I am making a late arrival to the maelstrom of controversy regarding John Piper’s recent address to pastors at a conference called, “God, Manhood and Ministry: Building Men for the Body of Christ.” His address was entitled, “‘The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle’ – The Value of a Masculine Ministry,” and in his sermon, Piper explores the life of J.C. Ryle, a pastor and bishop in 19th century England. From the life of Ryle, Piper extracts eight lessons of ” masculine ministry.” I recommend taking the time to watch the video.
I want to begin by saying that I respect the ministry of John Piper and have listened to and benefitted from many of his sermons. He faithfully proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, and for this, we can all be grateful. Moreover, Piper and I are agreed that the work of the church leadership, in Piper’s words, “is not to be the ministry, but to free the ministry, according to God’s word, by the power of God’s Spirit, for the glory of God’s name.” For the fervent passion and carefully reading of the Scriptures that Piper usually brings to this task, he deserves our thanks and commendation.
Piper begins his address with a very cursory glance at the Scriptures and the “masculine feel” of Christianity: Adam and Eve were together referred to as, “man,” God is predominantly Father, Son, and King; the Israelite priests were male, and leadership in the New Testament was conferred to men.
However, Piper does not explicate the Scriptures in this particular sermon; instead, he examines the life of J.C. Ryle, admitting the subjective lens which he takes up for the task. He has, after all, been asked to speak at a conference with the theme of building men for the body of Christ. Piper even uses the word, “bias” to describe his approach. I’m grateful for his candid admission. It is indeed true that each of us is subject to interpretations that are biased and limited as we are conditioned by our culture and often confined by our experience. Mine, I’m sure, will be evidenced soon enough. In so far as any of us tries to bring faithful objectivity to our understanding of the Scriptures and the discussions that ensue, we often fall short of attaining the standard of truth-telling to which we aspire.
To acknowledge our penchant for bias is not to automatically do the post-modern giving up on truth that plagues our culture. We must not make the same mistake that Ryle’s contemporary church culture did and against which he so vigorously fought, giving up on doctrine and dogma and embracing as a substitute a “jellyfish” Christianity that had no “doctrinal spine.” It does mean, however, that we need to keep careful watch over our interpretations, submitting them to rigorous testing for subjectivity. A hermeneutical rule of thumb: would any Biblical principle we assert stand the test of universality? Would it hold true for people of every corner of our globe and every past, present, and future generation?
I consider that Piper has fallen painfully short of this kind of objective truth-telling when he describes what feels “masculine” about Christianity. His arguments are almost entirely predicated upon sensibilities: what feels masculine? what feels feminine? We all know that our sensibilities aren’t always reliable arbiters of truth. I don’t often feel that which is just to be just, that which is right to be right, that which is true to be true. Ironically, Piper’s language is arguably more “feminine” than “masculine” by his own standards, never achieving the forceful, authoritative and penetrating clarity he insists (rightly) that we need.
Let me give you some examples of these muddied waters of sensibility:
Piper (in asserting the need for manly courage): “The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage; but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men.” (emphasis mine)
I have a feeling that argument may not hold much historical water were we to ask Charles VII how he felt when Joan of Arc brandished her sword and kept the English out of France. I rejoice in all expressions of courage, male and female – in the Bible, in history, and in contemporary culture – especially as it is mustered for the purposes of Christ and His kingdom.
Piper also asserts that the language required of preaching must necessarily be masculine: “The point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men. And where men handle it with humility and grace, godly women are glad.” (emphasis again mine)
Forceful, authoritative speaking is assumed as masculine, and women are to be glad for the expressions of it. While I do not propose we overthrew the gender differences affirmed in Scripture, nor do I support female eldership in the church or maternal leadership in the home, I rejoice, as do all godly women I know, in any and every faithful and forceful proclamation of the gospel, whether from the lips of men and women. And as I seem to remember it, the rocks will do this good work of proclamation should men and women fail the task.
Here are more cultural presuppositions; we are made to see men as more decisive, women as weaker and prone more strongly to cowardice and retreat when faced with resistance. I heartily disagree. I could call on any number of historical or Biblical examples, but closer to home (and using Piper’s own standard of sensibility), I see my own role as a mother laying claim to decisive strength in the face of resistance. I have children who prefer hitting to peace-making, standing to sitting at the table, idle t.v. watching to household chores. Decisive strength is not simply a man’s job. It is to be galvanized for any and every task to which we are called because each of our callings, gloriously individual and necessarily sacred, will be met with the resistance with which Christ Himself was met and for which He gave His own life.
I imagine if you polled any number of people from all over the globe, you would have a complicated array of answers to the question underlying the premises John Piper asserts. I don’t imagine that what feels masculine to an American white male necessarily feels masculine to an aboriginal woman in Papua New Guinea. What might feel masculine to a blue-collar factory worker might not necessarily feel masculine to a male poet laureate. What are we to do with those differences in sensibilities?
Arguably, we go to the text. We poll Biblical authority. Piper believes he’s done this. Early in his ministry, he took a pen to the gospels, ascribing big “T” to the tough sayings of Jesus, little “t” to the tender sayings of Jesus. Guess what he found? Yep. Jesus is generally more tough – and masculine. What may appear to be the “plain sense” of the these texts is, however, not plain at all. Again, it’s a question of sensibility. What feels masculine and tough is not a universal standard to which we can all agree. But the implication is clear enough for Piper: language that is tender and sentimental is feminine. Words that are tough and forceful are masculine. I intend to poll my children tonight around the dinner table. Based on this distinctions, is your mother more like a man or a woman? I fear I may have to pull my pants down to win the argument.
Are we to do our deciding about the nature of what Biblical, godly ministry and leadership really is based on our feelings, which are in large part conditioned by the homes we grew up in (Piper himself admits this), the nations of our citizenship, and any other number of conditioning factors? Is reliance on sensibility not the hopelessly “feminine” approach Piper decries, one sure to lead us further from the task of masculine ministry, which Piper works here so vigorously to defend? Where in the world is that “masculine” voice of authority on which we’re supposedly to depend?
Not only Piper’s does own language deconstruct, but it can hardly be considered helpful in the task to which Piper and I agree the church is called, which is to free and equip the people of God – both male and female – for active ministry. Although such an address was not meant for me but the male attendees of the conference, I can’t help but feel more, not less, confused by the distinctions Piper has put forward. He has argued for his feel of masculinity, which indeed isn’t mine. Once again, I, like many other women, am led into a paralyzing mistrust of myself and my sensibilities, made to feel wrong when my language tends more towards force rather than sentimentality and when I don’t fit the neat confines of his categories.
Piper works to emphasize that women are as capable as men and can and in many cases should do the truth-telling of men. However, note the careful wording of his distinction between male ministry and female ministry: “[God] inclines men to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work.” I am not at all comfortable with relegating women exclusively to these cheerleading responsibilities, and I do not believe that distinction does faithfulness to the stories of Biblical women such as Ruth, Rahab and Esther, to name a few.
Piper is not an enemy, nor am I a feminist in the traditional sense. However, I believe that the slippery language of what Christianity does and does not feel like is not a path to greater freedom for women in the church. No doubt we need to achieve greater clarity about our gender issues, and for this task, we will need not the exhumed life of another white man from a century ago, nor our culturally conditioned and subjective notions of what Christianity feels like. We will need convincing arguments from Scripture, the kind Piper has not offered here. Indeed, I am not at all sure how his argument stands up to 1 Thessalonians 2, where Paul describes apostolic ministry both as the gentle work of a “nursing mother taking care of her own children” as well as the work of a father who with his own children, “exhorted . . . and encouraged . . . and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”