reflections on piper’s “masculine christianity”
Hello readers! It’s nice to be back on board life.remixed after a week of work travel – apologies for the gap.
Since I’ve been away for a little bit this post will be reflecting on an event from last week. Though it is a little old, I feel that this event deserves some treatment, particularly since I have been asked about it a number of times.
On Wednesday last week the Christian Post ran a story entitled John Piper: ‘God Gave Christianity a Masculine Feel’. It reported that Piper, at the 2012 ‘Desiring God’ Conference (which he founded), declared “God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”
The full transcript of the sermon records that Piper, speaking to a room full of pastors, backed up this claim by saying:
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).
The sermon goes on, concentrating largely on the ‘masculine’ life of 19th-century English bishop John C. Ryle. I will refrain from quoting it at length (click the link above for the full text). Much has been written on other blogs, so I will simply offer some points of interest as to why I think Piper’s claims are simplistic, exegetically sloppy and ideologically-driven.
- It is obvious that the Bible paints God in masculine language the majority of the time. It is obvious that Jesus was male. It is obvious that the vast majority of leadership figures in the Bible were male. What is unexplored however is why this is the case. Some of the reasons are equally as obvious as the above points – The biblical authors were likely all male and so described God mainly in masculine terms (very few women would have been able to read and write); Jesus would have had to be male to lead the movement he did in his cultural context, as would other leaders in the Bible; these were simply cultural necessities. There is no reason why any of these things would have needed to be the case had they occurred today. If the Bible were written today women may well represent half the authors since many females can now read and this would surely affect the language used of God. Jesus would not necessarily need to be a man, nor do leaders need to nowadays be uniformly male, since in our context women can lead world-changing movements. Piper bypasses context altogether, failing to appreciate that the social worlds of the ancients is vastly different from our own, and that maybe, just maybe, this has a bearing on the biblical text.
- Following on from the last point, if there was a cultural status quo regarding women in early Judaism then Jesus and the early Christians shattered it in their community lives. Jesus took on female disciples, a huge no-no in most strands of Judaism. Women became the first witnesses of Jesus’ Resurrection even though their testimonies were not considered trustworthy in Jewish society at large; such was the counter-cultural value given women in early Christianity.
- Paul’s writings are often used to support patriarchy, especially by those of Piperian ilk. These passages are, however, largely taken out of context revealing a hermeneutic that is no better than the most basic form of fundamentalistic proof-texting. While I cannot address all the contentious passages, here are a couple. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul does not universally ban women from speaking in the ekklesia, he counsels against the church acting in ways that will negatively affect its witness to the rest of society – read all of 1 Corinthians 9 for the context; for the Corinthians it seems that having outspoken women may have been just such a social issue. In Ephesians 5 Paul may counsel wives to obey their husbands, but two things should ward us from applying this universally; 1) we would need to apply the same universalising ethic to the section about masters and slaves in Ephesians 6, something we do not do, and; 2) by naming wives before husbands in Ephesians 5 Paul subtly gives them the literary position of greater value – check out every other pair of names in the Bible, the dominant party is always named first – what might Paul be trying to say?
- What seems fairly unambiguous in Paul is the definitive statement that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. These barriers are dismantled in Christ; why then does Piper insist on reassembling them?
- In terms of Church leadership specifically, Paul names ”Prisca” and ”Junia” amongst the church leaders in Romans 16. Idiot! Didn’t he know those were women’s names? Hmmm…
- Changing focus slightly, nothing is said by Piper of the female attributes of God as found in the Bible (see this post from the archives). Interesting that the aspect of ‘salvation’ so emphasised by Piper and his friends is illustrated by the image of giving birth (“born again”). Who is it that is giving birth exactly? Can this be said to be masculine? How does this reflect on the Church?
- Related to the above point, if the Church is the Bride of Christ, does Piper ignore this metaphor? If not, does he expect the Church to be a kind of masculine bride? Why should some metaphors be definitive for the “feel” of the Church while others are bypassed?
- As Scot McKnight has said, there is a word for “masculine” in Greek; andreia. You would get the idea from Piper’s sermon, and indeed his wider androcentric theology, that this word is common in the New Testament since he seems to squeeze everything through it. Interesting that in fact, and I can’t stress this enough, that the word andreia does not appear in the New Testament at all. Not even once.
- In short, Piper makes no attempt to show that the “masculinity” of Christianity is an ontologically inherent property. That is, Piper does not show that such masculinity is anything but a cultural trait. Since there is no reason to translate cultural values embedded in the Bible without good reason, Piper makes the jump from description to prescription without warrant.
- Piper’s patriarchal theology smacks of cultural-driven ideology. This is perhaps best illustrated by his esteeming of the “frank and manly” John C. Ryle, a Victorian era bishop. Why esteem this man? No real reason is given but that he was “a strong and forceful personality.” This sets up a very particular view of masculinity that is exported to both the biblical text and to the expectations placed on contemporary men. It also betrays a fear of the perceived threat of cultural change and a desire to return to the “good ol’ days” – good for whom, exactly?
- Piper, who in Western Evangelicalism embodies a kind of pop-scholarship (not a criticism), should deal with complexity far better than he does. To speak as if there were static categories of “biblical” masculinity and femininity, manhood and womanhood is a reflection of either laziness, ignorance or dishonesty. If there were such categories, who would represent them? The polygamous Abraham? The sexually licentious David? The authoritative Deborah?
I’m sure there are lots more things that could be said beyond these rather loose thoughts, and indeed you should check out some of the fantastic blog posts around the internet on this subject if it interests you. Interested in your thoughts.
Posted on February 7, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Church/Ecclesiology, Current Events, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged Desiring God, God Gave Christianity a Masculine Feel, John Piper, Masculine Christianity, Masculinity, Patriarchy. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.