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.

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.