Thank God for John Piper
I am grateful for the ministry of John Piper. His book “Desiring God” challenged my thinking as a teenager. His book “Let the nations be glad” provided quotes and hints when I was recruiting student evangelists to travel with my wife and I to go to Albania. The generosity of the Desiring God team kept me in supply of teaching tapes (do you remember tapes?) when we were living on virtually nothing. I appreciate Piper’s emphasis on expository preaching, his commitment to passionate charismatic worship, his concern to demonstrate God’s kingdom in social transformation, his desire for Christians to think deeply about their faith and his advocacy for the church to make adoption part of our mission in the world.
I have many friends who are ardent admirers of Piper’s work, however many of them would be selective about their endorsement of him. For example some love his commitment to reformed doctrine but not the charismatic style of worship he employs. Some love his commitment to Penal Substitution but would not share his passion for racial reconciliation. Many love his commitment to expository preaching but not his use of pre-recorded videos that he shows in place of live preaching in his churches. Many of my conservative Anglican friends are happy to endorse his theology except in the area of baptism not to mention his views on alcoholic abstinence. Others would admire his advocacy for Eternal Conscious Torment while being quietly critical of his church’s commitment to social transformation. In other words not all conservative evangelicals share all of John Piper’s views. They rightfully admire his many gifts whilst respectfully choosing to disagree with aspects of his theology and practice.
I share their admiration and respect their decision to dissent from some of his views, and I beg to do the same. Please read the following comments as a critique of one partuclar aspect of John Piper’s teaching, and not a character assassination of the man himself. I chose not to blog off the back of the headlines that came out of the Bethlehem Pastor’s conference, but now that the full text of Piper’s address is freely available I would like to offer my comments on his concept of ‘masculine Christianity’. They are my comments not those of the Evangelical Alliance for whom I work. As an Alliance we believe there are evangelicals on both sides of the debate surrounding the appropriate roles of women and men in church leadership.
Is God Male?
Piper writes: “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).”
John Piper is not claiming here that God is male – that would be to confer sexual identity that is not appropriate for our Triune God. But Piper is underlining the number of times God uses male metaphors to describe himself, suggesting that God uses male metaphors pervasively. Although he does not claim that these male metaphors are used exclusively, he chooses not to mention that God also uses quite a lot of feminine metaphors. Even a quick google search will get you the following:
- God as mother bear: Hosea 13:8 “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open”
- God as midwife: Psalm 22:9 “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you . . .”
- Jesus as mother hen: Matthew 23:37 “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”
- God as mother: Deuteronomy 32:18: “You deserted the Rock, who bore you. You forgot the God who gave you birth.”
- God as mother: Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
- God as mother: Job 38:29: “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens… ?”
- God as mother in labour: Isaiah 42:14 “But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant:.”
Piper seems to imply that because God uses the word ‘Man’ to describe both male and female, masculinity is some how superior. But Steve Holmes Senior Lecturer in Theology at St Andrews University would suggest an alternative understanding:
Both Hebrew and Greek have specific words meaning ‘male human being’ and ‘human being’.
In Hebrew Adam = human being; ish/enosh = male human being; in Greek anthropos = human being; aner = male human being), although in both cases the generic word seems occasionally to be used for the specific meaning. Adam is used in Gen.1:26, where the contrast is with animals, and 1Sam 15:29, where the contrast is with God – the meaning here must be generic; similarly, anthropos is used in a generic sense in Mt 4:19, 12:12; 1Cor. 15:39; Gal. 1:12; …). Finally, this is interesting: ‘Commenting on Gen. 5:2, Rabbi Simeon taught that “God does not make his abode in any place where male and female are not found together; nor are blessings found save in such a place, as it is written: ‘And he blessed them and called their name Man on the day that they were created.‘ Note that it says them and their name, not him and his name. The male is not even called man until he is united with the female”’
No one can refute that Jesus was a man and he called 12 male apostles but what inferences are we supposed to make from this? Should we infer from the fact that they were all Jewish that Christianity should be culturally Jewish in its current expression? Should we evangelicals infer from Jesus’ singleness that Christianity should be primarily single in its focus (with a proof text from 1 Corinthians 11 to offer in favour of its superiority)? The nature of the exegetical process of moving from what was to what ought to be is a difficult one. Prooftexting and ignoring large amounts of other biblical evidence is not sufficient. In my opinion it is a theologically unhelpful step to move from the observation that Jesus was a man to the premise that Christianity should be masculine. This is as flawed as saying because Jesus was a young single Jew so Christianity should be singularly Jewish and youthful.
It is also an interesting conflation to move from leadership in the church (1 Tim 2:2) to leadership in the home (Ephesians 5:22-23), without acknowledging that the flow of the argument begins in the conveniently ignored Ephesians 5:21.
Here are Piper’s 8 reasons why Christianity should be masculine. His arguments are based not on scripture but on the life and ministry of JC Ryle. My reflections are also included.
Responding to Piper’s Eight Traits of a Masculine Ministry
“Of all the helpful things that could be said about the life and ministry of J. C. Ryle, the theme of this conference is governing what I will focus on, namely, “The Value of a Masculine Ministry”—which I tried to define at the beginning. What I hope to do is illustrate the nature of this “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” with eight traits of such a ministry from the life and ministry of J. C. Ryle.”
1. A masculine ministry believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism that must come in a public ministry, than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault.
Is Piper implying that women could not or should not endure such assaults? The point is not that godly women can’t endure criticism, but that godly men prefer to take it for them. This sounds chivalrous, like a gentleman opening a door for a lady or a man offering his seat on public transport to a pregnant woman. But it is very hard to find a biblical precedent that would argue that men should offer to take criticism in place of women. This feels like a culturally bound preference being turned into a reason to limit women from taking leadership roles.
Listen how ridiculous this line of reasoning sounds when applied to ethnicity: (As an Asian I’ll pick my own race as an example) “Christianity should have a Caucasian feel because we want to stop Asians from having to carry the burden of fierce criticism. For this reason we should discourage Asians from being in leadership.” Does that sound as patronizing to you as it does to me?
I have met many “thick skinned” women who seem to be able to brush off criticism and many “thin skinned” men who can’t. By the grace of God there is a great diversity of personality types and to label all men as better at taking criticism seems to me reductionistic.
2. A masculine ministry seizes on full-orbed, biblical doctrine with a view to teaching it to the church and pressing it with courage into the lives of the people.
Again Piper nuances his position “The point of calling this failure of doctrinal nerve an unmanly failure is not that women can’t grasp and hold fast to the great doctrines of the faith. They can and should. The point is that when the foundations of the church are crumbling, the men should not stand still and wait for women to seize the tools and brick and mortar. And women should expect their men to be at the forefront of rebuilding the ruins.”
Piper rightfully recognizes that there are many women who can grasp and hold on to clear doctrine (brilliant), but he still argues that men should step up and not let the women “seize” the tools first. In my opinion if the foundations are crumbling we need all hands on deck to sort things out. In New Testament times with the apostles still alive God raised up godly women teachers to teach the scriptures and press it home. Priscilla (and her husband Aquilla – unusually Priscilla is named first which many have argued points to her taking the lead in the teaching) were happy to take Apollos aside and make sure he has grasped the foundations of the faith. Junias is a woman who is described as an apostle (See John Stott Message of Romans, IVP for more). Again this expectation that women would want their men to go before them and sort this out reads more like a cultural gender ascription, such as arguing women expect men to go and fix the car or mow the lawn. This reads more like a fundamentalist approach to culture as Os Guiness describes it:
“fundamentalism is not a tradition; it is essentially modern reaction to the modern world… What it does it reassert a lost world, a once intact but no longer taken for granted cultural reality; and in doing so, it both romanticizes the past, with its messiness airbrushed away, and radicalizes the present with its overlay of psychological defiance and cultural militancy.” Os Guiness, The Case for Civility, Harper One, p. 95
There is a danger that instead of engaging with cultural change biblically we just revert back to a romanticized past era. It is telling that these comments are coming in a homage to JC Ryle not a biblical exposition. Ryle’s life is rightfully celebrated but there is no room for the contextualization of Ryle’s example into a new cultural situation.
3. A masculine ministry brings out the more rugged aspects of the Christian life and presses them on the conscience of the church with a demeanor that accords with their proportion in Scripture.
This is strange language indeed: “the more rugged aspects of the Christian life”. What about the more tender aspects of the Christian life? What about the more refined aspects? Why are we putting a filter on the whole counsel of God? Do we want a masculine Christianity or do we want Christianity? Surely our aim should be to understand the scriptures as best we can in our cultural context. Is Piper asking me to filter out the parts of scripture which command us to be compassionate, tender, gracious because they might be deemed effeminate? I don’t want to deliberately cut the revelation of God in Christ down so that it echoes my cultural bias or my preference for a certain style of Christianity. Dr Piper is very vocal about his love for the scriptures so I struggle to understand why he would encourage this deliberate distortion of God’s word.
Piper concedes that women could do this, but he claims the theme of Christian warfare and other rugged aspects of biblical theology and life should draw the men of the church to take them up in the spirit of a protective warrior in his family and “tribe,” rather than expecting the women to take on the spirit of a combatant for the sake of the church. This language of protective warrior reminds me of John Eldridge’s book Wild at Heart rather than the scriptures which actually happen to have quite enough examples of rugged and fierce women. Perhaps Piper’s words would have more biblical tenacity if he had said “the spirit of a protective warrior like Deborah, or Jael or Queen Esther?”
4. A masculine ministry takes up heavy and painful realities in the Bible, and puts them forward to those who may not want to hear them.
By this Piper finds a way to get to one of the subjects he feels very passionately about. I was at the 3rd Lausanne Gathering in Cape town where Dr Piper managed to make Hell the central theme of his exposition of Ephesians 3. Piper’s point here is that men should spare women the burden of having to talk about hell with other people. Again this has no biblical mandate at all and is more like a cultural preference. Piper usually encourages women to be involved in evangelism and judging on my listening to his preaching I would have thought he would expect evangelism to include a fair bit about hell, so this point makes very little sense unless Piper would prefer women didn’t evangelise and left that to the men too or they should evangelise but not talk about Hell.
5. A masculine ministry heralds the truth of Scripture, with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction, to the world and in the regular worship services of the church.
I understand and respect Piper’s opinion that women shouldn’t preach. I disagree. But in this instance his argument here is not based on scripture but something else. His point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men. Piper seems to be arguing that somehow God speaks to men directly through their masculine nature. I don’t think I can find any biblical references to the idea of the masculine nature having a revelatory status – this is about as useful as saying. “Asians know intuitively by the Asian nature implanted in them by God that turning the hearts of men and women to God is the responsibility of Asians and not Caucasians.” No.
6. A masculine ministry welcomes the challenges and costs of strong, courageous leadership without complaint or self-pity with a view to putting in place principles and structures and plans and people to carry a whole church into joyful fruitfulness.
This statement implies that women lack courage or are more likely to indulge in complaint or self pity. This is such an unhelpful slur on women I find it hard to believe he wrote it. In my cultural context I have seen many more women demonstrating these kinds of qualities than men and I don’t think this has anything to do with gender at all.
7. A masculine ministry publicly and privately advocates for the vital and manifold ministries of women in the life and mission of the church.
Brilliant. I agree totally. Piper highlights Ryle’s drawing attention to the fact that in Romans 16, 11 out of 28 names that Paul gives special mention to are women. (He quietly bypasses the fact that one of them is ‘Junia’ most likely a female apostle and Priscilla the woman with the guts to challenge Apollos on his doctrine.) But to say that Christianity should have an overall masculine feel but that includes encouraging the ministries of women is hypocritical. Why should the Christian faith take on a particular gender? Should it also take on a particular cultural form? Say an Asian flavor? Should it take on a class too? Should it take on a middle class flavor? Should it have an accent? No. Surely it should contextualize and follow Paul’s desire to become all things to all people?
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
8. A masculine ministry models for the church the protection, nourishing, and cherishing of a wife and children as part of the high calling of leadership.
We want to encourage the family in ministry. We know that many ministers are single so we shouldn’t want to elevate the status of the married above the single. But again the cultural assumptions being made of what a marriage looks like is interesting. Proverbs 30 has a woman doing a lot of providing and nourishing and cherishing of her husband.
Is Christianity supposed to be masculine?
The gospel is good news for all people. If the Christian faith feels predominantly masculine I don’t think that helps us to put into practice the need to contextualise the eschatological identity of the church as the Bride of Christ. (A masculine bride is an interesting conundrum Piper has chosen not to grapple with).
Paul is very clear that the gospel relativises the cultural and gender hierarchies that used to separate the ancient world
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:9-12
For Paul it would seem that a predominantly masculine Christianity would betray the logic that Christ is all and in all. In fact it is interesting that the traits that Paul mentions to describe the people of God here (renewed, holy, beloved, compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient) aren’t those that Piper mentions for his masculine Christianity. Piper’s selective reading of scripture means he could end up promoting a deformed Christianity rather than a fully biblical one. Something I am sure he would not wish to see.
In my church we have several families where believing wives attend church without their unbelieving husbands. There are no men who attend without their wives. This trend in the UK has led many of us to try to wonder why the women are often being attracted more than the men. I am passionate about finding ways to show that the gospel is equally relevant for men as for women, that church is equally welcoming for men and women, and that our faith is as challenging for men as it is for women. However promoting a ‘masculine Christianity’ is not the way forward. If our churches don’t demonstrate the love of God to all people, if we appear more sexist than our culture, if we don’t check whether our cultural assumptions are driving us more than biblical faithfulness then we are in danger of doing great damage to the reputation of the gospel. Something I am sure Dr Piper does not want to do.
I am open to being corrected – please leave comments below.