John Piper on Men in Ministry, and the Masculinity of Christianity

John Piper on Men in Ministry, and the Masculinity of Christianity February 12, 2012

Alert reader of this blog, Craig Beard sent me the following link which presented a precis of John Piper’s recent address at a conference on the ‘Masculinity of Christianity’. Here is the link— God and Jesus, on this showing are not in favor of women in ministry, or for that matter female images of the deity either, despite the fact that there are many such images in the Bible. If you take time to read the article there are several things that come to light.

John Piper is concerned, as are other Reformed writers and thinkers, for instance some in the Gospel Coalition, with what is perceived to be the stripping of male dignity and honor in our culture. He seeks to rub some healing balm in the wounds of men who have been assailed about their male chauvinism and macho approaches to women and life in general, especially in this case, men who are ministers. But as I have mentioned before on this blog, the problem with the church is not strong women, but weak men who can’t handle strong women, much less tolerate women in ministry. So, they have to provide rationales for these views. And to do so requires all sorts of exegetical gymnastics, ignoring of contexts, and even dubious theology and anthropology.

Here is some of what Dr. Piper said recently—

God’s intention for Christianity is for it to have a “masculine feel,” evangelist John Piper declared on Tuesday.

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother,” Piper said at this year’s annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry. “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.”

He continued, “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.”

“Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And being God, a God of love, He has done that for our maximum flourishing both male and female.”

I decided to let this percolate for a while before I reacted. Let me be clear that this sounds like a classic over-reaction to what is perceived to be the malaise of our culture. It’s like the reaction of a certain Pacific Northwest pastor who decided to lecture the ‘men’ on the campus of a Christian University in Seattle on true manhood, by associating ‘real men’ with those who focus on getting their wives naked and eating red meat. That’s real manhood.

It’s an interesting portrait of true manhood since: 1) Jesus and Paul and many early Christians probably never ate red meat, and 2) Jesus was never married nor interested in objectifying women and treating them as sex objects. But back to Dr. Piper. What Dr. Piper says is not merely bad theology in various ways, its dangerous theology. If I am hearing him right, it sounds closer to Mormon theology than Christian theology. Why do I say that?

Well let’s start with the orthodox Christian point that GOD IS NEITHER MALE NOR FEMALE IN THE DIVINE NATURE. The Bible is clear enough that God is ‘spirit’, not flesh and gender is always a manifestation of flesh. In the book that Laura Ice and I wrote some time ago, entitled The Shadow of the Almighty we made reasonably clear that: 1) there are plenty of both masculine and feminine images and metaphors applied to God in the Bible; 2) that interestingly enough it is not true that God is much called Father in the OT. In fact such language is rare, with almost no examples of God ever addressed as Father in the OT in prayer or entreaty, and 3) connecting such language with culture and human anthropology is a huge mistake on both sides of the ledger.

Just as it is wrong to say that the father language in the Bible is just a bad outcropping of the thinking of those who lived in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture and couldn’t help themselves, so it is also equally bad theology to suggest that the reason for the Father and King language in the Bible is because this tells us something about the divine nature or even the divine will that ‘Christianity’ have a masculine feel.

In fact the Father language for God is much more plentiful in the NT than in the OT (for example about 145 times just in the Gospel of John). Is Christianity meant to be somehow more patriarchal than OT religion? One of my concerns here is the false suggestion that we should draw an anthropological conclusion on the basis of some of the theological language. Really? Really? I find this an amazing chain of illogic on so many fronts.

Let’s start with the fact that one of the probable reasons why we have so much more Father language in the NT compared to the OT is because of the unique relationship Jesus had with God who was, to judge from the metaphorical use of the language ‘only begotten’, to be seen as the only non-adopted child of God. Now none of us have such a relationship with God. We are at best sons and daughters of God by adoption. Not so Jesus. In other words, you can’t draw anthropological conclusions about all of us based on the masculine imagery used of God the Father and his Son. That dog simply won’t hunt.

But there is more to be said as well. Jesus had a human mother. He could not and would not address God as mother lest he dishonor the one who was actually his mother. And this leads to a further point– the language of Father and Son when applied to God the Father and Jesus is, wait for it, metaphorical language trying to indicate the special and intimate nature of the relationship of these two. It is relational language and it tells us nothing about the inherent divine nature of either the Father or the Son. It tells us nothing about the gender or masculinity of God. It tells us that God the Father and God the Son are family, intimate. Why do I say this?

Because, unless you are a Mormon and think God literally, sexually begat the Son, then you realize that this language has nothing to do with gender or sex. Nothing. It is simply making clear the intimacy of the relationship between two members of the Trinity. Were there something inherently gendered to the relationship we would expect the same to be true of the relationship of God the Father with the Holy Spirit, and yes, it’s heresy to genderize the Spirit and talk about the Spirit as a woman. No member the Trinity, in the divine essence, has a masculine or feminine DNA.

Now there was a further good reason that God-talk in the Bible avoided genderizing God, especially when it came to female language. This was because most pagan female deities were so highly sexualized in both image and concept that they were seen as deities of fertility. But the God of the Bible is not a fertility God, not a God of the crop cycle, not an Astarte or an Aphrodite or an Artemis.

The God of the Bible is a God of history, a God of grace rather than a God that is simply part of nature, like the pagan deities who manifest themselves in all too human or animal ways by copulation and propagation. In other words, the ‘regenderizing’ of the God language in an attempt to rescue the floundering masculinity of Christian males is a ploy of desperation which does dis-service to the nature of such language in the NT which is relational without being genderized.

And at the anthropological level we must take seriously what Paul says, namely that we are not carrying on the old fallen patriarchal heritage of OT times, because frankly in Christ there is no male and female (Gal. 3.28).

It was the original curse, not the original blessing that was pronounced in the following form— ‘your desire will be for your husband and he will lord it over you’. The effect of the Fall on human relationships is that ‘to love and cherish’ became ‘to desire and to dominate’ which entailed unilateral submission of females to males, something that was never God’s original creation plan. You won’t find a single statement in Gen. 1-2 about the silence or subordination of women to men. Eve is simply the necessary compliment and suitable companion to Adam. What you will find is statements making clear the inadequacy of the man without woman who is the crown of creation, for the text says ‘it is not good for man to be alone’. This is never said about the woman. Patriarchy is not an inherently good thing, an inherently God thing, and it should not be repristinized and set up as a model for Christian ministry.

Let’s deal with some of Piper’s ‘subordinate’ arguments. Jesus picked twelve males. Of course Jesus operated in the context of OT Israel didn’t he? And the Twelve were quite specifically sent to the lost sheep of Israel which was still living under the Mosaic covenant, were they not? You will notice that after Acts 1, the 12 as 12 literally disappear from the landscape of early Christianity and the telling of its tale. And you will also remember that Jesus had said that even at the eschaton the role of the 12 was to be in relationship to OT Israel, sitting on judgment seats judging the 12 tribes. The choosing of the 12, in short, is no paradigm for Christian ministry of the sort that John Piper and I do— which is to say, ministry in relationship to an over-whelmingly Gentile audience!!! Ministry to a group of people who never lived under the old covenant, and as Paul makes clear, never should!!

Now I could go on about how Jesus also chose female disciples (see Luke 8.1-3) and how they were the first and crucial witnesses to the Easter events last at the cross, first at the empty tomb, first to see the risen Jesus with Mary Magdalene commissioned to go and proclaim the Good News to the remainder of the 12, but you can get all that from reading my Women in the Ministry of Jesus.

More importantly I would want to stress that there were women apostles. The 12 were not all the apostles, as the example of Paul himself shows. Romans 16 is clear enough that the husband and wife team of Andronicus and Junia were noteworthy apostles. Acts 18 is clear enough that Priscilla and Aquila both taught the notable Christian evangelist Apollos. 1 Cor. 11 is clear enough that women can share inspired speech and prayer in worship, yes speaking out loud, to the glory of God. Romans 16 is also clear enough that there were women deacons too.

In short, roles in ministry have nothing to do with gender, whereas some roles in the physical family do, as the household codes in Paul suggest. One of the great problems in modern conservative Christianity of all forms is the muddling up of the physical family with the family of faith. Roles in ministry are and should be determined by calling, gifting, not by gender. And there is a good reason for this. It is the Holy Spirit who determines what gifts and graces a person is given, for the common good. It is not male leaders who should decide this issue, or for that matter female leaders.

Did Paul and other apostles appoint overseers to congregations? Yes apparently they did according to not only the Pastorals but other Pauline letters. Were they all men? Nope. Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi are Paul’s co-workers there, and the term ‘sun-ergoi’ is precisely the term Paul uses for his fellow leaders of congregations. In any case, he would not have addressed the issue of a private squabble between two church members in a public letter like Philippians.

No, he addresses the problem and asks for crisis intervention precisely because these two women were some of the leaders in that church. One of them may even have been ‘the Lydian’ referred to in Acts. In other words, Acts and Paul and other parts of the NT make clear enough that there were women in ministry in the early church, just as there should be today.

What about those household codes? Just a final word about them. Paul is a wise pastor and he must start with his converts where he finds them, and correct things as he goes along. One of the dominant institutions of the Greco-Roman world he must deal with is the patriarchal household structures, and if you bother to compare what Paul says to what Plutarch or other pagan writers say it is clear enough that Paul is putting the yeast of the Gospel into the existing fallen structures of society and working to change them in more Christian directions. For example, when Paul says things like the body of the husband belongs to the wife alone, this was a radical notion in those days (1 Cor. 7). He is eliminating the prevailing sexual double standard which was typical of the patriarchal system.

Or for example when Paul places more strictures and responsibilities on the husband/father/master than you ever find in the secular literature, he is changing the nature of the game and ameliorating the harsh effects of the existing patriarchal system. Paul addresses both children and slaves not as property but as persons who are moral agents and can respond positively. And yes, Ephesian 5.21 does show where all of this is meant to end up– with mutual submission of all Christians to all other Christians in love, not merely unilateral submission of females to males, or wives to husbands.

Christ himself, who indeed was a male, provides the model of true submission for us all. He did not come to be served but to serve, and what characterized him most of all is what Phil. 2.5-11 says characterized him– he stripped or emptied himself and took on the role and function of the most submissive member of that society– a slave, and died a slave’s death.

In short, John Piper is not helping the cause of either orthodox theology or orthodox praxis or orthodox anthropology with his pronouncements. And it is a great shame and pity.

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