Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Response to John Piper's "Masculine Christianity," Part 1

The Internet has been abuzz this week about John Piper's message at the 2012 Desiring God Pastor's Conference, in which he claims that God intends for Christianity and the Church to have a decidedly "masculine feel." You can follow the link to hear Piper's remarks in their full context or visit the sites of other bloggers to see fuller excerpts of his message. (Scot McKnight provides the fullest account I've seen thus far.) For my purposes, I'm not going to consider the message in full. I think what follows is a sufficiently long enough excerpt to reveal Piper's point and allow for a measured response (which I will provide in two parts):

God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam (Genesis 5:2). God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority (1 Timothy 2:12)—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband (Ephesians 5:22–33).

From all of this, I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And, being a God of love, he has done it for the maximum flourishing of men and women. He did not create women to languish, or be frustrated, or in any way to suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy, in a masculine Christianity. She is a fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.

What I mean by “masculine Christianity,” or “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” is this: Theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, inclines men to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.

Before I offer my response to these claims, I feel that I have to admit that the topic of this sermon and the hubbub surrounding it wearies me. I'm weary of this sort of argumentation and the conclusions drawn from it. I almost didn't write this post. In reality, I don't want to. But, I do feel a responsibility to respond when I see particularly false or damaging theology--and in this case, I see both. And, in the name of defending myself and my sisters in Christ, I humbly offer the following response to Piper's "masculine Christianity."

First of all, we should note that in the way he has constructed his argument, Piper's conclusions about God giving Christianity a "masculine feel" flow from some important claims about the overarching narrative of Scripture--a narrative that he also gives a decidedly "masculine feel." First, he asserts that God has revealed himself "pervasively" in masculine terms, including becoming incarnate in a man.

These points are difficult to contest and I see no reason to do so. Scripture does speak of God almost exclusively in masculine terms. There are a number of important instances where God is revealed in feminine terms, but these places stand out precisely because they are out of the ordinary. Moreover, no one can debate that Jesus Christ was a man. What I find strange about these observations, however, is that Piper does not even try to contextualize these points. There is a fairly obvious reason why the God of the Old and New Testaments is revealed in majority masculine terms: Israelite culture and religion was dominated by men, most if not all of the literate Israelites were men and, as a result, their stories were written in masculine terms. Furthermore, the Son of God became incarnate as a man in the context of a first century Jewish community in Roman controlled Palestine. To have becomes incarnate in a woman would have been ludicrous, to put it baldly. No woman could have garnered the kind of authority and following that Jesus did, as a man. Within the Israelite faith, males were the "public," establishment spiritual leaders. Certainly, there were important female leaders (and such instances, I think, point to the fullest intention of God that men and women share leadership in God's Kingdom), but these were abnormal in the Israelite narrative. As a result, even apart from theological reasons why the Son of God would be incarnate in a man, there are good cultural and historical reasons that must come into play, as well. Once some context is provided for Piper's masculine characterization of the Israelite narrative, one realizes that he is moving from description of the situation to prescription without any justification for the latter.

Second, Piper suggests that there is some significance in the fact that God named humankind as a whole "man" (=adam) before differentiating "man" into male and female. This statement is rather strange, even if true based upon a bare reading of the text in Genesis 1. What exactly is Piper getting at? Because humanity is called "man" prior to being differentiated into male and female, "man" is somehow the standard for humankind as a whole? Is Piper suggesting that man is the paragon for what is human and woman is human only in a derivative way? Nevertheless, this point has no bearing whatsoever on the supposed masculinity of Christianity. Yet again, Piper doesn't take into consideration the cultural reasons why adam would be the foundational name for humankind. (Nor does he seem aware of just how counter-cultural the Genesis 1 creation narrative is in light of ancient near eastern views of women. He seems to be arguing for a solidification of male normativity for humankind from a narrative that is, in my view, designed to subvert such a notion!)

Third, Piper observes that the Hebrew priesthood was reserved for men, Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles, and the apostles taught a standard of male-only leadership for the churches. Again, I don't contest the first two points. But, even so, Piper seems to entirely overlook the presence of notable female leaders and prophets in the Israelite narrative (i.e., Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Esther, Judith), as well as "the Women" that were known to be close associates and supporters of Christ's ministry (not to mention Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles). Furthermore, the case for "male-only" restrictions in early church leadership is not even close to "open-and-shut," as Piper assumes. Doubtless, he would explain away the notable women of the early church whose importance is revealed in Scripture, even if we have to read the New Testament very closely to find it. (Of course, being at a Desiring God Pastors Conference, there is little doubt that Piper can assume he is surrounded by pastors who are already convinced on this matter, so there's no real need for him to argue this point.) But, the women are there. And, there are many reputable, orthodox scholars who strongly contest the "masculine" picture he is painting of the early church.

Nevertheless, why am I belaboring these points? These issues are not Piper's central claim, of course. And, he has argued for these points in more detail in other locations. They are "old news" for those familiar with Piper's brand of patriarchy. But, I think it is important to recognize that while he suggests through his rhetoric that these premises naturally lead to his conclusion--that God intends Christianity to be "masculine"--the truth is that the logic does not follow. Piper is drawing conclusions that do not follow from his premises. Even if he is right about all of the above points, even if it is God's ordained purpose for all male leadership in the churches and male headship in the home, it does not thereby follow that God intends for masculinity to be the "feel" or overall "tone" of the Church's ministry and mission. In fact, to be perfectly frank, I find this claim so spurious that it borders on laughable.

Why this claim is so laughable and how it is, in itself, based upon highly problematic notions of "masculinity" will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned...


Debbie Kaufman said...

Perfectly said Emily.

Anonymous said...

I find your argument also does not exactly hold as much weight as what you say Piper's argument doesn't. I find that you are boxing God by saying that God is subject to human cultural parameters. My point being that according to you God chose to represent Himself in the masculine form because it would be ludicrous to come as a woman. God does not care what our preconceived notions of cultural acceptances are...God bucked every trend He intended to. I don't subscribe to a male only leadership in Christian social structures but I also find that feminizing God is bordering of blasphemous. It was and is not God acting out of masculinity or femininity, it is rather God being God. We are the ones attaching definition to an undefinable God. He is.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I think you are wrong to perceive as me "boxing" God in. It is God who has chosen to condescend to our human limitations--time, place, culture, language, etc. God became incarnate in a man, a Jewish man living in Roman occupied Palestine in the first century. I haven't "boxed" God; God has chosen to "box" himself: reveal himself in human form. I don't think it is any stretch to see a correspondence between this self-limitation in Christ and God's self-limitation in reference to scriptural revelation. I'm not the one who says God used human beings in their cultural place and time, with their language, personality, and vocabulary, to express divine truth. Scripture itself says this and the rest of the Christian tradition has affirmed it in the doctrine of inspiration.

So, I'm not saying anything new here. I'm making observations about what God has already done. Certainly, I'm making observations that you are free to disagree with. You are free to conclude that my reasoning about Christ being incarnate as a man is false. But, I'm not the one "boxing" God in.

Furthermore, I think the idea that God always "bucked every trend" is incompatible with the testimony of Scripture, especially the Old Testament. God certainly bucked a number of trends, but not every trend. The Mosaic Law, for example, is full of things that are quite clearly in concert with the traditions and perceptions of the Ancient Near East (particularly in respect to women). Also, the New Testament contains affirmation of customs (such as women wearing head coverings) that were simply the "way things are" in Roman Palestine. So, God does not always buck trends. Sometimes, even many times, God condescends to work within them to accomplish his larger purposes.

In the end, though, we agree that God transcends categories of male and female. I'm definitely not "feminizing God," so I'm not sure where you see that in my post. Certainly, God used masculine terminology, but God is not male (as you seem to say, as well). And, when God uses feminine metaphors and imagery for himself, it does not mean God is female.

Anonymous said...

Great writing, great thinking, great response. I'm eagerly awaiting PART 2! JP

Anonymous said...

Hey, how masculine is Jesus' Bride, the Church? That fact seems to contradict Piper's teaching, right?