Friday, February 03, 2012

A Case Against "Masculine Christianity"

Isaiah Mustafa
What says "masculine"
better than the
Old Spice guy?
In what is only the latest in a long series of comments by Christian leaders advocating for the supremacy of men over and against women, John Piper has recently explicitly said that he believes that "God has given Christianity a masculine feel." Now, when he says such a thing, I do not imagine that he would actually say that he believes men are "superior" to women. The usual complementarian line, which I understand Piper to embrace, says that the genders are equal, but that they merely have different God-given roles. That said, it's difficult to read a belief in a "masculine Christianity" without feeling like a belief in male superiority is actually at play, whether Piper acknowledges it or not.

I wasn't going to comment on this when I first read it. This kind of statement really isn't anything new, and Piper is a leader among complementarians, so I don't really find myself surprised when he says something like this. But when Rachel Held Evans asked for men willing to write blog posts in response to Piper's remarks, I decided that I needed to do so. While Piper at least sticks to affirming "masculine" traits in his words here, as opposed to the more negative condemnations of "effeminate" Christianity seen recently, I cannot help but feel that these comments are part of the same trend, and contribute to the same harmful results.

In building the case as to why such comments are harmful, there is so much that could be said, I'm aware that anything I do say would fall short in some measure or another. Former Fuller professor David Scholer, who passed away in 2008, was a lifelong advocate for the full inclusion of women in all forms of ministry in the Christian Church. When my wife and I took his course, "Women, the Bible, and the Church," in 2002, we were given (among other texts) a more than 200-page set of articles he had written demonstrating support for women in ministry. It contains a great deal of solid biblical exegesis, but I won't work through that here in the interest of brevity (and, besides, I know better than to think that Piper and those like him would be convinced by it, no matter how solid the biblical argument is. Each side can quote Scripture until it's blue in the face, and indeed has done for many years now).

In one of the articles,* Scholer shared a letter from someone—not one of his students—who had listened to his tapes on women in the New Testament. In it, the woman writes about her "very traditional, fundamentalist Baptist background" and how she'd internalized church teachings that, as a woman, she was "the root of all evil in the world," and thus could never enjoy true intimacy with God. Scholer testified that this letter was not atypical, nor was this "an atypical experience" in his decades of work on this topic. While I would hope that Piper would agree that this experience represents a perversion of the gospel message—even the one he as a complementarian intends to proclaim—I doubt that he fully appreciates how much the complementarian emphasis on the "masculinity" of Christianity contributes to such an impression.

In that same article of Dr. Scholer's, he relates a time during a Sunday School class in which a sixty-five year old woman expressed surprise at being told that God was not a man: "What did you say? I have never heard that before. I have always believed that God was a man." While Piper may not go so far as to assert God's maleness (and, upon reading his comments on "masculine Christianity," I'm not entirely sure he wouldn't!), I imagine that he would be shocked to consider the use of a non-male personal pronoun for God! As Scholer says, "Once God is redefined as a non-male, for most males and many females the question of their own sexuality becomes a new threat." Thus, biblical illustrations of God (and even Jesus!) using feminine imagery are glossed over or ignored, protecting the egos of those who consider God exclusively in male terms, while condemning many women to believe that, contrary to Genesis 1:27, they are actually less in God's image than men.

In thinking about these issues, I am reminded of something I wrote regarding the old ABC sitcom According to Jim a few years ago:
In these (and many, if not most, in my opinion) episodes, Jim sees the very essence of "maleness" threatened. Very often, Jim argues that "men" behave in certain ways just because that's how men are (and the idea that such realities would even be questioned is completely foreign to him). Yet, if such traits are truly innate, what is there to be afraid of? Clearly, Jim believes (even if he does not acknowledge it) that "male" behavior is either learned or chosen, and that it might be lost if not reinforced. This flies right in the face of the concept of "innate" behavior.
Piper strikes me as similarly confused. He wants to advocate for strict definitions of "masculine," yet his aggressive need to defend those definitions makes me wonder if he fears that those definitions aren't really as innate as he suggests that they are. If a man doesn't live up to his concept of "masculine," he asserts that the person is at fault. The idea that his definitions might not match up with reality seems to be something he is either unwilling or unable to consider.

In the meantime, Piper continues to advocate for a position that is both inaccurate and harmful. I can only pray that a saner Christianity will ultimately prevail.

*Originally published in Perspectives in Religious Studies 15 (1988), p. 101-108.


  1. Yep. There's no getting around it: when clergy emphasize the masculinity or maleness of God, anything other than male is inferior. How could it be otherwise?

    I know that protestant churches want to increase male attendance. But, do they need to do it by elevating the masculine over the feminine (as in the case of Piper) or supporting cage fighting (as in the case of Mark Driscoll)?

    What about other paradigms that might appeal to men, but not denigrate women or femininity? The chivalric view of strength is one such paradigm. A strength that does not say savagry and winning at all costs are the only values. A civilized strength used to serve honor and to protect the weak (whether they be female or no).

  2. In response to your question re: reaching out to men without denigrating women, I was intrigued by John D'Elia's response to Rachel Held Evans' call for posts. In it, he cites no less a fundamentalist luminary than Dwight Moody as someone who did this well. Surely if Moody was able to do so, leaders of today—even complementarian ones!—shouldn't have so much trouble doing so!



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