The Radical Femininity of Christ

Correlation may not equal causation, but I see a connection between this statement …

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.

36 thoughts on “The Radical Femininity of Christ”

    1. this BIBLE teacher says so many stupid things,im sure he is a satanist n disguise,i went to 8 different denominations BIBLE colleges part time,,,now i study the jewish christians messianic synagogue,and old testament judaism,and united pentecostal, and mennonites,,,im only going to say,palestine n the BIBLE is always israel,the romans insulted israel ,,,naming it after the philistines,palestines.since this false teacher,names it what roman evil catholics named it,instead,of the BIBLE name,ill tell the false prophet,to study messianic judaism,seriously,,,dont listen to anything he says.those of you that liked,this evil false teacher r BLIND

  1. Very thoughtful post! I have often noted how the life of Christ was bookended by women, and I appreciate you mentioning Junia, which was made masculine (mistakenly? purposefully?) in some translations (Junius).

  2. Great post. Jesus had more than just four women in his band of followers–Luke 8:3 mentions Joanna the wife of Cuza, Susanna and “many others”–certainly including both men and women.
    I appreciate you noting that women are leaving the church. If I thought Piper’s views were representative of the Christian church, I’d leave it too. I’m so glad that other voices are in the conversation, including yours. Excellent scholarship.

  3. Thank you, everyone, for your comments and support. I’m glad this post could help contribute to the important dialogue we’re having as a church.

  4. I grew up in a very “Man is head — obey as you would god” church, small conservative community and family. “Obeying” an abusive Christian husband for the first decade of my adult life ended in a desperate tossing of this Man=God=Man culture and religion as far from my person as I could. I am that percetage of negatively-altered-in-their-religion women. Earlier this week I read Piper’s message and reaffirmed to my sick heart that there is no safe place for me in a ‘Masculine’ church and wondered again if that means there’s no place for me with a masculine god.

    Thank you for saying otherwise intelligently. I want to believe that it’s true. But Man Dammit, it is hard to protect that hope in these western winds.

    1. Hi Shan,

      Thanks for writing! I hope you find a church that affirms the unique and valuable role God has for you in his church. The winds are tough, but they are changing. I hope you find some solace in that fact, small as it can seem during the hard times.

  5. Wow thank you, great points that I overlooked when wrote a reaction to Piper…. thanks!

    (But there’s one detail that you overlooked and that I wrote almost a whole post about: Adam means ‘man’ but not in the meaning of ‘male human’ but in the ungendered meaning of ‘human being’, so one of his conclusions is completely based on the oddities of the English language and wouldn’t exist in other languages…)

    keep up the good work


    1. Thanks, Bram! You caught me in my own linguistic laziness. When I wrote “man,” I meant “humanity,” but old habits are hard to break! Thanks again for dropping by. I hope you stick around for a while. 🙂

  6. Thanks for a great post Paul. This should give hope to many very disillusioned women who have lived the confusion of the ‘masculinist church’ and have very likely given up on church altogether. There is an equally engaging discussion going on, as we speak, on the CBE blogsite, the Scroll.

  7. I believe what is needed here is a look at the leadership style of Jesus and church history shows us how leader ship (male) has been skewed resulting in abuse – as was the cultures of the time. This will always be until he comes back as we are fallen.

    This may not change just because women are involved given lots of responsibility at that level. If we all look at Jesus we know what God is like, Jesus was a man to show men how to relate well to women and to women that its ok and valued to be a woman – God is intereseted in redeeming both and if we dig into him we look less at others for our picture of him or how to be ie: leaders

    We no longer need a priest to show us God – we have Jesus.

    Men are hurt by structures too – and bad leadership – male or female, hold on to Jesus – talk to him about your pain and he will bring freedom in your heart to forgive and move forward.

  8. Might I offer a few factual corrections (which support your thesis)? Moses’ mother is not nameless in Scripture; her name is given as Jochabed in Exodus 6:20. Including the names of women is not insignificant. In fact, I think the book of Judges is a case study of your larger point, where the value and status of women is correlated with the spiritual health of God’s people. At the beginning of the book you have Acsah and Deborah, strong positive leaders. By the end of the book, at Israel’s lowest point, you have an unnamed prostitute who is horribly violated.

    Another point that Piper et. al. overlook is that women who take initiative in Scripture are often rewarded by God. Examples include Acsah, Naomi & Ruth, Jochabed, Priscilla [who let’s not forget was instrumental in instructing preachers including Apollo], Mary Magdalene, and even the Proverbs 31 woman. Godly, blessed women are not passive, delicate “crystal vases” waiting for the men around them to tell them what to do.

  9. Nevertheless, you didn’t really reach any conclusion. What does this mean for women? Paul still clearly denies them the pastoral office, and that based on the order of creation. I agree that we overlook women and their specialness often, but don’t bash men to fix the problem. Men have done great things for the church throughout the ages.

    1. I am sorry that you believe that the Bible denies pastoral office to women. In the New Testament the word “pastor” is not commonly used. In fact, it is only used once and it is in a listing of leadership positions including apostles, evangelists, prophets, and teachers (Ephesians 4.11). Women have held all of these positions according to scripture:

      Apostle: The highest ranking in the Church (1Cor. 12.28)
      Junia was an apostle whom Paul called ‘prominent among the apostles’ (Romans 16.7).

      Prophet: The second highest rank in the Church (1Cor. 12.28) who knows the secrets of God (Amos 3.7) and who speaks through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1.21).
      Many women were prophets including Miriam (Exodus 15.20), Deborah (Judges 4.4), Huldah (Kings 22.14), Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8.3), Anna (Luke 2.36), the daughters of Philip (Acts 21.9).

      Teacher: The third highest position in the Church (1Cor. 12.28)
      Priscilla instructed Apollos in the conduct of his ministry (Acts 18.24-28), and Deborah instructed Barak, the leader of the army, how to go into battle.

      Evangelist:A person who seeks to convert others to the faith
      Many women were evangelists including the woman at the well (John 4.39) and Mary Magdalene (John 20).

      The Bible also teaches that Pheobe was a deacon (Romans 16.1).

      What we consider today to be a pastor is in fact a kind of mixture of these traits. We would say a pastor is the one taking charge and leading a church, correct? If this is true of the New Testament Church, then Priscilla may also have performed similar roles because a church was set up at her house.

      So, your claim that Paul “clearly denies them pastoral office” does look so solid when faced with scripture. Furthermore, you seem to overlook Paul’s words speaking of the order of creation, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes from woman; but all things come from God.” (1 Cor. 11.11-12).

      As Christian women and men, we are in need of one another. We should be seeking out true Christian community, not seeking to divide and isolate one another. Jesus broke down cultural expectations based on gender. Let us remember this as we speak on the subject of women in ministry.

      1. Correction: “So, your claim that Paul ‘clearly denies them pastoral office’ does NOT look so solid when faced with scripture” **

  10. I really enjoyed a quick reading of this (I wish I could spend more time on it, but I am unfortunately writing an essay…on this topic!). For anyone interested in further reading on this topic of Jesus as a Feminist I highly recommend Leonard Swidler’s article which can be found at or he also has a book. Bother are very aptly titled “Jesus Was a Feminist.”

  11. Great article! I think that those who take what Paul says at “surface level” and fail to delve into the history are taking the easy way out. It makes me so sad. We are called to study the Bible, to devote our lives to trying to understand it. Thanks for shedding so much insight here.

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