Of Piper and Power

As many American Christians are aware (especially those with Facebook accounts), a furor has erupted over ultra-Reformed pastor and theologian John Piper’s recent comments about desiring a “masculine feel” for Christianity. Scot McKnight, ever a reasonable, rigorous, and thoughtful pastor-theologian, has provided a fuller account of Piper’s comments, and has asked some very important critical questions about how we should read those comments. I’d like to offer a bit more.

Perhaps I’m reading this too closely in conjunction with what I consider to be a corresponding controversy, that of Piper’s close friend and colleague Mark Driscoll’s church and its recent authoritarian attempt to clamp down on a congregant, but I don’t think the two are unrelated. There is, among these pastors and their churches and many of their disciples nationwide, a marked insecurity about questions of authority and power within the church. I find such a concern itself worrisome, since Jesus made it pretty clear in Matthew 20:20-28 that we are not to be preoccupied with such things.

With McKnight’s account, we find some curious claims by Piper, namely that a “clarification” of the Bible suggests a masculine Christianity (despite the fact that adam means “humanity,” that male anthropomorphic descriptors for God are not necessarily prescriptive for human relations, that Paul’s admonitions in specific letters to specific congregations had primarily to do with their own specific situations, and that God’s claims to authority–i.e., kingship–had to do with what we cannot claim for ourselves rather than what we should somehow emulate).

Then there is Piper’s proposal that “theology and church and mission are marked by overarching godly male leadership in the spirit of Christ.” In light of Matthew 20, it seems clear that “theology and church and mission” are not marked by much concern over leadership at all. Why do we need to insist on this consideration? And why in the world would that necessitate that only men are the initiators of ministry and only women should “come alongside” with the proper attitude? Is that how the Holy Spirit has actually operated throughout Christian history? I just don’t see it. As I read the New Testament, the primary concern for power dynamics within the church is that we submit to each other.

We also find curious wording about so-called “masculine ministry”:

  • it “believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism…than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault”
  • it “seizes” upon biblical doctrine and “presses it…into the lives of the people”
  • it “presses” the “rugged aspects” of Christian life “on the conscience of the church”
  • it proclaims the truth of scripture “with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction”

Notice the assumptions (and insecurities) about power here. Does ministry inherently belong to men, who then decide whether or not to expose women to its risks? Can we “seize” scripture and “press” it into others, as though (1) scripture is an instrument under our power and (2) an instrument used to project power upon others? Do we minister to others by “pressing” into their lives rather than by allowing them to witness ours? Do we teach Scripture as a use of force, and with urgency (notice the inherent anxiety in such phrases), as though the Holy Spirit were monumentally impatient and it is up to us to ensure certain outcomes within a certain timeframe? As John Howard Yoder said, it’s not the job of the church to make history come out right, and that is the case whether that history is cosmic, national, congregational, relational, or personal.

In my view, it is not merely that Piper is holding onto certain views of the relative natures and roles of men and women, views that are  theologically, anthropologically, and historically untenable, but that Piper’s (and Driscoll’s and Wilson’s, etc., etc.,) overarching concern is with holding onto power. They have particular visions of what the church should look like, of what forms discipleship should take, and even where elements of those visions are right and healthy and reasonable (but especially where they aren’t), they want to be able to realize those visions without opposition, especially without a check by those who might be marginalized by said visions. So apparently, this is “masculine ministry.” This is  “leadership.” But in my mind, this is discipleship without mutual submission, which is no discipleship at all.

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9 responses to “Of Piper and Power

  1. Thank you for this insight. LOVE your thoughts. Especially the last paragraph which points out that they are looking for power over people without the checks and balances, particularly of those who will be marginalized. Because women are the marginalized, it is of the utmost importance that YOU speak up – you are the only voices these men will hear – if they are to have hope to hear at all. Most likely, though….you are simply seen as effeminate and misguided. But no matter what “they” think of you – we thank you.

  2. I agree that is intertwined with the very human attempt to project power and control others. Using Greenleaf’s materials on the Servant Leader and Jesus as a model in the ministry leadership class I’m teaching has provided an eye-opening alternative for many of the students. And not surprisingly they intuitively desire this even if they’re not sure what sort of actions flow out of those leadership philosophies.

  3. Brandi, thanks very much for your comments. As some recent discussion on Rachel’s blog suggests, I think it’s important for you who are marginalized to keep on doing what you do, regardless of whether “these men” hear or not. Their attention is inconsequential, and I think their influence will likely wane over time in the face of your faithful witness. I already see signs of overreaching on their part.

    Findo, what was Piper’s response to that comment?

  4. No, Andrew – I thought you were referring to Piper & Co. with the windmill comment. I was saying “too bad” to the tacit agreement. Piper, I’m sure, would affirm mutual submission, but only in certain specific (often disembodied) ways and not in ways that actually affect power structures within the church.

    • Andrew, I see that I misread your last post. The tacit agreement is not bad, in fact (I was mixing up who was agreeing with whom), but rather that such agreement really doesn’t mean much given his predispositions to the masculine priority.

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