John Piper, Gender Roles, and Women in Combat

In the wake of the decision to allow women to serve in combat positions, let’s take a look at popular evangelical leader John Piper article on the subject, “Co-Ed Combat and Cultural Cowardice.”

If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea. Part of the meaning of manhood as God created us is the sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of our women.

Back in the seventies, when I taught in college, feminism was new and cool. So my ideas on manhood were viewed as the social construct of a dying chauvinistic era. I had not yet been enlightened that competencies, not divine wiring, governed the roles we assume. Unfazed, I said no.

Suppose, I said, a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.

I’m sorry, what? No. Just, no.

First of all, if I had a black belt in karate and knew I could take a bad guy down, and some other guy who didn’t have half the skill or ability in fighting that I had kept getting in my way, I would be pretty upset. What’s Sarah supposed to do in Piper’s scenario, wait around until the bad guy knifes and incapacitates Jason, and then take him down? That’s just absurd. I mean seriously, think of Zoe and Wash from the TV series Firefly. Does anyone really think Zoe should step back and let the bad guys take Wash out when she could just take them out herself? (Also, Zoe and Wash are my favorite.) Why can’t we view people in terms of their abilities instead of having to see everything through a gender dichotomy?

Furthermore, Piper’s suggestion that being willing to lay down your life to protect those around you is a man thing dishonors the memory of all of the women throughout history who have laid down their lives protecting others. That desire to protect others, especially those weaker than oneself, isn’t a man thing. It’s a human thing. Think about those brave teachers who died at Sandy Hook Elementary, for example.

When God is not in the picture, the truth crops up in strange forms. For example, Kingsley Browne, law professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, has written a new book called Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars. In an interview with Newsweek, he said, “The evidence comes from the field of evolutionary psychology. . . . Men don’t say, ‘This is a person I would follow through the gates of hell.’ Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger.”

If you leave God out, the perceived “hard-wiring” appears to be “evolutionary psychology.” If God is in the picture, it has other names. We call it “the work of the law written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). We call it true manhood as God meant it to be.

As usual, the truth that comes in the alien form of “evolutionary psychology” gets distorted. It is true that “men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger.” But that’s misleading. The issue is not that women are leading men into danger. The issue is that they are leading men. Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women, period. They are hard-wired to get in front of their women—between them and the bullets. They are hard-wired to lead their women out of danger and into safety. And women, at their deepest and most honest selves, give profound assent to this noble impulse in good men. That is why co-ed combat situations compromise men and women at their core and corrupt even further the foolhardy culture that put them there.

Two things here. First, these men have clearly not heard of Joan of Arc. The idea that men are somehow incapable of following a woman into combat is simply historically untrue. And second, these men don’t appear to be aware of the idea of a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” I’ve written about this before. If you tell men that they are simply not wired to take orders from a woman, do you seriously think that that won’t affect how they react when they have a female boss? And beyond all that, I find the idea that we can’t get beyond gender and see each other as individuals of equal value both insulting and a sign of immaturity.

As for the idea that men can’t help but jump in and try to protect women, and that women profoundly respect this impulse in men, I once again have to ask why this has to be gendered. Those teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary jumped in to protect those around them, and as a result the entire nation recognized them as heroes. Why can’t we just value the actions of anyone who steps in to help those who need help, and encourage people of both genders to see helping others as a virtue? But no, Piper can’t do that, because to Piper a person’s gender is the most important thing about them, and to Piper a person’s gender determines how they will and should behave in any given situation.

Curious, I looked up just what it is that Piper redacts in his quotation from Kingsley Browne (who is a law professor by the way), and here’s the whole clip:

The evidence comes from the field of evolutionary psychology, which recognizes that the human mind is a product of our evolutionary history. The reason men don’t like women comrades in dangerous situations is they don’t trust them when the shooting starts, and that is probably because women don’t possess whatever cues evoke trust in men. And trust is central to combat cohesion. Men don’t say, “This is a person I would follow through the gates of hell.” Men aren’t hard-wired to follow women into danger. It is largely an emotional reaction.

Really? Really? Because to me that just sounds terribly, terribly immature. And in fact, it strikes me that patriarchal assumptions like these do a lot to support this sort of immaturity by telling men that they don’t have to and aren’t supposed to trust women, or follow women, or work side by side women as equals. Can we all just grow up and start viewing each other as fellow humans already? Can we just be professional? Is that really so much to ask?

And also? These arguments sound very much like the arguments against allowing black people to serve in the military, and, more recently, the arguments against allowing openly gay people to serve in the military. And guess what? The sky didn’t fall when black people started serving in the military, and it’s been a year since gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals were allowed to serve openly as well and I have yet to see any sky bits falling past my window. And you know what else? New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden, and Switzerland all already allow women to serve in combat positions. And you know what? The sky has not fallen. So stop yelling about how equality is going to make the sky fall and I might start listening to you.

(For more on Browne, see this past Monday’s Daily Show episode.)

Having explained that men should be the ones protecting women even in situations where the woman may be the stronger or more able of the two, and that men are not wired to ever follow women, here is how Piper finishes:

Consider where we have come. One promotion for Browne’s book states, “More than 155,000 female troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. And more than seventy of those women have died. . . . Those deaths exceed the number of military women who died in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War combined.”

And the total number of men who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan? Oh right, that number would be in the thousands. But apparently Piper isn’t so bothered by those deaths. Which is odd, considering that I would be just as bothered by Bobby dying in combat as I would by Sally dying in combat. Actually, “bothered” probably isn’t the best word to use there. Talk about understatement! But you get the idea! Losing Bobby wouldn’t hurt any less than would losing Sally.

So, in conclusion: First, Piper thinks that when people find themselves in dangerous situations, they should assign tasks based on gender roles rather than skills and abilities; Second, Piper believes that men are incapable of treating women as equals and working together with them to accomplish a given objective in a combat situations; and third, Piper isn’t bothered by men’s deaths in combat but is very very bothered by the idea that women might die in combat.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Christine

    The guys I know stop worrying about a woman being out after dark once she has a green belt. True story.

    Would women from patriarchal religious backgrounds be able to claim CO status? It’s an interesting dilemma – their religion is ok with military service, just not for women. Maybe they could just go “I’m Christian” and claim it that way, but I think you have to show that your own beliefs (whether religious or not) are against war. I don’t think that “I see nothing wrong with military service, it’s just not ok for me” would work.

  • Nathaniel

    For these people, I have one word to say: Sparta, assholes.

    Okay, maybe two words.

  • Jarred H

    He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency.

    Also note that in this scenario, “Jason” is depicted as implicitly disposable. There’s no reason he needs to get hurt or even possibly die, but there’s a woman at stake, so he needs to make himself into knife fodder.

    • pagansister

      My daughter has a 2nd degree Black Belt in Tai Kwan Do. She wouldn’t be standing there waiting to be “protected” by a male escort! She is 6 ft. tall along with that Black Belt. I wouldn’t want to be the person who tried to mess with her!

  • Eamon Knight

    Ev.Psych., at times (and when talking about gender seems to almost inevitably be one of those times), is almost as stupid as Christian gender-essentialism. Not quite, but close enough to be dismissed equally.

    • Katherine

      Why “not quite” I wonder?

    • Jim

      Please note that the evolutionary psychology expert in this post is a law professor. Because law professors are such experts in both biology and psychology.

  • Lara

    In response to this post and the last one, I just wanted you to know how thankful I am for you. Thank you for your passionate voice. Thank you for speaking the truth. Thank you for standing up against all this. If I didn’t have you I would still know that John Piper was wrong, but I would feel anxious about it and doubt myself. Instead, I read your words and I feel free to just dismiss him and move on. Thank you. Thank you.

  • Jay

    The problem with this isn’t just “combat positions” if you’re in a war, you are in a WAR. It is to be expected that at some point people are going to shoot at you. “Non Combat Positions” pay less. Full stop. And honestly, there’s very rarely such thing as someone who has not seen combat. It’s false that women aren’t in combat. Now, if they are getting combat pay is another story.

  • Katherine

    I hate to be a broken record… BUT AGAIN WITH THE EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY. Just because you give it a science-y name does not mean you can state your assumptions and call that science or fact. Evolutionary psychology is the only branch of “science” that LOVES to support the gender roles that patriarchal folks want so desperately to uphold.

  • Natalie

    If Sarah has a black belt in karate and Jason doesn’t, then Sarah should be the one to take out the bad guy. Jason knows that she’s more competent with martial arts than him (I’m assuming that Jason either doesn’t know self-defense skills or is at a lower level of skill than Sarah in karate), so he should trust her to protect them and disarm the bad guy. The same goes for women in combat. If Jason and Sarah are soldiers in the same unit, Sarah has more combat experience, and they get attacked by an enemy while on patrol, Sarah’s the more competent soldier and the obvious choice to take out the enemy. It’s not a men having trouble following women thing. Soldiers follow other soldiers who are competent and able to handle themselves in combat. So there’s no reason Jason shouldn’t be deferring to Sarah’s experience in either hypothetical scenario.

  • smrnda

    If his argument is that it’s cowardice for men (any man) to allow a woman to serve in combat, his basic position is that men should take up all the potentially dangerous jobs first, and then let women have whatever is left. If I push this logic further, we shouldn’t have women cops or firefighters, women shouldn’t work at cash registers (they might be robbed) women shouldn’t lift boxes, women shouldn’t be teachers (kids can be violent) and women shouldn’t ever drive or ride in cards. By Piper’s logic, a man is a coward if he lets a woman drive to the store since manly man should take the risk of driving or else he’s a coward for letting a woman get behind the wheel

    On some level Piper is saying “You are a coward if you let a woman do a dangerous job” but the problem with this is that all jobs are dangerous, and the perks of not taking any dangerous jobs is that the people doing the ‘dangerous job’ get to beat you over the head with it.

    I don’t think that all men in all armies at all times have been equally repulsed by the idea of women in combat; it sounds like an insecurity issue. As I pointed out before, the USSR put lots of women in combat because it was an all-out total war in WWII and they needed everybody then could get who could fire any weapon.

    The other thing is that, since WWII, many of our ‘wars’ have only been peripherally (if that) concerned with defending out country. Most are some kind of imperialist occupation or ‘policing effort’ and we are now served by a volunteer army, probably since if we tried to draft people to fight a war of dubious merit we’d get more protests (plus, we can count on the poverty draft to fill the ranks.)

    I wonder how Piper would respond to meeting a woman who served in combat; I think, at heart, he feels his masculinity threatened by women who have stepped up and done traditionally masculine jobs, and feels that now he is no longer special.

  • Cassie

    I’m slightly confused – Piper’s post is dated in 2007, when he’s allegedly written this several days ago. Which is the right date on the post?

    • Libby Anne

      Oh goodness! Good catch! It was going around again in the wake of the decision to allow women in combat, and I assumed it was new!

  • Cassie

    Oh, I just saw his tweet. Never mind!

  • AnotherOne

    Kingsley Brown was royally sent up by the Daily Show a couple of days ago. Seriously, it will make your day to watch this.—military-brohesion

  • JJ

    I think it’s worth saying that woman have already been in combat, they just haven’t been recognized for it, or been able to move up the ranks in the same way that man have.

    • Nicky Vale

      Thank you for the link!

  • timberwraith

    This illustrates an interesting parallel between how people try to use both the authority of religion and the authority of science as a means to justify their own prejudices. I’ve spent years fighting with supposedly progressive friends who have resorted to EvopPsych as a means of justifying their sexist ideas and behaviors. It’s as bad as fighting with someone using religion for the same purposes. Both people think they are using an unchallengeable authority to justify their terrible ideas, and thus have the upper hand as to what is “right and good”. Religious sexists say that one is challenging the will of God and “scientific” sexists say that one is denying scientific reality. In the end, it boils down to a privileged group of people reaching for whatever body of belief is available to justify their greater position of power.

    Sadly, most of the people I’ve had these battles with are progressive men.

    This is so frustrating and it’s nice to see people openly challenging EvoPsych. It has been accepted as the gospel truth for far too long, now.

  • wanderer

    This Piper guy strikes me as the kind of person who wakes up every day feeling like someone pee’d in his cornflakes. Just walks around looking for something to give the hairy eyeball about and disagree with because…… well…. BECAUSE.

    Also, if women shouldn’t be in more dangerous jobs then men, then he should be upset that women give birth. Shouldn’t he be pushing for science to find a way that women don’t have to be put at risk in that way?

    • ki sarita

      ha! great point. He should say that any man who impregnates a woman should be ashamed of his cowardice!

  • timberwraith

    This reminds me of a really angering conversation I had with a sexist evangelical pastor about women’s roles in his church. His church’s rules prohibited women from serving as clergy. He justified this as a way of protecting women from the task of the clergy putting themselves on the line as “spiritual protectors” of the laity. He saw himself as some kind of spiritual warrior protecting the womenfolk. He saw his male privilege as head patriarch as a generous personal sacrifice for the good of others.

    The notion of men in the role of protector is quite often bound up with the idea that men should be accorded greater privilege and responsibility than women because men make greater personal sacrifices in their “warrior” roles than women do. Again, I’ve heard progressive men use variations of this line of logic, too. It seems to be a widespread facet of sexism from all corners of the culture.

  • Ken L.

    I’m disappointed that no one has called Piper out for claiming women as property there (“our women” at the end of his first paragraph). Someone needs to let him know we ended the ownership of people in this country some time ago.

    I’m not in the military, but I’m pretty sure I’m not wired to follow anybody into the gates of hell. That level of trust takes time to build – and our military in general seems to be well aware of that and knows how to develop that trust. My completely un-researched opinion (but just as viable as his) is that we can easily develop trust for anyone we see as “one of us”. This is what some people thought would be a problem with blacks and with LGBTQs, but in both situations the military culture has rather easily overcome those barriers.

    • timberwraith

      Good linguistic catch, Ken. As I mentioned in the other thread on women in combat, conservative Christian notions of gender pretty much treat women as domestic and sexual slaves to men. That Piper considers women to be property—consciously or subconsciously—is pretty telling.

    • Pauline

      Not trying to defend John Piper at all, but are you sure he isn’t using the “part of the tribe” meaning of “our”? I’ve seen conservative women saying “our men” in that sense.

  • Heli

    “and it’s been a year since LGBTQ individuals were allowed to serve openly as well and I have yet to see any sky bits falling past my window”

    Actually, the repeal of DADT only affected gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. I know you didn’t mean to, but you’re kind of ignoring trans and queer people by lumping us in with the LGB part of the acronym.

    Other than that, excellent post, Libby.

    • Libby Anne

      Okay, I have a question. I used to frequently just say “gay,” but several commenters have pointed out that when I only say gay I erase everyone else, so now I habitually replace “gay rights” with “LGBTQ rights” and “gay individuals” with “LGBTQ individuals,” etc. I didn’t realize the repeal of DADT only effected gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, so I’ll go correct it in the piece, but it sounds like your critique is more general than this specific instance. Is it? Are you saying that using the acronym “LGBTQ” is in and of itself a problem, or just in this instance?

      • Heli

        I just meant in this specific instance, since the repeal of DADT didn’t affect TQ people, just LGB. Saying “LGBTQ rights” is fine, so long as what you’re referring to actually affects LGBTQ people as a whole and not just some of them, like here. In the issue of something like same-sex marriage, I would say it also affect TQ people since some of us have not yet or can’t get our legal sex changed, and so might not be able to get married if not for legal same-sex marriage.

      • Libby Anne

        Okay, that makes sense. Thanks!

  • Hilary

    Ki Sarita, do you think we could arange for Piper to have a “training session” with Ziva David from NCIS? Or let’s go for broke and have him meet Xena, maybe the Doctor wouldn’t mind a quick day trip?

    I’ve heard references around to women who have historically dressed as men to fight in wars, like in the American civil war and WWI. Is anybody up to checking on that? I’m really busy tonight.

    And yeah, how about Harriet Tubman on the underground railroad – oh, wait, African American, doesn’t count.

    And – Hannah Sennesh. ‘Nough said.

    “On March 14, 1944, she and colleagues Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein[1] were parachuted into Yugoslavia and joined a partisan group. After landing, they learned the Germans had already occupied Hungary, so the men decided to call off the mission as too dangerous.[1] Szenes continued on and headed for the Hungarian border. At the border, she and her companions were arrested by Hungarian gendarmes, who found her British military transmitter, used to communicate with the SOE and other partisans. Hannah was taken to a prison, stripped, tied to a chair, then whipped and clubbed for three days. The guards wanted to know the code for her transmitter so they could find out who the parachutists were and misdirect others. Transferred to a Budapest prison, Hannah was repeatedly interrogated and cruelly tortured, but she only revealed her name and refused to provide the transmitter code, even when her mother was also arrested. They threatened to kill her mother if she did not cooperate, but Hannah held firm (and probably saved her mother’s life as a result).[1]”

    I say we dedicate this thread to bringing up as many kick-ass women warriors as possible.


    • Steve

      There were quite a few women in the French section of the SOE who became famous and were highly decorated for their exploits.

  • perfectnumber628

    “I had not yet been enlightened that competencies, not divine wiring, governed the roles we assume.” What?! So much wtf. He comes right out and SAYS that it’s not based on “competencies” but it just has to be this way (with the man “protecting” the woman) because that’s the way it has to be because God said so and there is no logic behind it.

  • J-Rex

    “New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Norway, Israel, Serbia, Sweden, and Switzerland all already allow women to serve in combat positions. And you know what? The sky has not fallen.”
    Well yeah, but those are other countries. This is ‘murica. We’re God’s favorite country. When God’s favorite country disobeys him, the sky does start falling…in the form of natural, predictable weather events. Stay tuned…

  • Stephanie

    First blog post I’ve read thanks to Dulce de leche….where have you been??? LOL! Love this post….I couldn’t love it anymore if I tried!!

  • smrnda

    I think this exposes a bit about patriarchy – Piper wants to treat men as disposable (has he been in the military?) ostensibly to protect women, but though he says that any man who lets women defend their country while remaining on the sidelines is a coward, now that women DO serve in combat (or at least now that we admit it) is Piper putting his money where his mouth is and signing up for the military so that he can serve on the front lines instead of all those women? I’m betting Piper would pull a million excuses of why he, currently, after calling men who let women serve in combat while not serving themselves ‘cowards’ isn’t signing up. Should he let his age stop him? Apparently not.

  • Searching

    I’m sick of these whackos treating men like they are cannon fodder. I’m reminded of Zapp Brannigan “Just throw wave after wave of men at them.”

    It’s not more tragic when a woman dies in combat… any loss of life is tragic.

    The other thing that bugs me, is that any woman that (tragically) loses her life in combat, CHOSE to be there. Signed up for it! Went through rigorous training in order to be there. It’s not like the army is plucking women out of their cozy kitchens and dropping them in the middle of a battlefield with nothing but their apron and a spatula. I mean, good grief!

    Also, for all his big talk about it being cowardly for men to let women fight for them, I don’t see HIM standing in line to join the troops! Hypocrite.

  • Lily Itriwi

    So, I’m not American. But I am a woman, and I have served in the military.

    From my experience, the thing that struck true in your post was about the immaturity inherent in the idea that men won’t follow women. I’ve been there. They do. Admittedly, it is a lot harder to get them to do so. A woman has to prove her competence while a man has to prove his incompetence. And the reason for this? Immaturity. These are boys, in their late teens and early twenties. They live, work and socialise basically exclusively with other boys in their late teens and early twenties. They are often from socially deprived backgrounds and many have not had strong role models, male or female, while growing up. In short, and I admit I am generalising wildly, they are testosterone fuelled idiots.

    So how do we deal with these idiots? By pandering them and allowing them to continue in the illusion of the inherent lack of leadership and competence in women? Oh, and by the way, any competent female they do come across isn’t really a girl – she’s one of the lads? No, of course not. Only through coming into contact with many strong competent women doing their jobs alongside them and doing them well, on a daily basis, and with military units, whether in combat roles or not, becoming communities of valued equals rather than lads clubs scornful of the ‘other’, will they learn the fallacies of this. Oh, and certainly military efficiency will only benefit.

  • Nicky Vale

    Excellent rebuttal. You took the words right out of my mouth. As I was reading Piper’s perspective on how God intended men and women to lead each other, all I kept thinking was, “I wonder what this idiot’s commentary would be on SAINT Joan of Arc?” Men who haven’t served alongside women in a theater of combat should leave the commentary to those who have.

    • pagansister

      Boudica? She was quite a leader also! What would Piper think of her?

  • Stephanie

    Hi Libby Anne,
    This post is excellent. I shared it on my facebook page :)

  • Annie

    I’m a much better swimmer than my husband, if my baby falls in the ocean from the local pier should I let him try to rescue her because he is a man? Good lord! I’d probably lose them both. My honey would righteously get the hell out of my way while I did what I am equipped to do.