Is There A Place For Women On A Theological College Faculty?
In recent days a conversation has taken place among complementarians and a few others about whether it is appropriate for a woman to serve on a theological college faculty (or in American terms, as a seminary professor). The catalyst was a response by John Piper to a question on his ‘Ask Pastor John’ podcast. John Piper, a highly respected evangelical leader in America with deep complementarian convictions, responded with basically a five point argument:
- The Bible teaches that churches should be led by ‘a team of spiritual humble, biblical qualified men’.
- The role of the seminary is to prepare men for pastoral leadership in a congregation.
- The role of the professor within the seminary is not only to teach in one of the theological disciplines, but to be ‘an example, a mentor, a guide, an embodiment of the pastoral office in preparing men to fill the pastoral office’.
- 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 modelling of experienced pastor-mentors.
- It is inconsistent and ultimately unbiblical to allow women to ‘function in formal teaching and mentoring capacities to train and fit pastors for the very calling from which the mentors themselves are excluded’.
Piper insists that ‘the issue is not whether women should attend seminary in one of its programs and get the best biblical grounding possible. The issue is whether women should be models, mentors, and teachers for those preparing for a role that is biblical designed for spiritual men.’ He also insists that he is not questioning ‘the competence of women teachers or [their] intelligence or knowledge or pedagogical skill.
I share many, if not most, of Piper’s complementarian convictions. I do not believe it is appropriate, in the light of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, for a woman to lead a church (in Anglican terms, to be a presbyter) or to preach to a mixed congregation of men and women. However, I lead a college which has two women on its full-time faculty, supported by fourteen part-time women chaplains, and I enthusiastically support their roles in our college. In addition, a number of women contribute as guests in some of our programs, working alongside the full-time faculty. Our College (Moore College, Sydney) has as one of its published values ‘Gender Complementarity’, which it defines as ‘affirmation of the fundamental equality and mutual dependence of men and women as image bearers of God, while recognising proper differences in roles and responsibilities in life and Christian ministry’.
However, while I respect Piper’s convictions, I do not agree with his conclusions. Why is that? I have four reasons.
The first is a larger vision for the seminary, first as a place of faithful biblical and theological training, which, as Piper rightly insists, is more than a place where information is conveyed but rather a place where pastoral care is exercised, character is shaped, convictions deepened, and where mentoring and modelling occurs; second as a fellowship in which a team of men and women, working alongside each other in complementary ways, contributes to the preparation of each student for biblical, gospel-centred ministry. Moore College trains all whom the Lord brings to us to be faithful stewards of the word of God and sacrificial servants of his people. Our graduates leave us to exercise ministry in a range of different contexts: churches, schools, university campuses, chaplaincies of various kinds, and on the mission field. In each of these contexts women are able to exercise an effective ministry alongside men in a way which respects the God-given differences between the sexes and the responsibilities God graciously apportions to each. So I believe defining the role of the seminary as preparing church pastors is too narrow and restricted.
My second reason is a richer explanation of complementarianism. Complementarianism, at its heart, is a recognition and celebration of the God-given differences between men and women within the context of the most profound equality of the sexes. Men and women are both created in the image of God, are both saved by grace through the atoning work of Christ, and are both gifted by the Spirit for the edification of the churches. Yet men and women are not merely interchangeable nor are they alternatives to one another. Both have unique strengths to bring to a ministry team. The apostle Paul could speak of both Priscilla and Aquila as his valued ‘fellow-workers’ (Rom 16:3). I have already said that I am personally convinced it is inappropriate for a woman to be the one who expounds and proclaims the authoritative word of God when men and women gather as the church of God in a particular place. Yet this does not mean a woman has no opportunity to use whatever teaching gifts she may have in other contexts, nor does it mean a woman has no contribution at all to make to the public ministry in the local gathering. Complementarianism does not mean so emphasising male leadership that the voice of women is never heard or that no biblical leadership of any kind or in any circumstance can be exercised by a woman. To start with there is women’s ministry within the congregation, one on one ministry with women in campus ministries, and women teaching women in women’s conferences and the like. At Moore College we want to prepare women to work alongside men in teams which reflect God’s gifting of both sexes for the good of his church. Godly male leadership enables and enhances the appropriate ministry of women, it does not stifle it. It makes room for the appropriate use of the gifts of others and does not concentrate all attention on itself. The pulpit, while critical, is not the only effective avenue for biblical exposition in the local congregation. This is part of what needs to be modelled in the complementarian seminary. The absence of women may unwittingly model something else that is much less than God’s design for men and women.
My third reason is a higher value on teamwork, both in church ministry but also in the ministry of the seminary. A college or seminary faculty is a team of godly and gifted disciples of Christ who ideally combine the highest levels of academic skill with sustained pastoral experience, who are able effectively to teach at a high level with penetrating insight into the word and the world into which the word is spoken, and yet whose passion is for pastoral ministry in the churches. As a team, not every member is the same. It is in fact the combination of personalities, gifts, background, education, and passions, put to work in the context of a community where lives are genuinely shared between faculty members, between faculty and students, and between the students themselves, which makes the seminary such a powerful instrument in the hands of God to prepare the next generation of gospel workers. It does not fall on any one faculty member to have all the gifts, all the interests and passions, all the wisdom that is needed for the shared task of equipping the college’s students. What binds them together is a common vision, a common commitment to the Lord and his word, a common love for all the Lord brings to study here in this fellowship. In such a context, women on the team have a vital role to play. They bring unique gifts and perspectives to the mix. They are more easily able to mentor women students and provide them with an example of godliness and faithful discipleship that both confidently and humbly works alongside men and accepts the leadership of men. Their very presence on the faculty enables the seminary more closely to resemble the Christian congregation and ultimately the Christian home, where a common love and mutual respect encourages, builds and shapes those who are learning what it is to walk with Christ. At Moore College our full-time women faculty and part-time women chaplains are genuine leaders, skilful teachers, compassionate guides and exemplary role models. They work alongside men in the class room, in chaplaincy groups, at meals with students, on the annual week-long church missions. Their contributions are valued and respected. They play their part in shaping the college, its life and its future. Yet they do so as women who rejoice to serve on a team where some leadership and teaching roles are more appropriately exercised by men.
Finally, my fourth reason is an acute sense of the need to train women effectively. More than half the world are women. In our churches the percentage is often much higher. There is a pressing need for well trained women who are capable of discipling other women, walking with them in life, sharing the word of God with them, guiding them in decision making and equipping them to pass on the gospel to others. Women are in a unique position to pastor other women, understanding the particular challenges facing a woman who seeks to live for Christ in a world like ours. Women, as much as men, need to be deeply grounded in the word, and while the teaching ministry of the male leaders in a congregation has a critical role to play in this, the close quarters one-on-one work of wrestling with living out the word, acute application and challenge, is often more appropriately done by another woman. Of course this is not absolute, hence the ‘often’ of the last sentence. Yet Scripture sees an important place for more mature women teaching the less mature by word and example (Titus 2). Training women to do this effectively is an important ministry of the seminary and having wise, godly, gifted and knowledgeable women on the faculty enables that to be modelled and not just taught in abstraction. It is my conviction that complementarian churches should be at the forefront in recruiting women into their ministry teams, showing that we value women as women and not just as the duplicates of men. We need women who are disciple making disciples, with all that this will uniquely mean for women, just as much as we need such men.
So while I share the complementarian perspective of John Piper, I come to a very different conclusion on this question. Nevertheless, I do not wish to vilify or call into question those seminaries which, seeking to live in obedience to the Scripture, have concluded differently. It is tragic, and acutely embarrassing, that some contributors to this discussion have not resisted the urge to use the most offensive imagery to do just that. There are wonderfully faithful seminaries around the world which, seeking to follow the mandate of Scripture, have decided that they will not put women on their faculties, just as there are wonderfully faithful seminaries who have sought a way to employ women alongside men appropriately and line with the biblical teaching about the different roles and responsibilities God has apportioned to each. Perhaps there is still much that we can learn from each other.