In a recent podcast, John Piper describes acceptable ways for women to exert public influence. As he explains why men can read biblical commentaries from women, but not be taught by them in person, he reveals some profoundly troubling assumptions about women and a dated view of the female body.
Piper—a complementarian who believes in male headship and leadership—endorses women's commentaries on the Bible because they are "indirect" and "impersonal" venues of influence. He emphasizes that in reading a woman's words, he doesn't see her with his own eyes, conveying particular qualms with a woman looking at him while teaching. As blogger Rachel Held Evans asserts, Piper's reasons for preferring an indirect and impersonal encounter with a woman point to one factor: the offensive presence of her body.
According to Piper, the role of a city planner is appropriate for a woman because she exercises authority ensconced in an office at a desk, while a woman teacher stands before him, he says, making him aware of his own manhood and her womanhood. On the other hand, when a woman communicates to him indirectly and impersonally through writing, he can handle it because "she's not looking at me and confronting me and authoritatively directing me as a woman."
A book, he adds, "puts [the woman] out of my sight and in a sense takes away the dimension of her female personhood." Believing Pauline instruction prohibits women from authoritative positions in religious and secular settings, public or private, Piper uses 1 Timothy 2:12 as a foundation to argue against women influencing men in "direct" and "personal" ways.
Concern over women's bodies in public is what barred them from representing themselves in civic or political situations 200 years ago, right around when they started feeling the itch for the vote. A woman's presence on a public platform was scandalous; it was even more scandalous for her to look upon a mixed audience and speak to them.
As rhetorician Lindal Buchanan notes in her book Regendering Delivery, 19th-century women's "disembodied … voices became acceptable long before their public bodies did." Because the presence of their bodies in public was so disgraceful, women used indirect techniques to influence the direction of the country, techniques Piper would probably support (generating and signing petitions, promoting their projects through male family members, and writing letters, tracts, and novels). These women hid or shielded their bodies from the male gaze in order for their voices to be heard.
For example, the first American woman to act as a lobbyist, Emma Willard, presented her Plan for Improving Education to New York legislators in 1819. Because she could not appeal to legislators in the masculine space of the state capitol, she met with them in parlors and other domestic locations, reading to them from her plan to avoid being perceived as an orator. The detail most indicative of male prejudice against women at that time: She read her document while seated in order to minimize her physical presence and to avoid making eye contact with the men she was trying to persuade. In the following years, she lectured on female education, but whenever she engaged a mixed audience, she appointed a man to read her speech in her place while she sat quietly and inconspicuously on the stage.
Given that women can now vote, go to college, enjoy the same property rights as men, appear in public while pregnant, and stand at a podium, we tend to think Emma Willard's challenges are history. We think that hers is a 200-year old problem, but as John Piper reminds us, it's actually last month's problem.
Women today, particularly Christians whose communities are influenced by men like Piper, may find their voices stifled when their influence and participation in so many spheres is limited to activities dubbed indirect and impersonal. Additionally, to view the opposite sex solely in these gendered, bodily terms tends to make women ashamed of their bodies, while men fail to see women fully, as human beings with bodies as well as souls and minds.
Piper's affirmation, consequently, of women who teach indirectly and impersonally shows his overt rejection of and implicit obsession with women's bodies. He makes it seem impossible that a man could listen to a woman's biblical insights in her presence without being distracted by her femininity. Although Piper would likely condemn the pervasive plastering of sexualized images of women on television, magazine covers, and billboards, his resolve to hide their bodies perpetuates, rather than challenges, their objectification. It teaches men to fixate on women's bodies.
Piper's assumptions about women also have harmful implications for men, whom he portrays as owners of authority and eschewers of submission. At the beginning of his podcast, he says that if a man feels a woman writer gaining authority over him, he should set aside her commentary. By validating a man's decision to so easily reject the insights of another human being, Piper corroborates an attitude of obstinacy. By depicting an appropriate feminine exercise of authority as city planner and the opposite, masculine exercise of authority as drill sergeant, Piper suggests that men have a God-given right to employ forceful, in-your-face rhetoric, both to each other and to women. As he distorts his voice to convey the forcefulness of a drill sergeant, he says, "I don't think a woman ought to be doing that to a man."
Actually, no person should do that to another, whether woman-to-man, man-to-woman, woman-to-woman, or man-to-man. But by endowing men with an overinflated idea of their authority and disembodying the voices of women, Piper has created a system of gender relations that bears the stamp of a domineering individual who is more interested in cultivating subservience in women rather than submission.
Thankfully, women are no longer bound by the cultural and legislative limitations they were in the 19th century, and so submitting to restrictions regarding their role in the public realm is now their choice. As women exercise their freedom to submit, they need to think carefully about the ethos of the authorities in question. Specifically, women would do well to consider Piper's ethos. What kind of person fixates so intently on women's bodies and insists on their removal from his sight? What kind of person recommends subservience in women, dominance in men, and so quickly equates authority with force? What does his implied affinity with an era that notoriously oppressed women say about his character?
Although no person's ethos should be determined solely by a six-minute discussion posted on the Internet, Piper's podcast nevertheless serves as a reminder that one's strategies in argument are indicative of one's character. The words and images behind his message reveal assumptions about women that should not only unsettle us, but drive us to consider the manner in which he discusses women in all his works. Let us be mindful of our own use of language by speaking about human beings with respect and dignity, remembering that we all bear the image of God.
Rachel Pietka is working on her PhD in English at Baylor University, where she also teaches freshman composition, coordinates the Graduate Writing Center, and develops spiritual life programs for graduate students. When not studying, she enjoys running on the country roads of Texas and spending time with her husband and their golden retriever.
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