Can Women Train Pastors? A Response to John Piper by Mike Rea

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Sunday 4 February 2018


My Facebook feed has been abuzz over the past couple of weeks with commentary on John Piper’s recent defense of the claim that women should not be seminary teachers.  Piper’s argument is founded on two assumptions:  that the Bible teaches that the church should be led by men, and that part of the job of seminary teacher is not just to impart information but also “to be an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office.”

Piper’s first assumption is false; but so many other articles and books—including the Bible itself—have spoken against it in various ways that I see no point devoting space in a small blog post to addressing it further. What I want to ask here is whether Piper’s argument can stand on its own turf—whether his argument succeeds even if we grant him both assumptions. I think that it does not.

Piper sums up his argument as follows:

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. That’s my argument. The inconsistency is this: the more one succeeds in distinguishing the seminary teacher from the pastor teacher, the more one fails to provide the kind of seminary education enriched by the modeling of experienced pastor-mentors.

Piper reports having “documented” this “inconsistency” in a paper published in 1995; but my search of both Piper’s website and the ATLA Religion Database turned up no paper by him published between 1990 and 1999 in which I could find such documentation.  So instead of critiquing Piper’s own arguments for his startling claims here, I will have to simply attack them directly.  Fortunately, this is not terribly difficult.

True enough, if there are no female pastors, it will be impossible for female seminary teachers to model pastoral behavior as experienced pastors. Perhaps that is one point in Piper’s favor.  But it is a small point, and takes his argument nowhere.

For one thing, there are experienced female pastors.  But I don’t want to rest anything on this because I know what Piperians will say about it:  to the extent that someone is guilty of pastoring while female, she is not a suitable role model for aspiring pastors who have a high regard for scripture.  Again: this view is mistaken; and it is pernicious. But I am not going to argue against it here.

More importantly:  One need not have experience in a role (or even qualifications for the role) in order to serve as a role model, mentor, and highly effective teacher for those aspiring to the role. The relationships between elite athletes and their coaches provide a vivid and obvious example.  One need not have experience as an Olympic swimmer, or have anything close to the qualifications for being one, in order to be a highly effective coach, mentor, inspiration, and—yes—role model for those who aspire to that role.  In fact, to be effective in these ways one need not have been a swimmer at all.  The reason is simple: one can both teach and model many of the virtues and skills relevant to being an Olympic swimmer without doing so as a swimmer.  To be sure, aspiring Olympic swimmers will be helped by having some of their role models be former swimmers. Perhaps, too, they will be helped by having among their role models some Olympic swimmers.  But it is simply absurd to suggest that nobody can effectively participate in the formation of Olympic swimmers unless one has occupied that role.

The points I have just made are so obvious as to hardly need to be said.  One wonders how such a prolific scholar as Piper could stand by an argument that seems to deny them. The most charitable assumption seems to be that his argument has one or more suppressed premises.  But what might those be?  The idea that women simply don’t embody any of the virtues relevant to being a pastor would do the job.  Likewise for the idea that, regardless of their virtues, men should never take women as role models.  I do not attribute these (false, pernicious) assumptions to Piper; but it is hard not to wonder whether something along those lines is lurking in the background.  This, I think, is part of why so many commenting on Piper’s remarks have called them hurtful.

For my part, some of the most important role models in my life—both my personal life and my professional life—have been women.  My latest book is dedicated to a woman scholar who has, through her life and work, been one of the most important influences upon both my intellectual life and on the way in which I live out my vocation. I am no pastor; but the life of a Christian philosopher-theologian has many pastoral elements, all of which, I am sure, I would execute more poorly than I in fact do were it not for her influence. As I see it, a world without women in seminaries would not be a better world for building the virtues requisite for a pastor’s vocation; it would be much, much worse.  For this, and many other reasons, I hope that biblically-minded Christians in a position to influence such matters will not be taken in by Piper’s spurious arguments.


Michael Rea is a Professorial Fellow at the Logos Institute at the University of St Andrews as well as the Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.His research focuses primarily on  topics in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and analytic theology. He has has written or edited more than ten books and forty articles, and has given numerous lectures in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Russia, China, and Iran, including the 2017 Gifford Lectures at the University of St Andrews.

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