I really want to give people like John Piper the benefit of the doubt. Given that he’s a minister in the Baptist tradition, it doesn’t surprise me when he only refers to God as “he” or when he talks about the man’s role as spiritual head of the household. I grew up Baptist, so I’ve heard it all before.
But he goes too far with it. Way too far. And given the breadth of his influence, his message serves to normalize the marginalization of half (slightly more than, in fact) the world’s population. While I expect he believes he is fulfilling a divine call in sharing his message, I believe I’m serving a similar call in holding him to account.
Piper, recently keynoted a conference called “God, Manhood and Ministry: Building Men for the Body of Christ.” On first blush, this sound both exciting and very necessary. Men are leaving organized religion in droves, and in many cases, they are walking away from their families as well. I agree wholeheartedly that today’s man needs some clarity, support and guidance in how to exhibit Christ-like traits of strength, conviction, love and dedication both in the home and in communities of faith.
None of this, however, requires the relegation of women to a second-tier role, which is precisely what Piper seems to be doing.
“When I say masculine Christianity or masculine ministry or Christianity with a masculine feel,” says Piper, “here’s what I mean: Theology and church and mission are marked by an overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading and protecting and providing for the community. All of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
First, a few points of agreement. If Piper and his ilk simply focused on values such as “tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice,” we would have plenty of fertile common ground. But why this requires “an overarching godly male leadership” for these traits to be realized still is a mystery.
Also, a point of clarification. It was pointed out to me by a female pastor and friend of mine, Sandhya Jha, that Piper mistakenly uses maleness and masculinity as if they are synonyms. But as convenient as it may seem to craft a binary reality in which all men are entirely masculine and all women are wholly feminine, that’s just not realistic.
Even Jesus himself hearkens his feminine attributes in Luke 13:34, when he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
Does this mean Jesus secretly was a woman? No. But it means that he exhibits at times some characteristics that are considered more feminine. The mistake of many on the right is to draw a false conclusion from this that, because a man demonstrates some typically feminine qualities (and I’m not just talking about the effete stereotypes of gay men in the media), they’re somehow less of a man.
This is no more true that it is to say a woman can exhibit no masculine qualities and still be a woman.
Along this same line of thinking, it’s worth pointing out a scripture in Isaiah 66:13 in which the prophet likens God’s comfort for the Israelites to that of a mother: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
Now, on to some claims Piper makes, followed by some clarification on a few things. This is taken from the annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry.
“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male. God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.”
I want to take these claims point-by-point, as they are the foundation of his argument for “overarching godly male leadership” in church, at home, and in culture as a whole.
- “God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother…”
This assumes that humanity had no hand in writing the Bible, no cultural bias, no agenda, and that we simply transcribed what was given to us verbatim. If this is the case why, then, was Jesus compelled to challenge the ancient laws throughout his ministry? And why is it that we feel we must obey some of the laws laid out in Leviticus, but not others? The answer is because we place some of the texts in cultural context before applying them to contemporary life. Why, then, do we conveniently neglect to do so when it serves our own agenda, like in this case? Scripture was written by men (at least the books that were canonized from what we can tell), and the culture at the time was pervasively male-dominated. This has to be taken into consideration when reading scripture. And incidentally, when Piper says God is pervasively male throughout scripture, he seems to be leaving out the Isaiah and Luke passages I noted above. Isn’t this proof-texting?
- “Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter…”
Jesus had no easy road in sharing his gospel message. How do we think it would have been received if it had been delivered by a woman in that place and time? That Jesus was male was a cultural necessity, but this does not support the case that God favors testicles over ovaries.
- “The Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male.”
First, I have to give props to Piper for alluding to the first creation story here, in which God says “let us create mankind in our own image,” and not just skipping to Genesis 2, which many tend to do. However, he makes a leap to construe that the “us” in this text is the male God and Jesus, the son. Keep in mind that, when this was written, no one had any idea who Jesus was or would be. Also, the story is consistent with other creation stories from polytheistic religions, which suggests (like many other Christian narratives adapted from other religious and cultural traditions) that the authors were consciously alluding to other traditions, while re-purposing the story for their own message.
If, in fact, given the fact that most polytheistic traditions include both male and female God figures, and given that male and female were the beings created in “their” image, it stands to reason that the “us” in question, if not multiple Gods, would at least be a reference to both masculine and feminine expressions of the divine.
- “…the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male…”
Though the word “ADAM” in Hebrew can be construed to refer specifically to a male, the etymology of the word is more gender-inclusive. It can be more accurately translated as “human,” and even more literally as “red”, “fair” or “handsome.”
- “God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men…(Jesus) chose 12 men to be His apostles…”
Yes, the only priests in the Old Testament were men, and yes, the priests (all men) said God told them to do it that way. But when we consider Jesus’ ministry, there really is no question that there were women involved actively in his ministry, whether the authors of the gospels chose to recognize them as apostles or not. Erin Smallwood Wathen notes, “Mary and Martha, Talitha, Lydia, the women at Joppa, Euodia and Syntiche” all were among the ones who followed Jesus faithfully and carried out his ministry.
In fact, in Mark, Chapter 1, Simon’s mother-in-law is healed of her fever by Jesus and immediately begins to serve. The Hebrew word used to describe her is Komehr (כומר). Scholars often recognize her as the first deacon of the Christian church, but it’s interesting to note that the word Komehr can be translated as: priest, deacon, minister, pastor, preacher, parson, vicar, or can be applied to ANY positions of authority within Christianity. In Hebrew, there was no distinction between deacons, priests, apostles, etc. It’s only later that we’ve drawn such lines.
Yes, later on Paul and other church leaders determined that men should be in charge, which is consistent with the culture of the time, but Jesus makes no distinction. And if we lean on the original understanding of church leadership, you were either a leader or not. Jesus empowered women as leaders – not lesser leaders but simply as leaders – and there was no hierarchy to place one at the head of the others. It seems that human nature crept back in following Jesus’ death, which is understandable. We still see it happening today. But there is no credible example I can find in Christ’s own ministry to support to placement of men over women in the Christian faith.
Yes, God is referred to in many English translations predominately as a “He,” however as Joan Ball notes, divine wisdom as described in Proverbs 1:20-33 is feminine. Jenni Martin Fairbanks observed, “…the Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruah, and she is feminine. So, Ruah = Spirit in the Old Testament, and the Greek word for Spirit in the New Testament is gender neutral.”
I could go on, and I may elaborate more in future posts if other questions arise. But This is already a much longer than normal post. I do want to offer my thanks to the many women who offered their input for this piece, and particularly to Rachel Held Evans for her thorough discussion of this from a woman's perspective.
Generally, we have to be very careful in confusing cultural norms with God’s will. Yes, we can use Paul’s writing to justify women keeping silent in church, but we can also cite Paul to suggest that, in Christ, there is no gender distinction to be made. Ultimately for me, it comes down to looking to Christ as an example.
Time and again, Jesus broke through gender barriers to reach out to, speak with, heal and serve alongside women. He even served women himself in ways thought shocking by his peers. He engaged the woman at the well in deep theological matters. He depended on women to subsidize his ministry.
Women were the only ones of his faithful to stand by him at the cross.
They were the first to witness his resurrection at the tomb.
The first to know of Jesus’ pending birth was Mary, a single teenage girl.
As the husband of an ordained female minister, I have seen first-hand some of the benefits of feminine wisdom, compassion, communication and pastoral care offered by a female pastor. And though it may seem trite, I tend to agree with the command to claim the faith of a child.
When I ask my daughter, Zoe, if she knows what God looks like, her face always lights up and a broad smile creeps across her face.
“I sure do,” she says, “and she has a really, really big, beautiful face.”
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date. For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.