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.