On ‘Masculine’ Christianity

The Christian blogosphere is all abuzz with John Piper’s call for a masculine Christianity in an address about J C Ryle.

There was a big and lively (!) discussion over at Jesus Creed.

Daniel Kirk, has an excellent two part response here proposing a very different, and to my mind a much more convincing, way of reading the NT that gets beyond hierarchy and institutionalised relationships between the sexes.

This debate ain’t new. Male leadership is a defining mark of Piper’s ministry over the years. It is insistent, theologically central and hugely influential, especially in America.

But reading Piper’s talk, the whole edifice rests on a purely subjective idea of masculinity that even has nothing to do with J C Ryle (apart from the fact that he was once called ‘manly’!!). It seems closer to a 1950s Marlboro man ideal than any description of a Spirit filled Christian in the NT (who shows the fruit of the Spirit: love joy peace patience kindness gentleness faithfulness and self-control].

To me Piper’s construct is frankly bizarre. Nowhere is ‘masculinity’ endorsed as a model for Christianity in the NT.

I’m also appalled by the implications of what he says for women. If Christianity is innately ‘masculine’ and ordained so by God, whatever qualifications follow about women being made in the image of God and being encouraged to use their gifts within the church etc etc, the implication is inescapable that women are second best citizens within the body of Christ.

Sorry sisters, femininity just isn’t and will never be as good as masculinity and there’s nothing you can do about it.

What seems to be happening, especially in America, is an increasingly deep polarisation over men and women in ministry in the church. And for Piper to argue that Christianity is innately ‘masculine’ is to ‘up the ante’ significantly in this already polarised debate.

Why do you think he is being so insistently and unnecessarily divisive?

For it’s one thing to be ‘complementarian’ and argue that certain roles within church leadership are for men, it’s quite another to say ‘masculinity’ is, in effect, closer in some way to who God is – and I think that is a fair conclusion of what Piper says.

Now I’m well aware that those on the God ordained hierarchy side (complementarians) are equally appalled by the egalitarians’ rejection of what they see as clear biblical teaching on the particular roles for men in leadership in the church and home.

What is needed is careful language and a willingness to seek out areas of agreement. A willingness to seek unity and think the best of each other. I confess that I find it hard to do this reading Piper’s talk.

But then I read these marvellous words in the wonderful 2010 Cape Town Commitment from Lausanne III.

Do read what it says below  …. and unless evangelicals on both sides of this argument take heed of these wise words, the gender issue, and the vitriol it is unleashing,  will increasingly eat away at the already weakened notion of unity around gospel essentials and liberty in matters of adiaphora (secondary importance).

This isn’t to say such adiaphora are unimportant – they are vital in shaping what sort of local church you and I end up belonging to. I would not choose to belong to a church which did not encourage and release women in leadership and ministry for example. But I  also would want to affirm as fellow evangelical Christians those who, for reasons I am unpersuaded by, do so choose. I hope that they would do the same for me.

To answer my own question above – it seems to me that Piper and others are deliberately attempting to shift this issue from the adiaphora category to essential category by rooting it in the nature and character of God himself.

So there are close parallels here with recent attempts by complementarian evangelicals to locate women’s subordination to men in the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father within the Trinity.  An attempt that Kevin Giles has argued is heading in the direction of Arian heresy. See here and here.


3. Men and women in partnership

Scripture affirms that God created men and women in his image and gave them dominion over the earth together. Sin entered human life and history through man and woman acting together in rebellion against God. Through the cross of Christ, God brought salvation, acceptance and unity to men and women equally. At Pentecost God poured out his Spirit of prophecy on all flesh, sons and daughters alike. Women and men are thus equal in creation, in sin, in salvation, and in the Spirit.

All of us, women and men, married and single, are responsible to employ God’s gifts for the benefit of others, as stewards of God’s grace, and for the praise and glory of Christ. All of us, therefore, are also responsible to enable all God’s people to exercise all the gifts that God has given for all the areas of service to which God calls the Church. We should not quench the Spirit by despising the ministry of any. Further, we are determined to see ministry within the body of Christ as a gifting and responsibility in which we are called to serve, and not as a status and right that we demand.

A)    We uphold Lausanne’s historic position: ‘We affirm that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed to all God’s people, women and men, and that their partnership in evangelization must be welcomed for the common good.’ We acknowledge the enormous and sacrificial contribution that women have made to world mission, ministering to both men and women, from biblical times to the present.

B)    We recognize that there are different views sincerely held by those who seek to be faithful and obedient to Scripture. Some interpret apostolic teaching to imply that women should not teach or preach, or that they may do so but not in sole authority over men. Others interpret the spiritual equality of women, the exercise of the edifying gift of prophecy by women in the New Testament church, and their hosting of churches in their homes, as implying that the spiritual gifts of leading and teaching may be received and exercised in ministry by both women and men. We call upon those on different sides of the argument to:

  1. Accept one another without condemnation in relation to matters of dispute, for while we may disagree, we have no grounds for division, destructive speaking, or ungodly hostility towards one another.
  2. Study Scripture carefully together, with due regard for the context and culture of the original authors and contemporary readers;
  3. Recognize that where there is genuine pain we must show compassion; where there is injustice and lack of integrity we must stand against them; and where there is resistance to the manifest work of the Holy Spirit in any sister or brother we must repent;
  4. Commit ourselves to a pattern of ministry, male and female, that reflects the servanthood of Jesus Christ, not worldly striving for power and status.

C)    We encourage churches to acknowledge godly women who teach and model what is good, as Paul commanded, and to open wider doors of opportunity for women in education, service, and leadership, particularly in contexts where the gospel challenges unjust cultural traditions. We long that women should not be hindered from exercising God’s gifts or following God’s call on their lives.


15 thoughts on “On ‘Masculine’ Christianity

  1. ‘Bizarre’ is a good word to describe some evangelical’s obsession with manly Christianity. What are they afraid of? Surely fear plays a huge role in driving this movement? Would be interested to hear your thoughts.


  2. I read Piper’s comments with trepidation after reading your own but can only conclude that Piper is right. There is something wrong with the church globally. We are infected by the world’s ideology at every level even in our theology and evangelism to say nothing of our understanding of issues like gender and sexuality. As a consequences denominations like the Anglican Communion have become ‘effiminate.’ The feminist cry for equality moreover has not resulted in a greater or deeper sense of humility among women in the church – but rather of people clamouring for their ‘rights’ at any and every cost. Allied to the breakdown in the biblical understanding of the roles of men and women has emerged the aggressive homosexual agenda that is blighting the worldwide church. Against this backdrop Piper boldly calls us back to biblical principles where Christ glories in being subject to the Father and woman reflects Christ’s calling by submitting to her husband (who loves her in turn as Christ loved the church). The reason why it all might be a bit of a shock to you Patrick is because the church has moved so far away from the teaching of the New Testament over the past quarter of a century. I agree – it’s a shock to the system. Intriguingly enough Piper is right about the ways in which ‘maleness’ models God in the bible. But even on cultural grounds alone we might expect this. For the Ancient Near East was full of female deities who had played their part in leading Israel astray. A new kind of spiritual leadership was called for therefore. If Piper is wrong then I suggest that his critics take out their bibles and show where he is wrong on biblical grounds rather than judge him by the standards of ‘postmodernism’ so called. The problem as I see it today is that too much evangelical theology is being done through secular literary and sociological models. In this sense Piper is prophetically refreshing. So I lay down the gauntlet! Where is Piper off the mark biblically?

    • I have Jesus and the Father on my shelf … quote
      “The parallels between what the fourth century “Arians” and contemporary evangelicals who argue for the Son’s eternal subordination in function and authority are teaching is quite amazing.”
      “Unintentionally they have embraced fundamental aspects of the Arian heresy in its varied forms, producing a strange amalgam of truth and error”

  3. To be honest i don’t buy it. Subordination-ISM which as i understand it is simply saying the son (and the Spirit) are less than the Father is a far cry from saying the Son has a subordinate role as he only does what the Father commands. I told the difference is between a ontological and relational subordination. Which would correspond with complementarian views that the difference is one of roles.

  4. Ivan, I’m not shocked at complementarian teaching – and I want to affirm a common evangelical identity and unity in the midst of that difference.

    As you highlight, and Richard is commenting on, the point is actually the doctrine of God.

    You say maleness models God in the Bible and Piper is right to talk of Christianity as innately masculine.

    The proposal here is that God’s preference for male leadership reveals something about his being. So God’s identity is innately ‘masculine’ – and since God is a caring Father, a male-led church (and society) will flourish – including the women in it.

    As I said in the post, nowhere in the NT is ‘masculinity’ endorsed, let alone defined, as a model for Christianity. What is ‘masculinity’ by the way? In which culture is it being defined? In which period of history? It is not at all obvious or simple to define. That’s why I called it subjective.

    More seriously, theologically, this is a re-writing of traditional Chrisitan orthodoxy on the doctrine of God in the service of a particular reading of the Bible about male-female relationships. God is not masculine. Male and female are made in his image. It is, as far as I am aware, a new and innovative idea in Christian history to suggest that God’s ‘masculinity’ should translate into support for different gender roles in the church and family.

    And this links, Richard, to Giles. The argument some evangelicals are making is that the son is eternally functionally subordinate to the Father, not just for his mission on earth. you can see why – they want to connect this permanent eternal form of subordination (the way things are within the Trinity) to the way things should be between men and women.

    But Giles is right – this is incompatible with historic Christian trinitarian orthodoxy. To introduce eternal hierarchy within the Trinity is to begin down the Arian path of the son being lesser than the Father.

    I’m not saying Piper or others are unorthodox or heretical! – but they do seem to be unwise in engaging in innovative and speculative theology to support particular views on gender.

  5. Thank you for your comments Patrick – and for your additional piece on this subject. There is I feel a tension in what you say. Christ flattens out distinctions, ‘hierarchical’ and otherwise, between men and woman. Masculinity, gender roles, etc., are nullified by the fact that we are new creations and all one in Christ Jesus etc. Most thinking Christians will be very familiar with these ideas and agree that there is a basis for them in the New Testament. The problem however is that there are also lots of other uncomfortable verses in scripture which crystalize the notion that God created men and women differently – and that there is such a thing as male ‘headship’ – and that this goes back to the Fall where Eve is told her ‘desire will be for husband.’ Far from this just being a mere theological idea it is rooted in the history and experience of homo sapiens from the dawn of our species. Men have led, hunted, protected, and guided as ‘head of the household’ for pragmatic reasons if nothing else – whilst woman have nurtured children. This is simply fact of human history inscribed (if in nothing else) in the physical differences between the sexes. The Fall as decribed in Genesis portrays a realistic picture of male-female relationships as they have outworked themselves through time in virtually every human society we know of. New Testament writers like Paul do not abandon this understanding because of the Christ event. Paul speaks of women having to defer to their husbands because of Eve’s sin. He expects them to wear head covering as a sign of modesty etc. It is also a fact that Jesus did not appoint female apostles – an incredible omission if a ‘new age’ of gender liberation had arrived. I must strongly disagree with you when you suggest that some kind of ontological subordination is implied by Jesus’ submission to the Father – or that his functional subordination (if we can call it that) implies a distorted view of the Trinity. Jesus was sent by the Father. He died on the cross. The Father was not incarnate even though we may speak of him as being in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The very notion of a Father-Son relationship, and New Testament ideas such as the son’s ‘obedience’ to the Father (yet being one and equal with the Father) can very easily translate (as Paul suggests they do) into a paradigm for Christian marriage. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive and have nothing to do with Arianism it seems to me. What I feel you need to do Patrick is tackle those New Testament verses which seem on the surface at least to undermine the argument that men and women are not ‘hierarchically’ related before God. I don’t think it is without significance that since God ordained principles of marriage have been abandoned by the world we have descended into moral and sexual chaos. This is worth thinking about. We live in a society and culture in which nobody wants to be a servant or defer to the other or play second fiddle to anybody else. I fear much feminist theology is more about self aggrandizement than God. And nor is this to imply that historically males have been paragons of virtue and mirro-imaged Christ to their spouses. The question is what has happened in society as a consequence of the abandonement of the biblical notion of ‘male headship’?

  6. Ivan, you are covering a lot of ground ! – just some points and comments in return, and I’d like to follow some of this up in some posts based on Cherith Fee Nordling’s article

    – I don’t think gender differences are nullified in Christ. That would be boring! 😉 It is the cultural and religious significance of those differences which are transcended – no male/female, no slave/free, no Jew/ Gentile.

    – Your reading of ‘headship’ being rooted in the Fall is exactly a point of contention – egalitarians point out it is the result of the curse not part of the original created order. And it is this curse which will be transcended and overcome in Christ.

    – the headcoverings of 1 Cor 11 and the interpretation of the unique NT word authentien in 1 Timothy 2:12-13 are addressing specific problems in local churches (which are extremely hard to identity by all sides). To ‘essentialise’ such texts is to misinterpret them.

    – The 12 Apostles argument is an argument from silence and with no regard for the cultural specificity of the NT narrative. It also ignores how Jesus deliberately and radically subverted that culture in terms of the value and dignity of women. Which leads on to the next point.

    – this whole issue needs to read eschatologically. A fatal weakness to me about the complementarian position is how it fails to do this. You begin by acknowledging the implications of the new creation, but then backtrack. The quote by Nordling in the next post captures this – the new creation has come and the Spirit has been poured on all. There is no hint anywhere that the gifts of teaching and leadership are only given to men. As she says, to do so is to go backward to the old creation. We are to live now in light of the kingdom to come.

    – on the doctrine of God. I disagree. I don’t think you have engaged with what some evangelicals are arguing. Grudem has suggested that gender hierarchy is based on an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father. Others have even argued it is based in ‘being’ itself. This is simply outside historic Christian Trinitarian orthodoxy. They are doing this to root hierarchy in God’s nature and to argue for an eternal hierarchy within the new creation between men and women – in this life and the next.

    – The argument for evangelical egalitarianism is not about ‘rights’ nor it is about seeking power or position or advocating sexual chaos. It is a much more positive vision. It is simply an argument that the biblical texts point to the equal place of women in all aspects of the new covenant community of the people of God. This has place for complementarity and difference – we need each other for the fullness of the image of God to be reflected in the church.

  7. I’ve been personally devastated by the John Piper comments.

    I’m so deeply grateful for you, Patrick, and others who have presented a more balanced view (along with calls for unity which I greatly appreciate) but I continue to be “cast down” when I read the tone and weight of comments.

    Some seem to be far more concerned about the threat (??) of feminism than the terrible blow that has been dealt to sisters in Christ by the implication that Christianity (and therefore God) is somehow more exclusively masculine… thus implying a special relationship between God and man or a greater value of a man in God’s thinking. (I wonder how people would have responded if John Piper had said Christianity was “white” or “American”? The early church could have as easily said Christianity was essentially “Jewish” – and some did!)

    Overall, this leaves me feeling silenced. How can I respond when the instant reaction is to condemn me as a feminist, as somehow seeking self-aggrandizement???

    Yet Proverbs 31:8 says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves…” (I love the context – two verses later there is a beautiful description of a woman who lives as her Creator intended).

    I hurt for my daughters if they are to grow up in a church that does not value them fully and completely as I KNOW that our Lord Jesus values them!

    For me this goes much, much deeper than the secondary issue of women in leadership (over which I’m content to differ and, where necessary, to respect and defer to those with other views) but it goes to the heart of a woman’s relationship with God.

  8. Thanks Ruth for your honesty and openness. Whatever the intentions, femininity comes second best to masculinity in Piper’s proposal. Your comment shows what that does to women in the church and those are voices that need to be heard.

    Wearestardustwearegolden (Mika fan? 😉 ) – coming back to your original comment, I think the fear is of an undermining of biblical truth and authority. It’s the slippery slope type argument.

    And over the last number of years the ‘traditional view’ has become the biblical view. And this biblical view = hierarchical order. So Grudem and Piper’s book ‘Biblical manhood and womanhood’.

    So to go against this interpretation is to challenge core evangelical words like ‘biblical’ – those who disagree are unbiblical with all that follows ….. Hence a deep-seated fear of and resistence to an alternative interpretation.

  9. OK let me narrow things down a bit – two questions..

    1. Patrick you write (regarding my last entry):

    “Your reading of ‘headship’ being rooted in the Fall is exactly a point of contention – egalitarians point out it is the result of the curse not part of the original created order. And it is this curse which will be transcended and overcome in Christ.”

    Yes indeed – I agree. Male headship came as a consequence of the fall and ultimately will be overcome/transcended in Christ.

    But when?

    There are simply too many Pauline verses which suggest that headship is still a vital, living reality. For example,

    “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be subject, in everything, to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

    Now if the cross and resurrection have abolished male headship which arose as a consequence of the Fall why does Paul still employ the language of headship and enjoin wives to be submissive to their husbands?

    2. Regarding your comments on the Trinity.

    How would you interpret 1 Corinthians 15:28 ?:

    “When all things are subjected to him [Jesus], then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.”

    To me this has nothing to do with ‘ontological’ subjection as the persons of the Trinity share the same nature. Rather it has to do with their triune infinite self-giving love for each other which instances the Lord Jesus Christ being ‘sent’ and being the agent through which the Father redeems creation through Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. As Christians we are called to oudo one another in showing love and in honouring one another – we are also asked to put others before ourselves. As the one who is ‘sent’ by the Father Jesus shows us to the nth degree what this might entail in the life of God.

    In Philippians 2 Jesus is the self emptying God who became a slave and was crucified on a criminal’s cross.

    We are all called to follow in his footsteps in the service of others.

    If men have abused their headship they will answer to God.

    But let’s not throw the theological baby out with the bath water.

    The truth is we are living in age when feminists and patriarchalists alike are not intent on being servants – never mind suffering servants.


  10. Lots could be said and has been by others … I’m glad we agree that male headship is a result of the fall. Certainly many complementarians would not agree – they root it in a ‘creation order’ which is eternal (and again some try to root it in the Trinity).

    From this position, I think the texts need to be read in a ‘liberationist’ way – the whole flow of the narrative is eschatological towards a full redemption of the created order.

    So, interpreters of a text like Eph 5 (and I’d want to start at verse 21 which is significant) point out the Greco-Roman household codes of Paul’s day. These typically gave the man huge power and authority within the patriarchial society of the time.

    Paul’s commands are radical in this context. He is engaging with and rewriting the household codes for the new household of God.

    See the unique command for mutual submission (vs 21) by all Christians to each other. And the wife’s submission to her husband is an aspect of this call for all Christians to submit to each other. The patriarchial power of the husband – who would certainly not have been expected to submit to anyone – is radically relativised by Paul’s astonishing command to him specifically.

    The command to the man goes further than the command to the woman – it is deeper and more counter-cultural, revolutionary indeed. The culture would have been all about his rights – she as his property. But Paul goes to the cross instead. Such sacrificial loving brings unity (again in contrast to the wider culture).

    The head image does not lead to the man having ‘spiritual authority over’ – Paul is working within established cultural patterns of his day and subverting them. The meaning of head here is defined by sacrifical self giving love.

    Yes the wife submits to her husband – as he gives up all for her in love. This is a two way process.

    There are many variations on this sort of interpretation – but the bigger picture is how Paul is working within but challenging the established patriarchy of they day and how the new young church was a radical community of equals in a highly stratified and unequal culture.

    The big point to me is how those who argue for a divine endorsement of hierarchy are reading the texts in a way that seems to resist the joyful, liberating and radically equalising narrative of the NT seen in our Lord Jesus and carried on in the rest of the NT with the outpouring of the Spirit.

    PS I don’t think we are disgreeing on the Trinity. I am simply disagreeing with those who argue for hierarchy within the Trinity.

  11. Thank you for your comments Patrick.

    Yes, I agree Eph 5:21 must be incorporated into any understanding of the passage under consideration.

    Yes, Christianity (and Judaism to be fair) gave women a dignity denied them in Graeco-Roman society.

    What we must guard against though is the notion that Paul thought like a post-1960s liberal westerner.

    In the context of the mutual submission of all Christians to one another he still singles out women and enjoins them to be submissive to their husbands (never the other way round). We must allow that Paul said what he meant and meant what he said and that he wasn’t merely paying lip service to the cultural mores of his day. We must allow Paul to be a first century Jew.

    We must also understand that Paul’s command to woman was not a licence for men to oppress their spouses or lord it over them even if men have done that shamefully and abundantly over the centuries (not because they have misread the bible incidentally – but simply because they are selfish).

    The command that Paul issues is Christologically rooted in Jesus’ sacrificial self-giving on behalf of the father and others. Women thus have an opportunity to model Christ’s love in marriage, as men have the opportunity (also Christologically rooted) to love their wives as Christ loved the church.

    I fully understand why feminists in particular detest verses like this. But Paul sees submissiveness as the route to liberation not slavery.

    There is no question that the institution of marriage has suffered enormously since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. When I look at the mess married couples and families are in as consequence of society ditching its Christian roots I am loathe to lend my support to movements that undermine biblical teaching about marriage. It may not be trendy (even in ‘progressive’ evangelical circles) but is wiser and safer to heed the Word of God than to be driven by godless ideologies that are ripping up the foundations of our faith.

    The day we cease to be counter-cultural is the day we forfeit our right to be bearers of Christ’s gospel.

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