John Piper, Masculine Christianity, & Hidden Ideologies

Last night our class discussed the Jewish generation within which Jesus conducted his ministry.  Though diverse, the broader culture was thoroughly saturated in a biblical worldview.  They were passionately seeking the glory of God, the vindication of his name, the arrival of his promised one, and the return of God’s presence among his people.

Corrupted ideologies, however, distorted their biblical vision in various ways.  That generation took a three-year long look at Jesus of Nazareth and, with the exception of a handful of followers, concluded that the best course of action was to deliver him over to their foreign occupying oppressors and have him subjected to an excruciating and humiliating death.

It’s important to remember that it’s easy to use Scripture and be passionate about God’s glory and yet get it wrong. 

It’s easy to miss the corrupting and distorting ideologies that determine one’s use of Scripture.  This is especially the case when interests of power and control are in play.

A few days ago, John Piper stated that Christianity has a masculine feel to it and that this is by God’s design.  Further, this is for the flourishing of all humanity, both women and men.

I think that John Piper’s claim is oriented by destructive ideologies, distorting his conception of Christian gender relations.

The pattern of his claim follows that of the paternalistic dynamics of imperialism.  To simplify, imperial powers, sustained by an unshakable faith in the rightness of their cause, arrive on foreign shores with the best of motives—to “enlighten” the benighted natives. 

They know what’s best for these people and have come to bring culture and civilization—to bring them up to speed.  “This is for your good.  You’ll thank us.”

Hidden from view, however, are the many ways that arriving contingents consolidate and maintain power, usually backed by military resources.

The legacy of imperialism is one of disaster, devastation, exploitation, and oppression. 

As it happens, the ideology of imperialism also shaped the strategies of the early modern missionary movement.  Missiologists have come to recognize that missionaries were inappropriately exporting and imposing Western culture when they thought they were spreading the gospel.  They assumed they were doing good, doing the will of God, bringing about the flourishing of those on “mission fields.”

But they were unwitting agents of cultural imperialism.

Piper’s claim matches the dynamics of imperialism: “It is God’s will that power is consolidated in our hands, and this is for your good.  We know what’s best for you, and we have the best of intentions.”

Such moves are usually followed by exploitation, oppression, and domination.

It makes perfect sense that Piper would draw upon J. C. Ryle, who advanced through England’s elite institutions during the glory days of the British Empire.

Piper’s claim also resonates with fundamentalist impulses.  Fundamentalist leaders typically hearken back to a “golden age” when “things were as they should be.”

Piper’s culturally-constructed vision of masculinity and the complementary roles for women and men come straight out of an idealized vision of the Victorian era.  Once again, the reference to J. C. Ryle plays a strategic role.

Further, because fundamentalists long for clarity and order, scholars note that a common feature across all forms of fundamentalism is the suspicion of women and the perceived necessity of guarding against women exercising power.  Fundamentalists seek very clearly delineated boundaries between femininity and masculinity.

Again, the results of such postures toward women are exploitation, oppression, and domination.

I think that John Piper believes that he has the best of motives, that he’s being sincere, that he believes he’s advocating a vision of gender roles that brings about universal flourishing. 

But he does not realize that his use of Scripture is oriented by these corrupted ideologies.  His distorted vision of Christian gender relations can only bear bad fruit.


40 responses to “John Piper, Masculine Christianity, & Hidden Ideologies

  • Craig Benno

    Well said Tim. I like how you made the sociological distinction with J.C Ryle in the Victorian era. It’s my observation that Pipers clan need to be honest and add a 6th point to the sola’s and that is they do believe in a patriarchal / hierarchical order within the framework of faith.

    How they continue to work this out within the framework of there being no distinction in gender, societal class and nationality in Christ, truly boggles my mind.

  • Masculine Christianity sees women only as wives and mothers, only as sexualized objects | Unsettled Christianity

    […] other day, I posted on the words of John Piper who called Christianity masculine. Tim Gombis, Rachel Held Evans, JDR Kirk, and Scott McKnight have since done so as well. 1. A masculine […]

  • S Wu

    Violence against women in some parts of the world is terrible. A friend of mine who works in non-Western countries often comes across stories of violence against women – stories that happen in Christian families. (Her job is to raise awareness on this issue and runs workshop in churches to help Christians to carefully read the Bible on this issue. Good on her!)

    I thank God for missionaries like Hudson Taylor who lived among the local people, learned their culture and language, and lives as one of them. He left the coastal areas of China where the British occupied areas were, and went inland to share the love of Christ – not as missionaries from the British Empire but as a slave of crucified Christ and risen Lord.

  • Michelle Abernathy

    Having come out of a patriarchal situation, the idea that a masculine church is somehow better than a feminine one makes me cringe. :/ Marlena Graves posted your link here, Mr. Gombis, and I thought “Oh! I miss him!” 🙂 I’ve actually had a few questions for you that I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on. You were such a great sounding board and spiritual advisor in college. I will never forget your kindness to me. If you’d be willing to shoot me an email, i’d greatly appreciate it 🙂

    Michelle (Cohoon) Abernathy

  • Brian

    i beleive too the corrupted ideology has effected their views on eadership as well. that for piper et al leadership is positional (titles, etc) then functional (based on service and actions) not the other way around. at least it might e part of the issue.

  • Dan Jr.

    Spot on Tim.

    What I’m so curious about is the way in which John Piper made his case. His hermeneutic was eerily similar to interpretive pluralism. I couldn’t figure out what his lens for interpretation was. If I copied his approach, I could make a case that God only wants to use dark-skinned people to lead because everyone in the scriptures that lead were dark-skinned. His hermeneutic didn’t separate culture from commandment. Not sure if I’m making sense?

    • timgombis

      I hear you.

      It would be easy to take any cultural instance of anything and make that normative. That’s an easy way to end up with biblical endorsements for the worst sorts of behaviors. In the U.S. in the 19th cent., that’s how many theologians argued for slavery.

  • savannahblog

    Hi Tim,

    David Cleland here, don’t know if you remember me. Long time reader first time commenter. Let me say that I have been very warmly affected by your series on leadership.

    I’ve often been struck by the notion that a people so passionate for God and His Glory could have gotten it so wrong with the Messiah in their midst. I agree with you when you say that their corrupted ideologies distorted their biblical vision.

    I do wonder however if the same could be said about the response to Piper? I don’t know if a “masculine feel” was the best way of stating it, but there’s no doubt that the ideology of our day would react negatively if it was true. As I read through the responses on Scott McKnight’s blog it seems fairly clear that there is a multitude of various outside ideologies coming into play. I know it’s hard for any of us to read outside of our presuppositions and I can’t agree with you more that there are many destructive ideologies running rampant in the church particularly in regards to leadership. However, in this case could could it not be that it is the response to Piper that is being driven by outside ideologies?

    All of that said, thanks for you blog. I enjoy it very much.

    David

    • timgombis

      Hey David,

      Great to hear from you! It is indeed the case that everyone is subject to determining ideologies. But it is possible to arrive at an ever-growing faithfulness to the gospel. We get there by being constantly transformed through faithful study, humble engagement with fellow Christians, and prayerful reflection. We then revisit our position and consider revising it.

      By offering my assessment, then, I’m just participating in that process.

      It seems to me that Piper’s case of prioritizing one gender over another is not a trajectory of thought and Christian discipleship that matches the shape of the cross–self-giving love for one another.

      I can’t speak for the responses of others. I’m not sure what all the responses have been, frankly. I’m only offering my thoughts.

  • Ryan

    Are you serious? This is a long list of guilt-by-association and unfounded assumptions about Piper and his views. Piper says one thing that you don’t like (and it does sound a bit strange to me), then hook it onto to a group of horrible statement that *might* be connected with it? Why would you say things like this?

    • timgombis

      Hi Ryan,

      When Bible teachers speak about biblical truth or Christian discipleship, Christians ought to think critically to determine if what they’re saying is faithful to Scripture. So, for instance, if someone said that “Christianity has an American feel to it,” and that God meant it this way for the good of all creation, it would be a good exercise to think through the ideologies and social-historical factors that would drive a person to say that. We might say that it would be downright lazy to just accept it as biblical truth.

      Christians are called to be discerning, to not be taken captive to corrupted ideologies (Col. 2:8), but to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

      When a person (in this case, John Piper) makes a statement like he made, it’s a good exercise to examine its ideological shape and seek to determine if it matches the trajectory of the cross. In this case, I think it does not. I think it is the sort of thing that emerges from unexamined ideological commitments. There may be other factors, too.

      So, to answer your question–why would I say things like this–I’m trying to take seriously the call to be discerning, thinking critically about how people use Scripture to draw theological conclusions.

      • Ryan

        I certainly appreciate the sort of endeavor you describe. However, you loosely affiliated Piper and his thought with truly awful trajectories without substantiating real connections between Piper and imperialism or Fundamentalism or showing how those trajectories have actually played out in his own ministry. I’m not sure I see how that could be productive.

      • timgombis

        I’m referring not to his thought in general or his ministry, but just this claim in the presentation on Ryle about the character of Christianity as masculine and the roles of men viz. women that he prescribes. I’m arguing that the vision he’s laid out is shaped by those sorts of ideologies and not necessarily by a straight-line move from Scripture to contemporary appropriation.

  • Todd Huster

    I’ve been reading City of God off and on for about 2 years now, and while Augustine doesn’t talk much about gender relations outside of a chapter on the creation account, there is a strong sense of the imperialism you are speaking of throughout the work. It’s difficult for me to disagree with Augustine on such a central theme of his work, considering the genuineness and insightfulness of his writing in other places, but it also makes sense that he could err on this topic since the benefits of imperialism were widely written about by his peers and predecessors toward the end of the Roman Empire, and since advocates for the marginalized among the scholars of the time may have been lacking. I like your explanation better, although I’m still working through where it agrees and disagrees with Augustine. Still, it’s worth pointing out that this ideology has been a significant force in the church for at least 1500 years, if not more.

    • timgombis

      Hey Todd!

      It’s so true that we read Scripture and speak about systems and structures and ideologies from our experience. If we’re doing well in the world and benefiting from “the system,” we’ll speak of it far more charitably. If we’re among the marginalized, we’ll note the prophetic critiques of systemic injustice and be far more aware of how power can be abused.

  • Mark LaCour

    Then why does the Apostle Paul tell the Corinthians, both male and female, in 1 Cor 16:13 to “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, **act like men,** be strong? Sounds like a masculine statement being made to the entire church.

    • timgombis

      The trouble with taking any one passage and setting it over-against all others is that you’ve got to choose which one to do that with. What about the passages in 1 Thess., Galatians, and Philemon in which Paul speaks of his ministry using “motherly” metaphors? Should we impose those on all other texts, make it the dominant metaphor, and demand a female-oriented ministry?

      It’s a better course to call upon a range of texts, thinking carefully about we move from biblical text to contemporary appropriation for theology and ministry.

      • Mark LaCour

        While I agree with you on the many analogies Paul uses to convey virtues (fatherhood, motherhood, brother, sister, soldier, etc), the point being made in 1 Corinthians 16 is singular — act like men. “Manhood” is being used by Paul in a positive sense to encourage manly virtues. Now, if Piper had said this is the ONLY analogy and virtue we’re to imitate, then I would agree with you. But to conclude imperialistic conclusions on the part of Piper when we have a text that tells us to behave a certain way is off the charts, in my opinion. Obeying one text doesn’t mean that I disregard all the others — but it certainly doesn’t mean I ignore it either.

      • timgombis

        It seems that isolating that singular dynamic and emphasizing it is precisely what Piper is doing. And the way he works it out has the basic posture of imperialist attitudes towards other cultures in how it commends male-female relations.

        Paul must be speaking plainly to the men in Corinth, don’t you think, Mark? I don’t imagine he’s referring to the entire congregation, encouraging women to behave like men. Further, I don’t think he’s telling the Corinthian church that the basic character of their fellowship is to be manly. I’m just not sure that exhortation to the Corinthian church should be pressed to endorse the manly shape of Christianity. How far would you press it?

    • Trinity

      Tim, Thank you for this posting and for standing for scripture. One comment regarding the 1 Cor. 16 passage:
      In researching several commentaries, the most popular rendering I found (Clarke, Barnes, Calvin, Henry) stated something akin to:
      “Be not like children tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine”. While, act like men within context surely connotes very masculine like qualities (strong, courageous, etc..), it seems that it can just as easily be conveying the sense of “be a grown-up.”

      • Mark LaCour

        Good post, Trinity. I agree. But it’s interesting when Paul wants to make your point he doesn’t tell the Corinthians to act like women. And it’s not because women aren’t *grown up* or inferior or anything. It’s that masculinity is associated with strength and femininity with weakness. His target audience would have received a mixed message if he told them to act like men — and women.

      • Trinity

        Hi Mark, No doubt, the call for strength and courage in this passage leans toward masculine characteristics. But as Tim states, we must not take a single admonition as all-encompassing. The Church is referred to as “she”, a bride, the mother of us all (Calvin), the daughter of Zion, etc.

        My comment was mainly meant to let Tim know that I agree with him re: Piper’s over the top masculinity pleas. This is something that greives me actually. I did watch the videos of the associated conference and much of the teaching there is very good and sorely needed. The trouble or concern for me mirrors exactly what Tim is writing about. It’s a type of eisegesis that complementarians continue to get away with and which does not take into account the full council of God, nor the trajectory of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
        Peace.

  • Brad Wong

    Tim,

    I very much appreciate what you’ve written here. Very helpful and insightful analysis. But, may I ask how you might respond to Piper’s contention that masculinity is anchored in the god-head (Father and Son, at least)?

    BTW, you won’t remember me . . . but, you once loaned Bruce Hansen you golf clubs at St. Andrews. I was the guy that played with them! Thanks:)

    • timgombis

      Hey Brad, hope the clubs did their job! Scripture does indeed use male language of God throughout, but I don’t see how this prioritizes men over women or endorses the masculine character of Christianity. God made humanity male and female and they together bear the image of God. It seems that God’s intentions for humanity is determinative for huamnity’s character and thus for the character of the church–male and female, all humanity bearing God’s image together, no one having priority–male, female, black, white, etc.

      Is this not the same argument used by Jewish Christians in Rome and Galatia? Since the very name of God is the God of Israel, Christianity has a Jewish feel to it and they have priority over the gentiles. It seems Paul thought otherwise.

  • Rev David A Williams

    Seems someone dared to touch the sacred cow, and we reap the usual response. Mark LaCour seems to have had the most ballanced approach, being willing to entertain discussion. Shame on those who let the threat of small but vocal groups within and without dictate doctrine to the rest. Be men.

    • timgombis

      Sadly, David, on every side and from every angle, evangelicalism has produced a celebrity culture that makes it difficult to hold up what certain figures say to critical scrutiny.

  • Last Week’s Reading: Masculine Christianity, Eschatology, and Slippery Slopes. « New Ways Forward

    […] Tim Gombis argues that Piper’s comments demonstrate a sort of Imperialism. […]

  • Sarah Jones

    Hi Dr. Gombis,

    Just wanted to say that I think this is a much needed post. I’m doing an MA in postcolonial studies at the University of London, and the first essay I completed for my degree examined the role missionary work played in growing the British Empire in India. I don’t think it’s possible to understate the damage that is caused by the cultural displacement inevitably caused by imperialism, particularly when religious fundamentalism is involved. And I suppose it’s no wonder, really, that the treatment of women by the mainstream Christian church eventually led to my current interest in colonialism: both injustices stem from the same root. Thank you for bringing attention to the subject with your blog, and for reminding me why I remind my classmates that no, not all Christians are like the ones they see on Youtube.

    –Sarah

  • Jaime Hancock

    Tim,
    I enjoy a lot of what you said here in this post. However, I do want to make one comment regarding gender. I do think that the Scriptures refer to some very clear gender roles. Those are things based on the inherent nature of created order in the physical world. Women can give birth to babies, men cannot. And, yes, that role is related to both the initial purpose of humanity (fill the earth and govern it) as well as the redemption of humanity. That is by no means their only role, but it is a legitimate role of women. If you deny this, you create a very distorted sort of reality in which neither men and women feel they understand how their identity links into the purposes of God for mankind. (There is, of course, a corresponding male role, which is not just to be sperm donors.) I think Piper is wanting to react to a legitimate problem, which is that we are allowing the surrounding culture to have too much influence on our churches, and we are not having enough of the right influence on culture. However, I think he attacks the issue from the cultural base of Victorian England, and fundamentalist ideas of a past that was better than it really was. He does not base them on the cultural base of Eden/Gethsemane/New Creation, which is the cultural base we need to come from.
    Many churches allow a liberal political agenda to determine their walk, which is every bit as destructive as allowing a conservative political agenda to do so. We are not bound by the agendas of this world, and sometimes, we will be offensive to this world. Remember, Jesus was not only rejected by the leaders. He was rejected by many of the populace. (John 6). We cannot let our popularity (either pro or con) be the thermometer of measuring our faithfulness to kingdom work. We are working to set up the Kingdom of God in our midst and that will ultimately be offensive to any system of authority that is not the Kingdom of God.
    Many who are disagreeing with Piper, are making the same mistakes he is, which is to find the verses that agree with my culturally inherited view, and thus say that he is wrong. We have not yet done the hard work of inhabiting the tension between certain ideas in the Bible. We have not yet brought a robust Creation/Re-Creation imagination to many of these problems facing us.
    I hope we can find ways to engage in this discussion in humility, without it devolving into us versus them arguments. We should call each other to work of Redemption and Reconciliation. Let’s speak the truth in love. So far, I believe you have done an admirable job of keeping the discussion about the ideas, Tim. But many of the comments I have seen on other sites have equated Piper and those who believe like him, with a kind of spiritual Neanderthalism, and there are a number who are recapitulating the whole sinner/Pharisee story (i.e. – “I thank God I’m not a fundamentalist, misogynist bigot like that man over there.”) Maybe his wife finds him to be a loving, supportive spouse, who calls her to deeper commitment to Jesus. Let’s leave the character attacks out of this.

    Grace and Peace,
    Jaime

  • Elsewhere (02.11.2012) « Near Emmaus

    […] Tim Gombis responds to John Piper’s claims that Christianity is “masculine”. Mason Slater says he is tired of discussing what he is “against” in response to Piper. […]

  • Scottg

    What ideologies are driving your thoughts? Are you in touch with those so you can guard against them? Your comments appear to me to based squarely in the popular cultural mindset of our day. I wonder if Piper, who I understand is first and foremost a Pastor, is responding to the devastation he sees regularly caused by absent, immature, unfaithful, cowardly males. These men have been fed a steady diet for many years that they are not particularly necessary in the family and have begun to believe it. I went and listened to the entirety of his comments. Gauging from the comments here, few if any have listened to all of the comments he made where he specifically distances himself from the kind of “masculinity” that most react against. Have you?

    • timgombis

      Hi Scott,
      Yes, I did read the transcript. I’m not sure you’re grasping my point. I’m not sure that there is a singular prevailing cultural mindset of our day, and I’m definitely certain that it isn’t a wise course to take to respond to a perceived mindset by calling a different cultural mindset (Victorian era masculinity) “the biblical way of doing things.” I’m just trying to point that out–that he’s made some ideological moves in moving from text to theological vision. And I think he’s doing so for what he thinks are good reasons. But there’s a paternalism there, a condescending attitude toward women that isn’t the Scriptural way that male-female relationships are conceived.

  • Scottg

    In the relationship between men and women the prevailing cultural mindset of our day is that equality equals sameness. That is, for men and women to be truly equal there must be no distinction of “gender role”. In our day, where men can be women, and women can be men, if not in the
    superficial physical alteration, at least in dress, to speak of God having a design for each gender to fulfill is anathema. If it comes from a man he is being condescending to women, if it comes from a women she is naive, mislead, or stupid. I do grasp your point, I just don’t agree with it. I do, however, appreciate your tone.

    • timgombis

      I don’t think it’s possible to broad-brush and speak of a prevailing cultural mindset in this regard. Seems that things are far too varied. One could argue that Piper is actually reinforcing the cultural mindset. Whatever the case, to privilege one gender over another–even for ostensibly good reasons–is biblically inappropriate.

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