It’s time to exorcise John Piper

A few years ago, in Raising Women Leaders (co-edited with Jacqui Grey), I wrote a chapter entitled “Sexism and the Demonic in Church Life and Mission.” The chapter challenged the logic of so-called complementarianism, which claims that men and women are equal “in being” but that a man’s role is to lead and a woman’s is to submit to that leadership. In contrast, I argued that the presumption that women must be subordinate to men undermines any claim to equality; i.e., that complementarianism is sexist. I then set out the case for complete equality and mutuality.

I have always stood by my argument in that chapter, but I have sometimes regretted the reference to the demonic in the title. It was deliberately provocative, and, hey, I do have a tendency to hyperbole. But I have a few friends who I respect who take this view, and the last thing I want to do is demonise them (MJ, I respect you and value your friendship, even if on this topic you are just wrong). I’ve also worried that the provocative nature of the title means that those who disagree with me will dismiss my argument without engaging with it.

And then John Piper pipes up – again – and reminds me why I chose the title that I did. In his regular “ask Pastor John” radio series, he was asked by a young woman who felt drawn to police work, “Can a single Christian woman, who is a complementarian, become a police officer?” Even with my gift for hyperbole I am incapable of exaggerating his sexism, so rather than summarise his argument here is an extended quote:

And here is my conviction. To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man, guidance of a man, leadership of a man, is personal and a directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order. To an extent, a woman’s leadership or influence may be personal and non-directive or directive and non-personal, but I don’t think we should push the limits. I don’t think those would necessarily push the limits of what is appropriate. That is my general paradigm of guidance. And you can see how flexible it is and how imprecise it is. So let me give some examples.

A woman who is a civil engineer may design a traffic pattern in a city so that she is deciding which streets are one-way and, therefore, she is influencing, indeed controlling, in one sense, all the male drivers all day long. But this influence is so non-personal that it seems to me the feminine masculine dynamic is utterly negligible in this kind of relationship. On the other hand, the husband-and-wife relationship is very personal and, hence, the clear teaching of the New Testament that the man should give leadership in the home and that she give a glad partnership in supporting and helping that leadership come into its own.

On the other hand, some influence is very directive and some is non-directive. For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in the platoon. And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant — hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private — over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood.

(For the full article, “Should women be police officers?” see here).

While he then tries to avoid giving his questioner a direct answer to her question, his conclusion (which repeats the argument, just in case we missed it) gives little room for doubt:

If a woman’s job involves a good deal of directives toward men, they will need to be non-personal in general, or men and women won’t flourish in the long run in that relationship without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues. And conversely, if a woman’s relationship to a man is very personal, then the way she offers guidance and influence will need to be more non-directive. And my own view is that there are some roles in society that will strain godly manhood and womanhood to the breaking point. But I leave women and men in those roles to sort that out. I have never tried to make that list.

What we have, then, is Piper is telling a young woman – someone who is likely to take his view as authoritative – that she should give up her long-held desire to be a police officer because in such a role she would almost certainly exercise personal and directive leadership over man. This would occur in the daily exercise of the authority of a police officer over the general public, and as soon as she is given the smallest promotion up the ranks of the police hierarchy, which would require her to direct and lead male subordinates.

At stake is a vital issue. It’s not merely a matter of a difference of opinion, and it’s not just a question of who preaches in conservative churches. After all, I’m of the view that a person who attends a church sharing the views of Piper gets the masculine preachers they want (and deserve). And good luck to them. Piper’s sexism goes much deeper. In essence, what he is saying is that women shouldn’t enter the workforce, unless they choose to look for employment at the bottom of the hierarchy – and therefore in the most menial and lowest paying jobs.

This is what sexism is all about. Sexism is a label that describes power structures and ideologies that disempower women on the basis of their sex. And there is no stronger ideology than the assertion that “the Bible makes plain … that God’s created order” requires women to be subordinate to men, denying them even the right to equal participation in the workforce.

So let’s stop beating around the bush. This is sexism of the worst type. And it’s evil. And it’s not the teaching of the Bible. And it’s not God’s created order. And it’s anti Christ. As I said in my chapter in raising women leaders are (in one of those untempered moments):

the demonic can be understood as being constituted by those spiritual forces that resist and oppose the life giving power of the Spirit of God in all creation, oppressing individuals and insinuating themselves into the social structures, cultural values and religious ideals that frame human life. Spiritual warfare entails the discernment of spirits, and the casting out of the demonic under the authority of the name of Jesus. I am arguing that patriarchal oppression of women, especially in churches, should be understood as demonic, precisely because it entails resistance against the work of the Spirit in and through women. If this language seems impertinent, then while I speak for and to the PC (Pentecostal – charismatic) community I will not be PC (politically correct). Sometimes the theologian has to take a more prophetic stance, especially when demonic ideas have insinuated themselves into … the culture of the churches worldwide. (For a full copy of the paper, see the publications list on the about section of this blog, and/or purchase Raising Women Leaders)

Yes, well. Intemperate I may be. But it’s about time we exorcised the voice of John Piper from the church. Social media has rightly come down hard on the sexism of Mark Driscoll, but where is the outrage against Piper? It’s time to see him for what he is; not a representative of the body of Christ, but a sexist man trapped in a 1950s worldview that he confuses for biblical truth.

Superintendent Doreen Cruickshank, celebrating 100 years of women in the New South Wales police force.
Superintendent Doreen Cruickshank, celebrating 100 years of women in the New South Wales police force.

“Trapped in a wheelchair”

My memoir, Husbands Should Not Break, is imminent – the editing and typesetting is now complete, and I’m working with the publisher on the cover. I’m happy with the way that it looks, except for one thing. The draft includes an image of an empty wheelchair that is typical of what people normally imagine wheelchairs look like.

conventional image of a wheelchair
conventional image of a wheelchair

The reality, though, is that a person with a spinal cord injury wouldn’t use a chair like this (at least in wealthier nations) – a rickety, ugly, boxy chair without any of the accoutrements that are necessary to enable a person without trunk control to balance and avoid pressure marks. This is to say nothing of the fact that most quadriplegics need electric chairs. My brand of wheelchair is pictured here:

Permobil Wheelchair
Permobil Wheelchair

The difference between the two chairs is as between a pushbike and Porsche, but my dislike of the typical image of the wheelchair is that it feeds into the general impression that to have a spinal cord injury is to be “trapped in a chair.” The endless social media circulation of videos showing paraplegics and quadriplegics using clunky walking machines is evidence of the same idea; the assumption that what is really terrible about spinal cord injury is the fact that it prevents us from walking.

But I don’t hate my wheelchair. Actually, I love my wheelchair. It’s what liberates me from the constraints of my body. If I was required to marry an inanimate object (you never know, this might be one of the consequences of proposed changes to marriage laws), it would be to my wheelchair. “Do you, Shane, take this wheelchair to be your lawfully wedded partner?” Well, yes, but only till the next model comes along!

passionate worship

The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.
The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the intersection between disability and sex. This thinking has led me to reflect upon our identity as sexual and passionate beings, and then to wonder about what that says about our relationship to God. What follows is an exercise in creative thinking – not a systematic analysis of worship. If you hate it, please don’t beat me up too much. But at least I hope you find it stimulating…

Contemporary Christian worship music is framed by a subliminal eroticism, revealed in song lyrics, musical style, and the body language of Christian bands and recipient congregations. This eroticism reflects the long history of sensual language in the Christian spiritual tradition (see the picture and of St Therese above), with its expressed longing for union with Christ and the loving embrace of God. A passionate, ecstatic, and experiential sensuality was central to the worship of the charismatic renewals of the late 20th century, and remains prominent in contemporary worship, with songs emphasising God’s overwhelmingly powerful love for us, and our passionate longing for him.

To cite a recent example, consider one of my favourite worship songs, Hillsong United’s Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). To complain that this song might as easily be directed at a lover is to miss that that is precisely the point. Written in the first person, the song draws on passionate human eros and directs it to God: “my soul rest in your embrace, for I am yours and your mine.” Its sensuality is contained not only in the lyrics, but in the beauty and purity of vocalist Taya Smith’s voice, gently supported by the (sexy) timber of male backup singers. It is a song sung by beautiful people, who celebrate the mystery of divine beauty with eyes closed, and hands raised, symbolic of both submission and embrace. Surely this is not something to be decried but, rather, it’s what worship is all about.

Eros, sexuality, is fundamental to what it is to be human – to be a passionate person. Too often in its history the church has sought to suppress sensuality for the sake of boring, cold, and rigid agape – self-giving love. Self-giving is, of course, central to love, but it is self-destroying if it is not accompanied by passionate eros. And this has been the story of the church, which has demanded that people love by subjugating passion. Yet all the while it has failed to realise that its self-flagellation was a sign of eros suppressed and distorted – a celibate priesthood corsets the Bride (i.e. the church), telling her to ‘suck it up and think of God (or England).’ Repression on one side leads to oppression on the other.

If contemporary worship is subliminally erotic, then at its best it’s a celebration of human passion and a longing for intimacy and touch. As such, it’s a celebration of bodies, bodily sensations, and ardent emotion, all of which should be brought to bear in worship.

Where it goes wrong is when passionate worship (human to divine) functions exclusively, as a replacement for the thrill of human to human passion.

If worship can be erotic, then is it possible for sex to be worship? There is obvious support for this idea in Hinduism and Tantric sex, as well as in various animistic traditions and pagan spiritualities. Although less prominent in Jewish and Christian tradition, the canonisation of the Song of Solomon stands as an especially potent sacralising of sexual desire. That church theologians have often analogised Song of Songs as a symbol of the passion of Christ for the church is telling, even if, thereafter, Jesus is generally imagined as asexual. In fact, the incarnation is itself a divine embrace of embodied humanity – and Jesus had sexual organs that presumably functioned in much the same way as ours. Jesus’ particular vocation may well have kept him a virgin, but he was constantly in trouble for ignoring the sexual proprieties of his day by welcoming women and men as friends and lovers (in the broadest sense of that term). This is not to say that we can model our sex lives on Jesus (sometimes WWJD really is absurd), but it is to say that Christianity should celebrate the body, in all of its wondrous, sensual, and messy absurdity.

Might we go further, embracing the idea that we could learn something about what it is to worship by thinking about our sexuality (and, of course, doing more than just thinking)? I’m not primarily talking about fantasy, (although I’m not excluding it, since imagination is surely part of the divine image), but about exploring what our passions have to say about us, our self-transcending capacity to love and be loved. These passions are ultimately reaching for transcendent beauty; that is to say, our passion seeks the divine.

But if that’s so, what might be the implications of our assumptions that certain groups of people are or should be asexual? Of course I’m thinking about disability, but the logic (if there is any) has much broader implications. Precisely what those are is a topic for another day.


I’ve had a few weeks of problems with my pee. My catheter bag leaked twice, flooding my pants and chair at work. Then, earlier this week my bag malfunctioned, and I woke up in a puddle. And that mishap gave the creepy crawlies a foothold in my bladder, and I ended up with a knock-me-down fever. In response, my beautiful friend Lauren sent me this glorious prayer poem.

I have a friend who used to drink pee

Instead of tea.
She would keep it in the fridge next to the orange juice,
Ice cold urine
And sip it from a porcelain tea-cup,
With gilt edges and daisies painted along the side.
She said it was for health benefits
To keep her insides

In Nights at the Circus

There is a clown who wears a bladder on his head for hair.
His insides have come out, which is shockingly funny for a clown.
Not so for a quad.
Your insides won’t come out,
Not without assistance.
And this is the glorious job of the indwelling catheter,
Taking the piss
To an external bag discreetly bound to flesh,
That is attached to a
Thin ballooning tube going where?
Into awful mystery,
Beneath the belly
Beneath the skin,
“Now that’s a piercing!”

I know you’ve been unwell

So I pray that
Your piss week
Passes smoothly,
May the golden trickle
Flow clear, bright and uninfected,
And may your insides be
More comedic than a clown,
And more nourished than a pee sipper.

Is that not the most wonderful prayer you’ve ever read?!


PS this blog is not meant as sob story. Much of it is just wet (and my own fault). Except for the fever, I’d go through it all again just to read that poem!

Vale Sheree Hurley, you’ve left us too soon

Sheree Hurley and I, Museum of contemporary Art.
Sheree Hurley and I, Museum of contemporary Art.

I’m devastated today to learn of the death of my friend Sheree Hurley. I first met Sheree at Prince of Wales hospital, and she completely changed my life. It was a month or so into my rehabilitation, and I was struggling to imagine how to live with my stupid broken body. Sheree, with her beautiful red hair and confident smile, wandered into my room with Jade, her stunning black Labrador. We talked about my injury, and I learned that hers was similar (C5 quadriplegic), and then she went on to describe her independent and fascinating life, and it gave me new hope. Her regular visits were one of the few highlights of my seven-month hospital stint.

We kept in touch when I left hospital, and would get together regularly for coffee in the city. Six months ago I interviewed her and recorded her life story. I will write it up sometime soon, but I’m just not ready to do so now. It’s enough to say that Sheree lived an amazing life. As a peer support worker, I have no doubt she gave hope to countless people struggling to come to terms with spinal cord injury. Working for spinal cord injuries Australia, she organised the first SCI independence Expo in Homebush. She developed videos and other resources directed at helping people with sci get on with their life. she was also an active volunteer with Australian support dogs, and after finishing with SCIA was involved in a project to build  respite  accommodation. More recently she worked at Royal rehab in Ryde, as a recreational officer – helping rehabilitating people find ways to enjoy themselves.

I did mention her in my memoir, and perhaps that recollection is enough for today:

23 November 2012 (Friday)

Today was pure joy; a sunny spring day spent in the city with Sheree Hurley. We have met up a few times since my leaving the hospital. She is a great encouragement, and it’s refreshing to spend time with someone who understands my day-to-day experiences. What I especially love about her company is her contentedness. She doesn’t ignore or deny the difficulties of living with SCI, but neither does she let them keep her down. On the contrary, she leads a full and mostly happy life, and I find her sense of well-being contagious.

We met up at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay. The day was warm but Sheree’s crip-circulation and thin frame had her rugged up for winter, wearing a jumper and jacket, a purple scarf, and a woollen beret, out of which flowed her shoulder-length auburn red hair. The MCA cafe is on the top of a modern styled building, looking over the Quay to the Opera house, Harbour Bridge, and beyond. We ate on the balcony, which today was awash with sunlight. Friendship, conversation, sunshine, and food in such a location, along with a black Labrador that draws the attention of all and sundry; on days like this, life isn’t half bad!

While conversation was the real reason for our get-together, the ostensible purpose was to watch a film, The Intouchables. Sheree was a little reluctant, saying that “I haven’t seen a film for years.” I found this hard to fathom, but I promised that she would enjoy herself. The French subtitled film tells the story of Philippe, a C3/4 quadriplegic with no movement from the neck down and, his carer Driss, a poor black, paroled migrant – each in his own way “untouchable,” the former a pitiable paralytic and the latter a despised African. [The journal goes on to talk about the movie – which is irrelevant for this blog].

Obviously, the story resonates with the experiences of Sheree and I, and she left the cinema surprised to have actually enjoyed a movie. After coffee we said our goodbyes and I thought about the fun that I’ve had today. I’ve spent so much time down in the dumps, and I wonder whether I have found one of the keys to pleasure; friends and film.

Vale Sheree. I can’t believe you’re gone. I am missing you already.


goodbye Sheree, I will miss you.
goodbye Sheree, I will miss you.

Almost expelled from the SCG – or disabled people have no friends

Photo 15-03-2015 2 47 14 pm
Clifton boys almost expelled from the SCG.

Last weekend the Clifton boys (Daniel, Troy, Kurt, and I) got together for a Brothers weekend. The schedule was full and we had a great time; Club Swizzle at the Opera house on Saturday, cricket on Sunday, and golf on Monday. Those of you who know us might not be surprised to hear that we almost got thrown out of the SCG. It’s a story worth sharing.

The game was a sold-out ODI, Australia playing Sri Lanka. We left home later then we should have (after being sidetracked by the movie Hot Fuzz), and so arrived a couple of overs late – just in time to see David Warner out for nine.

Now, it’s a well-known fact that people with a disability have no friends, so even though we’d purchased tickets months before, we were unable to get seating together. I was allowed a single carer in the disabled section, and two other tickets were allocated in the stands nearby. Upon arrival, however, we discovered that the disabled section was relatively empty, and had plenty of spare seats. We thus took the opportunity to sit together.

Empty seats in the disability section
Empty seats in the disability section

We did have one wheelchair neighbour, a young lady with her mother. About 10 minutes after we arrived, the mother came over and asked me how I managed to get tickets for three able-bodied people. When I told her that we didn’t – that we’d just taken empty seats – she went on to tell of her story. She’d had the same problem with us when purchasing tickets for herself and two daughters, one of whom was now seated in the stands on her own. Apparently, they’d arrived relatively early to find a bunch of empty disabled seating, and so sat together awaiting the start of the cricket. Not long before the first over was to be bowled, they were approached by an officious female employee of the SCG trust, who told them that because they didn’t have the appropriate ticket, they could not use the additional seat. The daughter was thus directed to the stands on her own. Mum was justifiably upset – promising never to come to the cricket again.

Our friendly neighbour
Our friendly neighbour

I suggested that we’d had similar problems in the past, and that the key was to stand your ground. She wasn’t convinced, but the cricket was on, so we all turned our attention to the game.

15 minutes later, we were approached by (presumably the same) female employee of the SCG trust. She proceeded to tell us that two of our party needed to vacate the disabled section and proceed to the allocated seats. We politely pointed out that the disabled section was empty (apart from a bunch of nondisabled people standing there but, for some reason, not being evicted), and that should anybody else with a wheelchair arrive, we would immediately relocate. This wasn’t good enough, however. She insisted that we move. We repeated our argument, and refused to move, and she repeated her insistence, and threatened to have us expelled from the grounds. We ignored her, and went on watching the game.

A few minutes later we were approached by two police officers, and the conversation was had once again. The police officers were clearly uncomfortable, but stated that if we refused to comply, we would be expelled from the cricket ground. I asked whether they really would throw out a disabled wheelchair user for such a stupid rationale, and he replied that he would have no choice. When the woman’s back was turned, he told us under his breath that although he believed we were in the right, he would be obliged to do as she requested.

At this point we noted that the otherwise allocated seats had been taken by someone else – that they would need to be moved on before we could relocate. Also, I insisted upon going above her head – I wanted to speak to her manager. By now the situation had become absurd, and the woman and the two police officers retreated; presumably to talk strategy.

A few minutes later we were approached by another SCG officer. He informed us that none of the other seats in the disabled section had been booked, and that we’d be welcome to use them until another person with a wheelchair arrived. Good solution, we said.

We also mentioned our neighbour’s difficulties, and so he went to speak to her. A few minutes later, with her two daughters now seated together, mum came over and thanked us.

It turned out to be a great game of cricket. Glenn Maxwell scored 100 runs in 51 balls, and Australia hit 372 runs. Sri Lanka made a good effort of the run chase, but fell short. We had a great afternoon and evening because lots of runs were scored, Australia won, and we’d been able to enjoy together.


an apology – and a Twitter lesson

This is an apology to Rosemary Norwood and those within the autism community that I’ve offended. But because such an apology would be meaningless in 140 characters, I’ve moved from Twitter to my blog. What follows might also stand as a cautionary tale to others new to Twitter conversations.

My problems started when I watched an ABC AusAttitude documentary on autism. The show featured Rosalind and her artistic son, Claude. In addition to being a mum, Rosalind is also a neurologist and doctor who has spent her professional career engaged in scientific research about her son’s condition. The show told something of Claude’s condition and family life, and also featured Rosalind explaining some of her research and complex neurological challenge of finding a “cure.”

While watching I was committing the cardinal sin of digital multitasking – my phone was open on my lap, and I made the Twitter comment:

Stunningly interesting @Ausattitude on autism. Love the relationship between annabel and Claude, autistic brother.

I thought nothing more of this. After all, I have virtually no Twitter followers, and I can’t think of a single instance when any of my tweets have received a response. I was thus surprised to receive the following replies from @RosemaryNorwood :

the only good thing about the episode. Annabelle was the only person who seemed to unreservedly value Claude.

There followed a series of Rosemary’s observations about the show, including the following:

@scliffo @Ausattitude Think she got the idea that he has no internal life and no ability to feel family links or emotions from thin air?

@scliffo @Ausattitude Annabelle also unfortunately repeated “We think he might just see us as tools, to get what he wants”.

@scliffo @Ausattitude “I’m the doctor telling this family you’ve got this problem.” We’re not problems, either.

@scliffo @Ausattitude “There’s lots wrong with the hardware and software of autistics.” We’re different not wrong

Rosemary’s concern was that Claude was being spoken about, and treated as a medical problem rather than valued as a unique person. A much wiser person than me would have kept quiet at this point. After all, what do I know about autism. But I ignored my own rule (which is that you should always sleep before hitting send on contentious emails – or tweets), and went to the defence of Rosalind

@RosemaryNorwood seems a harsh and unfair judgement on her parents.

@RosemaryNorwood she was a medical research, so gave technical info. But she clearly displayed her love.

Of course, I would stand behind the truth of the statements, but repent tweeting them. Further on in the back and forward discussion, Rosemary criticised the program for showing a parent (not Rosalind this time) dragging a child across the floor. I flippantly responded “you’ve never been a parent, then” – on the basis that most parents would be guilty of dragging children at one time or another. Geez, this may be true, but what sort of an idiot says it? In all of this discussion, Rosemary wasn’t really disputing Rosalind’s love for Claude, but the ways in which she felt the documentary medicalised autism as a problem to be fixed, rather than showing Claude to be a uniquely beautiful and interesting person. Her concern was also that the program failed to show clearly the range of autistic experiences, and the unique contribution of autistic people to families and broader society.

Whether or not her criticism of the program is fair is for others to decide. Attitude Australia has responded to the criticisms of the episode ( I do appreciate the work of attitude Australia, and value their documentaries. I would encourage people to watch this one, keeping Rosemary’s comments in the back of their mind as they do.

I was particularly challenged by one of Rosemary’s concluding comments to me:

@scliffo @Ausattitude I would disagree. Perhaps you need to listen to some ASD voices to understand why.

Fair call. I’ve now tried to do so. And I’m sorry that my comments added to your anxiety in watching the show.