Now for some more thoughts from Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.
Masculinity: “At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships” (35).
Femininity: “At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships” (36).
First, I will say that as much as I differ with Piper on his views toward gender, I do respect that he has actually attempted to put some clear definitions to these terms. This is something a lot of people avoid altogether, while at the same time talking very vaguely about their ideas of masculinity and femininity, which is frustrating. It is very helpful while reading this book to actually know what Piper is referring to when he uses those words.
And I know why he’s defining them and so passionate about this topic. He is, like many of us, disturbed by the lack of mature men and women in the church (and in society) and he is seeking to help bring healing in this area. And he wants to be clear as to what he’s calling men and women to when he is calling them into manhood and womanhood. We do need attempts like this because we do need help.
Now onto the definitions themselves. I’ll say that my initial beef with both of these is that they revolve around the opposite gender. While I know why this is--“We are what we aren’t”--definitions of this nature are insufficient to me. Yes, I agree with both of those definitions as statements, but not as full definitions. They are both true in that men and women should behave as described. But, I think they are flat. Women are also strong. And men also should learn to affirm others. But, moreover, men should have “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect” all people, regardless of gender. And women should “affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy” people, regardless of gender. Right?
To be honest, I’m not sure where these definitions came from, Biblically speaking. Piper goes through each definition word by word, but the explanations often left me unsatisfied or frustrated.
Also, I am having major problems with the definition of femininity. (I made a lot more frustrated notes in the margins of the section on femininity than masculinity.) I find the definition’s centering on relationships to men to be, quite honestly, man-centric instead of God-centric. For instance, let’s take a look at one section:
“One or more of these roles might stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point. But in any case, regardless of the relationship in which a woman finds herself, mature femininity will seek to express itself in appropriate ways. There are ways for a woman to interact even with a male subordinate that signal to him and others her endorsement of his mature manhood in relationship to her as a woman. I do not have in mind anything like sexual suggestiveness or innuendo. Rather, I have in mind culturally appropriate expressions of respect for his kind of strength, and glad acceptance of his gentlemanly courtesies. Her demeanor—the tone and style and disposition and discourse of her ranking position—can signal clearly her affirmation of the unique role that men should play in relationship to women owing to their sense of responsibility to protect and lead.”
Passages like this are all over this book, and I find myself feeling like we’re just supposed to be protecting the extremely fragile men around us from feeling threatened or insulted. And men are likewise supposed to be protecting us from not just the world, but from their own masculinity. At one point, Piper suggests men “use a gentler tone” when learning to care for the women around them. Sure, many of us can use gentler tones with each other, but I really am feeling more and more like a lot of these ideas are rooted in unacknowledged and unarticulated sexism, or even worse, misogyny. Women are much stronger than men think. Sure, we may, on average, cry more than you. We may handle things differently. But who is the one who decided these were signs of weakness? Seriously. I think crying indicates that something is really important to you, and showing that during life is not always a bad thing.
All in all, these definitions seem to center around making sure men feel like men and women feel like women. And as I wrote earlier, I think that’s missing the point.
Another concern I had while reading these definitions was the strong reactionary tone of some of Piper’s explanations. The world has had enough of passive men, yes. But the world does not need more passive-reactive women instead. We all need to be actively discipling and leading others in faith, right? Somehow his descriptions make me to feel as if I (as a woman) am only valuable in the ways I respond and not in the ways I bring action into a situation in the first place. In fact, they insinuate that I am stifling manhood by being an active force in the world. For instance:
“There is a general tone and pattern of initiative that should develop which is sustained by the husband. For example, the leadership pattern would be less than Biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed for worship on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities, and talk over some neighborhood ministry possibilities, etc. A wife may initiate the discussion and planning of any one of these, but if she becomes the one who senses the general responsibility for this pattern of initiative while her husband is passive, something contrary to Biblical masculinity and femininity is in the offing” (39).
1) Um, wouldn’t something “contrary to Biblical” calling be happening if the man did all these things and the woman simply reacted to him? Aren’t they both called to be laboring for the Kingdom of God in all the ways they can? Women, Biblically, are not called only to affirm strength, but to have it, too. Think about Mary the mother Jesus. I think our gender-role pendulum has swung a little too far (due to reactions to past sin) if we aren’t expecting women to act like Christians, too.
2) What irritates me the most about this passage is not the descriptions of roles, but the assumption that if women are initiating, men are being passive. But I think this hits on a bigger issue I’ve wanted to address for a while. How to begin?
I’ve discipled quite a number of women in the past. One of them, whom I love dearly, said to me one day, “Some people are saying you’re a feminist.” This began a long conversation about gender roles within the church, home, and society. Long story short, we found ourselves on very different sides of the issue. At one point I literally asked, “So, do you think men and women are equal?” and the answer was a shocking, “No.” I was sitting there not knowing how to proceed after that response, not only in regard to the topic, but moreover in regard to the discipleship relationship. But, slowly the topic of conversation turned from the theoretical to this woman’s personal family history. Her mother and father, both Christians, have a very dysfunctional relationship. The husband works three jobs so that the wife can spend money as freely as she likes. The wife doesn’t work, but rather watches TV all day and is severely obese. Moreover, the wife is verbally abusive to the husband and the children, while the husband does nothing. As you might imagine, the whole family is pretty dysfunctional. Now, after figuring this family background out, I point blank asked, “Are you so afraid of becoming your mother that you don’t want to be given freedom?” And her answer was a very honest, “Yeah, now that you say that, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.” So we began a conversation about Gospel-centered alternatives to brokenness that don’t involve lack of agency, responsibility, and freedom.
All that to say, I often pick up on subtext within this debate on both sides. On the conservative side, the subtext is often “But if we don’t do things this way, we’ll end up with passive men and abusive (or manipulative) women.” And on the feminist side, the subtext if often “But if we don’t things this way, we’ll end up with passive women and abusive (or manipulative) men.” And these fears don’t just come from history, but from real things people have seen in their own lives. Our brokenness is real and when we live defined by our brokenness or the brokenness we’ve seen in others, we are not living out of the wholeness of Christ. Living a life of "I won't be like that" is living out of our brokenness instead of our wholeness in Christ. Christ died to give us freedom, not just to make us better people.
I would like to propose that both of these are missing the mark. We need freed men and freed women, living, loving, and serving together, not opposed to one another. I have seen amazing marriages where the husband and wife are true partners laboring together, spurring each other one, sharpening each other. Both are coming toward one another, and both are responding to one another.
I think this will conclude my unsettling first reading of Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. I literally could probably write a post about something on every page I’ve read so far, there were so many things that just didn’t make sense or were too flat. But, I won’t. I’ll get back to this book after I do some other reading.