Renouncing Masculinity (and reclaiming my humanity)

In my previous blog about John Piper’s so-called complementarianism, the key issue at stake was assumptions about sex and gender roles. Complementarians assume that human relationships are (or should be) shaped by a binary structure. According to Piper and Gruden (in their truly horrible Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), “masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” Conversely, “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.”

It seems to me obvious that human relationships resist binaries such as that proposed by Piper and fellow complementarians; people are just too diverse to be classified in simplistic ways. More to the point, a person’s sex has very little to do with whether he or she is gifted to lead, provide for, and protect – or affirm, receive, and nurture – and ideally every person should develop a character capable of each of these traits. Any assertion that one’s sex predetermines leadership or its complementary “disposition to affirm” (by which is meant submission) is inherently sexist. It’s just as bad as saying that a white person is gifted to “lead and protect,” and a black person to “affirm and receive.” It’s not good enough to pretend that men and women are equal in being but subordinate in function, when what we assume that a person can (or should) do is central to their being.

I’ve always resisted binary definitions of masculinity and femininity. Secular versions such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus are just as dumb as the Christian equivalent in books such as John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart, with their warrior/hunter/rescuing men and princess/passive/longing to be rescued women.

But my abstract reflections on gender have been made personal by the accident that left me a quadriplegic. This was brought home to me recently by an insightful question by my friend Lauren. We have shared the reading of a book by Tom Shakespeare, Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, which, among other things, reflects on the implications of disability for masculinity. In response, Lauren said:

That’s one thing I wondered about after reading Shakespeare. He goes through a process of recreating masculinity in the light of disability.  Is this something you’ve considered too?  You were always a rather different man anyway.  What sort of man are you now?  Do you have alternative gender practices?  I find this statement quite hopeful:

“Men with disabilities who rejected or renounced masculinity did so as a process of deviance disavowal.  They realised it was societal conceptions of masculinity, rather than themselves, that were problematic. In doing so, they were able to create alternative gender practices.”

It’s interesting to consider alternative masculinities.  Have you done any thinking about this? There seems to be a dearth of thoughtful literature here, but I suppose your memoir touches on these themes.

My memoir does touch on these themes (there you are – another instance of blatant self-promotion), and indeed I’ve spent many hours mulling over the issue. I’d probably have to admit that for all my feminist rhetoric, prior to my accident I was a stereotypical male – self-confident, sports obsessed, a leader.

Disability, however, asked questions about my manhood. It’s not only the impact of the injury on sexual capacities, although, let’s be honest, masculinity is inevitably tied up with sexual potency. More substantially, it’s the extent to which disability displaced my strength with weakness, confidence with uncertainty, independence with dependency. Far from being a rescuer, I found myself (and still find myself) needing to be rescued, carried, supported, strengthened – all the things John Piper would think of as feminine; and of course it’s been mostly women who’ve done the rescuing, carrying, supporting, and strengthening.

Perhaps Piper would claim that the exception proves the point – that the cost of disability is masculinity. But I think that disability teaches us what is true of our universal humanity; that to be a human is to be vulnerable, fragile, dependent, and in need of rescue. To quote Shakespeare, it’s only when I renounce masculinity (at least as Piper, Eldridge, and Gray understand it) that I can face up to my humanity, and maybe then become the man that I was always meant to be; utterly unique and free from binary straitjackets.

And when I let go of the pretenses of masculinity, I can also dispense with shallow views of femininity, and see my wife and female friends for what they really are; at one and the same time vulnerable and fragile, and incomprehensibly powerful.


Husbands Should Not Break will be in print and available on Kindle in late September.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Hany
    September 5, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Awesome perspective as always Shane. Looking forward to the book 😉

  • jaymcneill
    September 5, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks Shane

  • Rose Weir
    September 5, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Good on you, Shane!

  • Shane Clifton
    September 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    here is an interesting reflection on fatherhood and manliness by Jay McNeill. among other things, he makes the following observation:
    “There is an inferred pressure in this world to ‘man up’ (whatever the hell that means) by defaulting to a male predisposition of assertiveness. Honestly, I think the male testosterone persona is crap. It is the easy way out and takes no effort.”

  • beth barnett
    September 5, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Thanks, Shane. Really appreciating your personal generosity and scholarly strength in this conversation.

  • David Roediger
    September 6, 2015 at 4:23 am

    There wasn’t a single scriptural reference in this article or the previous one. You can’t argue against John Piper on the theological validity of complementarianism, as a believer, if you are going to ignore scripture. Not because John Piper is “so perfect”, but because Piper always develops a theological position from scripture. The writer does make some very thought provoking remarks, but they don’t appear to be coming from a biblical position at all. Which concerns me, because we are talking about a theological position after all. If an more compelling argument for egalitarianism cannot be made scripturally then it isn’t John Piper who the writer disagrees with, but rather his disagreement lies with scripture.

    It’s also important to point out that the author doesn’t seem to understand the position of complementarianism at all. His entire argument asserts that in the rare instance where the man of a household becomes disabled and is not able to work and has to rely on his spouse for help, a complementarian theology would be impossible to live out. This is FALSE.

    IF a husband endured medical problems that put him in the position of not being able to monetarily provide for his family. Does his primary God given responsibility as husband to lead and provide for his family diminish (Ephesians 5:22-33)? No it did not. Why? Because (to quote John Piper) Our God given gender roles are:


    Ability and competency arguments used as a means to invalidate complementarianism need to end because no complementarian is saying that! “A complementarian concludes that biblical headship for the husband is the divine calling to take primary responsibility for Christlike servant-leadership, protection and provision in the home […] whether the wife is a better and more gifted leader, earns more money, works a full time job, is physically stronger, is more educated, etc…. The biblical submission for the wife is the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. “A helper suitable for him,” as Genesis 2:18 says.

    Complementarianism is not a matter of superior competency or ability. Gender roles are God given responsibilities to men and women which serve to reflect His character and bring Him glory. Headship is not something that changes in the event of unfortunate circumstances.

    For those who want to study further and actually listen to what Complementarianism are actually saying, you can do so here:

    • Shane Clifton
      September 6, 2015 at 8:48 am

      I had almost the same conversation in the comments to my last blog post, but I guess I can repeat them again. The nature of a blog is that you can’t say everything at once – and you especially can’t do justice to the scriptural discussion in a post of this length. Indeed, the radio broadcast that I was responding to from John Piper does not mention a specific scripture – but should I then assume that his position is not biblical? Indeed, the biblical discussion between egalitarians and complementarians has been had so many times that it doesn’t need to be repeated here – again. and surely we can have a discussion about ideas without proof texting the Scripture. This is an exercise in theological thinking, not fundamentalist citing of the Bible.
      In respect to your assertion that complementarianism has nothing to do with a person’s capacity, you seem to assume that that enables you to escape the charge of sexism. It doesn’t. You’re still determining leadership and submission on the basis of sex. And worse, you’re doing so for entirely arbitrary reasons. You seem to be suggesting that leadership and submission has nothing to do with a person’s capacities, but is a divine dictate that occurs for no reason at all. That is just silly – and it does nothing to give glory to God. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. God is not glorified by sexism.

  • Kadin
    September 6, 2015 at 9:14 am

    The flaw I find in both Piper and Clifton is that both ideologies seem based in Relative Identity and Extrinsic Identity in the realm of masculinity/femininity, and both of these notions are utterly false and unbiblical.
    Relative Identity is believing that one’s identity is relative to other people, their behavior or identity. Piper, for example, seems to think that masculinity can be offended or affected by how a woman acts, and uses this as a reinforcement for his ideal “places” for the sexes. Clifton felt he had to “renounce” masculinity because of what other people were doing (women taking care of him), due to his previous understanding thereof.
    Extrinsic Identity (there might be a better term) is believing that ones’s identity is in the actions he or she performs. This is the basis of “gender roles” garbage, the idea that being masculine or feminine means doing certain things. Piper teaches all about what people should do according to their gender. Clifton had a conflict with his masculine identity over what he was no longer able to do after paralyzation.
    The issue is that both of these ideas go against the foundational principle that identity is intrinsic. Supernaturally Intrinsic, as a matter of fact :). I am who God made me. I am not what I do, how I act, how I feel, or what someone else does, acts, or feels. My identity was determined before I ever did or felt a thing. I am masculine because I am male. “Masculine” is a basic adjective meaning “being male” (used throughout biology). The same with feminism. Nothing I do can change that. Gender is part, but only part, of the uniquely-crafted identity God created for you.
    When it comes to “life roles” and activities, the rule is the same as it’s always been: let God reveal what your identity looks like on the inside, and the outside, in that order.
    Personal Application:
    My masculinity is neither defined by what other men do, nor threatened by what women do. And since their identity is not relative to me, it’s not my job to influence or define their own manifestation of their identity, unless asked.
    I think I’m a fairly manly Alaskan man. I drive a pickup truck full of tools, I can build or fix anything, I worked as a supervisor, and two of my favorite pastimes are hunting and cutting trees with a chainsaw. I also like to cook, write, teach, and do fine detailed work. I can keep up with the best of men, but some of my favorite people to follow, serve and work for are women. The first list doesn’t make me masculine, and the second doesn’t make me less so. My masculinity is inherent, bestowed by my Creator, and the things I like to do are simply manifestations of the whole packet of attributes God placed in me, only one of which is gender.
    My wife, on the other hand, is a director-level working professional. She supervises men at times, handles our finances, and frequently makes more money than I do in a month. She cooks, cleans, sews, and loves camping, building things and cutting wood. None of these things affect her sexuality or identity, or mine.
    The point of this long-winded exposition is this: gender isn’t what you do or who you serve. Period. It’s how you were made, and what you do with that is up to you, to be discovered when you embrace and explore your own identity. 🙂
    Sorry for the length; guess I should have just written a blog.

    • Shane Clifton
      September 6, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      while to a certain degree I don’t disagree with your conclusion, you are conflating sex (biological) with gender – the latter of which is a social construction.

      • Kadin
        September 6, 2015 at 4:10 pm

        Could you elaborate on that– gender as a social construction? If your assertion is that all the instinct, tendencies, and traits typically assumed of men or women respectively are simply man-made, then I’d have to disagree. I believe God made much more than just biological, don’t you?

  • Shane Clifton
    September 6, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    gender is not completely separate from sex – obviously, biology feeds into our construction of identity. But gender is a much broader term that describes the way in which societies construct and frame sex categories – masculine, feminine, and in modern society, other gender categories. There is plenty of information about this in scholarly and Internet sources. If you’re interested, here is a relatively accessible description:


Leave a Reply