John Piper, no stranger to stoking controversy and drawing the ire of people, recently suggested that women should not be seminary professors. Since according to his view, only men should be pastors women should not be training men to be pastors. As one could have predicted, this has lead to no small amount of criticism, restoking debates about complementarian and egalitarian interpretations of Scripture and calling forth the accusations of patriarchy; for good reason might I add. But amidst the attempts to try to express the error of Piper’s ways, debating on the right interpretation of Scripture and trying to show the value of women in ministry, as good as it can be to validate women who have felt invalidated, does not really get to the heart of the matter. That we can describe Piper’s view of complementarian in a positive way and patriarchal in a negative way can provide us an illusion of understanding. When calling him a complementarian, we tend to attribute his views as a result of his interpretation. When calling Piper a patriarchy, we suggest it is positive view of men and negative view of women that is the cause of his views. However, an important heuristic I have learned through life is as follows: describing is not explaining. That Piper has a complementarian interpretation of Scripture or an unequal view of men and women does not mean these are the real causes of what I would say are fundamentally flawed views.
Standing at the center of Piper’s style of interpretation and view of gender are a very particular set of beliefs that color everything else. Much of the persuasive power of Calvinism has been derived from it’s parsimonious explanations of theology; from just a few basic ideas, one could derive a wide, all-encompassing theological system. The most salient example of this is the 5 doctrinal points of TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Through these few basic theological rules, people feel that there are given a powerful system by which to make sense of faith, the Bible, and the world. The pleasure and aesthetic beauty that such parsimony evokes not only motivates remembering these ideas for future use but gives people confidence in the truthfulness and usefulness of such principles. In short, the persuasive power of Calvinism largely rests on its apparently simple yet vast explanatory power.
As humans, we are naturally attuned to explanations that are simultaneously simple to understand and yet help us to understand a lot. This has been where much of the appeal or science comes from, where theories have been developed that are simple to understand1 and allows us to interpret a wide range of observations. Similarily, pseudo-science exploits the same draw towards powerful, yet unfounded, explanations, such as the automatic, law-like such as the belief that anything artificial is automatically harmful. Religious cults also draw people through the power of seemingly simple, yet powerful explanations. Thus, parsimony evokes a sense of power and is a motivation for those who seek power.
This sense of parsimony is also engendered by a desire to reduce ambiguity. If we can explain everything down to a few basic rules, we can avert any feeling of fear or anxiety about the unknown. We don’t have to have intellectual humility when someone says something that conflicts with our views; our sense of us having powerful, explanations tell us that we don’t need to consider anything that differs from our views. Instead of ourselves being in the risk of feeling wrong or in error in the face of ambiguity, powerful, parsimonious explanations motivate us to think we are in the right. I don’t need to change and I am not at risk in the face of ambiguity; it is you who needs to change and at risk.
However, this is precisely the problem of parsimony. The world is incredibly complex, with every event being caused as the result of innumerable, overlapping factors. What might be a good explanation for one event would be misleading for another. For instance, one person may experience fear as a result of being threatened, whereas another person may feel fear because they have a paranoid personality; it might seem powerful to always say that people who are scared have always been harmed or to say that people who are scared are paranoid, but the reality is much more complex than this. Our draw towards parsimony and aversion to ambiguity inclines us to miss complexity. As parsimony simplifies, it has an almost irresistible impulse to oversimplify.
So what does this have to do with Piper’s Calvinism and his view of women in ministry? Everything. Calvinism at its core of a theology of power, where there is a sovereign, all-powerful God that routinely demonstrates this power2 Combine this notion of power with an aversion to ambiguity and it leads to power hierarchies in which the power flows in only one direction; two-directional power is ambiguous, hard to predict, and harder to know who is in the right. Thus both God and humans both having significant degrees of freedom is too messy for many Calvinists, as is men and women both having the capacity to teach and lead is too messy for many. Furthermore, this aversion to ambiguity leads to oversimplistic interpretations of the New Testament, where for every passage that may seem to place males firmly in authority, there are passages showing where women take the lead role; those passages suggesting women have more power than complentarian/patriarchal interpretations would allow for are either missed,3 ignored,4 or radically reinterpreted.5 While the New Testament clearly shows a tendency towards males as being in power, oversimplifying leads to the cases women were in power operating outside of awareness.
In short, Calvinism’s character is largely defined by its theological parsimony, which leads to valuing of power, aversion to ambiguity, and oversimplification of reality. These three principles impact how Scripture gets interpreted and therefore how gender is construed in Piperian circles. All the arguments in the world as to why women are valuable contributors to ministry and why they misinterpret Scripture will have little influence on Piper and others who are in agreement with him; only when people who value and worship power repent of this valuation of power are they open to seeing how they oversimplify and reside in ignorance of the truth about the world, and I would say, the truth of God giving the various gifts of His Spirit to women and men both without regard for the status people ascribe to gender.
However, it should be noted that the distortion nature of overvaluing power is not simply true about modern Calvinism’s view of women, but of the modern Western valuation of power on the wide range of the political spectrum. This is not simply a problem of evangelicals, particularly of the conservative or Calvinist variety, but a more wide-spread problem that manifests itself in different ways.6
- At least, understandings that are simpler to understand than the things the theory helps us to understand
- Commonly, to suggest merely that God can do all things but chooses not to is not sufficient for Calvinism; God must be actually controlling or determining everything significant. God’s sovereignty is regarded not simply as potential power, but actualized power
- The wife Priscilla is usually mentioned before her husband Acqullla in the book of Acts, suggesting Priscilla was considered more promiment
- In 1 Corinthians, women could pray and prophesy.
- Trying to turn the female Junia, who is exemplary among the apostles, in Romans 16:7 into a name of a male.
- Of course, in saying this, I am ironically providing a parsimonious social explanation.