I’m a 29-year-old, Southern male who’s been born and raised in the buckle of the Bible-Belt here in South Georgia. I will testify to the fact that the gender debate in the Church is alive and well despite the amount of progress the feminist movement has made in the last 30 years or so. It’s still very common that we address God with male imagery in the liturgy of worship. The fact that Jesus is called “Son” and God is called “Father” leads many to see the image of God solely in male terms. Women still struggle at times finding a clear and definitive voice in the Church. This is nothing new.
You can imagine my boredom with the fact that John Piper has publicly declared God’s intention for Christianity is for it to have a “masculine feel” at a recent meeting of preachers. In his defense I’m sure Piper was trying to offer a corrective to the “Macho-God Movement” promoted by the likes of Mark Driscoll and other pastors who would lead us to believe that God is somehow a steroid-pumped Rambo figure waiting to drop a hurting of judgment on all who would cross his path. Piper instead advocates for a more sensitive male-figure God. Maybe a kinder, gentler Mr. Rogers sort of God who loves both men and women to the fullest degree. This is a quaint view of God but unfortunately it’s not the kind of God I know best.
Now I’m not the kind of bible scholar who would dare challenge the likes of John Piper on his use of scripture. But I am a pastor in the United Methodist tradition and I’ve been introduced to the idea that as people of faith, we have to employ the tools of tradition, reason and experience along with our reading of scripture in order to gain a robust interpretation of matters of faith and theology. We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. And so I have to look to my experience and reason to inform my readings of scripture and tradition where John Piper would lead me to believe God is somehow predominately masculine.
Women Taught Me the Very Scripture John Piper Quotes
My earliest recollections of faith come in the form of Sunday School lessons taught by wonderfully loving and patient women. I encountered the Bible with the help of these women through reading and learning texts (memorization drills) as well as interactive activities (usually in the form of crafts). And so before I learned that God could somehow be male, God was made manifest in the form of these wonderful women of faith who served the church by teaching children the faith. I’ve known countless women who have devoted their lives to shaping the faith of others. And in doing so, they’ve also modeled the faith in radical ways, teaching me the virtues of faithfulness, justice, and compassion.
Women Were Leaders in My Life
Even though I grew up in the Bible-Belt, I learned early on that women could actually thrive as leaders in the Church. For 15 years of my life, I went to church where a female pastor served as the senior pastor. Our church grew and even thrived as a mid-size, neighborhood United Methodist Church during that time. I was confirmed as a member of my church and in the vows of my baptism that remind me of the waters of baptism being like the womb (female imagery) where life is born. I went to seminary with some of the brightest and most capable young, up-and-coming pastors, many of whom were women. Some of my most influential professors in seminary were world-renowned biblical scholars that also happened to be (you guessed it) women. And so I know that I can read biblical texts that might lead me to believe this isn’t so, but my experience has shown that God just loves to defy the norms we create with narrow readings of scripture.
Church Leadership Begins with Faithful Discipleship
I’m concerned that somehow John Piper and other evangelicals like him seem to believe that leadership goes exclusively with power. The examples he uses in his recent talk speak of a God who is portrayed as a powerful king, men who make up the power structure of councils, and husbands who are to assume the position of power as the head of the household. What about the texts that remind us, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)? What about the fact that while the powerful disciples sat paralyzed behind locked doors, the women were faithfully caring for the body of Jesus and thus became the first evangelists who told the good news of resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12)? And what about the fact that even Paul declares, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28)? When did power become the sole descriptor of God?
I fear that our cultural tendency to love power and position leads those like John Piper (and the rest of us for that matter) to forget that God is so much bigger than the images we might project. And we may live in a world that clamors for powerful leaders but we have to remember that we’re all called to be faithful disciples before we’re called to be leaders. And for me, it’s always been the women in my life who have embodied that sort of faithful discipleship.
[ I want to thank, Rachel Held Evans, who is one of my favorite theological voices these days for issuing the challenge to men to respond to John Piper’s remarks. Too often we men who agree with wonderful voices like Rachel sit back and depend on her and others like her to raise these issues so that we can rubberstamp them with our quiet, “Amen”]