At the beginning of March one of our readers wrote in and asked this question:
I recently watched a video regarding The Gospel Coalition’s stance on their complementarian view. In it, John Piper begins to explain that we must be able to answer children’s questions as to what it means for a boy to grow up and be a man, or for a girl to grow up into God’s model for womanhood. He states that egalitarians have never been able to answer his question. I would love to hear your response.”
This video had been making the rounds on social media, so I was familiar with what she was talking about.
You see, John Piper seems to have fallen into the cultural narrative that manhood must be earned. For Piper, manhood isn’t something you simply grow into with age according to your biology. Instead, it is something you work to achieve. And in order for a man to claim Piper’s supposed “manhood” he must exert authority over women.
Because egalitarians don’t believe that men have a natural authority over women, Piper then concludes that egalitarians don’t know the difference between men and women. While there are many more problems with what John Piper believes about biblical manhood and womanhood, I am not going to be addressing all of those here.
Instead, I wish to address this accusation that egalitarians don’t know what it means to be a man or a woman. Here are my thoughts on John Piper’s accusation.
Piper’s position reflects the tendency of many complementarians to center all their thoughts on life around “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood”.
Whether he knows it or not, what Piper is talking about in this video is not our sex, human biology, or anatomy. He is actually talking about gender – the social implications and expectations of us, according to our sex. And Piper desperately wants our understandings of gender to be consistent throughout history, geography, and context – but that simply isn’t going to happen.
Social expectations of men and women change over time, and from culture to culture. For example, women in the Western world used to be expected to wear skirts and dresses all the time. This was a social expectation of their gender. But that isn’t the expectation anymore. Our social view of women has changed. In other parts of the world, though, women are still expected to wear skirts and dresses.
Or take high heels, for example. Throughout history, both men and women have worn heels. But for much of Western history shoes with a heel were worn mostly by men, because men were more socially revered if they were taller. Nowadays it is socially unacceptable for men to wear high heels, and women are typically the ones who wear them. Our social expectations of gender have changed. (This post presents other ways gender expectations have changed in our time.)
Piper’s thirst for a biblical definition of manhood is not going to be quenched, in the way he wants it to be, because the Bible really doesn’t have prescriptive things to say about what it means to be a man or a woman. The Bible seems to be more concerned with our Christ-likeness.
There are some directives that New Testament writers give to certain groups at certain churches in their letters to them, but even those don’t seem to be prescriptive to all men and women in all times, because they contradict each other. There are also directives pointed at husbands and wives (which is another topic entirely), but unless you find your whole identity as a woman or a man within your marriage, these don’t tell you what your gender “means” either, in the way that Piper is looking for.
An interesting aspect of Piper’s thought is that he is specifically looking for an answer for what a man is that is different from a woman. He is obsessed with difference.
But in the creation narrative, the notable thing about the nature of man and woman is not their difference, but their sameness. At the first sight of Eve, Adam said, “She is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. The creation narrative shows us that both man and woman are created in the image of God and both are given the same directive to fill the earth and care for every living thing in it.
What the Bible does give us is the story of how our world interacts with us in regard to our sex. In Genesis 3 we read about what sin has done to the world, and we get a glimpse of what God will restore through Christ: because of sin a hierarchy has been established between the man and the woman. The world is now bent toward the man.
So to answer Piper’s question, according to scripture and observations of history and the current day, I believe one of the things it means to be a man in this world is to be privileged. Things tend to go easier for many men in contrast to women. Men tend to rule things – governments, businesses, families, churches. But this is a result of sin, and not God’s original plan.
And what are Christ followers supposed to do? They are supposed to “deny themselves“, they are supposed to consider others as better than themselves, they are supposed to “yield to one another out of reverence for Christ“.
So to a little boy asking me what a man is, I would say:
As a man, you have been given preference in this broken and unjust world, but God calls you to give up that preference, and to show others honor – just as Jesus did. This will continually be your struggle, but as the fruit of the Spirit grows in you and as you become more like Christ, you will more naturally be able to live this way.”
And to a little girl asking me what it means to be a woman I would say:
As a woman, you live in a world that favors men. Throughout history women have been overlooked, used, abused, sold, bought, and silenced. This is a result of sin in this world. But do not fear, for God has overcome the world. Christ came and ushered in a Kingdom where the greatest are last. Christ denied that there is a hierarchy of authority between his people in his kingdom. And Christ raised women to their rightful place of ‘equal partners’ to men. To be a woman is to be a witness, as Mary Magdalene was, to the fact that God uses what the world sees as weakness to defy worldly power. Answer God’s call, as the women who followed him did, even when it is counter to your culture. This will be your struggle, to trust God and lean in, but as you grow into the likeness of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit grows in you, you will more naturally be able to live this way.”
Egalitarians do indeed know what it means to be a man and woman. We believe those titles are given to you based on the way God created your anatomy. They are not things that have to be earned through your actions.
We also know that society has certain expectations of us according to our anatomy. But as servants of Christ, we are often called to defy those cultural expectations in order to live the way Christ wants us to.
As an egalitarian, my actions are not determined by culture’s expectations of me as a woman, neither are they determined by John Piper’s expectations of me as a woman. My actions are determined by how I believe God is calling me to live as a disciple.
Here are a few great blogs recently written on this topic:
9 Steps to Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Sandra Glahn
Biblical Femininity is a Lie by Tim Fall
The Impetus of Patriachy by Greg Hahn