Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Response to John Piper's "Masculine Christianity," Part 2

This is Part 2 of my response to John Piper's proposal of a "masculine feel" to Christianity and Christian ministry. If you haven't already, please read Part 1 here. At the end of my first post, I said that I find Piper's conclusion--that God has ordained Christianity to have a "masculine feel"--is ultimately inappropriate given his premises. That is to say, I think Piper is drawing a false conclusion from his broad (and contestable) observations about the apparently androcentric (=male centered) nature of salvation history. And, in my view, his notion of a "masculine Christianity" is highly problematic and it founders for a number of reasons. Before I say more, let me remind my readers of the last paragraph of the excerpt I provided in Part 1. There, Piper says the following:

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.

First, I want to suggest that the traits Piper lists above as constitutive of "masculine Christianity" are most certainly not limited to men and, therefore, aren't really "masculine" at all. Let's set aside for a moment his reference to "male leadership" and review the elements of Piper's description: the spirit of Christ, tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, providing, humility, and initiative. Although he frames these attributes within the context of "male leadership," I contend that all of these things are easily identifiable within the lives and ministries of godly women. In fact, I see these characteristics especially operative in the life and work of mothers (the most feminine of womanly vocations for Piper and his sympathizers!). At their best and healthiest, mothers caring for their children are tender-hearted and strong, courageous, decisive, sacrificial, and protective. Mothers evidence the spirit of Christ, take risks for their children's betterment and well-being, and take the initiative for their care and provision. In all honesty, it seems to me that to suggest these attributes are the special purview of men just seems silly.

Second, despite his sincere attempts to be thoroughly "biblical," Piper can in no way prove from the New Testament that God intends the Church and the Church's leaders to be "masculine." Indeed, you will never find an instance where God, Jesus, or the Apostles instruct anyone or the church as a whole to be "masculine." (Scot McKnight has a helpful explanation of the possible relevant texts on his blog here and in the comments.) You will, on the other hand, find lots of instruction regarding the need to imitate Christ and pursue a life of cruciformity. Indeed, a further reason the description Piper provides above can't possibly be limited to Christian men is that Christian women will evidence the same or similar traits precisely because they are traits of Christ himself. Those who are putting off their old nature and "putting on Christ" grow to look like him, whether they are males or females. Now, this is not to say that men and women aren't different. I believe they are. (See below for more discussion of this point.) But, the special traits Piper is assigning to masculinity, in particular, are being read into the Scripture and not drawn from Scripture. He is proposing an admonition from God for a "masculine Christianity" that simply does not exist.

Third, the concept of masculinity with which is Piper operating, both in this instance and in almost every other example of his work on this topic, is its undeniably embedded in 21st Century North American evangelical Christian culture. This is something that a man as educated and widely read as Piper should understand and grapple with in his work. In general, and not just in this instance, I find it strange that Piper thinks that the character traits he puts forth as constitutive of "manhood" and "womanhood," or masculinity and femininity, are eternally ordained by God and universally applicable to all. (Please note, I am not contesting the realities of humanity as male and female or the existence of masculinity and femininity, as such. I am contesting the notion that Piper's limited description of masculinity [along with that of other hierarchical complementarians] is adequate or accurate. Indeed, I contend that it is neither.)

What Piper offers in his gender theology, instead, is a notion of masculinity that is thoroughly formed by his cultural situation as an evangelical in the 21st Century United States. The truth is, Piper (and other hierarchical complementarians) is proposing a picture of masculinity that has been constructed--and not primarily from the Bible (as if one can read the Bible without cultural biases in the first place). It has been constructed, I think, largely in response to a number of cultural instabilities and perceived threats in our contemporary environment: the perceived success of secular feminism and liberalism in the nation as a whole, a drastic economic downturn (that has seen thousands of men put out of work and lose their homes), diminished American power and respect around the globe, and a perceived threatening "foreigner" in the White House, who seems to embody many of evangelical fears about the degenerate state of the U.S. as a nation and the perceived insecure place of Christians within it. In light of apparent cultural instability both within and outside of evangelicalism, teachers like Piper (along with Mark Driscoll, et al) are seeking to construct sharp distinctions between the genders and "gender roles" as way to re-establish cultural stability. (This observation is not unique to me, but is made by a number sociologists of religion, including Julie Ingersoll in her book Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles. I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Katherine, for pointing out the elements of cultural instability that are likely behind Piper's claims.)

Even if you don't buy my suggestion that social instability is likely behind this push for clearly defined gender norms, I still contend that despite his sincere desire to provide a universal norm of masculinity to which all men can look as a guide for life, Piper's gendered theology (especially as espoused through the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) mostly trades in gender stereotypes and middle class American nostalgia. Investigation into notions of masculinity from other places and periods of time would reveal significantly different pictures, all of which were also highly dependent upon their contexts. For example, in the Victorian period of American history, it was women, not men, who were viewed as naturally spiritual and more suited for a life of Christian virtue. Women were the "angels in the home," guardians of Christian morality and the moral pillars of the nation. Indeed, women were encouraged by preachers and politicians alike that it was their duty to set the example and in so doing, they would save the world through their piety.

Now, some of this sort of language is still heard today. Stereotypes die hard. But, there is a significant contrast, I think, between the Victorian emphasis on the importance of female spiritual leadership and today's evangelical emphasis on male spiritual leadership. My point is this: masculinity and femininity, as they are defined by Piper and his sympathizers, are largely cultural constructs, as dependent upon the circumstances of our day as anything else.

So, what exactly is my point? In the end, I would argue that defining with any precision what constitutes the essence of femininity and masculinity is highly problematic. Again, this does not mean that I am suggesting that there is no such thing as masculinity and femininity. I believe there are real differences between males and females. I think these differences are somehow rooted in our sexed bodies (which are marked by sexual differentiation, except in rare cases). But, I also think these sexual and gender differences transcend mere materiality to include something of our very being, or essence. But, what exactly those differences are... I think this is something of a mystery--indeed, a "profound mystery," as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it (Eph 5:32).

The first chapters of Genesis reveal that human beings are made in God's image, male and female, as complementary partners in the filling and subduing of the earth (Genesis 1:28). But, I think to go much beyond this move into unwise theological speculation. One can certainly speak of the proper duties put upon mothers and fathers to care for their children, or husbands and wives to love and respect each other, or men and women in the church to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." But, to move from these instructions regarding practical Christian living to ontological statements about what constitutes the uniqueness of maleness and femaleness, masculinity and femininity, is wrongheaded and unhelpful. Even the brilliant and verbose theologian Karl Barth, who is not known for keeping quiet about much of anything, argued that the essential differences between the sexes was something to be experienced in relationship and not defined by theologians. To do so, he said, goes beyond the bounds of proper theological reasoning because it exceeds God's revelation in Christ.

All this is to say, I think delineating the concrete details of masculinity and femininity is a largely speculative enterprise. It is unwise to move from the things that many women do (i.e., mothering, nurturing, supporting, etc.) and things that many men do (i.e., working, providing, protecting, etc.) to then conclude that all women and all men, always and everywhere, are designed by God to be fundamentally defined by these things. Of course, Piper does not say such things explicitly in the message that is the subject of this post. But, these assumptions about "biblical manhood and womanhood" are in the background of his remarks and he does operate with the assumption that what constitutes masculinity is universally true, (easily) recognizable, and unchanging. These assumptions, I would argue, simply cannot stand up to scrutiny.

I think what really bothers me about Piper's message is the way in which he seems to push aside the beauty of male-female complementarity (something he supposedly champions!) for a vision of Christianity in which the male subsumes the female. He seems to be forgetting Genesis 1:27-28, in which the image of God in humankind is depicted as male and female and where both male and female receive the command to "be fruitful and multiply," as well as to "fill the earth and subdue it." What was affirmed in creation is reaffirmed in the New Covenant. Male and female remain God's image in humankind. One is not derivative of the other and one isn't dominant over the other. Adam did not constitute the essence of the human race at the beginning of creation; neither do men constitute the essence of the new human race in the new creation.

Finally, I would contend that Piper and those in agreement with him are in hot water, theologically speaking, for two reasons. First, since it is God who has made humankind male and female, then it is also God who know what rightly constitutes masculinity and femininity. When humans reify cultural norms and stereotypes and proclaim that these elements are the essence of "biblical manhood" or "biblical womanhood," I think they are bordering on idolatry--presuming to make "graven images" of the mystery of God's image in humankind (as male and female). But, even if such a theological move isn't as serious as I have suggested, at the very least the mystery of humankind as male and female should be approached with reverence and humility, leaving behind machismo, bravado, sentimentality, nostalgia, and stereotypes of all kinds.

The second reason that Piper is venturing into problematic territory is that his insistence on a "masculine feel" for Christianity and the Church flies in the face of hundreds of years of Christian tradition regarding the Church as the Bride of Christ. In fact, his assertions seem truly bizarre in light of pervasive nuptial (=marriage) imagery of Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as the Bride, which has been pervasive in Christian history, particularly through monasticism and mystical theologies (i.e., Bernard of Clairvaux). How to square Piper's "masculine" Christianity with the decidedly feminine depiction of the Church as Christ's Bride is something that exceeds my theological skill. Perhaps he'll explain that one at next year's pastors conference.

This post has turned out longer than I anticipated, so I need to bring it to a close. But, before I do, I need to say this... In truth, I don't contest the heart of Piper's message about the nature of the church's work. If we take out the "masculine" language, I can wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment. I think theology, church, and mission should be marked by overarching godly leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community. I think our great, majestic God, by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, wants us to take the humble, Christ-exalting initiative and work together in joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work of ministry. What I contest is the idea that these things are explicitly masculine in nature or that they mean the Church as a whole is to be defined in majority masculine terms.

And, in the end, that's what is so sad. Piper is taking a matter that is not central to the Gospel (gender differentiation), adding to it extra-biblical, culturally bound notions of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and then reading Scripture, theology, and church ministry through this lens. In my opinion, this is bad theology and a truly unfortunate direction to chart for the many pastors looking to him for guidance.
Note: Those who are uncomfortable that I'm calling into question the possibility of such a thing as "biblical manhood and womanhood" or are simply interested in reading what I've said in the past about this problem are invited to read this post from 2008, which goes into more detail than the above post would allow.


Angie said...

Great series! Thanks for your contribution to this discussion.

Paul Burleson said...


I agree with Angie.

An additional thought that comes from my dealing with John 8:32 in a message I'm preaching in Okla City this morning is that the word "truth" in that verse is speaking [as you well know] of Jesus Himself who IS the Truth incarnate. That word, truth, is speaking of "reality" as opposed to "illusion" [Jesus Himself] NOT words as in saying them or even written ones.

The kicker's a feminine noun. [Not very masculine.] LOL

Sean Carlton said...

"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"

On the whole, the women in my life have exhibited these attributes FAR more frequently and with more fervor than the men in my life. But that's just my experience.

And if you don’t mind, I took some liberties with another quote:

It’s the feel of a great, majestic [man], who by his redeeming work in [his gender roles], inclines men to take [proud], [self]-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men [as an after-thought].

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Paul, that's very interesting. Is the word in question alethea? My husband wanted to name our daughter that...

Sean, you're too funny. :)

Paul Burleson said...


It is. Aletheia to be exact.

[αληθεια noun - nominative singular feminine.]

Anonymous said...

Found your blog when googling the Piper talk and thoroughly enjoyed your indepth response. It can be so much easier just to take the eye-rolling "whatever" route when faced with something like this, but it is important that people with strong writing skills, intelligence, and a clear voice speak up. I like what you're doing on this blog & I will definitely be back.

J. K. Jones said...

Good posts on the issue.

Piper has, at a minimum, overstated his case. I think he will repent when called on it and given time to think. He's that kind of guy.

Charles W said...

Here is a passage from Katherine Bushnell’s must-read book: “God’s Word to Women” :
235. Dean Alford says, "Man is God's glory: He has put in him His majesty, and he represents God on earth; woman is man's glory: taken from the man, shining not with light direct from God, but with light derived from man." Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, in their commentary, say: "As the moon in relation to the sun, so woman shines not so much with light direct from God, as light derived from man. Through him it [the veil] connects her with Christ." But quaint old Dr. John Lightfoot, who at many points gives the best interpretation of the passage extant, is the funniest of them all on two phrases in it. He says, here, "A woman praying not veiled, as if she were not ashamed of her face, disgraceth man her head, while she would seem so beautiful beyond him, when she is only the glory of man; but man is the glory of God." To be sure! When the "moon" succeeds in outshining the "sun," of which it is merely a reflection, it is time for the "sun" to cry, "Disgraceful!" To sum up, these men effect to be more wise than Moses, who "wist not that the skin of his face shone."

To Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown: “Women, as a moon, should wait patiently for the eclipse of the sun.”

To John Lightfoot: You are no longer the funniest. John Piper is.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article. Helpful to read an alternative view to Piper's. One thing did strike me though. To me you hardly engage with Piper's exegesis. No doubt he has got cultural glasses on which cloud his application, but his conclusions are drawn from a careful exegesis of Biblical texts. Your article would have been far more compelling had it shown the fallicies in Piper's exegesis, rather than simply dismissing his conclusions with fairly broad assertions.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I appreciate your comment. But, I have no interest in engaging with Piper's biblical arguments in a sustained way. This has been done many times over by many capable scholars, all of whom have shown that there are other ways of reading the biblical evidence that Piper believes so "clearly" supports his point. What I offered in these two posts was what I thought hadn't been said yet or things that I thought could be said in different ways. I didn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel of biblical arguments for egalitarianism (or complementarity without hierarchy).

Moreover, I seriously doubt that simple biblical argumentation is going to get us anywhere in this discussion. What matters is not so much the exegesis of individual texts but the framework through which you are reading said texts. That's what leads Piper and I to arrive at very different conclusions regarding the same biblical materials.

Finally, if you want to read some of my own treatments of the relevant biblical texts for the "gender debate," you are welcome to search my blog. There are a number of posts from the past that engage in exegesis and biblical theology in a sustained way.