gender. If you listen to the podcast that Pietka is responding to, you’ll find that Piper gives absolutely no indication of a “fixation” on women’s bodies. Rather, he’s interpreting and applying the text of scripture—in particular 1 Timothy 2:12. Rather than engaging Piper’s actual arguments, Pietka invents nefarious motives for Piper’s complementarianism.

I wonder if Pietka realizes that Piper’s remarks are not new. Piper first proposed this framework for applying 1 Timothy 2:12 over twenty years ago in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. Since then, many complementarians have used Piper’s “directive-nondirective/personal-nonpersonal” grid for applying complementarian principles. If Piper’s character is suspect, so is that of countless complementarians over the last twenty years who have found it to be very helpful. Pietka’s ad hominem indicts more than just Piper.

All of this leads me to ask the question. Is this really the most fruitful way to engage the intra-evangelical debate about gender? I’m not saying that everyone has to agree with Piper’s direction on this particular point. (Other complementarians, like Jared Wilson, respectfully disagree with Piper’s rationale.) But I do think all sides need to agree that alleging character defects is no way to engage one another. The golden rule requires more (Luke 6:31). Love requires more (1 Cor. 13:7). And I think we can do better.


  • Melissa A

    When I read her piece, I was greatly disturbed by the accusations she made. While I understand that there will be disagreement over Piper’s comments, I do not believe it warrants such a viewpoint of his character. And I was surprised that CT would perpetuate such open allegations. In recent months, I have noticed more and more of this unloving criticism taking place between writers, and as someone who enjoys writing (and reading!), this is disappointing. As you said, the Golden Rule should have significant application in our critiques.One of the most important things I have learned from blogs such as yours, is to always believe the best about the writer and not jump to extreme conclusions about their motives. Thanks for offering some helpful criticisms about how the article was framed.

      • Tom Parker


        Did John Piper say:”that a Christian woman can teach a man as long as she is not standing in front of a man showing her womanhood.”? I reference you to the Podcast here by Piper.

  • Aron Utecht

    The takeaway: If you’re an aspiring academic trying to make a name for yourself in an already glutted market, then say something fantastic about a well-known figure to get some notoriety. What she says here is logically unsound (and unChristian!), but will get her noticed by the type of institutions that she might aspire to work at.


    • Tom Parker

      Aron: You said:”but will get her noticed by the type of institutions that she might aspire to work at.” That seems uncalled for and unchristian IMO.

      • Aron Utecht

        Thanks for the note Tom. I didn’t intend that pejoratively, just that some institutions are egalitarian and some aren’t. Having attended an Evangelical, egalitarian institution, I know that many scholars from that camp believe this to be a question of character, and those that aren’t egalitarian tend to see this as a biblical issue. In my experience, her comments here will win her some points with any potential hiring committee.

        Egalitarian institutions or scholars aren’t bad because they hold that view. They can be excellent in many ways. I wasn’t trying to state anything RE: values, just that it is a matter of orthodoxy for some, and this will get prove her orthodox to them.

        Hope that clarifies.

        • Aron Utecht

          A second issue at work here is possibly an academic system that constantly forces us to always publish new work or present a new angle on an issue. The pressure to produce an original idea has a built in bias against restating what the church has traditionally held on many issues. Though our system is great in many ways, this can be one of it’s down sides.

  • Scott Lencke

    Denny –

    I do agree that the article was not the best way to engage the gender debate. However, reading past what seemed harsh commentary by Pietka, what I think she is getting at is this about the ‘the offensive presence of her body.’

    When a woman is physically present, you tend to know she’s a woman. Major revelation, huh?! 🙂 However, behind the book, she doesn’t necessarily come forth as a woman. This works in the opposite manner as well. For example, I’ve read stuff by Meredith Kline. At the beginning, when I read some stuff in seminary, I thought Kline might be a woman. Basically because of the name. Then I thought about how I was studying within a reformed seminary and realised there’s no way Kline was a woman. I’ve never read any theological treatise by a reformed woman (though I’ve read articles and there might be treatises by females).

    So, the ‘obsession with a woman’s body’ that Pietka speaks of is not so much sexual (and I’m sure you know that), but representative of the clear reality that one is learning from (even having their theological perspectives changed) a woman. And Piper is against that. Not in bodily form – ok. In bodily form – not ok. Of course, then we could nitpick if conversation over a cup of coffee is ok, etc.

    See, that’s the thing we could test. What if someone wrote under a pseudonym? Like Robin Parry. Let’s say Beth Moore wrote under the pseudonym Benjamin Moore. And let’s say this text rocked our worlds – we learned from it, embraced some of its teaching, etc. However, if it became known that Benjamin Moore was actually Beth Moore, what would happen? Would we have to change how we accept, learn from and apply the teaching? Maybe – but that is very inconsistent.

    So I think the point is the silliness of arguing that non-physical presence learning is ok, but physical learning presence is disobedience to Scripture. It’s an extremely inconsistent statement when you work out all the practicalities.

    • Bridget Platt

      Scott, I see your point, but I don’t think Piper or anyone is making the point in your last paragraph. Reading something by a woman, whether a book or a blog or talking with her in person for that matter is very different than placing her within the church to have teaching “authority” over a man.

      • Scott Lencke

        Bridget –

        That’s just it. Read a book with an anonymous name – not just with regards to the issue of gender. Read a book by Brian McLaren that doesn’t have his name attached to it. Will you listen & instructed if there are some solid thoughts? Read a book by a woman without a name attached to decipher it’s by a woman? Will you listen & be instructed if there are some solid thoughts?

        Then, if possible, if someone is teaching within a public context of the gathered church and we could not tell who they are – skin colour, gender, denomination – but they have deep words of wisdom. Do we listen & receive?

        I’ll listen & learn from & receive from a book or blog. But not in person on a Sunday morning. It’s inconsistent to allow for receiving teaching if there is no bodily ‘presence’ (whether physically or psychologically because we know not their gender or denomination) but we cannot allow for such if they are bodily ‘present’ (in that we can SEE that they are female).

  • Kelley Kimble

    I think she is guilty of the very thing she accuses Piper of. As a woman, it pains me to read rants such as this, as much as it pains me to see believers devour one another while the world outside turns upside down.

  • Trillia N.

    Very helpful!! I too am surprised it was posted now knowing the accusations. Too bad. Appreciate this.

    • Kamilla Ludwig

      Trillia and Denny,

      I’m not surprised at all. I’ve been arguing for some time that her.meneutics gets more credibility than they deserve when we take them seriously enough to engage them on this level. Just three reasons I think that ate:

      1) in their debut month they twice linked to an AIDS charity website that gives *explicit* instructions for teens making their sexual debut.

      2) they published a glowing review of a book promoting eugenics.

      3) they allow a t’as sexual man alternatively calling himself “Just Karen” or “Newly Karen” to frequently comment without hint of oversight. In his responses he has promoted, among other things, something he calls “the Christian kink” community.

      I’m dumbfounded as to how anyone can take such an enterprise seriously.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    I am hardly an expert on the subject, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re seeing a sort of semantic abuse of the word “complementarianism”. To me it depends on its antecedent–“complement”–which in turn implies relative congruency between the two entities for which a relationship is proposed. Is this the case? Does the use of this term theologically imply an equality in the pairing of the two complements, or is one fundamentally still superior/dominant to the other? Ms. Pietka’s contributions here seem to suggest that she feels the latter is what is being espoused, which no doubt explains why she comes off as a bit tetchy.

  • dr. james willingham

    And some of us simply believe Dr. Piper has a fallacious grasp of the Biblical teaching on man and woman. In short, the complementarianism of the Bible is functional, that is, the complement is a function, not an absolute, and the function involves checks and balances. Otherwise, God would never have told Abraham to do what Sarah said about Hagar. And Piper proves it so in his remarks about his mother being able to speak and act with all the authority of the man, when his father was away, preaching revivals. What the feminist was following was the problem of unchecked complementarianism giving leeway to pathologies, something readily observable in society and any one time, perhaps, but certainly in these days of decline. Even the military cannot afford to deal without a check to authority, otherwise, someone will get a lot of people killed. Pastors, for example, are not to rule as Lords but as examples as Peter says. The equality of saints in the membership of the church is evident from the usage of ekklesia in the Greek, a member of that governing body was the equal of any other member and a candidate for leadership, if the body so desired. Funny how Adam thought of the similarities of Eve (Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh) rather than the differences. Was it the checks and balances that made Protestantism’s view of things such as government and marriage and church, workable? A Calvinist Republic? A complementarianism of checks and balances? Is there a depth to this biblical ideology which escapes those presently returning to the Reformation?

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    I’ve documented all of this and more. Multiple times. I feel no need to do so again. The powers-that-be at Her.meneutics are well aware of my criticisms as well.

    I’d have to work very hard to actually smear them. They’ve done a bang-up job all on their own.

    • Tom Parker

      I’ve never seen your documentation before?? I’m sure the powers to be at their site are well aware of your “criticisms.” I’m sure they appreciate your publicity of them.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I do think that many preachers inadvertently get caught up in the physicality of women in their sermons. I have always felt that when these men are preaching they are distracted by their thoughts of the physical presence of women.

    I think most of us are able to put out of our minds that sexual urgency, but some people can’t. In my view, men like John Piper are simply not aware of how much their vocabulary reveals about their preoccupation with women.

    The only response I can think of is to remove all women from the presence of these men, or vice versa.

    I am quite sure that the majority of people who listen to Piper and other preachers of his conviction, are impressed with the vivid way he represents and responds to the physicality of women.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    Here is the trasncript:

    “And so I distinguish between personal, direct exercises of authority that involve manhood and womanhood.

    Because it’s personal. She’s right there. She’s woman. I’m man. And I’m being directly, uh, pressed on by this woman in an authoritative way. Should she be doing that? Should I be experiencing that? And my answer’s, No; I think that’s contrary to the way God made us.

    So those two words: Personal and direct.

    Here, here would be an example of what I mean. A drill sergeant that gets in the face and says, Hut One, Hut Two, Keep Your Mouth Shut Private, Get Your Rifle Up Here, Turn Around Like I Said. I don’t think a woman ought to be doin’ that to a man – because it’s direct, it’s forceful, it’s authoritative, it’s compromising something about the way a man and a woman were designed by God to relate.

    Uh. The opposite would be where she is a city planner. She’s sitting in an office at a desk drawing which street should be one way and which street should be two way. And thus she’s gonna control which way men drive all day long. That’s a lot of authority, and it’s totally impersonal, and indirect, and therefore has no dimension of maleness or femaleness about it, and therefore I don’t think contradicts anything that Paul is concerned about here.

    So I would put a woman writing a book way more in that category of city planner than of a drill sergeant. So that the, the personal directness of it is removed. And the man doesn’t feel himself, and she wouldn’t feel herself, in any way compromised by his reading that book and learning from that book.

    So that, that’s the way I’ve tried to think it through, so that, in society, and in in academic efforts, and in the church.

    So that, that’s reading and benefitting from a woman’s exegesis in private.
    Would you have any reservations about quoting from that commentary by a women in a public sermon?

    I just think that’s an extension of the same principle.

    You know there, here’s truth. A woman saw it. She shared it in a book. And I now, I now quote it.

    Uh. Because I’m not having a direct, authoritative confrontation. She’s not lookin’ at me, and, and confronting me, and authoritatively directing me, as woman. There’s this, there’s this interposition of this phenomenon called “book” and “writing” that puts her out of my sight, and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood.

    Whereas if she were standing right in front of me, and teaching me, as my shepherd, week in and week out, I couldn’t make that separation. She’s woman. And I am man. And she’s becoming to me my shepherd week in and week out, which is why I think the Bible says that women shouldn’t be that role in the church.

    Thank you Pastor John. And thank you for listening to this podcast. Please email your questions to us…. I’m your host Tony Reinke. Thank you for listening.”

  • Jay Ryder.

    I dislike the attack at hermeneutics/CT immensely and found it unnecessarily harsh and unwise.

    Reading the transcript above, however, does make me wonder if Dr. Piper, who I admire a great deal, is just winging it half the time? Some of the reasoning about city planners and drill sergeants here just sounds silly. Silly like Christianity being male… I just don’t think he’s doing good planning when he goes into these rants.
    WHat was written over at Christianity Today, however, is really unacceptable though, from my perspective.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    “Consider what is lost when women attempt to assume a more masculine role by appearing physically muscular and aggressive. It is true that there is something sexually stimulating about a muscular, scantily clad young woman pumping iron in a health club. But no woman should be encouraged by this fact. For it probably means the sexual encounter that such an image would lead to is something very hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying. The image of masculine musculature may beget arousal in a man, but it does not beget several hours of moonlight walking with significant, caring conversation. The more women can arouse men by doing typically masculine things, the less they can count on receiving from men a sensitivity to typically feminine needs. Mature masculinity will not be reduced to raw desire in sexual relations. It remains alert to the deeper personal needs of a woman and mingles strength and tenderness to make her joy complete.” page 41 Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. 1991

    Its a toss up. Is Rachel Pitka being “harsh” or just realistic.

  • Jay Ryder.

    Hi Suzanne, I would say mostly realistic; however, there were a few things that seemed unnecessarily harsh. The key thing is when she connected what he was actually saying to what was implied. While I definitely am with her in making those connections and understand that in academia those implied connections are fair assumptions, I’m not quite sure that Dr. Piper means to draw those conclusions about his motives and intent. My experience with John Piper on women’s issues is that he talks boldly, but carries a pretty soft and loving stick. His actual walk in the area of Biblical manhood is quite gentle and servant-oriented, in contrast to the language he often employs to describe the inter-dynamics of manhood and womanhood.

    Generally speaking, most of the strong male voices for the Biblical manhood/womanhood debate do not understand what Pitka understands in terms of the backstory and linguistic connotations with the language they use to make their arguments. They are speaking culturally-infused Christianese that does not parse well in the isolated and detached environment of seminaries and closed evangelical circles.

    All of that to say, I know John Piper doesn’t live his complementarity out in a way that his strong (and inappropriate) words often convey. Therefore, trying to make assumptions and implications of what the motives are behind his communication is difficult and should have/could have been done more charitably.

    Overall, I did benefit though, as an evangelical male, from reading Pitka’s perspective. So, thanks.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    Hi Jay,

    I don’t think that it is a question of whether Piper has the intention of saying inappropriate things about women 0 the fact is that he does, in fact, seem to others inappropriately preoccupied with women’s physical presence and their physical attributes.

    It is not just culturally infused Christianese. A man should not be pressed on by a woman in public, and most certainly a woman should not be pressed on by a man in public. But Piper seems to think that one is wrong and the other is right. I think Piper, and his unruly thoughts about women, are a prime example of why men should never, ever be given authority over women, or over their wife. They just have these thoughts, which are all too evident, in Piper’s discourse.

    A women should be able to join a gym and keep fit without having to obsess over whether men are thinking the kind of thoughts that Piper implies.

    In addition to this, there is the women who was not allowed to go from one room to the other without her husband’s permission. When asked, she said that her husband got this idea from Piper’s sermons.

    Some women, like her and myself, have lost freedom and lived in a form of slavery for most of their lives, because of the teaching of male authority. Losses like this can never be made up for.

    Male authority needs to be recognized for what it is – inappropriate preoccupation with the female body. Somebody needs to let Piper know that this is the overwhelming impression that his sermons give to some of us. On the other hand, his obsessions are sure to lead some women out of this kind of thinking altogether, and help them realize that this kind of thinking is not of God.

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