Patriarchy doesn't "protect" women: A response to John Piper

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I was asked by a reporter for a brief quote in response to John Piper’s recent article and interview entitled, “Sex Abuse Allegations and the Egalitarian Myth.” My quote turned out a little….long. So I decided to post my thoughts here. 


In his teaching and preaching, Pastor John Piper promotes a complementarian view of gender, which essentially holds that patriarchy is God’s will for male and female relationships. Men are to be the leaders in their homes, the church, and (to varying degrees) society, while women are to hold subordinate roles in those spheres. In this interview, Piper’s response to the sexual harassment and abuse highlighted by the #MeToo movement is to call for a return to patriarchy, wherein men rule over and “protect” women who in turn “submit” to men. This is a dangerously misguided response for a few reasons.

First, it assumes sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are recent phenomena, products of egalitarian views on gender that grant women equality in the home, church, and culture. But abuses like these have been around for centuries. In fact, Piper can read about some of them in his Bible in the stories of women like Hagar, Tamar, Lot’s daughters, and Bathsheba, all of whom lived in highly patriarchal cultures. The #MeToo movement does not reflect some sudden increase in the abuse of women; rather, it reflects a growing awareness of those abuses, and a mounting, collective fervor to confront them. It’s a movement led by and for women, women who aren’t asking for some sort of paternalistic “protection” because they are fragile females, but rather to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve simply because they are human beings. As Cameron Baumgartner noted on Twitter, Piper mischaracterizes egalitarianism by "repeating multiple times that it teaches men they don't owe women care and protection. He's twisting egalitarianism's rejection of paternalistic oppression to mean an abdication of care towards our fellow humans."

And yet, with a few exceptions, these efforts to challenge abuse are not coming from the evangelical church for which Piper is a leader, but rather from the broader culture, which Piper routinely maligns for its increasing gender equity. The hypocrisy here is staggering, for as everyone knows, white evangelicals overwhelmingly support President Trump, a man who has been accused by more than twenty women of sexual assault, who is on record bragging about those assaults, and who was recently found in a Christianity Today poll to be evangelicals’ “most trusted celebrity.”  If Piper really wants to protect women, he might start by confronting some of America’s most vocal abuse apologists these days: evangelical Christians.

But what’s most dangerous about this posture is that Piper seems to assume that because evangelicals aren’t confronting sexual assault and abuse the way that Hollywood is, then those things must not be happening in their churches, that abuse only occurs in egalitarian communities where women have more power and influence. I would posit that, based on the many stories I hear from women who have left evangelical churches, it’s far more likely that abuse is flourishing in patriarchal homes and churches where women are given little voice and little recourse; it's just getting swept under the rug rather than named and confronted. After all, Piper has said in the past that a woman in an abusive relationship should “endure verbal abuse for a season” and “perhaps being smacked one night,” before seeking help—not from authorities, but from her (male-led) church. As we have seen in the unfolding story of Sovereign Grace Ministries, in highly patriarchal churches where women have no power and where abuse claims are typically handled “in house” by the men in leadership, abuse runs rampant.

That’s because contrary to Piper’s argument, patriarchy isn’t about protecting women; it’s about protecting men. It's about preserving male rule over the home, church, and society, often at the expense of women. 

In addition to mishandling his analysis of the #MeToo movement by blaming sexual assault on egalitarianism, Piper grossly mishandles Scripture in an attempt to proof-text his claims. For example, he points to the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis to suggest that an order of authority was established at creation wherein men are designed to lead and protect women, and women are designed to defer to and follow men. The Fall, as Christians sometimes like to call it, was the result of Adam’s failure to live into the masculine role of leading and protecting his wife. This is an…innovative….reading of the text for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2 to describe Eve, (typically translated “helper”), is formed from the Hebrew word ezer.  Far from connoting helplessness or subordination, the word ezer is employed elsewhere in Scripture to describe God, the consummate intervener—the helper of the fatherless (Psalm 10:14), King David’s strong defender and deliverer (Psalm 70:5), Israel’s shield and helper (Deuteronomy 33:29). Ironically, in Genesis, the woman is literally the “strong protector” of the man!

Another staggering mishandling of Scripture occurs when Piper claims that the household codes of the New Testament, wherein the biblical writers urge wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives, are unique to the Bible and that “there’s nothing like it in any culture in the world.” This is categorically untrue. In fact, the authors of those New Testament texts were undoubtedly drawing from very similar instructions written by Aristotle, Philo and Josephus, known well throughout the Greco-Roman world.  What makes the household codes of the New Testament different is not that they reinforce the patriarchal ordering of a household, but that they point to the humility of Jesus as the model for every relationship, inviting the first Christians—a strange mix of Jews and gentiles, masters and slaves, husbands and wives and widows and orphans—to look beyond cultural status to a better Kingdom in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). 

(I’ve written extensively about the household codes of the New Testament in this blog post,  in this series, and in three of my books, including the soon-to-be-released Inspired.) 

In conclusion—

Banning women from the pulpit and silencing their voices in the church doesn’t protect women; it harms them.

Instructing women to submit to their husbands by “enduring abuse” doesn’t protect women; it harms them.

Handling abuse and assault allegations “in house” by reporting them to the male elders of a church instead of to the police doesn’t protect women; it harms them.

Misusing Scripture to reinforce gender stereotypes based more on white, American, post-World War II cultural ideals than biblical truth doesn’t protect women; it harms them.

Calling for a return to patriarchy doesn't protect women; it harms them. 

Patriarchy is not counter-cultural. It has for centuries been the norm. What’s truly counter-cultural is imitating Jesus, who, “being in very nature God,” surrendered his power and privilege to become a human—one birthed, nursed, protected, befriended, and BELIEVED by women. 

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