Monday, March 18, 2013

So-Called "Complementarians": The Goofy, the Offensive, and the Obnoxious (Part 2)

Last week I introduced the subject of the ideological foibles of more extreme "complementarians" by discussing yet another of John Piper's perambulations on the goofy side. Piper, believing that men are "hardwired" to protect and women to be protected, put forth a situation in which a couple is approached by a would-be armed mugger. In Pastor John's view, the man should single-handedly put on his cape and and come to his partner's defense even if the woman is a black belt in karate. Because, says Piper, that's what men do.

Where Piper goes off the rails here is not his belief that the man should exercise courage in the situation. The instinct to protect a weaker partner is real, and acting upon it is praiseworthy. Moreover, he even can claim biblical support in Paul's comparison of the relation of husband and wife to that between Christ and his church (Eph 5:22-33). Christ gave his life for the church's benefit. A fortiori, a husband should be willing to do no less. The problem is Piper's lack of nuance, and indeed his palpably legalistic way of applying genuinely Christian principles and circumventing common sense. As Jenny Rae Armstrong notes, Piper and others like him proceed on the assumption that masculinity and femininity are akin to Platonic ideals according to which men and women must conform or be judged as failures. Of course, men are, on average, larger, stronger, and more athletic than women. For most men, to shrink back and cower in a situation like Piper puts forward would be reprehensible. But not all men and not in every circumstance. Indeed, to insist on "defending" his partner when she is more qualified to act would simply be a case of prideful, foolish machismo ... which brings me to my second example of "complementarianism" gone wrong.

Mark Driscoll is Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Unlike Piper, he is not a bona fide scholar, though he did earn a Master's degree from Western Seminary in Portland. He is known for many things, among them his role in the surprising Calvinist renewal in American evangelicalism over the past decade. He is also a vocal proponent of the "masculinity movement" in contemporary American Christianity, perhaps best evidenced in John Eldredge's best-selling Wild at Heart (for a wonderful critique of the movement, see Brandon O'Brien's 2008 article in Christianity Today here). Driscoll's concern is a legitimate one: the under-representation of males in church. His diagnosis of the pathology, however, is not entirely persuasive: an ecclesiastical testosterone deficiency. [an aside: interestingly, the fictional, theologically-liberal vicar Adam Smallbone in the marvelous BBC comedy Rev. complains in one episode about how the Church of England has become "feminised."] In particular, the conventional picture of Jesus (most famously portrayed by Warner Sallman in his 1940 painting) is unappealing to "real men."

In Driscoll's view, "real men" avoid church because of its portrayal of Jesus as a "Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ." What "real man," he avers, would want to live or die for such a wimp? On the contrary, "Jesus was not a long-haired … effeminate-looking dude"; rather, he had "callused hands and big biceps." Driscoll's alternative, the type of Jesus "real men" are drawn to: the "Ultimate Fighting Jesus" who was manly enough to drive the traders from the Temple the week of his execution (all these may be found in his famous sermon, "Death by Love," available here). Jesus, in Driscoll's view, embodied what it was like to be a "real man." What type of men are such "real" specimens of masculinity? Certainly not the "limp-wristed" men our society and the church have conspired to foist upon us. No: they are "dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes." And they are certainly not to be confused in any way with "real women."

At this point I don't know whether to laugh or cry. His portrait sounds to me like a justified and sanctified R. R. Donnelley employee: a stereotype painted with a broom if ever there was one. Let me be up front. I love sports. I played basketball in college and wistfully long for the days of old-fashioned, smash mouth football. I prefer brown ales and porters to drinks with tiny umbrellas in them (and I certainly don't drink "flavored" coffees and herbal teas). I listen to the blues and classic rock and avoid pop ballads, contemporary "country," and sugary R&B like the plague. And my grooming habits and dress would lead no one ever to consider me a "metrosexual." So I suppose Driscoll would consider me a "real man." Then again, I love classical music and the high visual arts. I prefer art house films to action thrillers. I prefer reading to working with my hands. And I find UFC brutally uninteresting. The point is that is more than a little ridiculous to make "masculinity" and "femininity" into Procrustean beds into which to force or stretch individual males and females so as to, supposedly, "conform" to "biblical" standards.

What is worse, Driscoll and others like him act as if the "ways things are" (at least in general terms) necessarily equals "the way things are supposed to be." Christians in the masculine movement decry the fact that, as Driscoll puts it, "the forty percent [of people in the church who are not "chicks"] that are dudes are still sort of chicks." They have become "chicks," supposedly, through the inculcation of "niceness" as a constituent element of Christian discipleship. Instead, such authors argue, Christian men should develop the characteristics of their divinely-given maleness, such as aggression, assertiveness, competitiveness, and whatnot. But Jesus, their ultimate model of masculinity, also was one who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 13:35). Lamenting over Jerusalem's inevitable destruction, he cries, "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings" (Matt 23:37).

Moreover, as O'Brien astutely comments:

The Fall has done more damage to the human heart than the masculinity movement seems willing to admit. For instance, a man's natural inclinations may prompt him to be "Boss, Bold, Brash, Bully, and Blunt," as one of GodMen's sayings suggests. But most of these are qualities of the old self that are destroyed when one is transformed into the image of Christ. A man's urge for battle—with fist or pen—may well be natural, but that doesn't automatically make it godly. In other words, conversion does not sanctify our instincts; rather, it demands that we submit all our instincts to the lordship of Christ and crucify the sinful ones, what Paul calls "the flesh" (Eph. 2).
Indeed, it is the role of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—to produce in God's people those characteristics that should adorn people who are the beneficiaries of the new creation inaugurated by the Christ event. St. Paul calls these "the fruit of the Spirit," and they include the following, not stereotypically masculine traits: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). One suspects that some of those who call for a decidedly "masculine" Christianity would be overtly suspicious of a Christian man who inculcated many of these traits. Gentleness and the UFC don't really fit well together. And to ridicule "niceness" and "gentleness" as "feminine" traits is demeaning to the God who desires each of these to characterize all of us—male and female alike—who confess Jesus as Lord.

This is not to say that men and women are identical in emotional, let alone physical, makeup. Nor is it necessarily to say that men and women are not designed to be "complementary" to each other, most specifically in the realm of the family. But it is to say that legalisms of the sort that rigidly define masculine and feminine traits and preferences, and that assign necessary roles based on those stereotyped characteristics, are unhelpful at best. At worst, they can be harmful to the self-image and spiritual development of men and women who don't conform to such naive expectations. And that is offensive to the God who has made each of us differently to serve as his image in his world.


  1. Well put, Jim. Thank you, sincerely!

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