I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And being God, a God of love, He has done that for our maximum flourishing both male and female… He does not intend for women to languish or be frustrated or in any way suffer or fall short of full and lasting joy in this masculine Christianity. From which I infer that the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families that have this masculine feel.
… and this one:
No population group among the sixty segments examined has gone through more spiritual changes in the past two decades than women. Of the 14 religious factors studied, women have experienced statistically significant changes related to 10 of them. Of those transitions, eight represent negative movement – that is, either less engagement in common religious behaviors or a shift in belief away from biblical teachings. … The only religious behavior that increased among women in the last 20 years was becoming unchurched. That rose a startling 17 percentage points – among the largest drops in church attachment identified in the research.
That first quote is from John Piper, the well-known evangelical minister, and it’s been making the rounds the past few days. The second is an excerpt of findings from the Barna Group published in August. (By the way, men showed no corresponding drop in church attendance.)
Conservative Christianity, especially evangelicalism, has long had trouble with the issue of women’s roles – in church, in the home, in society. Piper’s quote is evidence of that struggle – if there was no debate, he likely would have felt no need to discuss the matter – as are the litany of controversial comments from uber-male Mark Driscoll. Somehow, the church has a woman problem.
But that’s not quite true; women aren’t the problem. Rather, the church has a history problem.
Consider this quote from Luke Timothy Johnson’s Writings of the New Testament, my textbook for this semester, as he describes the culture of the early church that birthed the texts we cherish today:
Christianity began in obscurity. Its putative founder was executed and its first adherents scattered in fear and confusion. The first missionaries were commoners. … With some exceptions, its appeal was to the outcast and marginal elements of society, finding significant numbers among transients, slaves and women.
At its very beginning, the church attracted women – not just as congregants, but as full-fledged leaders. Paul himself notes the deaconship of Phoebe in Romans 16. Acts 2 and Acts 21 both discuss women being given the gift of prophecy – which was in keeping with the Jewish tradition the apostles received: Deborah and Huldah were Old Testament female prophets, with Deborah serving as both a religious and political leader. Finally, also in Romans 16, Paul hails Junia, a woman, as a “fellow prisoner” and “prominent among the apostles.”
But, as happens too often, we have neglected our history. American Christianity, no longer the faith of the outcast, is now the religion of the comfortable. Rather than attracting women and affirming their gifts, we are driving them away with gibberish about the “masculine feel” of Christianity.
Let us set aside the utter undefinability of the phrase Piper uses (he makes a valiant effort at definition, but uses words that I wouldn’t consider inherently masculine and describes traits that should be in use by members of both genders) and focus instead on his logic:
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.
There are some oddities here.
Piper refers to Adam, which is indeed a translation of the Hebrew for “man,” but ignores Eve, which is the translation of the Hebrew for “life.” Can humanity exist without life? Which, then, is more important? Further, though Piper doesn’t mention it, the text notes that God makes Eve a “helper” for Adam, which sounds patriarchal, but forms of the same word later are used to describe God himself in the Psalms – an example, therefore, of the divine taking on the primary attribute of the first woman.
Further, Piper focuses on the Old Testament priests without a look at the decidedly feminine tint of other Israelite leaders – not just Deborah and Huldah, who are fairly famous at this point, but the key roles played by Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in dedicating him for ministry; Moses’
unnamed mother, Jochabed, his sister, Miriam, and his wife, Zipporah, each of whom helped save his life; Esther, who despite some recent bizarre attempts at revisionism remains a prime example of a strong, courageous woman who saves her entire race from ethnic cleansing; and Ruth, likely a prostitute, loyal to the mother of the man who bought her, and unceasing in pursuit of her future husband to become the great-grandmother of King David and ancestor to Jesus. And that’s not to mention Hagar, with whom God clearly sides in her struggle against the family of the ultimate patriarch, Abraham, and whose life God saves as she and her only child are near death.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned, Piper is simply incorrect about the masculinity of “the overseers of the church” – prophets, deaconesses and one “prominent” apostle all argue against this notion.
But most unsettling about Piper’s claim is the use of Jesus to buttress his point.
First, there’s the utter blindness to cultural norms. In first-century Palestine, how many people would have followed a woman’s teaching the way thousands followed Jesus? How many religious leaders would have taken her seriously enough to seek her death?
Consider this description of the plight of Jewish women in Jesus’ day:
In early Judaism women did proclaim and prophesy but in Jesus’ day, they weren’t permitted to proclaim Torah at synagogue because of their periodic “uncleaness.” Whether a woman should be educated in the Torah was hotly debated. As a rule, only the Rabbis’ wives were so educated. Women were not accepted as witnesses in Jewish law, nor could they teach the law. Women had no official religious or leadership roles in first century Judaism. In a country ruled by the religious elite, this rendered them invisible and powerless.
So, in Luke 4, when Jesus walks into the synagogue, reads from Isaiah and proclaims the prophecy fulfilled – that couldn’t have happened were he female. After all, he might have been on his period. Similarly, Jesus as a first-century Jewish woman likely could have received an audience only had he been a member of the religious elite, which would have been antithetical to one of the central themes of his ministry.
My contention, then, is not that Jesus was born male so God could make a point about the coolness of guys, but that Jesus’ maleness was culturally essential to his ministry and ultimate death. Nevertheless, I will certainly agree with John Piper that Jesus was a man.
But he wasn’t a typical man of his era. In fact, his attitude toward women was decidedly unmasculine. You might even call him a feminist.
From the woman caught in adultery to the woman at the well, from the bleeding woman to the many sick mothers and daughters he healed, Jesus upended the social norms of his day. He ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” including prostitutes, who may or may not have been in the profession willingly but were almost certainly the victims of constant abuse. And, yes, he chose 12 male disciples to be his close friends, but he also was intimately connected with four women – Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, and his mother.
The Messiah born by Mary elevated the status of so many women that he encountered. He knew what his own mother had gone through. She was ostracized by the so-called high class people, for carrying and bearing a child out of wedlock. He himself was called a mamzer—a term reserved for the children born by women who were sexually abused by Roman soldiers. During his public ministry, Jesus, knowing the horrible life faced by women around him, always reached out to them and restored their dignity.
Yet when the male religious leaders, who thought they knew what to expect when the Messiah came, felt threatened by this egalitarian, world-changing rabbi, they conspired to kill him. When Judas, disillusioned by Jesus’ failure to live up to his expectations, decided Jesus could not be the Messiah, he sold him. When the other 11 male disciples, despite three warnings about what was to occur, violently realized the Messiah had not come in the manner they expected, they abandoned him.
Luke Timothy Johnson again:
By the standards of Hellenistic heroes, Jesus’ end was obviously unimpressive. He had faced death not with apathetic calm but with fear and anguish; he had left his followers not with words of memorable grace but with a cry of utter desolation; he had not embraced a dignified suicide but endured a grisly execution; he did not bypass death through elevation to divinity, escape it through sophistry, or use it as an opportunity to demonstrate virtue. He was simply executed as a common criminal. To Greeks, therefore, the cross was foolishness and weakness. Divine power did not work in this manner.
For those who lived within the symbols of Torah, Jesus’ death was even harder to reconcile … . When they looked to Jesus for signs of messiahship, they were disappointed. He failed miserably and palpably by any zealot test of messiahship: he did not restore kingship; he bore only its mocking title on the tree. His death was particularly a “stumbling block” for those Jews who had hoped for a religious messiah, one who would establish the righteousness of God’s rule under Torah. Not only did he not fulfill in any visible or significant manner the recognized messianic texts, he was not even a recognizable martyr like those who resisted pagan pressure in the Maccabean accounts, thereby dying in defense of Torah. Rather, from beginning to the end he was a “sign of contradiction,” standing in complete opposition to their understanding of how God manifested his power and righteousness among his people.
The men didn’t get it. They betrayed, abandoned and hung him on a cross. Yet while he was there, who stayed with him? The women. They got it. They stayed at the cross. They returned to the tomb, and as a result, were the first to see the risen Christ. The crucifixion and resurrection stories do not have a “masculine feel.” Indeed, the whole life of Christ is decidedly opposed to the masculine norms of his day.
Is it any wonder that in the history of the earliest church, those most likely to follow the risen Christ – this radical reorienter of the status quo – were those most marginalized by the pagan Jewish and Roman societies in which Christianity began: the poor, the slaves and the women?
Even Paul, though he has hard and uncomfortable things to say about women when addressing the specific problems of specific churches, sees things much more equally when discussing theology in general. There is no more “male or female” in Christ, he writes to the Galatians – those distinctions did not exist for Jesus as he walked the foothills of Palestine; they do not exist now that he is risen and moving in the hearts of those who follow him. Perhaps that’s why, as Scot McKnight notes, the very concept of masculinity is not found in the New Testament.
As history has moved forward, the egalitarian ideals of Jesus and the genderless theology of Paul have been corrupted – my guess is around the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and its doctrines began developing more imperial tones.
For millennia, the church’s monopoly on ideas nonetheless kept women in the fold, and traditions are hard to break. But, as Christians leave behind their modernist upbringings and embrace the uncertainty and plurality of the postmodern world, women are finding they have less in common with a patriarchal church that demands their silence and submission – all while patronizing them with platitudes about their role in “complementing” the hierarchical structure men have created, sustained and abused for more than 1,500 years.
We must be better students of history than this, and we must certainly be better students of Christ.