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Does Christianity have a ‘masculine feel’?

February 4, 2012

Evangelical pastor John Piper recently attracted attention for saying at his popular Desiring God pastors conference that God has given Christianity a “masculine feel.”

In the interest of locating common ground, I want to start by saying I agree with Brother Piper if he means that, throughout much of history, men have tightly held the reins of the human institution known as the Church. I would say, however, that this is more a masculine grip than a feel.

I disagree, though, that this has anything to do with God, and I am disappointed that a good Bible-believing evangelical wouldn’t call this so-called masculine Christianity by its most appropriate name: sin.

Here is what Piper said:

God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male…God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.

My Bible professor in seminary loved to point out that the 12 apostles were also Jews — but presumably Piper and like-minded brethren would not argue that only Jews should hold leadership in the Church.

(You can read more of Piper’s comments here.)

Here’s the problem: This is an image of God that ignores much of the Bible. While all our attempts to describe God ultimately fall short of describing the indescribable, this one is particularly weak because it discounts feminine images for the divine, of which there are many: God as a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14); or a mother who nurses her children (Num. 11:12); or a midwife attending birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9); or a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) or working a leaven into bread (Lk.13:18-21).

The reason I call it sinful is because it is the continuation of an old and regrettable practice. Language is power. Using male language exclusively to describe the divine has always been a way for men to hold power in the Church. Words like Father are, of course, good biblical words that describe a part of God’s nature as we understand it. It is the exclusive use of male terminology over the centuries and denial of the existence of other words that shortchanges the biblical witness and denies women the full equality that the Apostle Paul came to see that faith accomplishes in Galatians 3:28.

The authors of the Bible struggled to see the work of God through life in the ancient world, which was patriarchal. Yet the God who is both Father and Mother of us all should neither be confused with masculine language used to tell the divine story nor the harsh circumstances in which that story was born. Of course, this has always been a problem, and it ties in with our propensity to find scriptures that endorse our efforts to create God in our own image. Slaveholders, using the Bible, constructed arguments in the 19th Century that Christianity, in effect, had a “slaveholding feel.”

Actually, it is remarkable that, in the male-dominated world in which the Bible was written, so many strong women can be found: like Ruth and Esther, Deborah and Jael, and Mary Magdalene, first witness to the Resurrection. Despite what you may have heard, women held offices in the early church as well, as demonstrated by Paul’s reference to Phoebe as a deacon (Romans 16:1). Paul’s warning that women not prophesy without a head covering tells us that women prophesied, too. Many other women, like Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11: 29-40), or the woman with the issue of the blood (Luke 8:43-47), remain nameless.

Countless female saints of the Church have been left nameless throughout history, as well, but as in the biblical accounts, we find evidence of their leadership and their personal sacrifice. These include women in the earliest extra-biblical accounts of Christianity, such as the two slaves identified as deaconesses and tortured by Roman governor Pliny the Younger (61 CE – ca. 112 CE).

I would commend to Brother Piper the writings of Julian of Norwich, the 14th Century anchoress who lived in confinement but discovered a freedom in Christ that bursts out of her repressive time period. It was her Showings that first opened my mind and heart to a theological understanding of the feminine side as a complement to God’s fatherhood.  She wrote, “We have our being from him, where the foundation of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection of love which endlessly follows.”

Each of us gravitates toward language that speaks to us about our own relationship with God. Yet, God is neither male nor female, which are characteristics of the created order. It is undoubtedly true that Christianity has a “masculine feel.” Yet the movement of the Spirit (feminine in the Hebrew) has moved the Church toward repentance and inclusivity as more people recognize that God is the loving Mother and Father of everyone. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of our more recent confessions states that even though we rebel against God, God remains faithful, “like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home.” We have farther to go.

 

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012 4:38 am

    This post was written in response to the challenge issued to male bloggers at rachelheldevans.com. Check it out!

  2. February 7, 2012 8:05 pm

    Thank you Matt for this brilliant post, This comment is genuine, and also from Matt Currey in the UK
    http://matts2012journey.wordpress.com/

  3. February 7, 2012 8:57 pm

    Thank you Matt, that is far too kind. Apparently we have more in common than our names! All the best.

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