Friday, February 3, 2012

Reflections on John Piper and "Masculine Christianity"


This a propos adjective was used by a friend the other day to describe Mitt Romney's comment that he "wasn't concerned about the very poor." My friend, a Romney supporter, understood well that this turn of phrase, taken in isolation, could be used as a blanket statement and thus distort what in actuality is a more nuanced, well thought out position.

"Unfortunate" is also a fitting description for much of what the famous neo-Calvinist Baptist pastor John Piper said this past week in an address at the 2012 Desiring God Pastor's Conference. I had fully intended to begin my discussion of the gospel today. My plans, however, changed yesterday afternoon when, in the space of 15 minutes, I received an e-mail from my daughter and read the blog of Rachel Held Evans in which Piper's comments were made public.

Confession: I have an ambivalent attitude towards Piper. On the one hand, I have much appreciated his early academic work, especially his Munich dissertation on Jesus' Love Command and his exegetical study of Romans 9:1-23 (though I have always found his definition of God's "righteousness" as "his unwavering commitment to act for the sake of his glory" curious, to say the least). On the other hand, his forays into a type of pietism toward which I am constitutionally indisposed, and his somewhat strident advocacy of fundamentalist positions on "Biblical Manhood and Womanhood" and total abstinence from alcohol, leave me scratching my head in frustration.

Piper's unfortunate comments came in the context of an address on the virtues of the 19th century Anglican Bishop, John Charles Ryle (whom he characterizes as "frank" and "manly"). Ryle, according to Piper, embodied the type of "manly" leadership that the church needs today if it is to recover the "masculine feel" characteristic of authentic Christianity. In Piper's own words:

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.

1. A masculine ministry believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism that must come in a public ministry, than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault.

2. A masculine ministry seizes on full-orbed, biblical doctrine with a view to teaching it to the church and pressing it with courage into the lives of the people.

3. A masculine ministry brings out the more rugged aspects of the Christian life and presses them on the conscience of the church with a demeanor that accords with their proportion in Scripture.

4. A masculine ministry takes up heavy and painful realities in the Bible, and puts them forward to those who may not want to hear them.

5. A masculine ministry heralds the truth of Scripture, with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction, to the world and in the regular worship services of the church.

6. A masculine ministry welcomes the challenges and costs of strong, courageous leadership without complaint or self-pity with a view to putting in place principles and structures and plans and people to carry a whole church into joyful fruitfulness.

7. A masculine ministry publicly and privately advocates for the vital and manifold ministries of women in the life and mission of the church.

8. A masculine ministry models for the church the protection, nourishing, and cherishing of a wife and children as part of the high calling of leadership.

I have quoted Piper in such detail, and provided a link to the entire transcript, in order not to be accused of taking his comments out of context. Indeed, much (though not all) of what he says about "biblical" leadership is salutary in a context where courage is apparently in short supply. Moreover, I understand the context of his address. He is speaking to an audience of men who live in a culture where masculinity, though still somewhat advantageous economically, is not valued to the degree it once was. This, somewhat surprisingly, even manifests itself at times in evangelical contexts, where I have heard men disparaged for not expressing spirituality and "godliness" the way their female counterparts do. Piper indeed propounds what he describes as "masculine Christianity," but he does so in a way far less offensive than that advocated by, say, Mark Driscoll, for whom authentic Christian piety degenerates into a sort of sanctified machismo.

Of course, Piper aims to retard the influence of the growing numbers of evangelicals who, he believes, are wrongly conforming to worldly notions of male/female equality in the home and in the church. Nevertheless, I am not taking Piper to task for his forceful advocacy of so-called "complementarianism" (actually, I prefer to label it for what it is, "patriarchal hierarchicalism," obsessed as it is with gender roles and orders of authority and submission) rather than "egalitarianism" or "mutuality" (which, rightly understood, likewise embraces complementarity as per Genesis 2:18-25). Indeed, I myself fall somewhere on the spectrum between mutuality and what my friend Bill Webb calls "ultra-soft patriarchy," which gives a nod to the doomed continuance of the "present evil age," while maintaining that the gospel perspective enunciated in Galatians 3:28 ultimately overthrows patterns of authority and domination consequent upon the Fall (Gen 3:16). Nevertheless, the issue of patriarchy versus mutuality is a highly complex and delicate one involving sophisticated matters of exegesis and hermeneutics. I may not agree with Piper in all his exegetical conclusions, but his is not a position to be summarily and lightly dismissed

More to the point, one can still be a classic patriarchalist and avoid the missteps Piper makes in his address. For, you see, what Piper does is more serious than simply subordinate women in their ecclesial and domestic roles. Indeed, he explicitly prioritizes what he refers to as "masculine traits" over those he understands as "feminine traits." Christianity, in that it overwhelmingly speaks of God in masculine terms, and ordains male leadership in the church and in the home, has what he calls a "masculine feel." Hence, according to Piper, the church would do well to subordinate what he sees as "feminine" traits or characteristics to those he dubs "masculine," such as courage, forcefulness, and the impulse to provide. Contrary to what many today might think, Piper insists that this does not demean women, because only within such "masculine" structures can women truly prosper.

I beg to differ. Contra Piper, I believe what he has said is unnecessarily demeaning to women and distorts the proper way to understand their divinely-ordained place in the world. In particular, Piper's comments are, I believe, unfortunate in the following ways.

First, Piper ignores the implications of the creation of humanity as male and female to be the "image of God" (Gen 1:26-27). The best illustration of the significance of the imago dei is found in the story of Nebuchadnezzar's statue in Daniel 3:1-7. Gerhard von Rad captures the thought well:
Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon earth in God's image as God's sovereign emblem. He is really only God's representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God's claim to dominion over the earth. (60)
The imago dei, therefore, is not a mere function of human nature, but rather an articulation of humankind's role in the divine scheme of things. Humankind at large, male and female alike and together, serve as God's vice-regents, representing and mediating God's sovereign rule over the created order. What this means is that both "masculine" and "feminine" traits and characteristics are vital to the dominion or rule God has ordained for the human race. And this "male and female together" rule is the means by which God's sovereignty is brought to bear on what he has made. Therefore, God's own rule embraces both what we would characterize as "masculine" and "feminine" traits, neither of which can thus be privileged over the other.

Second, Piper minimizes the significance of feminine imagery applied to God in the Bible. It is of course true that God is overwhelmingly presented in the Bible as "Father" and "King" rather than "Mother" and "Queen." What is the ultimate significance of this, however? Biblical religion differs from its Ancient Near Eastern counterparts in a number of respects. Most significantly, of course, is its assertion of the incomparability and uniqueness of Israel's God, YHWH. All the "gods" of the nations are "idols" who, even if granted existence, are ontologically to be located on a plane lower than that occupied by the one true God. Furthermore, whereas the pagan gods of the surrounding cultures were sexual beings, YHWH was by definition asexual. Such epithets as "Father" and "King" are, therefore, culturally appropriate metaphors descriptive of YHWH's role as Israel's sovereign ruler and defender rather than literal references to his putative "maleness," let alone validation for a proposed supremacy of "masculine" leadership qualities.

The singularity of God has one further consequence. In the absence of female "deities," the biblical God had to function in ways that Israel's pagan neighbors normally attributed to their myriad goddesses. Daniel Kirk points to how the biblical name "El Shaddai" is more than once associated less with God's power than with his function of providing fruitfulness and fertility (Gen 35:11; 49:25). Moreover, the Old Testament uses explicitly feminine imagery when speaking of God:

You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deut 32:18)

Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,
all the remnant of the people of Israel,
you whom I have upheld since your birth,
and have carried since you were born. (Isa 46:3)
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you! (Isa 49:15)

Rachel Held Evans perceptively quotes John Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah on Isaiah 46:3, where the Reformer says: "God has manifested himself to be both Father and Mother so that we might be more aware of God’s constant presence and willingness to assist us" (p. 436, emphasis added).

Jesus even applies feminine imagery to himself in his poignant lament over Jerusalem without apparently damaging his masculine credentials:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Matt 23:37)

God, in other words, relates to his people with character traits stereotypically associated with both masculine and feminine roles. Yes, he is the creator and sovereign to whom we owe ultimate allegiance. He is our protector who has promised to bring us safely to glory after our earthly pilgrimage. Yet he is also our compassionate nurturer who feeds and nourishes us with his presence and word. Is God's compassion and mercy any less ultimate than his awesome sovereignty? In a word, No.

Third, Piper's elevation of such supposedly "masculine" traits as courage and fearlessness both succumbs to the worst of gender stereotyping and ignores the Bible's elevation of such stereotypically "feminine" virtues as meekness, gentleness, and kindness. Much could be said in this regard, but space is short. Nevertheless, I would suspect that many would consider his gender stereotyping to be, at best, quaint, or, at best, offensive. Are fearlessness and courage limited to males? Are women by nature cowardly and cowering? Do they really only find human fulfillment within the "masculine" structures provided by patriarchalist thinking? What about Deborah the Judge? To think in contemporary terms, what about Margaret Thatcher? I would argue that Piper has correctly put his finger on aspects of leadership that may be in eclipse in certain ecclesial contexts, and which must be promoted. Courage and fearlessness are two of these. Perhaps some men today are hesistant to act in such ways because of the exigencies of their current cultural context. If so, this is a message they need to hear. But are these traits gender specific? I have to say that, in my experience, they are not. And it is offensive to pretend that they are and to label them as prototypically "masculine."

Moreover, even a quick glimpse at Jesus' Beatitudes in Matthew 5 or Paul's list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 will expose one to the priorities of such Spirit-engendered qualities as peacemaking, meekness, gentleness, kindness, and merciful compassion. These traits are expected of all who claim the name of Christ, male and female alike. These are traits, I might add, that are just as important for leadership as the stereotypically male ones highlighted by Piper. Not surprisingly, these are also the traits because of which both Nietzsche heaped scorn on Christianity and such macho Christian Neanderthals as Driscoll deride contemporary church leadership as "limp-wristed." From my perspective, there is an awful lot of courage and authoritarian posturing in large segments of contemporary evangelicalism. What I find in short supply are the traits enumerated by Jesus and Paul, which I correspondingly think are more important for the future health of the church than the supposedly "masculine" ones lionized by Piper and his ilk.


  1. Well argued. Thank you, Jim, for pointing to the Genesis account of God making male and female in his image. And praise God, he is not only courageous and fearless, but also gentle, kind, merciful, and full of compassion.

  2. Dr. McGahey I appreciate your thoughts on Pipers comments. I too find them quit strange and unfortunate. It seems that these days Piper says something very strange about once a year.

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