Posted On April 25, 2018

Women Professors and the Seminary’s Place in the Church

by | Apr 25, 2018 | Theology

Prof. Howard Hendricks, circa 1979.

Prof. Howard Hendricks, circa 1979 / DTS Public Photos

John Piper controversially opined back in January that women should not teach in seminaries. The essential reason he gave is that seminary professors should be models of the pastoral office that seminary students can emulate. I made some thoughts on the topic known on Twitter, but let’s explore this a bit more.

Must All Seminary Professors “Model the Pastoral Office”?

Piper appears to argue from the standpoint that the role of the seminary is primarily to train pastors. “Everything is studied, or I think should be studied, with a view to how it may edify the church and advance the gospel through the pastor’s role in the ministry of the church.” While it may be fair to say that future pastors are the largest segment of student bodies at conservative evangelical seminaries, they are often not the only students there. Others attend to be better prepared to minister in their particular secular contexts, enter the mission field (this includes women), or simply to serve better in their local churches. This, of course, will differ seminary-by-seminary. Dallas Seminary, my alma mater, certainly models the multiple-destination approach, whereas The Master’s Seminary only admits men and appears to be laser-focused on training pastors.

Moreover, Piper’s argument appears to be weak in that he insists upon every seminary instructor modeling the pastoral office when, if we are arguing mostly from pragmatics, we may counter that sufficient pastoral modeling ought to be present without requiring this of every single instructor. He goes so far to say basically that seminary professors are in the same category as pastors. While that is difficult to justify, seminary professors certainly are teachers.

And because seminary professors are teachers, we must then ask whether 1 Timothy 2:12’s admonition applies equally to teaching in the seminary as it does with teaching in the church. 

What is the Seminary’s Place in the Church?

Sadly, there does exist a “soft complementarian” position that I must address and shoot down before continuing on. This position appears in Dallas Seminary’s course catalog in this wording:

While all programs at DTS are coeducational, the seminary holds the position that Scripture limits to men the roles of elder and senior pastor in the local church. Therefore the seminary programs of study are not designed to prepare women for these roles.

The wording here appears rather careful not to reveal what is being permitted by implication, namely the allowance for women in the roles of non-senior pastor, deacon, and teacher of men.

Aside from this unjustifiable “soft” position, perhaps the more common point of contention is whether seminaries fall under the admonition of 1 Timothy 2:12. If we think about the church as Christ’s bride and the agent by which God works among men in this world, there is no way to separate the seminary, let alone any parachurch ministry, from being part and parcel of the local church. If we understand 1 Timothy 2:12 and passages like it correctly, it applies to the to the teaching of scripture, theology, and biblical languages (which is exegesis) at a bare minimum. Arguably, this also extends to history (more specifically historical theology) and counseling (if indeed we counsel from the Bible as we ought). With teaching the Bible—whether in a local church, a seminary class, or a seminary chapel service—inherently comes the “exercise of authority” that we see in 1 Timothy 2:12.

But How Does the Church Pragmatically Exercise Its Authority over the Seminary?

By way of illustration, take a look at the list of Dallas Seminary’s Board of Incorporate Members. There are two boards within the board. With some exceptions, the Board of Regents is largely made up of people in ministry including a large number who head their own parachurch ministries, and the Board of Trustees is largely business professionals whom we may reasonably assume are there because the seminary needs large donations to operate.

Assuming that all of the members individually are under the authority of a body of local church elders, the question we must ask is in what sense is a seminary, let alone most parachurch ministries (let’s include Things Above Us for the sake of fairness), is under the authority of elders. Can we reasonably say that a group of elders is able to intervene—by means other than a letter-writing campaign, blogging, or ending financial support— should a seminary or other parachurch ministry go astray?

It’s time we begin to rethink how we organize the leadership of parachurch ministries. It might be one thing for a group of guys like us, who are under our own elders, to start up a blog. Perhaps another to open up an evangelistic ministry, a health care ministry, etc. Members of any parachurch board not only need to be under elders but also have their membership contingent upon being in good standing therein. This goes for any parachurch ministry.

The seminary in particular is perhaps the most in need of elder oversight given the nature of what it does. I suggest that a parachurch board at the seminary level—perhaps also at the level of missions organizations and even Christian publishers—be composed of local church elder board representatives. The seminary should be able to recognize and demonstrate clearly that it is under a local church or a group of local churches which tend to its spiritual health. The churches can then guide its doctrine and practice as necessary and help to keep it from drifting out on its own trajectory. It will also be clearer, though no less truer, that the standards of teachers in the local church, at least by way of biblical standards, are not distinct from those in seminaries.

Jesus Calling at the Dallas Theological Seminary Book Center

The author took this photo at the DTS Book Center.

Let’s Recover Our Seminaries

Hidden within the social media firestorm we had three months ago concerning women professors is the greater issue of the place of seminaries—as well as other parachurch ministries—within the greater church. As seminary leadership currently exists, there remains risk not only of doctrinally running astray but also of believing that the seminary exists outside of the authority of the church and, therefore, outside of commands which the Bible places upon the church at large. Let us recover our seminaries and bring them under biblically-sound local church elderships.

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1 Comment

  1. Melody Andres

    What an excellent article concerning this Garrett! I can remember writing a paper
    while in College on the role of women in the Church and your article was well written! In Christ, Melody Andres