Male, Female, and Morality

John Piper, “Male, Female and Morality,” The Standard 73:10 (November 1983): 26–28. This is the first essay in a “discussion” hosted by The Standard, the denominational magazine of the Baptist General Conference. Spread out over seven issues, from November 1983 to May 1984, Piper dialogued with Alvera and Berekely Micklesen. Piper contributed seven essays, with seven responses, and the Mickelsens did the same. At the time, A. Berkeley Mickelsen was professor of New Testament at Bethel Theological Seminary, Minnesota, and his wife, Alvera Mickelsen was assistant professor of journalism at Bethel College. They were members of Salem Baptist Church, a BGC church in New Brighton, Minnesota. The Micklesens responded to this initial essay with, “Setting the Stage: Response from the Mickelsens,” The Standard 73:10 (November 1983): 30.


Not whether women should be ordained; not whether women should be teachers; not whether any spiritual gifts are denied to women; not whether men are intellectually or morally superior to women—none of these is the issue that draws me into discussion with Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen.

For me the issue is: How does natural existence relate to moral duty? Or: What moral constraints does our birth as male or female put upon us: Does God intend that my maleness confront me with any moral demands which are different form the moral demands with which God confronts woman by virtue of her femaleness?

The answer is simple. One the one hand we would cry no. The Ten Commandments apply equally to man and woman with no distinctions. Woman, thou shalt not murder man. Man, thou shalt not murder woman. But on the other hand, most of us would also cry yes. It is sin for a man to marry a man. But it is not sin for a woman to marry a man. If this is so, we cannot say that what we are by nature is negligible in determining or moral duty in relation to other people.

When a woman stands before a man the moral duty that confronts him is not identical with his duty when he stands before a man. God has evidently ordained that the natural and moral world intersect at that point of our sexuality.

Until the recent emergence of gay pride, scarcely anyone would have accused God of discriminating against woman by giving only to men the right to marry women. Historically, it did not seem unjust that solely on the basis of sex God would exclude half the human race as lawful spouses for women. It seemed “fitting” and “natural” and right that a large array of (marital) feelings and actions should be denied to women and men in their relations to half the human race.

The reason there was no worldwide revolt against His enormous limitation of our freedom was probably that it squared with what most of us wanted anyway. In His mercy God has not allowed the inner voice of nature to be so distorted as to leave the world with no sense of moral fitness in this affair.

A Greater Responsibility

Homosexuality is only one ethical question rooted in the larger issue of how natural existence relates to moral duty. Another related question is one to be debated here. I would put it like this: Does God intend that men by virtue of their maleness bear greater responsibility for spiritual leadership in relation to women than women do in relation to men? If God, on the basis of sex, has forbidden men and women to experience certain marital feelings and actions toward half the human race, then are there possibly other feelings and actions which are inappropriate for men and women to experience toward half the race?

The position I will take until Scripture and sound reason reveal my error (and I am open to this) is that God does in fact will that men by virtue of their maleness have a greater responsibility for spiritual leadership in relation to women than women do in relationship to men. And conversely, women should honor this responsibility that God has committed to men.

It is not immediately obvious what this implies about the roles appropriate to each sex. My own emphasis will fall on the tone or spirit of the relationship rather than the specific behaviors which “headship” and “submission” may dictate in any particular situation. But I will eventually argue that there are some roles or offices which call for a kind of personal and directive leadership over men which makes it inappropriate for a woman to fill them.

What those roles are is not as important to me as the principle itself: our existence as male and female commits us to different responsibilities of leadership in relation to each other.

The voice of God in nature is real and true. But our hearing is distorted by sin and complicated by cultural relativities. Therefore, while we will all be influenced somewhat by our subjective sense of what is naturally fitting, we do well to seek God’s voice primarily in the inspired Scriptures.

Almost all of us who believe the Bible is the very Word of God admit that some things commanded in Scripture are not intended by God to be followed today as they once were. In general, we do not follow the dietary laws and purification rites and sacrificial code and penal prescriptions of the Old Testament. Not do we use the holy kiss and the head covering of the New Testament.

Scriptural Commands: Valid Today?

It is possible, therefore, that some biblical teachings regarding the relationship between men and women may no longer be valid for us in our different situation. Therefore, what I want to offer for consideration in this initial article are the basic principles I use for discerning which commands in Scripture are valid today and which are not.

The contemporary validity of all biblical commands can be tested by one or more of the following three questions:

First, has there been a significant turn in redemptive history since the command was given so that God’s dealings with mankind have changed and thus make the command unsuitable to the present dispensation? This criterion accounts for why we don’t offer animal sacrifices or worship at the temple in Jerusalem or make blasphemy a capital offense. With the coming of Christ redemptive history has taken a dramatic turn. God has made Christ the focus of all worship, and has propitiated our sins by His death, and has ceased to deal with His people as an ethnic, political body. Therefore the cultic and sociopolitical will of God for us today is dramatically different from His will for ancient Israel.

Second, does the biblical command grow as a necessary implication out of the gospel of God’s righteousness and mercy in the death and resurrection of Jesus? Is it contained by implication in the divine transaction of the crucifixion of our flesh and the leadership of the Spirit? This criterion ascribes abiding validity to the biblical ethic of humility and faith and love. The fruit of the Spirit abide because they grow inevitably in the soil of the gospel and new birth.

Third, is the command contained or implied in the divine order of creation? Does it belong to God’s will for mankind before the fall corrupted our relationships? This proves especially helpful in handling the biblical teachings about God’s will for the relationship between men and women.

In forthcoming articles I will argue that Moses (in Genesis 1-3) and Paul (in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2) aim to give abiding validity to some of their teachings about the relationships of men and women by rooting them in the will of God for creation before the entrance of sin. And I will try to show that this biblical teaching accords to man a responsibility for leadership in relation to woman which it does not accord to woman in relation to man.

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