The Absurd Legalism of Gender Roles: Exhibit C – “As long as I can’t see her…”

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Golden' photo (c) 2007, Quinn Dombrowski - license:

Exhibit A: The black belt should step aside (because she’s a girl!)

Exhibit B: Boys playing with dolls unravels the moral fabric of society

Exhibit C:  A woman can teach me as long as I can’t see her

Scot McKnight was the first person to draw my attention to the fact that “anyone who thinks it is wrong for a woman to teach in a church can be consistent with that point of view only if they refuse to learn from women scholars” (The Blue Parakeet, p. 148).  And it was Scot who, on his blog this week, pointed his readers to a podcast interview in which John Piper responds to the question, “Do you use commentaries written by women?” 

(So before anyone criticizes me as being a "shrill," "irrational" woman picking on John Piper, please remember that Scot has been discussing this for several years as well.)

Now, in the past, we’ve discussed the sort of hermeneutical gymnastics involved in John Piper’s bizarre, half-hearted affirmation of Beth Moore as a teacher, and we’ve discussed, at length, the context of 1 Timothy 2 and why it should not be used to silence women from preaching the gospel and leading in the church. 

Today I want to look at Piper’s response to this question about commentaries written by women to show just how absurd the legalism of hierarchal gender roles can become. 

Ironically, Piper’s primary measure of appropriateness is whether a man feels threatened by a woman’s teaching. This is something you will hear from time to time from this camp: when in doubt, it all comes down to the degree to which a man senses he is maintaining his authority. As long as the men still feel in control, some degree of teaching from women may be permissible. 

But what about men like my husband, or my pastor, or Scot, who are not threatened by the intelligent, thoughtful contributions of women in leadership?  What about men who enjoy and appreciate partnerships with women and whose sense of calling and security is not dependent upon my subjugation? Why enforce these roles onto them?  

As Dan has told me on many occasions, for him, it is far less insulting to be under the authority of a woman than it is to be subjected to the suggestion that his fragile ego cannot handle it. “I’m just not that insecure,” he likes to say. “Learning from a woman doesn’t make me feel like 'less of a man.' Why would it?” 

Piper argues that a woman can teach a man so long as her teaching is “impersonal,” “indirect,” and “removed”—essentially, so long as it is easy for him to forget she is a woman. 

Regarding a woman who has written a biblical commentary, he explains: “She’s not looking at me, and directing me…as woman. There is this interposition of this phenomenon called ‘book’ 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…I couldn’t make that separation" (emphasis mine).

As a woman, I find this profoundly dehumanizing.  

No, as a human being, I find this profoundly dehumanizing. 

Piper is essentially arguing that so long as he does not have to acknowledge my humanity, so long as I keep a safe distance so he is unaware of the pitch of my voice and the presence of my breasts, he can, perhaps, learn something about the Bible from me. So long as I am not “in-his-face” (his words) with my femaleness, it will be easier for him to treat me as someone worth learning from; it will be easier for him to treat me like a man. 

How are women to interpret this as anything other than a statement on the inherent inferiority of their natures?   What else are we to conclude when a man without any biblical training or calling from the Spirit is considered more qualified to preach the gospel by virtue of being a man than a woman with extensive training, years of practice, remarkable giftedness, and a profound sense of calling? Is this not legalism? Is it not straining a gnat and swallowing a camel? 

And what on earth is Piper to do with women like Priscilla, who the apostle Paul lauded as one of his coworkers, and whose teaching of Apollos was both direct and personal? What about Huldah, the prophet? Did King Josiah close his eyes so he would forget she was a woman as she read and interpreted Scripture in his presence, explaining, directly and personally, how that Scripture would affect Israel and its king?  And what does Piper do with Deboarah, a woman who essentially took on the role of drill sergeant he is so keen to avoid (not to mention judge, warrior, and commander-in-chief), and is celebrated in Scripture for doing so? 

This is the absurd legalism of gender roles:  Not even the Bible’s most celebrated women can fit into them. 

I’ll conclude with some words of encouragement from Dorothy Sayers. (Men who would be offended by hearing this from her in person will be happy to know she is dead and her words are safely tucked away in an essay entitled “Are Women Human?”) 

"Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or “The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature."  
"But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead."

Perhaps we could push beyond these legalistic gender roles if we spent less time worrying about “acting like men” and “acting like women,” and more time acting like Jesus. 

[Latter we'll look at Exhibit D, in which women are advised not to work outside of the home, even if it's more practical for their family.] 

For more on 1 Timothy 2, see:  "For the Sake of the Gospel, Let Women Speak"  See also, "Is Patriarchy really God's dream for the world?"

Please keep the comments civil!  

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