The other day my son’s pre-K teacher commended him for continuing with his work when the other kids around him were goofing off. My son had gone on dutifully coloring away with his crayons when he could have been lured away from the task at hand. I was proud of my son, with one corrective: that if he were ever to see one of his classmates playing in such a way as to hurt him or another child, he must stop what he is doing and speak up.
Which is why I have decided to put my crayons down, too, and respond to the latest calls by popular evangelical thinker, writer and Baptist minister, John Piper, for a “masculine Christianity.” Sadly, I fear that Piper’s so-called “biblical” theology is yet one more example of how we evangelicals are just as guilty as liberal Christians were at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, of making God into our own image and twisting Scripture to fit our own agendas, with the result being very damaging implications for our life together as men and women equally called and gifted to serve Christ and Christ’s mission in the world.
“Heresy” is a strong word- in previous ages, Piper could have been burned at the stake- but here I employ the term not to argue that Piper should be barbecued, but rather, to demonstrate how Piper’s proposed “masculine Christianity” actually departs from orthodox Christianity as defined by the creeds of the early church. Of greatest issue here is Piper’s problematic treatment of the nature of God, which in turn influences how he reads Scripture and the nature of what it means to be “made in the image of God”: “God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother,” Piper writes. “The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam (Genesis 5:2).”
Strikingly, Piper’s description of the divine nature completely ignores the unique personhood and participation of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In Piper’s construction of “masculine Christianity,” “She” has gone painfully missing. She is, in Hebrew, the feminine ruach: She is present from the very beginning, hovering over the waters at creation and infusing the man and the woman with the very breath of God; and it is She who alights first on Jesus’ head in the form of a dove, authorizing and blessing Jesus’ mission, and then on the heads of the first followers of Jesus at Pentecost, empowering and sending them out to participate in God’s mission. Without the Spirit, God’s mission in and through the church is dead. No Spirit? No mission.
Whether intentionally or not, Piper implicitly denies the existence and divinity of the Third Person of the Trinity in his construction of a masculine God- a fact which places him in the ranks of the fourth-century “Pneumatomachianists”- how is that for a mouthful?- whose teachings rejecting the divinity of the Holy Spirit were condemned as a departure from orthodoxy at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and later at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. And it is this heretical view of the nature of God that in turn allows Piper to read Scripture as an affirmation of manhood at the expense of womanhood. Within Piper’s framework, manhood subsumes womanhood and implicitly takes on a kind of salvific role, precisely because Piper chooses to emphasize the necessity of the Father and the Son’s male gender, in turn linking it with what it means to be “made in God’s image.” If we were really to tease out the implications of this stilted reasoning, though, Jesus’ maleness, rather than his humanity, becomes necessary for salvation (insofar as salvation is the restoration of God’s image, despoiled by sin, in us): what Jesus has not assumed in human form (in this case, the female nature), Jesus cannot actually save after all (a theological statement first established at the Council of Nicea with the affirmation that Jesus was and is both “fully human and fully divine”).
Piper goes on to lift up only those parts of Scripture that would support the notion that God wants Christianity to “have a masculine feel,” leaving us to assume that Scripture makes little room for more feminine ways of describing God or for honoring women’s equal contributions to God’s mission. And nothing could be further from the case: God is a mother bird who longs to shelter her children under her wings; God is Wisdom personified as a woman; the Samaritan woman at the well becomes arguably the first apostle; and the Syro-Phoenician woman, in her dogged faith, is the only person recorded in Scripture to actually change Jesus’ mind. Of course there are many more biblical affirmations of God’s feminine nature and women’s important role in God’s mission. These are only a few.
There is also clear historical evidence to show that women in first-century, household churches were serving Christ equally alongside men (as opposed to “coming alongside” men, as Piper would prefer to describe women’s role in ministry); this, in response to Piper’s heavy reliance on passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 and Ephesians 5:22-33 to support a traditionally patriarchal approach to marriage and church leadership. I could go on.
In conclusion, Piper’s argument is not most damaging because it is heretical- although by drawing notice to the heresy inherent in Piper’s theology, I do hope to reduce the potential of such biblically dressed chauvinism to only further centuries of harm done in the name of God against women. (Piper is, afterall, and rightfully so in many ways, a very influential and respected leader in the church; people take what he has to say very seriously.)
Piper’s case is most damaging because of its implications for God’s mission, however. The Triune God we worship is a God who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, anoints, sends and equips both men and women to witness to and minister God’s love in Jesus Christ in all manner of ways. This “Three-in-One” God is not an exclusively “masculine” God; nor is this God an exclusively “feminine” God; this God is One whose image we all bear, male, female or transgender, and whose saving love we all have the capacity to receive and share. When we deny the fully free, fully equal, fully invested collaboration of males and females as modeled within the Godhead Itself, we no longer occupy the Good News that God really is restoring the world. Nor are we able to effectively share that Good News in life-giving ways, either.