A Balanced Perspective of Images for Ministry

A Balanced Perspective of Images for Ministry February 8, 2012

John Piper’s address about a masculine ministry and masculine Christianity was bold  but nowhere in the New Testament are ministers (used here generically) called to be “manly” or to be “masculine.” He equated in those comments “masculine” and “male,” and they are not the same. In fact, being “masculine” is not a term on the radar of any NT text about leaders in the church. Other terms shaped what ministry was. I prefer we use the biblical terms — and a nice summary would be “godly” or “Spirit-filled.” John Piper could have explored “fatherly” imagery in the New Testament, and there are some nice texts, like Philippians 2:22 where Paul sees himself as a father to Timothy, or to Onesimus in Philemon 10.

Which leads me to another dimension of ministry in the New Testament, taken no less than from the apostle Paul. We discover texts that speak of our mutual motherly ministry. In other words, another dimension of ministry compares pastors/teachers to mothers. [And this recently posted pdf by Brooten that sketches leadership of women in ancient Jewish synagogues is worth your read.]

There’s another reason for us to keep the motherly images in Paul in mind:

Making ministry so masculine may be insensitive to the ministries of women around the world, and Fawn Parish dropped this in the comment box:

Two Thirds of the pastors in the unregistered church in China are women. A majority of effective missions in North Africa is being conducted by single young women. Historically, single women missionaries have courageously braved death, spoken hard truths, been the recipient of hard criticisms, and have many sheathes of harvest to lay at the feet of Jesus.

I am reasonably satisfied that her comments are demonstrable in the sources she has sent me privately, though any numbers for both of these regions are difficult to establish with blazing accuracy. I don’t want to get hung up on that evidence, for it is well-known that many missionaries, church planters and pastors in China are women. The issue here is how to frame ministry: Is it masculine (whatever that means) or is it feminine (whatever that means), and I would argue both terms will get us into trouble, or does it transcend both (yes) and partake in the very nature of Christ (yes)?  

A few years back I was reading Beverly Gaventa’s very fine book Our Mother Saint Paul when I saw for the first time this set of texts as a singularly important dimension of how Paul saw his ministry through motherly categories. So, here are three points but I would urge you to read Bev’s book to learn from her mastery of these texts and the issues. [When I say “As mothers,” I mean all of us, women and men — mothers or not.]

Let me make something clear: I’m not arguing that ministry is feminine (another disputed term); I’m saying ministry is mother-like in important ways just as it is father-like in important ways.

1. As mothers, our mutual ministry means nursing.

1 Thess 2:7-8 although we could have imposed our weight as apostles of Christ; instead we became little children among you. Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.

1 Cor 3:1-3: So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people?

2. As mothers, our mutual ministry means birthing.

Gal 4:17-20: They court you eagerly, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you would seek them eagerly. However, it is good to be sought eagerly for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. My children – I am again undergoing birth pains until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be with you now and change my tone of voice, because I am perplexed about you.

3. As mothers, our mutual ministry means participating in cosmic re-birth.

Romans 8:18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 8:19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope 8:21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 8:23Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 8:24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.

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  • Sue

    Queen of the Dark Chamber by Christina Tsai has some passages about the predominance of Bible women in China in the preaching and teaching ministry.

    Also, Florence Li Tim Oi, was ordained during WWII as the first female Anglican minister. My sister was at the ordination in 1971 in Hong Kong when 2 women were ordained and Li Tim Oi was again licensed as a priest. Then in 1976 women were ordained in Toronto. Li Tim Oi also came to Toronto around that time, and ministered as an honorary priest. The tradition of Anglican female priests owes much to the courage of Chinese women.

    I have also written about the use of the word andreia in Hellenistic Greek to shed some light on the issue. Hope it helps.


  • Dianne

    As I read the previous post on this topic, I wondered if being called to serve doesn’t far outweigh any perceived call to masculinity or the whole role thing. Serving transcends everything else for me. It sums up Jesus’ incarnated life – he humbled himself and assumed the nature of a servant. When in doubt, I don’t think we can go wrong with a serving mindset.

  • William Tarbush

    To Sue: Pastors and Priests are simply not always implying the same thing. In the evangelical tradition, a pastor is a spiritual mentor of sorts while a priest is often something between you and God. There are branches of protestants that left Anglicanism just for its having an intermediary. A priest is a pastor but a pastor is not a priest.

  • Sue


    Thanks for the clarification. Florence Li Tim Oi was ordained an Anglican priest in China during WWII, although she was not necessarily able to function as a priest from that time until 1971. It was controversial, of course. I was raised Brethren so I hesitate naturally to even use the word priest. But she was ordained, and and I am refering to full ordination in Hong Kong in 1971 and Toronto 1976. In British Columbia, for many years before that, women were licensed lay readers, who lead all the services and fully ministered (short of communion) in many small towns on the frontier in the absence of men.

  • Diane

    It’s good to see women commenting … This is of interest to me as I have a sister-in-law who is a missionary in China. I know she is taking risks–and she being the talented, stable, centered, personable individual she is she de facto runs her missionary center (minus an act of God, the place would collapse without her), but, at the same time, she is a great fan of Piper and very much an avower of “it’s not woman’s place to be in charge.” I have no great wisdom on this, but find it curious when orthodoxy and orthopraxy are in such contradiction. My surmise is that, in her sharply right-wing evangelical world, espousing the Piper doctrine actually enables her to run the show without seeming a threat, but I wonder about the long run damage that does (although she does it with a good heart). Any thoughts on this? Should women make these compromises to be able to function in the short term?

  • Susan N.

    Diane (#5)– in response to your closing question, I will take a stab at answering from my laywoman’s perspective.

    In terms of your sister-in-law, if she is able to work/minister effectively within that complementarian, authoritarian structure, then I would say no harm, no foul. You go, girl!

    In terms of the people to whom she ministers, as I ponder this, your sister-in-law’s submission to male authority may fit the cultural context in China. Females are low on the societal totem pole, as I understand it.

    Also, the ‘closed’ gov’t. system would drastically minimize the access to information on differing perspectives and interpretations of the Bible’s view of men and women. So, if your sister teaches and lives a complementarian model of godly womanhood, the Chinese converts would probably take her at her word on it. No conflict.

    For me personally, even so much as silence on the issue of God’s view of male and female in ministry and marriage was disturbing to me. I wondered how many other issues were debatable, and not being fairly and openly addressed (alternate interpretations compared and discussed). I never knew from reading the Bible that Junia was a woman, for example. (I didn’t know a lot of things, in fact, until I read ‘The Blue Parakeet!’) When you factor in attempts such as that of Wayne Grudem to “systematize” matters such as gender hierarchy into a whole theology, well, then it’s a disaster waiting to happen when the cognitive dissonance sets in and the entire house of cards come tumbling down. Faith, potentially, and most definitely trust in ordained leaders, are “at risk” of being decimated. Even at that (utter decimation of faith), the situation can work out to one’s advantage… Sometimes you need to dismantle the entire structure (faith) and rebuild from the ground up, kwim?

    I think in China that scenario wouldn’t be as likely as here in our (U.S.) cultural context? What do you think about this assessment?

  • T

    I want to mention another aspect to this, because it was raised in the initial post. One of the comments tried to show how “masculine” ministry was different from feminine ministry by using the illustration of how husbands and wives comfort each other and used crying as an example of a “feminine” action. If so, then Paul, in addition to thinking like a mother, thoroughly embraced this so-called “feminine” aspect of ministry:

    “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you” (2 Cor. 2:1-4)

    “You know, from the first day I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews” (Acts 20:17-19)

    “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch and remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31)

    In a nutshell, Paul’s “masculine” ministry was routinely, of his own account, filled with crying, as he wrote and spoke. And it seems that this was true of his most treasured apprentice as well: “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with a pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of you in my prayers night and day; greatly desiring to see you, being mindful of your tears, that I may be filled with joy” (2 Tim. 1:3-4)

    My point is this: if we, based on this teaching by Piper and others like it, make some kind of “masculinity” a goal worth pursuing, we will certainly fail to take in all of Christ, just as the commenter here had put tears into the “feminine” forms of ministry, despite Paul’s own ministry. But the point isn’t that Paul was “feminine.” The point is that Paul didn’t focus on or prize his “masculinity” anymore than he did his jewishness. He considered it all loss, even his whole life, to pursue Christ. He cared about being a new creation; he cared about becoming like Christ, not in his masculinity, but in his death, his Spirit, his new life. He was focused not on things that were passing away, but on the things to come. That’s our goal. This portrayal (and elevation) of “masculine” Christianity is, at best, a distraction from our goal, from Christ.

  • John W Frye

    Those who “fight” for the ‘masculine feel’ (what?!) of Christianity do so on such flimsy biblical arguments–Adam was created first (allegedly supported by Paul in 1 Tim 2), God is Father, Jesus is a man (male), king not queen, the 12 were male, etc. Nit-picky exegesis. It’s like reading THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and concluding the whole story is about ring-making.

  • Richard

    Good stuff Scot, and very long hanging fruit – I’m surprised at the way some of the big name pastors gloss over very evident items in Scripture sometimes. I expect it form lay people that don’t make a career of studying and handling the text.

  • RJS

    Wait John, you mean the Lord of the Rings isn’t about ring-making and unmaking?

  • Ben

    @ #9, Piper sees what he wants to see in the Bible. (Though I’m sure he’d say the same of those who don’t see what he sees.)

    When I was of Piper’s theological persuasion (having been heavily influenced by his book Desiring God), I not only saw the same God that he does in the Bible (exclusively masculine, meticulously sovereign, etc); I wondered how others could possibly read Scripture and not see what I saw there. It was like reading the Bible with blinders on; I never even considered the passages Scot mentioned above. Or I would simply dismiss them as literary anthropomorphism. (And what exactly are the masculine references to divinity, then!?)

    We all come to the text with biases and presuppositions. Piper has his. I’m sure I have mine. I just hope I can be a bit more aware of mine…

  • Richard

    Another point from the original thread is that “masculine” is very culturally shaped. Skirts on men in the US don’t go over well but make them in plaid and put them on Scotsmen or Irishmen and I dare someone to call it “feminine.”

  • Elaine

    For egalitarian Christians, it is not that gender doesn’t matter at all. It is that gender is not the hinge upon which everything Christian hangs. But it appears that for Piper everything hinges on “masculinity” and those he deems to possess it – men. It seems that Piper and his fellow complementarians have taken a dangerous turn toward baptizing fallen gender ideas.

  • John W Frye

    RJS #10,
    Ha ha ha!

  • Tim Atwater

    Good posts. Gaventa’s book is awesome and a should be influential for a long time.

    At the risk of seeming ridiculous (a risk Paul doesn’t seem to fear) — our pop culture seems far more spiritual than sectors of the church. “If i’ve got to cry to keep you i don’t mind weeping…” (sang the tempts in the 60’s) and Roosevelt Greer (the bulky linebacker) sang on a children’s album in the 70’s “it’s alright to cry–crying takes the sad out of you…”
    Jesus wept.

    but we’re too manly for that?


  • DRT

    I wonder how Kris would interpret the preoccupation with masculinity.

  • JTM

    Religion and worship based and centered on female deities was common in the ancient world, including new Testament times. In OT times worship of such female deities as Inanna and Ishtar/Astarte was widespread. In the First Century, female deities such as Aphrodite, Artimis/Diana, Isis, were common. The worship and cultiuc practices associated with these deities was well documented, and involved sacred female priestesses.

    While OT and NT theology recognizes that God transcends gender, never the less both OT and NT traditions and teachings and writings seem to be careful to steer clear of describing God in terms of female gender, and while female characteristics are sometimes used for God, on balance it is much less so compared to male characterization.

    Was this done intentionally for theological purpose? Was this in reaction and response to the female cultic theology and practice of the ancient world?

    Clearly an aspect of female cultic practice can be found through the focus and theology which developed around Mary. But she was kept in an entirely different category from the pagan female deities through the doctrines of virginity and Immaculate Conception, and while adored and prayed to, deity and worship was never offically ascribed to her.

    Taken in the most basic sense then, Piper is correct. The OT and NT rejected deity and worship, and cultic practice associated with female gender. And embraced those associated with, if not equated with, male gender.

    One can say this focus and emphasis on male gender was mistken, error, etc., or that in our present time and age and culture, is no longer needed, or even helpful. But to just simply deny the fact that such is how the OT and NT were written and how NT and OT theology expressed these matters does not seem intellectually honest. IMHO.

  • Gary C

    Please. A response to JTM.


  • Susan N.

    JTM (#17) – from a historical perspective, I find your exposition on female deities to be fascinating! My son was just studying about the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. 🙂

    From a theological perspective, idolatry has always existed in many forms. Idolatry is not good in any sense, in terms of our right understanding and relationship with God. We can’t contain God in the image of a bull or a goddess.

    So, is it that references to this truth contained in the Scriptures point to God’s assertion of *His* wholly masculine “essence”, and also *His* mandate for a strictly masculine array of top-down leadership for *His* Church, -or- (as I think I understood you to be saying in your last paragraph), “in our present time and age and culture, [emphasis on male gender] is no longer needed, or even helpful. Is there an overwhelming threat of idolatry to female deities?

    This, I think, gets to the idea that we have to go deeper into the meaning of the biblical texts and look beyond the literal, plain interpretation. As I noted in the ‘Evolution of Adam’ discussion a few days ago, what seems really helpful and hopeful in the application of biblical truth and Church tradition is the acceptance of this caveat:

    “The Christian and Jewish God is not one who refuses to enter into the particularities of history. Rather, this is a God who gets dirty, who constantly shows up and allows himself to be described, according to a particular people’s ways of thinking.” (Enns, 42)

    Certainly in the biblical narrative (OT and NT), we ALSO see strong females who are given significant authority to act in fulfilling God’s purposes. That seems even to go against the grain of Jewish law. In broader cultural terms, I seem to recall from ‘The Blue Parakeet’ that it was the wild and woolly behavior of the “New Roman Woman” which the Apostle Paul was probably speaking out against. Not so much a denial of women being “equal” partners in spiritual abilities and apostleship.

    Going back to the statement in your last paragraph, taken together with the quote I cited from Enns’ book, if we are asking the correct question — the intellectually honest question, I might add, then might we be asking, “How is God entering into the particularities of *our* time and place; how is the Holy Spirit moving to change and transform and create something new that is redemptive and restorative and whole?”

    These kinds of conversations are exciting and hopeful to me. We look at the past, for sure, to see where we’ve been and establish a point of reference. But we also have to look ahead with vision and imagination. Otherwise, we just stay stuck and, perhaps, get pulled into retrograde motion…

  • tim atwater

    dear JTM and dear GWC —
    please read Beverly Gaventa’s book.
    At least Re-read Proverbs 1-9. Who is this woman wisdom? (Calvin said she is Jesus Christ…)

    Reread Luke and John… who are the faithful witnesses at the cross and the first witnesses at the resurrection…?
    The fruit of the fall is domination (domininion, which was mutual, gone amuck and worse)–all the domination that follows is a fruit of the fall.
    In Christ is not the fall undone?
    (at least being undone…)

    obviously this is a quick sketch and obviously the old order is still thrashing around…
    we walk between the times…
    but if we are really in Christ the main motif for Christ followers is no longer slave and free Jew or Gentile Calvinist nor Arminian male or female but now our main thing is unity in Christ with mutual submission to Christ and one another.

    now the main thing is to let the main thing be the main thing….

    grace be with us all.

  • Susan N.

    Did anyone read the paper by Brooten that was linked in the post? ‘Leadership of Women in Ancient Jewish Synagogues’ — pages 9 and 10 summed up the historical analysis nicely.

  • Elaine


    Yes. I thought this sample of “reasoning” was very telling:

    “Scholars in the past generally assumed that both “mother of the synagogue” and “father of the synagogue” were honorific titles. Krauss’s argumentation for this is specific: “A genuine office could not have been associated with the distinction of father/mother of the synagogue for the simple reason that it was also bestowed upon women”.

  • Susan N.

    Elaine (#22) – So if the Rabbinic writings have been pointedly absent of evidence that women took active roles in the religious culture of ancient Judaism (having to look at archaeological and other historical texts to uncover this reality), then what of the canon of Scripture? I am wondering if certain aspects of the texts were “tweaked” or even suppressed (while others were emphasized) in the process of canonization? I am not a biblical scholar, so I can’t speak from any position of authority here. But I am sure thinking this disturbing thought…

    In canonizing the Scripture, I understood that texts which were found to confirm (multiple copies) the validity of the content, and also the earlier the dating of the manuscript, the better, were the guiding “rules” for weeding out questionable material and compiling the whole. Maybe someone else who is smarter than I could answer that.

    I debate with my husband occasionally about the worth of the Bible and why we should study it. I don’t worship the Bible, or take it literally word-for-word, but I still delight in learning as much as I can about its contents. 🙂

    My husband, on the other hand is very cynical, believing that much of the content has been the object of deliberate, corrupting influences. Lots got lost in the translation (God’s “mouth” to our “ears”, in other words. (My husband’s most oft-cited example in defense of his argument: “Slaves obey your masters.” That just does not compute in his mind as being right in any way, shape, or form.) But I digress…sort of! Wish I had the 4-1-1 direct line to Truth.

  • leah

    a response to JTM:

    religion in the ANE was not centered on female deities. there are plenty of male deities to go around, starting with Osiris, Seth, and Horus from Egypt, Baal, and the Canaanite El, and the Mesopotamian Molek, the god in whose worship one of the worst atrocities ever took place: parents burning their own children as sacrifices. also Zeus, Apollo, and Hermes, whose statues were put in the Jerusalem Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (no female goddesses), and the fact that after the destruction of the temple in 70CE, the temple tax was redirected to the temple of Jupiter in Rome (not Venus, Juno, Vesta, Aretmis, or Minerva).

    without exception, the rulers and chief deities of pantheons (panthea?) are male.

    YHWH, as chief, and only, deity for the Israelites to worship, is male. i’m not seeing much theological import here, except to say that YHWH is subordinate to no one and nothing.

    God’s ruach in hebrew is female (in fact, my syriac professor last semester, who is a syriac christian, said some people in his church want to re-conjugate everything so it’s male in syriac, but so far they’re a minority). so is, as someone else pointed out, God’s wisdom.

    what is rejected in YHWH’s worship is any sense of fertility rites. this includes female deity worship as the king god’s consort, and it also prohibits the child sacrifices to Molek. there are no sacrifices to coerce YHWH to guarantee good harvest or children. in fact, the people are supposed to leave their fields fallow every seven years and trust that the harvest in the 6th will be enough! there are no special rituals to ensure this. all crop festivals and offerings are harvest festivals after the fact.

    YHWH, the only god of Israel, promises on his convenant faithfulness to take care of his people, without a consort and without subordinate deities. Israel’s worship is not a rejection of the feminine, but is instead pointing to a radical monotheism, a trust in one god alone.

  • Mark

    Scot, thanks for your contributions on this.

    When faced with a rising tide of opinion led by such passionate and widely-followed figures like Piper and Driscoll (and the rest), it is sometimes easy for me to feel my feet slipping a bit, simply by the force of their conviction. It is easy too to simply react with vitriolic emotion without anything substantial or Biblical to say in response.

    I have long felt that the call to ‘manliness’ by certain leaders in the church is more sociologically driven than Biblical. Your insistence on a fair presentation of the evidence for your own position really heartens me.

    I don’t know if you take a lot of personal or professional criticism for your own views, but if you do I thank you for your willingness to take it. God Bless.

  • Tim

    A friend of mine was at Western Seminary back in 1990 and told me one of the emeriti profs told him he’d changed his thinking on women in the church over the years. His conclusion – now that he was an old guy, and had spent years in a hierarchical mindset – was that the American church might find itself with a lot of explaining to do about why it marginalized and wasted the gifts and talents of half the Body of Christ.


    P.S. I just did a guest piece for Keri Wyatt Kent as a response to Dr. Piper, focusing on his restricted definition of Christianity and on the nature of the Bride of Christ: John Piper calls for “masculine feel” to … the Bride of Christ?

    P.P.S. Rachel Stone also did a great piece on this yesterday at CT’s hermeneutics blog, and it’s generating a lot of good discussion in the comments.