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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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…
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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?
  11. 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.

MCA

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Posted on February 7, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Church/Ecclesiology, Current Events, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sexuality & Gender and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I really don’t like it when human actions or attitudes are attributed to gender, and sometimes church ministries who like dividing things into ‘men’s stuff’ and ‘women’s stuff’ reinforce gender stereotypes. These are not only unhelpful, but they rob men and women of having a fuller human experience, by discouraging them from acting/thinking like the other. An example: ‘women are the nurturers’ is an idea which can really discourage men from being too affectionate, gentle and ultra-kind/caring with their children – but they can be! And the ‘men are the strong protectors’ just causes so many women to continue in learned helplessness, which need not be – everyone knows not to get between a mother animal and her baby, or you will see what strength she can exhibit! So I am concerned that Piper’s stuff puts men off being tender and compassionate, willing to sit quietly and listen to the weak etc, as that is seen as chick stuff.

  2. A couple of things and I do want to make the disclaimer that I also wrote against Piper and don’t like what or how he said it.

    I do think however we could be taking what he says out of the context of what he is saying from where he is saying it. I head up the men’s ministry at church. We call it M.A.N. Which means Men of Action and Networking. Our key scripture passage is from Micah 6:8.

    There are times when I deliberately say provocative things to our guys. My intent within the group is to reform and build up our identity as men. If those things are taken out of the contextual framework of the men’s gathering, then they can be badly misconstrued.

    Tim Gombis has written an excellent reflection on why Piper chose J.C Ryle and how he is a representation of the so called British Empire glory years. Which fits into Piper’s and the rest of the Restless, Reformed mob sociological context.

    I also believe that Piper chose Ryle, to try and counter measure the damage his contemporary Mark Driscoll caused in regards to what he said recently in the UK about men who wore dresses. After all, this man he holds up as a ‘real man’ also wore the clergy frock.

  3. I think my favourite insight out of this whole debacle was when Fuller seminary’s J.R. Daniel Kirk pointed out that God is often described in feminine ways, and that a conservative translation of Rev. 1:13 actually suggests that the returning Christ has breasts! How awkward for Piper (and Driscoll and the rest of the neo-reformist-the-church-must-be-more-manly ilk).

    http://www.jrdkirk.com/2012/02/02/imaging-the-biblical-god/

    I believe Piper, like many in his tradition, have fallen prey to the modernist tendency towards [false] dichotomy. But I also understand where they are coming from, to a degree. In many ways Piper and other represent a counter-movement to a more ‘feminised’ church — which is a pretty problematic term, I realise, given how patriarchal church culture remains.

    I was reading something Driscoll had written a few days ago, and I had a moment of epiphany where I realised we’re actually coming from the same place, we just respond in different ways. He was talking about a male need for church to be challenging, active and engaging; I can’t quibble with that, although I strongly believe that non-violence, gender equality, serving the poor and marginalised and standing for truth and justice are more authentic expressions of masculinity in that regard than the somewhat distorted view that Piper and others hold. A christo-masculine church would in fact critique masculinity; Piper cannot treat masculinity as though its status quo makes it socially or politically neutral.

    I think the biggest issue with Piper’s theory is how un-masculine the early Church appears when viewed through this lens. A motley collection of men and women along with widows, poor people, the disenfranchised, sick and diseased, actively caring for each other and suffering persecution at the hands of a deeply patriarchal/hyper-masculine Roman Empire.

    So basically I think if Piper wants to argue for a masculine God, he needs to define his terms and explain what ‘biblical’ (whatever that means) masculinity looks like. But I don’t think he can do it and I don’t think it would be in any way, shape or form helpful to the Church.

  4. Greta Cornish Cornish

    In terms of theological reflection and hermeneutic critique, my thoughts have been summarised well by those who have already commented and so I won’t repeat them.
    What I will note is my own experience.
    I grew up in a household where no one followed Christ. While it was a traditional nuclear family (dad is very much ‘man of the house’ and mum is a housewife), I don’t recall ever feeling forced to be a ‘girly girl’ (e.g. while I owned Barbies and did ballet, they bought me Lego, played Cowboys and Indians with me and built billy carts) – and so there was never any pressure to be anything other than myself.
    When I started following Christ at roughly the age of 14 (who knows exactly when I made that decision!), I had strong male and female leaders who were encouraging – the role of gender was never a clear issue for me in the first few years of my faith journey.
    At the age of 16, after wrestling with my faith on a more intellectual level, I realised that there was a deep desire to study theology and to have a ‘career’ that included research and writing in that general field. This is perhaps the first time I had felt overwhelmed and confronted by the gender issue. The only scholarly types I knew of were males (old males at that!) – and for all I knew at the time, women were not theology academics (a simple case of “I’ve never seen them, so do they exist?”). I found encouragement from those male academics I did speak with – but I felt as though academia was a very masculine field that would lead to me perhaps having to downplay my femininity to fit in. It was somewhat of a burden, feeling passionate about something, but not knowing if I could wholly be myself in that field.
    I finally made it to Bible College when I was 22. I remember the moment of confirmation and relief. I walked into the open day several months before college started and met Jacqui Grey and Kate Tennikoff, who sat me down and took seriously the desire I felt to study in this field. These women did not fit my picture of male academia – but they were definitely academics. I remember feeling hope and at ease – for the first time, I realised it was possible to be an authentic woman and be taken seriously as an academic. If not for women like this, I have no idea what would have come of that desire within me.

    In saying that, I know my experience is not unique – Rachel Held-Evans, in a recent blog post, invited men to respond to Piper’s comments… the response was overwhelming: http://rachelheldevans.com/brothers-speak-out-john-piper-masculine

  5. Hey Matt,

    Don’t let this get to your head, as i know this hardly ever happens, but i whole heartedly agree with you!!!
    Piper is playing with fire. Not only is he entering in upon the theological interpretation debate in the anglican and catholic churches – it should really be taken as settled in good part of the non-established protestant church’s . He is confusing male dominated society with a male dominated church. He is also using a methodology that is and has been known to be dangerous. Piper’s focus on masculine christianity has been bothering me for sometime. Its not a new thing. He has taken a pre-world war 1 movement (He isn’t just raising a victorian bishop) and rebirthed as a solution to the perceived exestiantial crises of the Church communicating with the wider public. The original modern movement was during the vienna conference years when Europe (excluding german states and the 1870 french prussian war) enjoyed nearly 100 years of peace. The aim was to build a generation of young men who would do battle for the Church (spiritual battle – on the missionary and intellectual battlefields). It was abandoned because many in the Church felt that it was abused by the state to bolstering war efforts for national purposes during world war 1 and led to the carnege of a whole generation of young christian men (in their view though a blending/manipulation of spiritual and secular) resulting in the slaughter and starvation of millions. Its good to see others are catching on.

    Most your points are well done. I obviously enjoyed your violence blogs too (honestly, this really is a rarity- a few communist economic/political influences but hey life isn’t perfect)…

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