On her blog, Rachel Held Evans has just issued a challenge to Christian men, to respond to John Piper’s recent pontifications on God’s having given Christianity “a masculine feel.” I suppose it will come as no surprise to most of my readers that I take neither a conventional “egalitarian” nor “complementarian” approach to the issue.
Rachel is absolutely right to call Piper out on this. My own first reaction to the suggestion of a “masculine Christianity” is basically one of “eeewww!” To be fair, what Piper actually suggests might characterize such a faith doesn’t sound so far off:
“When I say masculine Christianity or masculine ministry or Christianity with a masculine feel, here’s what I mean: Theology and church and mission are marked by an overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading and protecting and providing for the community. All of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
Interestingly, I rather suspect that if we were to remove the word “male” modifying “leadership” in that paragraph, few readers would find much objectionable in Piper’s description of leadership. This is an important thing to consider. I submit the problem is fundamentally that we have badly misunderstood both gender and leadership as Jesus (and even Paul) taught them, and hence are objecting to all the wrong things. Seriously, what is particularly masculine about “tender-hearted strength, contrite courage, risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice?” I personally know men and women who do, and others who most decidedly do not, exhibit all those characteristics.
Frankly, I’m getting more than a little fed up with the repeated drumbeat of observing “male” or “female” characteristics in God, or in ourselves for that matter. I’m a daddy, it has always given me great joy to embrace and kiss and hold my kids. I could never breastfeed them, obviously, but when our youngest couldn’t nurse, I fed him–and wept many tears over him–while my wife pumped what I would then feed him. Was I getting in touch with “my feminine side” as I did this? Hell no! I was lovingly caring for my son and my wife! I resent the implication that tenderness is uniquely feminine, or the converse that strength is uniquely masculine.
Egalitarians have, in my opinion, been far too acquiescent to these sloppy definitions of gender. Each time one calls out the Pipers and the Driscolls of the church by pointing out “feminine” traits in God, they are tacitly granting these harmful distinctions in gender character (but see my parenthetical comment at the end).
The second key issue I take with this debate is with our definition of leadership in the church. Conservative church leaders insist that pastors, and particularly the “senior pastor,” must be male. Egalitarians object that women are also gifted in the same qualities and should be able to participate in these offices. Neither considers the possibility that the authoritarian structure that is the modern pastorate might itself be unbiblical!
I can think of no better illustration of my point than a passage that is often held up as a prime exhibit of the apostle Paul’s presumed mysogynism…1 Cor. 11:2-16. The common reading of this passage sees all the language that can be interpreted to demean or control women. I’m not going to get into that here. What I want to point out, is verse 5, completely ignored by most it seems, in which Paul doesn’t even question the reality that women are praying and prophesying! One can argue, as I’ve heard before, that prayer is private, but there’s no such thing as private prophecy. Add the record of Philip’s four prophetess daughters (Acts 21:9), and the story of Priscilla and Aquilla (a husband-wife team who schooled Apollos in theology…and Priscilla’s name comes first every time!), and it’s pretty clear that the New Testament church heard plenty from women as well as men.
What we do not find in the New Testament record, is individual church leaders invested with unaccountable, unquestionable authority. In contrast, throughout Jesus’ ministry we find repeated efforts on Jesus’ part, to disabuse his apostles of the notion they should rule each other or anybody else. In fact, most references throughout Acts and the Epistles to pastors, teachers, apostles, deacons, prophets, or any other function in the church are in the plural. 1 Cor. 12:7 (to each one) and 1 Cor 14:26 (each one contributes) are only two examples of many showing us that the body ought to hear from each other, not merely from a limited cabal of ordained leadership.
So my appeal is that we not correct error with error. The autocratic style of leadership exhibited by male church leaders will not be fixed by simply adding women to the ranks of the autocracy. It will only be repaired when we rediscover the real meaning of Ephesians 5:21 and we all submit ourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.
One final parenthetical comment. I remain troubled by the trend among some, while rightly objecting to the male-centric theology that has inhabited the church for too long, to refer to God in female terminology. This is not least because it seems to me to tilt toward ancient idolatries of goddess worship. Atheist wags have said in the past that “man created god(s) in his image,” and the gods so created were a pretty disgusting bunch. No less the goddesses, many of whom demanded various perversions such as human sacrifice, temple prostitution, and other sexual and fertility rites that have been rightly blasted by the prophets throughout the ages. Feminized idolatry is no less reprehensible than the male version.
Though I am by no means a verbal-inspiration fundamentalist, I do think that God has consistently revealed his character throughout the ages (and in many different cultures) using masculine terminology. As I pointed out above, the perversion of the concepts of masculine and feminine within our theology and our culture do not change this. Certainly, whatever the use of male terminology with reference to God may mean, it does NOT carry a sexual component, and any claim to the contrary is blasphemous. But replacing it with female terminology is, in my view, one of many forms of remaking God in the image of modern humanity instead of the older and more benighted version. Biblical Christianity deserves better.