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Masculine Christianity: A Cup Half Empty

Earlier this week popular reformed preacher John Piper addressed a crowd of conventioneers at the annual Desiring G-d 2012 event.  His message was entitled “The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle – The Value of Masculine Christianity“.  Read it here.  It is a fairly long address, so allow me to highlight a couple of pieces (with some intermittent responses.

“God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son.” – Piper

First I’d like to point out that Piper knows his Bible inside and out.  He knows full well that the logic of the first couple of sentences is misleading at best.  G-d is “revealed” in the Bible in the feminine as well as the masculine.  In addition the church is referred to in the feminine many times.  For example: G-d is likened to a mother in Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 49:14-15, Deut. 32:18, Hosea 11:1-4, Psalms 131:2, Job 38:8, and 1 Peter 2:2-3.  G-d is likened to other human feminine images in Psalm 22:9-10, Nehemiah 9:21Luke 13:18-21, and Luke 15:8-10.  God is liked to other non-human feminine images in  Psalm 17:8, Psalm 57:1, Deut. 32:11-12Matthew 23:37, John 3:5, John 1:13. The hebrew language has a gender-based linguistic system, much like Spanish.  Certain words are masculine, certain words are feminine.  When the Hebrew scriptures refer to the Spirit of G-d the word used is “ruwach”, which is a feminine noun.

Now the point here isn’t to have a biblical tit for tat with Piper.  It’s simply to point out that when we use terrestrial language to speak of the divine we are always speaking in symbolism.  When we attempt to explain our hopes regarding the nature of G-d we use analogies.  We use something that is familiar to us personally to express something magnificently mysterious.  Asserting that G-d is literally male, a “father”, or a “king” is no more appropriate than using Jesus’ analogy of a mother hen gathering her chicks to assert that G-d is a chicken.

Piper continued: “God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority (1 Timothy 2:12)—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband (Ephesians 5:22–33)…From all of this, I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”

Many of the prophets consistently uses the feminine Hebrew pronouns (zo’th & shilyah) to refer the nation of Israel.  In the New Testament Jesus and the apostles refer to the church in the feminine metaphor as bride.  There are a lot of powerful women in the Bible.  Most scholars will let you in on the fact that Jesus had female disciples.  Paul, yes that Paul, was discipled in part by a woman named Priscilla.  She and her husband were both pastors of a church in Ephesus.  The women Euodia and Syntyche worked with Paul to teach the gospel.  We could go on and on, but the assertion that only men lead or are called to lead in the Bible is obviously false.

If we move past antiquated chauvinism we will surely enjoy a much more robust and meaningful Christianity. Chauvinism restricts the analogies we can use to express the divine into a subset of what it could be.  If we refuse to see G-d in the feminine then we have lost half of our means to express our hope.  Our symbolic cup does not “runneth over”…it remains half empty.  A Christianity that embraces the feminine metaphors doubles the tools we have to express the divine.

Now what is interesting in this particular speech is that Piper eventually admits that women can do pretty much anything that a man can do (something I doubt to ever hear Piper’s macho-church companion, Mark Driscoll, admit).

The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage; but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men…

The point is not that women are unable to lift the weight or bear the pain of the reality of hell. The point is not that they are unable to press it into those who don’t want to hear. The point is that one of the marks of mature manhood is the inclination to spare her that load and its costs….

Again the point is not that a woman is not able to speak this way. The point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men.” – Piper

This is what is truly unfortunate about this theology.  There is no doubt in my mind that Piper believes that women will be happier living in submission to masculine authority.  What he doesn’t realize, blinded by doctrine, is that most women are not happy in that place.  His view does not match reality.  He doesn’t realize that women too sense a fitness and joy when they “step up to the risks of life, or career, with courage”.  He does not realize that they passionately desire to lead others and help them to make the world a better place.  They too have a nature to turn the hearts of others to the divine.

In teaching that leadership, careers, and individual divine calling are strictly for manly men, he robs women of their freedom to be fulfilled.  In this view, the only life they have been “blessed” with is one of perpetual cheerleading and baby-making.  He doesn’t even realize what he is doing…but this is the 21st Century, ignorance is not acceptable.  We have millions of examples of successful and fulfilled female leaders.  You don’t need to look far to find them.  We can easily observe all the diversity in life.  Men don’t always fit the masculine cliches, nor do women fit the female cliches…no matter how much Piper and Driscoll try to tell us everybody should fit into 2 predefined boxes.

 A couple of weeks ago author and blogger, Rachel Held Evans, was in Phoenix speaking at a couple of events.  She reminded us of a biblical story that receives little attention.  The story of Jephthah and his daughter can be found in Judges 11.  To sum up the story in short: Jephthah is called upon by the elders of Gilead to fight their enemies.  If he is successful they agree to make him their permanent chieftain.  During the battle Jephthah cuts a deal with G-d:  If he is given the victory he promises to sacrifice “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return”. He wins the battle, returns home, and his daughter comes out to greet him.  He is distraught, but Jephthah knows what G-d “requires” of him.  His daughter pleads with him to allow here to spend two months mourning in the countryside before her future and her life are sacrificed to meet the expectations of G-d.  He grants this postponement but at the end of two months “did to her according to the vow which he had made”.

The danger of Piper’s theology is that it asserts that G-d wants us to sacrifice the individual initiative, hopes, and dreams of women.  Many women are currently wandering in the wilderness mourning for the lives they wish they had, if it had not been for this “promise” we made to doctrine.  The good news is that they are not yet sacrificed…though “Masculine Christianity” seems anxious to light the pyre.  We can come to our senses and realize that this is a sacrifice that G-d neither requires nor wants.

For continued conversation check out the flood of responses over at Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

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