Stop the Presses: John Piper Thinks Christianity Is Masculine

If you’re connected with the great big family known as American evangelicalism, you might have heard of pastor and author John Piper’s recent un-startling announcement that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel.” This comes as the non-news-story of the day as Brother Piper has been saying something along this line for some decades now.

Still, some folk have poked me into responding. So here’s a response:

Of course Brother John isn’t implying thereby that only men are true Christians or only men are loved by God or only men are created in the image of God. Let’s not waste time responding (as many apparently are) to things he didn’t say and never does say.

Brother John is saying, as he has been saying all along, that men and women will thrive best when they play the roles God has ordained: men leading and women following, men teaching and women learning, men taking initiative and women responding, men doing (I’m resorting deliberately to a vague locution because a lot of the complementarian language is pretty vague in this spot) and women supporting men doing.

As I argue in “Finally Feminist,” however, the fact that God chooses to portray Godself in primarily masculine terms in Scripture does not imply that men ought to play these roles, world without end. Scripture’s depiction of God in generally (but not exclusively–it is important to remember) masculine roles makes sense–in the patriarchal cultural realities of the Bible’s day and of most cultures since–of the theological points God is making about who God is and how God relates to God’s people and God’s world. What relevance that all has to how human men ought to relate to human women is a question to be considered carefully drawing on the whole counsel of God.

Indeed, it is a logical mistake to say that God’s depicting Godself in masculine terms entails that the religion of Christianity ought to be masculine. For Christianity is not God, but is the way we human beings live in response to God. So if God is masculine in this picture, then the way we ought to respond to God would be (as C. S. Lewis notoriously suggested) feminine. And both Testaments image the people of God in those terms: bride of Yhwh, bride of Christ.

One interesting implication of this overly-simple way of looking at things would then be that we ought to have ONLY women lead the church and the Christian family, in order to teach and model for all of us how to be properly feminine in response to our masculine God.

So is John Piper actually opening the door to the feminizing of Christianity and sneakily laying the groundwork for an exclusively female clergy? Is he in fact a feminist wolf in complementarian sheep’s clothing, finally revealing his true colours? It’s fun to consider, but of course he’s not. What he is, instead, is just a brother arguing a bit badly.

Let’s keep hearing John Piper on the good things he has to say. And let’s just set aside those things he says–and we all say such things at times, especially those of us, like him and like me, that say a lot–that really aren’t so good.

22 Responses to “Stop the Presses: John Piper Thinks Christianity Is Masculine”

  1. Gee Lowe

    Prof. Stackhouse, thanks for responding to Piper on this, for too many of us are mesmerized by the simple but mistaken logic of our Brother Piper.

  2. matichuk

    I actually paid very little attention to Piper’s comments despite every other blog opining on it. Loved your analysis and your graciousness towards brother Pipe.

  3. Poetreehugger

    Good one: “feminist wolf in complementarian sheep’s clothing”! What a delightful and imaginative turn of phrase! Lol.

  4. Steve Wilkinson

    I really need to get to reading “Finally Feminist” one of these days! It has been in the queue far too long. I guess I should buy the Kindle version, as I seem to get through books easier that way.

    I’ve always been a bit confused as to what the complementarian (I don’t like those terms) argument actually is: a) that men and women were created with the above roles/relationship, or b) that it is a result of the fall. (a) would seem to fall on shaky ground Scripturally, while (b) would seem to be something to be corrected. After all, farmers invented tractors and I haven’t seen too many Christians picketing their use. (When I was a complementarian, I never really thought about that aspect of it.)

    At the same time, we’ve certainly been designed in complementary ways, so general roles might often be appropriate to best work together. And, equality wouldn’t necessarily have a bearing on something like pastoral office.

    For me, the things that have lead me to the egalitarian (again, I hate the term) camp are 1) the general witness of Scripture seems to outweigh the couple difficult verses (maybe only one), which are actually quite difficult verses for either camp, and 2) the implications of working out the complementarian view to the logical conclusions. (Either a position lacking Biblical support and even in conflict with Scripture at points, or something we should be fighting against anyway.)

    re: Piper – Maybe he’s been listening to Mark Driscoll too much (that guy seems utterly confused about masculine/macho)? 😉

    Gosh, come to think of it, Evangelicalism has been quite a circus lately… with the Elephant Room event where they apparently did away with Chalcedon and welcomed modalism into the fold, the ruckus over Driscol’s marriage book, or the continuing saga of The Great Evangelical Cover-up involving Ergun Caner, Norm Geisler, and others.
    I guess it keeps things exciting if nothing else. 🙂

  5. Linda Wightman

    “God’s depicting Godself in masculine terms entails” … “the theological points God is making about who God is and how God relates to God’s people and God’s world” — I greatly appreciated Finally Feminist, and if forced would consider myself an egalitarian at heart (though I thoroughly dislike the labels), I would attend a complementarian church and deal with their irksome attitudes rather than face such language in worship.

    If God did not create pronouns, then they are at least as useful a human post-Fall invention as the tractor. I’ll consider giving up on the use of “he” as an all-inclusive pronoun when the rest of the English-speaking world stops using “duck” to mean “duck or drake.”

  6. Chris E

    This would be fine if this were just an off the cuff remark, however it’s clear that for some people this is rapidly becoming something of primary importance.

    The problem isn’t with complementarianism in and of itself, but seeking to defend it in this way risks knock on effects on the rest of our theology, as Steve Holmes from St Andrews pointed this out on his blog:

    http://shoredfragments.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/if-god-is-male/

  7. Linda Wightman

    I apologize; I should not have jumped in and criticized your language so rudely. Let me say now what I should have said first: Thank you for such a gracious response to one with whom you have a serious disagreement.

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks, Sister Linda. I’m sympathetic with your view about usage. I use phrases like “Godself” both to remind myself that God isn’t just male (because I do tend to think that way) and because many people I care about do find the masculine pronouns hard to countenance. But I wish our language would hurry up and evolve to give us pronouns that will satisfy all our various concerns in this regard! 😉

  8. Matthew Young

    Vintage Stackhouse — careful, thoughtful, helpful and wise. You are one of the best out there for helping guide the church in these topics. Thank you!

  9. Stan Fowler

    John, you managed to both encourage and annoy me in one post. You encouraged me by pointing out that Piper’s comments are quite unremarkable, given the history of his statements on the topic. When I began to see the reactions in cyberspace, I assumed that he had made some shocking new pronouncement that took the debate to another level. But after reading the actual text of his remarks, I concluded that the only thing new was the link to Bishop Ryle.

    My annoyance is linked to the use of “Godself”. I’m a lot more accepting of that than I used to be, but something deep inside me rebels against it. I certainly share your concern to avoid any indication that God is male, but that isn’t really asserted by anyone, is it? I don’t share all the views of Piper and his comrades, but I am still convinced that God has made us as male and female in a way that makes it more appropriate to speak of God in masculine terms, so “Godself” is still a bit hard to swallow. But I do try to focus on the content, not the form.

  10. Eric Kyte

    Your allusion to Lewis’ notorious suggestion (is he Regent’s Patron Saint?? 🙂 ), reminded me of Jacques Ellul, whom I seem to remember suggested that as woman was created last, she was the pinnacle of the human creation

    Thanks for yet more stimulating and entertaining thoughts, John.

  11. Verity3

    “Of course Brother John isn’t implying thereby that only men are true Christians or only men are loved by God or only men are created in the image of God. Let’s not waste time responding (as many apparently are) to things he didn’t say and never does say.”

    There are too many women hearing the message that they are not able to represent God and/or follow Christ as our role model, for us to believe that “of course” John Piper “isn’t implying thereby” such heresy.

    • TriciaM

      Please, John, comment on this video when you have time. Despite disagreeing with Piper’s words on masculine Christianity, I never thought I’d hear “it depends on the kind of abuse”.

      • John Stackhouse

        Even allowing that everyone has bad days, that I myself wish I had answered certain questions in public much better than I did, and that we rarely can say everything we would like to say on a difficult issue, this clip is just breathtaking to me. I’ve delayed responding because I had to let the initial shock of it subside so I could write about it as charitably and clearly as I can.

        Toward the beginning, Brother John refers to “the kind of abuse” and suggests that some people might call “verbal unkindness” by the term “abuse.” Fair enough. I’m sure we would all agree that some people like to play the victim, that some people call anything they don’t like “abuse,” that some people can manipulate their spouses with threats of accusations of abuse, and so on. And, to give credit where credit’s due, I’m glad that toward the end of the clip he says that the church should tell the abuser that he must not abuse his wife and that the church will discipline him.

        But, frankly, the whole clip gives me a queasy feeling. Right away we encounter a weird smile and rueful laugh at the question. Would this be the reaction if someone had asked, “Should a child obey a parent who was torturing him every day and compelling him to hurt other children?” or “Should an employee obey a boss who enslaved her in a dungeon, addicted her to drugs, and forced her into prostitution?” What’s amusing about that?

        All I can figure is that this is the reaction pastors (and professors) sometimes give when we’re faced with a question that we know our answer to which is going to upset some people in the audience. I react like this when someone asks me about predestination, say, or about infant baptism versus The Bible’s Plain Teaching about Baptism. (Little joke there for you paedobaptists. And that’ll be it for jokes in this comment.)

        But how can one react to THIS question with anything other than instant horror, compassion, and indignation? And it’s weird to see so little of those emotions on display in this clip.

        I see instead a disturbing toleration of abuse, encouraging women to put up with verbal abuse up to and including an experience of physical violence. Only then–when the abuse has gotten to a physically violent phase–does Brother John indicate that the woman should take preventative and remedial action.

        I would put the matter differently. Really, really differently.

        Instead, Sister, take good counsel as soon as you experience your man hurting you–and I mean taking it to other women, and particularly women trained in dealing with abusive relationships.

        Make sure you are processing the situation properly. Make sure you are not responding out of a brokenness in your psyche such that you are enabling evil. That’s why you need competent counsel, not just sympathy.

        Putting this point the other way ’round, don’t just take it to your male pastor and board of male elders, as Brother John advises. Take it to them too, sure, but not just them and not even them first. Especially don’t take it to them if they teach this kind of ethic of response to abuse! Take it to your sisters and experts on abuse first, who will understand and counsel you so that you can best approach the pastoral leaders of the church in due course.

        Insist that your man deal with his abusive ways such that they will not recur. Cycles of abuse and repentance are so common even psychological laypeople like me know about them. So get competent counsel as to how to deal effectively with your situation. Do not try to deal with it on your own. That’s how abused women get dead.

        Make sure that you and your children are safe all the while you deal with this deterioration in your marriage. Don’t wait for things to get “really bad.” If you’re using the word “abuse” in your head, things are now that bad.

        What stunned me toward the end of this clip is Brother Piper’s omission of a key word: “police.” Have we Christians learned nothing from the Roman Catholic travails over unreported, “let’s deal with it within the church” cases of child abuse–all over the world and for decades now?

        By the time your man smacks you, sister, he clearly has lost any sense of restraint from his religious consciousness. Having the church leaders appeal to that consciousness can be part of his possible rehabilitation, perhaps, but for now, the evidence suggests that he’s not listening very hard to the Holy Spirit. It’s time to get the police involved to pour some cold, thick reality on the flame of his selfish rage–as well as to have justice done and protection rendered to the victims of this crime. For crime–not just sin, but crime–it is.

        Other bloggers rightly have shaken their heads at Brother John’s suggesting how a woman should react to her husband asking her to join him in sin–in this case, group sex. In what healthy scenario would a wife respond to this suggestion starting with the word, “Honey”? And what about that soft, almost wheedling voice Brother John recommends women use when their men make such requests?

        Instead, how about leading off with a terse “Are you crazy?” Or a shocked “Don’t you love or honour or cherish me anymore?” Or a determined “Excuse me, I have to call my lawyer”?

        And while a husband asking his wife to engage in demeaning sexual activity is not as bad as him abusing her–hence greater the attention I’ve given to that part of Brother John’s comments–it’s all of a piece, isn’t it? The husband throughout this situation is behaving selfishly and at the expense of his wife–the great, damaging expense of his wife. And once again, as is so often the case in this subculture, we strangely have the focus on the woman responding as best she can to the man’s sin rather than the man being told to not sin in the first place.

        I would like to have seen Brother John put first things first here: “Before I talk to the woman who posed this question, I want to speak to the men. Men? Don’t abuse your wives. Ever. You do that, and we’ll discipline you, including cooperating fully with the state authorities to make sure that our congregation is the safest place around for women and children. Got that, men? Okay. Now, women….”

        Yes, we all worry that some people check out of marriages and families too quickly. We all wish more homes could stay whole. We are all called to suffer for the Lord’s sake, including putting up with grief in close relationships. We all know that romantic love (as I write on Valentine’s Day) is super-fun but also intermittent at best for most couples, and that other kinds of love must come alongside it and, yes, mostly replace it for the serious adult work of marriage and family life. Good. Let’s keep teaching that wisdom well.

        But we cannot responsibly teach an understanding of gender that risks putting people in harm’s way. And telling women to put up with abuse–any abuse, verbal or physical–is putting them in harm’s way. It’s wrong. It’s dangerous. And I can’t understand why Brother John hasn’t pulled this clip from the Net and replaced it with a much more sensible, protective one.

        • TriciaM

          Thanks, John for a well thought out reply. “Queasy” is a very good word. Piper HAS pulled this clip but hasn’t replaced it with anything as far as I can tell. For this reason, I can only assume that it was the threat of bad press rather than a change of heart that led to it’s removal.

  12. Spencer Capier

    I just don’t get why this Piper guy has been a part of mainstream Christianity. According to him God is primarily wrathful, and women should stay at home and put up with demeaning relationships. There is very little of the scent of Jesus about him, and rather more of the stench of patriarchy. Mars Church’s pastor and Piper are why I think American Right Wing Christianity isn’t really Christianity anymore.

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