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The Rhetoric of Masculine Christianity

The Rhetoric of Masculine Christianity February 13, 2012

Lindsey Hankins is working on a second master’s degree and aiming at a PhD in the gendered rhetoric of martyrdom so her take on the masculine Christianity discussion provides insight. This is her response to the John Piper claim.

At a recent Desiring God conference, John Piper contended the church and its ministry ought to have a “masculine feel.”  Piper argues this is simply a biblical given.  In his own words,

God revealed himself in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen; Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter. The Father and the Son create man and woman in his image, and give them the name “man,” the name of the male.  God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men. The Son of God came into the world to be a man.  He chose twelve 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. [emphasis mine]

Setting aside for now the problematic conflation of predicates (i.e., ontological being as “male” and “female” and “masculinity” and “femininity” as characteristics) and a shaky exegesis of the Hebrew adam, it is true that this glaringly selective biblical portrait smacks of men.  In fact, no woman can be found.  Well, Eve is there but, sadly, her name seems to have been lost in translation.  Yet—and this may be jarring to some readers—the fact of the matter is that Piper is actually on to something.

Whether he is aware of it or not, Piper has stepped squarely into an age-old thread of Christian thought.

When the elderly bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, stood awaiting his martyrdom within the Roman amphitheater he’s said to have clearly heard a voice from heaven saying: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”  Perhaps similar to present-day beer commercials in which manliness can be enacted or lost [e.g., losing one’s “man card”] ancient gender constituted a never-ending pursuit of virtue in which, as arguably the chief virtue, courage and manliness were practically synonymous: in both Greek and Latin the word for virtue—andreia and virtus, respectivelyfound their root in words for maleness—andros and vir.  In other words, the very vocabulary of the time belied a belief that virtue or holiness were inherently masculine.

Clearly this put ancient Christian women in quite the bind: if manliness was holiness, what was it to be a woman?  A pernicious and prevailing view of much of Christian history has been that women, qua women, were, to borrow Aristotle’s verbiage, “deformed males” (The Generation of Animals, 737125).   If we are to take the irascible Tertullian at his word, women were “ianua diabolic” or “the gate of the devil” (On Female Dress, 1.1).  The golden-mouthed Chrysostom wrote in the late fourth-century that Eve had obviously been at fault for the garden debacle simply by virtue of being, well, a woman: “…the woman taught once for all and upset everything…for the female sex is weak and vain, and here this is said of the whole sex” (On the Epistle to the Ephesians, 42.148).

But how did the early fathers speak about those obviously holy women—and there were many—who surrounded them?  As almost a contradiction in terms, the presence of these women often necessitated a rhetorical sex change to accommodate the father’s pre-conceived misgivings.  With more than a little back-bite to it, Clement of Alexandria hoped that at least some women could push past their inferiority: “Women must seek wisdom, like men, even if men are superior and have first place in every field, at least if they are not effeminate” (Miscellanies, PG 8.1275).  Yet to do so, to pursue holiness and a life of virtue, women needed to in essence lose their womanhood.  Praising Melania the Elder, her relative Paulinus of Nola remarked: “What a woman she is, if one can call so manly a Christian a woman!” (Let. 29.6).  Concerning Olympias, Palladius wrote that she was “not a woman but a manly creature: a man in everything but body” (Dialogue, 56).  And Melania the Younger, because of her great piety or “manly deeds” was claimed to be “like a man” by her male admirers since “she had surpassed the limits of her sex and taken on a mentality that was manly, or rather angelic” (Life of Melania the Younger, 39).

While these comments sample only the early period of Christian thought—and in that are but a drop in an ocean of similar sentiments—this notion of masculinity as equal or synonymous to holiness has clearly lingered on to the present. Against Piper’s hope that this “masculine feel” he wishes for Christianity would, as divinely instituted, be “for the maximum flourishing of both men and women,” historically this has manifestly not been the case.  When holiness is equated to masculinity, it is rather difficult to side-step notions of femaleness—or “femininity”—as ontological inferiority.  If by nature weaker physically, emotionally and spiritually as compared to men, the logical—and lived—conclusion against all lip service to the contrary has been that women do not share equally with men in the imago dei.  As Milton would pen in his seventeenth-century Paradise Lost: “He for God only, she for God in him” (4.299).

Piper notes that his vision is “liable to serious misunderstanding and serious abuse” and I could not agree more. His claim is fatally flawed in its rather naïve assumption that masculinity is, somehow, an extra-cultural reality.   Read in light of these aforementioned church fathers, there just might be an over-abundance of male activity in church history and Christian mission simply because women were told in every possible way they were not as human, not as fully human, as the men next to them.  Even more troubling, his statement thatThe Son of God came into the world to be a man” seems to infer—especially in light of the greater arc of Piper’s vision—that it was maleness which God redeemed, not humanity.

Yet the most important issue is not that Piper’s view would be misunderstood.  The absolute fundamental problem would be that it would be mistakenly taken as good news.  The fact of the matter is that Piper is “on to something” insofar as he is rather seamlessly capitulating to a long-standing tendency in church history.  When women are intentionally excised from the biblical narrative, Piper is right, Christianity sure starts to sound masculine.  What the church needs now is not by any means a “masculine feel.”  The church has had this broken and un-balanced “feel” for millennia and far from producing a “flourishing [for] both men and women” it has too often been complicit in a systematic de-humanization of half its constituency.  When masculinity becomes the virtue par execellence the value of what it means to be a woman or “feminine” is mortally undercut.  What the church desperately needs now is a prophetic voice reminding us to value both men and women as equally and wholly made in the imago dei. At the risk of sounding patronizingly obvious, this can not happen when the biblical text is intentionally re-written to exclude women and it can not happen when one aspect of God’s view of humankind is exclusively staged to norm the other.  Christianity ought to have a cruiciform feel, not a masculine one.

 

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