John Piper sparked quite a storm with his biographical message on the “frank and manly” J. C. Ryle. One of his conclusion was that Christianity is meant to have a masculine feel to it. Response to his message ranged from outrage to applause. I found myself perplexed and needed to give it some time to work itself out in my mind. For a while I gave up, but then decided that it would be worth the effort, so sat down and began to hash out my thoughts. It took a long time, but having done so, I find that I am pretty sure I disagree with Piper. I will tell you why, but first, a short refresher on his message.
After some introductory observations about the prominence of masculinity in the Christian faith—like the fact that God is revealed to us as a king and father rather than as a queen and mother, that Jesus came as a man, that all priests and pastors in the Bible are men and so on—Piper went on to define this “masculine feel” or “masculine Christianity” more precisely. A masculine Christianity is a Christianity in which,
Theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ, with an ethos of tender-hearted strength, and contrite courage, and risk-taking decisiveness, and readiness to sacrifice for the sake of leading, protecting, and providing for the community—all of which is possible only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the feel of a great, majestic God, who by his redeeming work in Jesus Christ, 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.
What Piper saw as characteristic of a masculine faith is the presence of these sometimes-paradoxical virtues, exercised in the Spirit of Christ and for his glory:
- tender-hearted strength
- contrite courage
- risk-taking decisiveness
- sacrificial leadership, protection, and provision
- humble initiative-taking
He went on:
… I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And, being a God of love, he has done it for the maximum flourishing of men and women. He did not create women to languish, or be frustrated, or in any way to suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy, in a masculine Christianity. She is a fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.
I find that I do not agree. For those of you who are given to over-reaction, just breathe—I am allowed to disagree and I’m sure Piper is just fine with people disagreeing. If you don’t have a category for charitable disagreement on secondary matters, you need to develop one! I still love the man, but want to offer an alternative to his masculine Christianity.
I believe it is a category mistake to say that Christianity is either masculine or feminine just as it would be a category mistake to say that Christianity is Caucasian or African-American or young or old. It exists beyond or outside of such categories. I affirm that male headship is clearly laid out in the Bible, that God assigns church leadership to qualified men, and that God has given to men certain traits or virtues that allow them to lead well. However, it does not follow from these facts that the Christian faith ought to feel more masculine than feminine.
Here’s the thing: Whatever masculinity and femininity are, they are equally downstream from God, collections of traits that flow from God himself. Whatever femininity is, it is a means through which a woman can reflect the image of God. Whatever masculinity is, it is a means through which a man can reflect the image of God. When a man acts like a man he is displaying the image of God and the same is true when a woman acts like a woman.
It’s not like God gave his own attributes to Adam—masculine attributes—and then had to invent a collection of new, feminine ones when he created Eve. It seems that God chose to give some of the traits that exist in himself in greater measure to men and some in greater measure to women. Not only that, but he also gave each a particular role or sphere of operation in which those distinct virtues could be practiced and put on display. Thus to behave in a feminine way is to act in the image of God by faithfully displaying some of his characteristics and to behave in a masculine way is to act in the image of God by emphasizing other of his characteristics.
This is a large part of what we mean when we say that that men and women are complementary. The two genders form a sharper picture of what it means to be made in God’s image than would be the case if there was only one gender. Thus the church needs to go on encouraging men to be masculine and women to be feminine, each embracing the distinct and complementary ways in which they serve as the image of God. The Christian faith, being neither masculine nor feminine, is the ground in which both can thrive in equal measure and through the very same means.
In the broad picture, both masculine and feminine thrive under the same conditions: taking joyful advantage of those beautifully ordinary means of grace the Lord has provided for our sanctification. Michael Horton says it well:
[T]he larger goal here shouldn’t be to trot out more gender stereotypes from our culture, whether feminist or neo-Victorian, but rather to rediscover the ministry that Christ has ordained for making disciples of all nations, all generations, and both genders. We need less niche marketing and more meat-and-potatoes service to the whole body of Christ. There, men and women, the young and the old and the middle aged, black, white, Latino, Asian, rich and poor hear God’s Word together, pray and sing God’s Word together, and are made one body by receiving Christ’s body and blood together: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”