Updated: John Piper and “masculine leadership”

February 3, 2012

One of my favorite theological bloggers, Scot McKnight of Jesus Creed, has entered the discussion of John Piper’s latest comments on the need for churches to have a “masculine” feel and a male leadership. His post is titled “John Piper, what he said.” Piper is a man of God and a serious thinker, so we are bound to approach him as a valued brother.

McKnight includes lengthy quotes, including Piper’s suggested traits of masculine leadership.

1. A masculine ministry believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism that must come in a public ministry, than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault.

2. A masculine ministry seizes on full-orbed, biblical doctrine with a view to teaching it to the church and pressing it with courage into the lives of the people.

3. A masculine ministry brings out the more rugged aspects of the Christian life and presses them on the conscience of the church with a demeanor that accords with their proportion in Scripture.

4. A masculine ministry takes up heavy and painful realities in the Bible, and puts them forward to those who may not want to hear them.

5. A masculine ministry heralds the truth of Scripture, with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction, to the world and in the regular worship services of the church.

6. A masculine ministry welcomes the challenges and costs of strong, courageous leadership without complaint or self-pity with a view to putting in place principles and structures and plans and people to carry a whole church into joyful fruitfulness.

7. A masculine ministry publicly and privately advocates for the vital and manifold ministries of women in the life and mission of the church.

8. A masculine ministry models for the church the protection, nourishing, and cherishing of a wife and children as part of the high calling of leadership.

Christians should value and carefully consider Piper’s commentary. There is a part of me that senses a severe devaluation of the culturally presumed male qualities. Media often reduces men to brainless inept morons or rotten predators. Women outnumber men in college and us guys just can’t seem to get a break. Yes, men still run a lot of things and, in far too many cases, they seem to be making a huge mess of it.

Piper’s argument for greater male presence in presenting the Gospel actually seems a little more like a call to circle the wagons or raise the drawbridge. While followers of Jesus are called to get out and bring Good News to the world, this formulation seems more than a little defensive. As one who cherishes tradition and orthodoxy, I appreciate his sentiment. Nonetheless, every instance of announcing the Gospel is not a final desperate act of defiance. Reports of dragons are greatly overstated.

When I think about this kind of thing, the overwhelming influence of our consumer society is always lurking not far away, ready to distort my reading of the inspired text. As Piper goes looking for the proper manly man, will that include the destitute, homeless, socially powerless, and ill-dressed impoverished men, dispossessed from the American dream? Will it include veterans reduced to living on the streets? Are the “complimentarians” ready to admit a disabled man as properly masculine and worthy of the mantle of leadership?

What would they do about King David? David meets Saul twice. The first time is in the role of musician and armor bearer (1Sam 16: 14-23). An entertainer? Some guy playing a harp? That might be kinda’ masculine, but is that really the type of masculine leadership Piper has in mind? In the next recorded encounter, David proposes to kill Goliath (1Sam 17: 31). Later, the young man presents Saul with the giant’s severed head, thereby proving his worthiness to lead (17:57). Now, that’s pretty stout for a fellow who spends a lot of time strumming a lyre.

One must wonder if Jesus measures up to the newly defined standard of manliness. Let’s see. he says to turn the other check. Is that any way to stand up to your enemy? How many Christian fathers teach their sons not to retaliate? If your enemy takes your coat, give it to him. Pretty easy for an itinerate preacher who probably does not own a single thousand dollar suit. When about five thousand freeloading hangers-on that failed to properly plan to feed themselves, Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes, which probably makes him some sort of enabler. If somebody wants to follow Jesus, let him save his money and stand on his own two feet. Do you get what I am trying to say here? Masculinity may not be as easily defined as we believe, especially if we honestly attempt to overlook the cultural presumptions.

Jesus allowed himself to be arrested and subjected to a kangaroo court of a trail. It was a disgrace to any idea of justice and he was condemned by a political coward. Jesus endured the most humiliating and gruesome form of public execution without a whimper to settle our accounts with a just and righteous God. By submitting to the divine plan, he became an example of perfect serene strength. Jesus’ submission was possibly his most masculine act.

Of all the martyrs of the early church, many of those who went to terrible deaths singing praises to God were women. Only a cursory look at history leads us to Perpetua, Felicitas, Blandina, Lucy, Agnes and a host of other brave ladies. Why should women be protected from the lash of criticism now when they gladly faced much worse in earlier times?Of course, I do not intend to overlook the suffering endured by our sisters in Christ today, but the intention is to invite a historical witness into this conversation.

As a mere Anglican, I have not reached the destination on figuring out whether women should serve in the ranks of presbyters and bishops. Part of it is a catholic sensibility that seeks not to needlessly offend fellow believers. I do not know what my little part of God’s household should do, and it is not up to me. If women are to serve in the ministry, I would only suggest that it should not be prompted by a desire for gender equality, but the obedient response to a calling that one should be the first in line when the government comes looking for the followers of Christ. I believe the female leaders in Christ’s church will be ready to face the worst.

I am far from an expert on such things, but Piper’s theology raises some questions. What if, since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, things have changed? What if the consequences of The Fall are being reversed? What if we are dead to sin and new creatures in Christ (Rm 6:3-5)? What if Christ actually broke down the wall of separation between Jews and Greeks (Eph 2:14)? More to the point, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:28-29). What if God is making a new humanity? Ya’ think?

This is not a bible fight, although our thoughts about God’s will must be led by scripture. If God is progressively revealed in the Bible, could it be that he is being progressively revealed today in the Body of Christ on earth? This is not a definitive answer because such a simple result is not possible. In the church, we are obligated to make room for other views in certain non-essential areas, even those that make us uncomfortable, out of Christian love and in obedience to Christ, who continuously calls for unity.

If you are an American, your ability to think about such matters is seriously compromised by a culture that values people based on their ability to consume and produce. This is a society that quickly disregards any idea that is inconvenient or unpleasant. Not only do we exalt the individual, but we worship the completely personal. Each of us has made himself into a private magisterium. Piper’s readers and critics (myself included) are as infected with the disorder as Piper himself. If a discussion is possible under these circumstances, this is only a beginning.

UPDATE: Ben Witherington has an excellent analysis of the Piper statement. He spends quite a bit of time with Theology Proper, that is the Doctrine of God. This is really well thought out, orthodox and entirely reasonable. Witherington’s discussion on the abundance of references to God as “Father” in the New Testament is especially helpful. Let me add that, if you are interested in the ongoing conversation about Jesus as the “Son of God” and its relevance to Muslims, you need to read this one.

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