John Piper’s Masculine Christianity

Once again a complementarian pastor has gone out and said some stupidly sexist things. Recently we’ve heard similar from the always angry Mark Driscoll who tends to think because he is a tough manly man who likes violence and sexual dominance that the Bible unequivocally agrees with his destructive and anti-Christ-like teachings. Sometimes I think I need to be more blunt about characters like Driscoll, other times I think I need to take the high ground and trust that most people hearing him realize he’s full of himself and not much ethical insight, and yet other times I feel sorry for him because he really is just an immature little man trying desperately to hold onto his power by projecting his views and insecurities onto everyone else.

But not long later, this time it wasn’t Driscoll saying something stupid. It was John Piper. For those unfamiliar with him, Piper is virtually the “prophet” of the neo-Reformed complementarian movement. Generally speaking I’m less familiar with Piper because I don’t agree with a lot, but I’ve never gotten the sense of his being as aggressively damaging as Driscoll. So I’m a little more sympathetic this time, but when it comes down to it, he is still severely harming half of humanity (half of the image of God) and creating a theology with potential to hurt a lot more, including men, if people take his comments at face value.

But first, this is me trying to a bit more sympathetic. I do think his comments are sometimes being ripped out of context a little with the flood of blogs rebuking Piper. This post gives the best context I’m finding so I’ll work largely from it. Read the whole thing from there before reading some of the more particular comments that are (rightfully) getting him in trouble.

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.

So I don’t think his comments are as terrible as are being portrayed in some responses. In context, they aren’t that big of a stretch away from standard complementarianism. He believes that men are to lead and women are to submit. He believes that women equally benefit from this, so from his perspective this is not sexist. Not quoted here, but he even goes on to describe what “a masculine ministry” looks like and most of it doesn’t even have anything to do with gender roles. For the most part, they are about being assertive in teaching the orthodox faith. Things that are generally good for both men and women to be. Even the one exception sounds noble to the non-feminist: protect women from criticism. Like many others, I would refute his concepts of “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood.” I don’t think it is nearly that clearcut and throwing biblical as the adjective in front of it just makes it sound like they have some backing for their views, which ultimately they don’t. I would even argue the opposite – within its context, the Bible is pretty revolutionary in the fight for rights for women (even though some other parts are quite backward to us 2000 years later).

Rachel Held Evans has issued a challenge to men of the church who disagree with Piper to make it clear that not every Christian man thinks that the church is meant to be for tough, aggressive, angry, domineering muscle men. She points out quite rightly that whenever women complain about the sexism, they are dismissed as “angry feminists.” Well, I guess I’m an angry feminist, too, because this definitely made me want to punch my monitor. Although that kind of stupid aggression is what is often meant by those like Piper and Driscoll as “masculine,” so maybe they’d still accept me after all.

Piper believes that God only ever reveals “himself” as a man throughout Scripture and otherwise throughout history. He’s flat-out wrong. It is true that the bulk of imagery for God is male imagery. I suspect that there are good contextual reasons for that, namely that there more authority culturally allowed by a god than by a goddess (which is still true today in some circles like Driscoll’s critique of The Shack as being goddess-worship). Far more interesting, however, is that the Bible is not short of imagery for God as a woman, either. For those who pride themselves as ultimately being true to the Bible (as they understand it), it is simply wrong for Piper and Driscoll to say that there are no feminine images of God in the Bible. That isn’t debatable. Look at that list.

So even if you grant that both man and woman are made in the image of God and therefore God is both male and female, they next of course say that obviously that’s true but that the church is still supposed to be masculine. So what do we do with those texts that have female leaders of equal authority? Usually, they are simply ignored. It is also well-established historically that in the early stages of the church, the majority of the adherents were of the less-respected variety: women, slaves, lower-class economically. It was one of the reasons why the culture repeatedly rejected Christianity: they were upsetting family values! Think about that for a second: one of the biggest reasons the early Christians were persecuted were because they had too liberal of family values, even to the extent of allowing women to stay single or to lead in the church. Oh, the irony when that is compared to the neo-Reformed complementarian movement. I have yet to hear any kind of explanation from the complementarian position of all of these great women leading throughout Scripture and church history.

The other problem is the word “masculine.” It is bad enough to say that only men can lead the church. But Driscoll definitely – and maybe Piper or maybe he just chose his words poorly – think that there has to be a specific type of man who leads. It needs to be the manly man. The man who feels no emotion except sometimes anger at sinners. The man who will not budge on his opinion because he knows he is right. The man who knows how to tell women and lesser men what to do. The man who loves UFC because men are supposed to enjoy violence (Driscoll has talked about this one before). Ironically, there is an ancient Greek word for “masculine” and it does not appear a single time in the New Testament. Seemed to be a lot more of an understanding that there is no longer male or female (Galatians 3:28).

It is definitely a cultural idea of manhood, but you know who I would rather look at as an example of what it means to be a man as we’re made to be? Jesus. Call me crazy, but when I call myself a Christian I think that means I set my example after Christ, not after (outdated) culture. Simply put, I think Jesus was a feminist, too. The original feminist, maybe. And not a very masculine feminist, either. Jesus wept! Men don’t weep! If Piper and Driscoll had their way, Jesus would not be allowed in the church! Jesus gave himself up when he could have fought back. He decided to suffer. He turned the typical masculine conception of power completely upside down by saying that real love is sacrifice, not dominance. He kept healing women. He had women followers, not women who tagged along with their husbands, but women who decided on their own volition what to believe and how to live. He even upset a lot of social norms about women such as with the woman at the well who was not only a woman, was not only a foreigner, but had been passed around by various husbands and was now living with a man she wasn’t married to. There was a reason that women were the majority of the early church: they were respected and liberated by Jesus and by his followers for the first couple hundred years.

Before wrapping up, I want to make a blunt statement: I firmly believe that I would not be a Christian if not for key women in my life. Sure, since Piper and Driscoll are also Calvinists, they’d argue that I would have been some way or another anyway – or else maybe more likely, they’d argue that I’m still not saved. How I could I be if what I think was salvation came through women who were defying God by influencing me, a man? I’d argue the opposite – I don’t think it is a coincidence thatdevelopment psychology supports the idea that we mostly get our ideas of God from our mothers. Did God screw up on this one? Why would we be programmed to get our primary idea of God by analogy from our mothers if God has never revealed himself to us as a woman? I think it’s actually the exact opposite: God describes herself as our mother in places throughout Scripture, and I think the unconditional care of most women for their children is the most powerful example of God’s love in the world. So there’s one of the major influences in giving me such a desire to follow Jesus: my mother. I’ll add two more key figures in my formative years: my grandmother who led (what a terrible idea!) in Sunday School as well as in other ways for the family, and the intern youth pastor at the Baptist church where I attended youth group for a couple of years just before leaving for university which was when my faith was really solidifying. There were some important men, too: my pastor at my home church and the youth pastor at the church I attended when I first came to university were probably the biggest two. All put together, I think my view of God fairly closes lines up to that in Scripture of both male and female, but even if I still believed in God at all without those women, it definitely would have been a twisted version of God as proclaimed by manly man Mark Driscoll and John Piper.

So in summary, I firmly believe that to embrace a masculine Christianity is to abandon the way of Christ. We are all, male and female, equally made in the image of God. This is attested to throughout Scripture with female images of God and with female church leaders, throughout church history with hugely important women, and throughout my own life. A masculine Christianity is not simply missing the point of the Gospel – it is contradictory to it and has led many men and women to dismiss Christianity entirely or to have the warped image of the tough-guy God. As well as those I’ve linked already, here’s another great blog I didn’t see a way to directly tie in:

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Ben08

    I agree with a lot of what your saying, and a woman can be very beneficial in teaching, encouraging etc.

    How do you view 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”?

    • The key concept for understanding anything in Scripture is context. I linked to a bunch of texts that do have women in equal or higher authority roles. It was very common in the early church, with about 50% of the leadership in the first 3 generations or so being women before slowly tapering off to be all men by about 300 CE. So we need to ask which we pick and choose to be true for all time. Were the women in Romans 16 the exception to the rule found in 1 Timothy 2:12, or was the specific context in Timothy’s church the exception to the rule of women leading such as those in Romans 16 did? To me, the latter makes far more sense in its consistency with other Scriptural texts like how Jesus treats women, how God often portrays herself as a woman, the Galatians claim that there is no longer male nor female, etc.

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  • Jan Fourowls

    Keep writing! You do wonderful work here. Reasons are always
    multilayered but from lived experience among various Christian modes of
    practice, I’ve noticed that domination within professed Christian practice
    mirrors the prevailing society of global culture generally, and this mirrored
    domination is comfortable for many professing Christians. (A predominant cultural
    circle feeding on itself.)

    Also many pastors rely for their “higher” authority on a literalist
    English translation (or cultural mistranslation) of the Bible. Then their
    congregation (filled with people acclimated to domination culture) need not
    question what’s printed on the page as translated into the English which arose
    as language in cultures of dominance. (More predominant circularity.) For
    example, “authentein” (Greek) as translated in 1 Timothy 2:11-15,
    could be translated as “originator” and therefore a Pauline caution
    against lapsing back toward temple sex-priestess dogma of males’
    origination from females by a corrupted earth mother goddess religion in
    Ephesus where Timothy pastored. Apparently the translators into English
    of the Greek texts didn’t want to go there several hundred years ago, and most
    don’t want to hear about it today. Breaking free from the predominant circularity
    isn’t easy but blogs like yours help to open minds and hearts. Thank you!

    From the mid-1800’s until now it has not been easy for slaveholders or dominant
    persons of any type to give up the thrill and/or profit of controlling another
    human being especially when the Bible in English has condoned the practice.

    Praying for changed hearts by those who believe differently (about domination and
    otherwise) helps me extend the radical love of Jesus. Facing my own
    lapses from Christ’s radical love helps me forgive myself and those in
    Christendom who might castigate me for even daring as a woman to write this.

    • Many good thoughts here. Thanks for sharing!

      • Jan Fourowls

        Thank you, Ryan! I expanded on the ideas in a post to my fledgling blog, https://reverendjan.wordpress.com/. I spent so many long years searching elsewhere (outside the direct relationship with Jesus) because the witness of so many in the churches seemed to exclude me and other women from full humanity. The issue of parity in Christ affects about 3.5 billion women and all men of good will, which makes us collectively the majority. Your voice is very appreciated.

  • Jessica Eyler

    This is great. Thank you so much for writing this.