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The Christian pastor and preacher John Piper, famous for his teaching on “traditional” gender roles, has declared that women are unsuitable for most jobs. That, at least, is the interpretation Benjamin Corey made of Piper’s latest interview, in which Piper first stated he did not want to produce a list of jobs women should not undertake, before more or less ruling them out from any. In trying to reconcile modern social arrangements with male “headship” derived from a particular reading of the Bible, Piper comes up with the categories of “personal” and “directive” leadership. A Corey relates, the example Piper gives are of a woman designing a road, whose influence over men is “directive” (because it determines the route they drive) but “non-personal” (presumably because she isn’t in the car telling them where to go. A female drill sergeant, however, would be giving orders to men, and that would be both personal and directive. His explanation of this theory runs thus:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive.

For Piper these issues are not merely personal arrangements between individual men and women, but connected to the entire structure of the world:

To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man, guidance of a man, leadership of a man, is personal and a directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order.

I’m not particularly interested in discussing whether Piper is right or wrong here: it won’t surprise anyone reading this blog that I think his model of gender is destructive, oppressive and damaging to women. (Men too, as it happens, but I don’t think a patriarchal society damages men in the same way or to at all the same extent.) I’m more concerned to note the way in which his argument is arranged.

Firstly, this is not a Biblical account of gender relationships. Preachers such as Piper, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which he sits on, are very concerned to claim the description “Biblical” for their religious activities. In saying that this idea that women should be architects but not drill sergeants is not Biblical, I’m not criticizing their theology or their exegesis (though I don’t think either are correct.) I’m pointing out a simple fact: there is nothing like this in the Bible. The Bible has nothing to say about whether women should be drill sergeants, oddly enough, since there was no question in the era when it was written that they could or should be.

It does have a lengthy praise of a “good women” in the latter part of Chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs, which certainly depicts her investing money in land, dealing with merchants, doing manual labour and teaching ethics. It is possible to believe (as some Christians do) that this might be the basis for an account of what “women’s work” might cover. But nowhere does the Bible mention “personal” leadership or “directive” instructions. I labour this rather obvious point because very conservative Christians like Piper are often accused of taking the Bible literally. They do nothing of the sort. As James Barr points out at quite some length in his book Fundamentalism, “Biblical” conservatives read the Bible in allegorical, metaphorical, symbolic and literal ways in order to preserve the idea that the Bible is entirely inerrant and gives binding rules about every single topic within human life.

Even a straightforward verse which conservatives on often cite on gender issues, such as 1 Timothy 2:12, is interpreted metaphorically. “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”, runs the verse. I have seen it read as a compromise with cultural codes of the time, since Christianity was in danger of becoming disreputable and ecstatic female prophets and preachers were associated with debauched cults. Some people have suggested it is an assertion of gender equality: neither men nor women should rule over each other, and if a woman were to wish for the kind of oppressive power men currently wield it would be better if she stayed silent. I have seen it marked as a later addition to the text, a scribal annotation which does not have the binding authority of inspired Scripture. I have seen it cross-read with Paul’s instructions elsewhere as to how women must cover their hair when they prophecy in church, thus showing that there is an inconsistency and these verse are not binding for all time.

Amidst all this, conservatives are apt to insist that the verse means exactly what it says, and that the correct reading is the literal one. Except I do not know any church, no matter how conservative and no matter how rigid on gender roles, which actually implements this rule. That would involve insisting that women are silent throughout church services. Elaborate discussions of what women “teaching” involves (can she teach children? other women? mixed groups if she is with her husband? is it teaching only if she is expounding her own account of Scripture, not following the male elders’ interpretation) are beside the point. The verse doesn’t say women should only speak under the authority of a male pastor. It says they shouldn’t speak.

So the claim to be “Biblical” or literal, or “just following what the Bible says” is only defensible if these terms mean interpreting the Bible as other Christians do. Developing non-Biblical critical terms – whether that is “non-directive authority” or “proto-Catholicism” or “the male gaze” – and using them to make sense of the Biblical material. I’ve made rather a meal of this point because it is so often overlooked in discussion of gender and Christianity. Liberal, progressive or non-conservative Christians can sometimes feel at a disadvantage in these discussions, as if they are having to deny the obvious meaning in favour of some modern sophistry, or as if they love the Scriptures less than those who don’t think women should have a say in how the household income is spent. But Biblical conservatives are not literalists, and those who are critical of modern gender norms are not “watering down” the true meaning. “Non-personal directive authority” is as far from a literal interpretation of the Bible as feminist historiography of religion.

Secondly, which is probably just as obvious, this account of gender roles is impossible. It doesn’t work within its own account of itself. I don’t mean that people cannot live in desperately unequal situations without resentment and mental attrition, or that societies which insist women remain in a submissive and supportive role because they were “designed” that way don’t live in a state of continual turmoil and structural sin. Though I also believe both those things. I mean that it would not be possible for a woman to design a road without ever giving a man a direct instruction which was vested in her personal authority.

The example Piper gives is ludicrous: the woman may not be directing men which way to go personally, but presumably her instructions have to be followed by the contractors working on the construction project. Even if reading a blueprint isn’t “personal, directive” authority, how is she in a position to determine where a road goes without being quite senior in a firm of architects, or civil engineers, or state government, or some similar organization? How has she got to this eminence without ever giving a man an instruction, and how can she continue to exercise her role in the company without ever telling a man what to do? Is Piper imagining an all-female department of municipal works, which dead-drops blueprints at night where the men from the construction firm can pick them up? (No, he isn’t, but I bet you are now, and some of you are probably mentally casting that film.)

I’m not stretching an analogy pointlessly here, I’m working out how the practical example Piper offered would work. If this is a real-life role which a woman could carry out without giving men personal and directive instructions, then it needs to make sense. After all, the theory behind it rather depends on that example working, and it needs to be easy enough for those listening to Piper to grasp the theory quickly and apply it accurately in real life. (After all, they won’t find it in the Bible, so his explanation of it had better be clear and effective.) If Piper refuses to draw up a list of prohibited and permitted occupations, his theory needs to be explicit and easily reproduced. The example here is neither.

There are a couple of conclusions which I would draw from this apparently failed theory of gender roles. One is that we have someone laying down the law on whether women can work outside the home who apparently does not know how the world of work…works. I hope it doesn’t sound either sneering or anti-clerical to point out that Piper’s entire career has been undertaken within a very particular strand of conservative Christian religion and its institutions. He is at a bit of an epistemological disadvantage when explaining to women how they should handle their subordinates at work.

He has not, according to his CV, worked in the sort of commercial world for which he is legislating. Given the religious positions he has taken over the years, I don’t imagine he has ever had a female boss, or closely observed a woman exercising authority over men in a secular profession. Lived experience is important, and Piper probably does not know what it is like in the working world beyond the ministries he has been part of. This lack of knowledge rather shows itself in the system he suggests.

The other conclusion comes a bit close to suggesting disingenuousness on Piper’s part, so I want to stress it is only speculation. But this theory is so theologically vague, so tenuous when placed next to the Biblical material which supposedly underpins it, and so slapdash in its argument and elaboration, that I’m left wondering whether it is actually supposed to work. I don’t think that one could read this interview and then accurately and effectively give an account of which professions it is appropriate for women to work in. I think it works more as an assurance that there is a logic behind the “traditional” and “Biblical” gender roles and that it is entirely compatible with modern life. Rather like the citation of conservative scholars which James Barr records in Fundamentalism, which works to reassure readers that all the really top intellectuals now agree with the old-time religion, this seems more likely to persuade people that there’s a coherent Biblical theology behind all this, so not to worry

Whether or not it is intended to work, this serious lack of clarity is likely to have unpleasant effects. Women who carry out well-paid work might not resign on the basis of this teaching, but they might feel guilty and try to be more submissive and passive. Thousands of people might not be convinced by the notion of “personal” and “directive” forms of authority, but they might well get a stronger sense that women who ask for equality are unnatural and unchristian. Piper’s teaching on gender and the Bible doesn’t make coherent sense, but that won’t stop it having an effect.