Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Complements of John Piper

Darlene Parsons and/or Wanda Martin at The Wartburg Watch are deep into it over complementarian commander-in-chief John Piper. In an article entitled “John Piper Backs Himself Into a Corner and Even Reformed Complementarians Are Confused”, TWW points out that Piper has well gone well beyond any biblical mandate he might have for his views on the roles of the sexes.

If you have no idea what a complementarian is in the first place, join the club. Large numbers of Christians have never encountered the term. Though the idea has apparently been around for years, I only heard it used for the first time very recently.

Complementarianism “Located”

The term “complementarian” seems to have originated in 1991’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a book edited by Piper and Wayne Grudem that has been quite influential in evangelical circles. I’ve never read it, but Piper describes what he means by “complementarian” in this 2012 sermon:

“The intention with the word “complementarian” is to locate our way of life between two kinds of error: on the one side would be the abuses of women under male domination, and on the other side would be the negation of gender differences where they have beautiful significance. Which means that on the one hand, complementarians acknowledge and lament the history of abuses of women personally and systemically, and the present evils globally and locally in the exploitation and diminishing of women and girls. And, on the other hand, complementarians lament the feminist and egalitarian impulses that minimize God-given differences between men and women and dismantle the order God has designed for the flourishing of our life together.

So complementarians resist the impulses of a chauvinistic, dominating, and abusive culture, on the one side, and the impulses of a sex-blind, gender-leveling, unisex culture, on the other side. And we take our stand between these two ways of life not because the middle ground is a safe place (which it is emphatically not), but because we think this is the good plan of God in the Bible for men and women.”

So twenty-five years later, Piper is still teaching the things he first articulated in Recovering.

Outdated and Inadequate

Now if that’s all a complementarian means, I suppose, well, fair enough. Still, Piper’s frame is a binary one: it’s either complementarianism or egalitarianism. But these are not the only options currently confronting Western society. The church no longer faces a choice between, on the one hand, a worldview in which the voices of women and men have precisely equal weight and their roles are interchangeable or, on the other, the more biblical worldview in which the roles of the sexes are complementary and men in the church and home are responsible to lovingly exercise leadership responsibilities.

Far from it. Critics of third-wave feminism point out that it is no longer merely about equality of the sexes. Samantha Poetter of The Collegian insists that far from demanding equality (which she says she and other women have already achieved), the real agenda of third-wave feminism is dominance:

“The problem today is that instead of fighting for equality, third-wave feminists seem to be fighting for superiority. This group of women cannot accept the fact that females are genetically different than males, that they pursue different careers and lead different lives. They aren’t satisfied with women being able to vote, run for public office, go to college, work in their desired field, etc. Instead, feminists want women to get the jobs over men, get paid more than men, be accepted into colleges over men and more. That’s not equality, that’s dominance and a complete abuse of affirmative action. It should not be gender that decides things for a person. It should be personal drive, grades, achievement and capability.”

Poetter may be a rare secular voice crying in the wilderness on that subject, but her article points out that society does have a very obvious third option it is attempting to foist on the church, one that John Piper does not want to touch with a ten foot pole. Since he does not acknowledge their existence, I can only trust that Mr. Piper would also “lament” and “resist” the efforts of third-wave feminists in the church to advance a version of complementarianism in which women subtly or overtly dominate their husbands and assume leadership roles in the church. I would not have expected Piper to consider this issue in 1991 when third-wave feminism was merely budding, but his 2012 sermon summarily dispatches egalitarians without remotely addressing the latest feminist elephant in the room.

I trust this is not an indication of cowardice on Mr. Piper’s part. In any case, his binary view of gender roles is outdated and inadequate.

Pied Piper

Right. Back to the Wartburg Watch and their issues with Piper. Whether the Wartburg ladies are egalitarians, third-wavers or tend to embrace a more biblical view of gender roles is not the issue (I arrived at my own opinion on that quite speedily). If their criticisms are legitimate, they ought not to be dismissed because Mr. Piper is both venerable and well-liked in certain Christian circles.

And indeed, I find myself consistently siding with the ladies, whatever their ideological stripe. Piper has a problem with making ex parte pronouncements about the application of complementarian principles to our broader society. He can’t seem to stop taking biblical gender roles designed for home and church life and misapplying them in the world.

Examples, you say? Of course. Here we go:

Muscular Women

From Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

“Consider what is lost when women attempt to assume a more masculine role by appearing physically muscular and aggressive. It is true that there is something sexually stimulating about a muscular, scantily clad young woman pumping iron in a health club.”

No, John, stop. Please!

Muscularity or lack of muscularity in women cannot be conveniently reduced to a commandment, or even to a wise interpretation by an elder statesman of Christendom. The goodness or badness of muscularity is entirely a circumstantial thing. No rules can or should be made.

I think of the words of Christ to the effect that “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Such a statement surely applies to both men and women.

Some Christian men and women will never marry. That’s just reality.

But on the basis of this verse, as well as the example of single women who followed the Lord Jesus and/or aided and abetted the spreading of the gospel throughout the entire world in the book of Acts, I’d have to say there are few restrictions on a single woman serving Christ. The gender role stuff we read about in scripture has two spheres of significance: (1) in the home, where wives are to be submissive to their own husbands and daughters to their fathers; and (2) in the church, where men are to lead and women are to be silent. (If you have issues with those two subjects, perhaps we’ll address them another day. The scriptures about a woman’s submission in these two spheres are numerous.)

But outside church and home life, single Christian women do not have any biblically-delineated responsibility to defer to the authority of males in general. To suggest that our workplaces, governments and broader society should reflect the principles taught about church and home order in the New Testament is to go well beyond what scripture teaches. The teaching that women must obey men is Islamic, not Christian.

Thus muscularity (or the lack thereof) in any single Christian woman is entirely a function of her chosen role in society. If she has chosen to be a fireman or a marine, I’d estimate she ought to be as muscular as possible in order to do her job. In fact, I’d be praying she is positively shredded the day my own life ever depends on her job performance.

Such a thing has nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality.

Now, one can surely make the argument that a Christian woman who has chosen to be a wife and mother ought not to spend four hours a day in the gym. That’s simply a distorted set of priorities for a person with many other responsibilities she has agreed to fulfill. But I’ve never yet seen such a thing become a problem in a Christian home. Not once in all my life has a Christian husband told me, “I wish my wife would be less fit and healthy. She’s never around when I need her.”

Such choices depend on the individual lives and circumstances of each servant of Christ. We cannot possibly make hard and fast rules. To do so is irresponsible, and it is also overstepping the role of a teacher of the word of God.

Mr. Piper would be best served to restrict his comments about women to the spheres of authority that really do exist in scripture.

Women As Police Officers

Alas, he cannot. Here’s Mr. Piper on policewomen:

“There is a continuum from very personal influence, very eye-to-eye, close personal influence, to non-personal influence. And the other continuum is very directive — commands and forcefulness — directive influence to very non-directive influence. And here is my conviction. To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man, guidance of a man, leadership of a man, is personal and a directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order.”

John, I can do that in one sentence: Men don’t generally like taking orders from women.

Actually, I find this to be true, though I’m not sure there’s anything we ought to do about it. The fact that there is such a thing as a male ego does not make it an innately good thing. Sure, a Christian man should not have to endure abusive, dictatorial behavior from his Christian wife. That is demonstrably not God’s intent, either for the husband or the wife. It will not lead to maximal Christ-likeness for either one.

On the other hand, the Christian man’s ego may equally squeal in pain at being obliged to obey a female manager in the workplace, especially an inept one. But that may not be the same sort of evil at all. Can we say that he is more Christ-like when he humbles himself under rightful (though surely irksome) authority, or when he rebels and tells off his superior? My guess is that the former is far more honoring to God.

Keeping Gender Roles in Perspective

As believers, the role society chooses to give to women is hardly our primary concern — unless it’s a woman we happen to be married to or have fathered. But I’m not sure Mr. Piper always keeps this in mind.

There is much more that can be said about John Piper’s approach to biblical gender roles in the workplace, but most of it has been said by others.

Short version: if there is anything to complementarianism, it is in connection with what it tells us about Christian relationships in the spheres of home and church. Attempting to dictate conduct in the workforce or more generally in the world is not only incoherent and impossible to enforce, it is outside our mandate as servants of Jesus Christ.

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