Sunday, February 12, 2012

is Christianity essentially masculine?

John Piper says so.

(let that sink in for a second)

Certainly no one would argue with the assessment that current church leadership is predominantly male. But Piper is going much further than this by saying that the church not only ought to be led exclusively by men, but that their leadership ought to be thoroughly masculine because God prefers masculinity. Masculinity, as Piper defines it, is best for everyone.

Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary thoughtfully disagrees. Click here to read his excellent response to Piper. (Thanks to James-Michael Smith for bringing this post to my attention.) I am intentionally not trying to replicate his exegetical arguments here because his are very well expressed, but I will add some reflections from two other sources along with my own.

Christians for Biblical Equality put together a chart that shows the disparity between church attendance and church/academic leadership in terms of gender. I'm sharing it here with their permission because I found it fascinating. They are tracking seminary enrollment and membership in the Evangelical Theological Society, rather than pastoral ministry, but the numbers would be comparable. As a female member of ETS with a seminary degree, I can say that this chart fits my own experience.

A few weeks ago I read a very thought-provoking book by Carolyn Custis James, entitled Half the Church. This is one book about women that every man should read, especially those in church leadership. Carolyn calls into question the idea that Christian women, who make up over half the church, ought to sit back and let men do the hard work of leading, ministering, and reaching the world. In light of the global slave trafficking problem, where women and children are the primary victims, can women afford to sit idle and assume that it is up to somebody else to take care of the problem?

Carolyn James would agree with Ben Witherington that the church needs men and women, working alongside each other as leaders, if we want to see the mission of God carried out in the way He intended. Men need our strengths. They need our perspective. They need our help. Together we can fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Remember God's diagnosis for Adam's problem? "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 1:18). God solved this problem by creating a woman to stand alongside him to "help" him. This is not a subordinate role, as Carolyn James insists. God is assigning woman alongside man the task of subduing the earth. Most of the other times this word "help" occurs in the Bible it describes God himself as Israel's "helper" (see, for example, Psalm 70:5).

It doesn't sound like Piper welcomes this kind of "help" from women. And that's really too bad. Because while I would certainly not want to exclude masculinity from the church, I am firmly persuaded that men are not more suitably equipped to further the kingdom of God, nor is masculinity somehow spiritually superior. On their own, men will only ever be half the church.


  1. My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick within me. Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land: "Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" "Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?" "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored? ~ Jer 8:18-22

    Out of context, I know, but it expresses how I feel about this today. Do the sincere, loving men of God who promote these views have any understanding of how these words feel to the women entrusted to their care?

  2. As a female following the call, I have felt the slings and arrows of a hurtful male only theology. There is so much that our churches are missing by marginalizing the women and it saddens me. However, I believe that we have to follow our call fearlessly and to fight to not let discouragement and disparagment keep us from utilizing the gifts that God has given us.

    The challenge for us is to let the struggle spur us on and to not embitter us. God has opened doors of ministry for me and I serve so that other women can follow the call ... wherever it leads.

    God bless you on the journey,

    Connie Crawford Lain; senior pastor, Willamina Free methodist Church

  3. Laura and Connie,

    Thanks to both of you for your comments.

    I don't imagine that John Piper is intentionally trying to alienate women or to hurt them in any way, but he sure is reading the Bible selectively!

    Laura, I love the passage you chose to express your grief . . . it is a fabulous example of the kind of feminine imagery that I keep noticing throughout the Bible (daughter Zion). Equally intriguing are passages that compare Yahweh to a nursing mother (Isa 45:19) or say that he has given birth (Deut 32:18). Jesus also compares himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks (Matt 23:27). These are metaphors, of course, so they don't make God female any more than speaking of him using masculine pronouns makes him male. But even Paul is not above using feminine metaphors for his own ministry! (1 Thess 2:7) Why, then, must Piper privilege masculine modes of talking about the spiritual life? Are the passages that use feminine imagery for the life of faith somehow less accurate?

    You're right, Connie, that bitterness won't help anybody. All we can do is receive the grace of God for ourselves and extend it to others, even when we disagree.

    Blessings to both of you!

  4. I was just catching up on your blogs and am excited to pick up the book you recommended and do some more reading. I just finished the book "Why Not Women?" by Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton. Excellent book along the same vein. Eye opening for a woman like myself in lay ministry who has questioned the role of women in leadership...due to the conservative background I am from. Over the last few years, through scripture and Holy Spirit promptings I know HE is showing me the amazing value he holds in me (a woman). Thanks for sharing.

  5. Rochelle,

    Thanks for your note. You might also enjoy reading this thoughtful response to Piper from a woman whose interests are in historical theology:


  6. Carmen, and other commenters here, I'm glad I found your blog today. Though a male, I have long been interested in egalitarianism, basically since by own first seminary days in the early to mid 70 (tho at Talbot, which would then admit women only for the Masters of CE). I participated a bit in the very early EWC and followed the biblical scholarship back then.

    Are you aware of the Rachel Held Evans (.com) synchroblog done last week, or her blog in general? If you were a participant, there were just too many (188) for me to note most of them. I was one, with a lengthy post on my blog on "Women in Ministry - First Century and Today." My PhD work was at Claremont (finished coursework but not degree)-- integrative program of theology, psych and religious ed., so I'm not a fully qualified "biblical scholar" in the professional sense, but a serious amateur, and into psychology/sociology of religion and spirituality. I do think you might find my article interesting, but I should forewarn you that over the years I have moved toward Process Theology and generally find the consensus of "higher criticism" to be more historically accurate than older "tradition", without necessarily buying any attending theological assumptions.

    Regardless I AM very interested in tracking with PhD level scholarship among women (even the liberals don't seem to have many in biblical scholarship, tho more than conservatives). I agree heartily that we need female influence and input dearly!

  7. Howard,
    Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you found my blog, too. I recently heard of Rachel Held Evans for the first time, and enjoyed one of her posts. I haven't kept up with her because my own life is full, full, full, but I'm so thankful for other women who are part of the wider Evangelical conversation. I'm also thankful for men like you who encourage women in biblical studies. You are right that the numbers aren't much better among liberals.

    I'm delighted to report that in Wheaton's incoming class of PhD students this fall there are two women, one of them from Germany, and also a man from the Philippines. Together they make half of the incoming class. I'm thrilled. We don't just need to hear from women. We need other cultures to join the conversation so that we make sure we're not just hearing echoes of our own biases. By the way, I'm delighted to meet the white guys who are coming, too. :) Wheaton's men are a stellar bunch with a global perspective who welcome the participation of women scholars. This is a great place to learn!


    1. Thanks for the reply, Carmen. I can imagine your life is indeed full! So don't feel any need to reply further now. But I do have a developing interest in one pretty narrow aspect of religious thinking and spiritual development related to PhD level biblical scholars. (I am writing a short book on the broader area now, with a longer probably to come). My wondering is about a person negotiating what seems to me to be a serious conundrum (that I've solved to my satisfaction but circumstances aided in that). That is, when one learns some of the extensive data that seems to pretty clearly rule out the traditional Christian dogma about the inspiration and authority (not just inerrancy) of Scripture, the messianic fulfillment of prophecy, the writing and canonization of the NT, etc., how can one stay "orthodox" and be intellectually honest? (In my own case, I didn't even get much of this at Claremont--i.e., biblical studies per so, tho a lot of theology.) But my later studies uncovered much that now seems to say, "Of course, it's quite evident now" (about many things I'd heard were liberal distortions and thought indeed they were).

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Howard, 
      Once again, thanks for your comment. Obviously I took you seriously about not rushing to reply. :) I appreciate your interest in this subject. I have a few thoughts, though nothing that you'll probably feel is definitive at this point.

      1. I intentionally chose to come to Wheaton because I observed Wheaton professors engaging in the wider world of scholarship (e.g. SBL), rather than only maintaining ties with those who agreed with them. What I hoped is that they would be able to model for me how to engage that world while maintaining Christian faith. I have not been disappointed. For most profs here, no question is "off limits." Our comprehensive reading list takes us well beyond the bounds of evangelicalism, and we have opportunities to talk about any issues that come up in our own development as scholars, all the while maintaining vibrant worship.

      2. I've also discovered a larger group of scholars who have embraced critical approaches to Scripture (to varying degrees) while maintaining a strong love for Jesus — the Institute for Biblical Research. I love it that orthodoxy is bigger than evangelicalism, and that I can worship side-by-side with folks who would disagree with some of my more conservative views on Scripture but share the same faith. They model a variety of ways to engage the "extensive data" you mention.

      3. From my vantage point, I see two factors that have contributed to biblical scholars leaving the faith. First, Evangelicals have historically absolutized certain ways of reading the Bible, so that when those ways of reading the Bible came under fire the choice was to leave the faith or reject current scholarship. This is unfortunate, because in many cases people may not have realized there was a middle road. Conservative views could have been modified without losing orthodoxy [an older, pre-Evangelical example might be the discovery that the world was round, an idea first rejected by the Church because she mistakenly thought the Bible affirmed a flat earth]. Evangelicals have tended to approach the Bible with an iron in one hand, smoothing out apparent discrepancies and making the whole thing read as if it only, always says one thing. In some cases we've missed nuances and different voices. 

      A second problem, though, is the absolutizing of certain ways of reading the Bible by critical scholars. I wonder, for example, what you mean by "extensive data" that would rule out the authority of Scripture. The data you have in mind may well be reliable, and it may indeed call into question certain inflexible ways of looking at things, but whether it rules out the authority of Scripture would in all likelihood be a matter of how you interpret that data. Postmodernism has taught us that the "assured results of scholarship" are often only "assured" when viewed from one particular angle.

      So, in short, I'd say the fact that students often leave the faith stems in part from the inflexibility of the hermeneutic on either side of a particular debate. Wheaton and IBR have been two very helpful allies for me in finding a middle road between these extremes, and being a member of both ETS and SBL has given me the opportunity to cultivate friendships on both ends of the spectrum. That's a gift.

      Feel free to respond again if you'd like to keep the conversation going. Otherwise, watch and see. :)