Call No Man on Earth Father: A Comment on "Masculine Christianity"

There's a lively Internet conversation going on right now regarding comments John Piper recently made about "masculine Christianity." For example, Piper said

...the fullest flourishing of women and men takes place in churches and families where Christianity has this God-ordained, masculine feel. For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.
The fuller context of these comments can be read here over at Jesus Creed.

Responding to these comments Rachel Held Evans has asked for some men to weigh in on the topic. I particularly learned a lot from J.R. Daniel Kirk's response (who knew the translation of El Shaddai had anything to do with mammary glands?).

For my part, I tend to be late to these parties because I don't follow evangelical culture and they don't tend to follow me.

(Funny story in this regard. Last year the Family Research Council invited me to Washington to speak about the topics I discussed in my post How Facebook Killed the Church. I emailed them back saying, "Have you read my blog?" Invitation pulled. Poor souls, they had no idea who they were inviting to their party.)

I'm also late to the party because I tend to roll things around in my head too long.

But I wanted to say something in light of Rachel's call because I had been thinking about this for the past week or so.

It started with me watching the movie Courageous. Long story about how I ended up viewing the movie, but I did. Courageous is an evangelical Christian film that is mainly about Christian fatherhood, about men "stepping up" to reclaim their roles as providers, protectors, and spiritual leaders of their homes. The film seems to hold to the view that Piper is articulating.

Let me first say this. I don't want to throw complementarians under the bus. I have a lot of conservative friends who just can't seem to see eye to eye with Jana and I on this issue. I also don't want to belittle attempts like those found in the movie Courageous that are trying to encourage Christian men. Because it seems that a lot of men are struggling, really struggling, with finding a place in the church. To be sure, pages and pages could be written about what, exactly, is the problem in this regard. For my part I tried to get into some of the relevant issues in my post Thoughts on Mark Driscoll...While I'm Knitting.

All I want to do is make a simple observation. Specifically, why does Piper say that Christianity has a "masculine feel"? A part of his argument:
God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother.
Fair enough. Though we could debate the issue as to if the gendered God of the Bible is a feature of cultural context, as well as point to maternal images of God, on the surface we see Piper's point. God is called Father. Thus, Christianity has a "masculine feel."

To this, I have a simple response (and I'll even use the ESV):
Matthew 23.9
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
That's my response. Jesus's explicit command is to call no man on earth your father.

Here's my point. Okay, fine, God's a father. But there is only one father. No man on earth can take or claim that role. Not in the family. Not in the church. If Christianity has a "masculine" feel, fine, but no human can step into the "masculine" role of authority. Only the Father holds that position of authority. Thus, to claim the title "father" as having authority over any other human being is a sin.

Well, it's a sin if you're a Christ follower.

You often hear the phrase, "God is God and I am not." Well, maybe in some sectors of Christianity it would be nice to hear more of this:

"God is Father and I am not."

Dear Family Research Council: I'm still open to coming.

Just give me a call.

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33 thoughts on “Call No Man on Earth Father: A Comment on "Masculine Christianity"”

  1. Well articulated and well thought out.

    I just don't understand why people cling to a belief that oppresses half the world. It doesn't make sense to me. But then again, I'm not the brightest crayon in the box, so maybe it's something I've missed.

  2. "(Funny story in this regard. Last year the Family Research Council invited me to Washington to speak about the topics I discussed in my post How Facebook Killed the Church. I emailed them back saying, "Have you read my blog?" Invitation pulled. Poor souls, they had no idea who they were inviting to their party.)"

    You must be devastated Richard. But I would suggest not waiting by the phone.

  3. You know, I am devastated. Could you just imagine Richard Beck live-blogging at a Family Research Council conference!? That would have been awesome.

  4. An excellent antidote to the idolatry of masculine normativity and authority. Very well said. A connected thought for those at the Family Research Council who idolize their vision of the nuclear family:

    “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."   Luke 14:26 (ESV)

  5. One of my dearest friends once said, "I don't care if you are the butchest, maniliest, most masculine man ever. In relationship to God, you are the weak, you are the follower, you are the submitter. So, if we insist on traditional gender roles, compared to God, you are a weepy little girl."

  6. I thought God did refer to himself as mother in a few OT passages. True?

  7. Yes, it would have been awesome. And then they would have taken you outside and found a nice stake to burn you at.

  8. Well, I have weighed in over there at Jesus Creed on this subject.  It has kind of worn me out today, so I will just say, Thank you for your good word on the matter.  And thank you for being "you" and providing this little corner in the blog universe.  It's so peaceful and hospitable an atmosphere.  And it's not that we don't talk about important and deep (controversial?) subjects, either.  I think the Church should and *could* be this way for everyone, too.  I think it's possible to be strong (male or female) without being a jerk.

    Dr. Beck, one commenter brought up the issues of males in our society not enrolling in college at the same rate as females, and also certain minority males ending up in the criminal justice system.  Interesting, in light of the post 'I'll Fly Away' just yesterday.  What do you think is the Church's (Christ-like) response to males who are floundering in our current socio-cultural climate?

  9. That's a good question. I'm not sure I have any great answers, but like I hinted at in the post, there are a lot of men struggling with the church. Not sure what to do about that, but I think about it a lot. All I know is that the common move--"Men, it's time for you to take charge!"--isn't anything I want to be a part of.

    So that's what I wonder about: Do men have to be "in charge" to be engaged? To be "men"?

  10. The thing that doesn't make sense to me about the "Christianity is a masculine thing" comment is that the church is "the Bride of Christ"...So unless he's suggesting a male-male relationship there...Which I'm sure he's not. 

    Anyway, while I believe that there is a legitimate way to talk about the theology of gender, but it should start with God and move to us. When we start with our understanding of ourselves and move toward "god", that is called mythology.

  11. "Do men have to be "in charge" to be engaged? To be "men"?" ....I dunno....not in charge, but not being "mothered" either, enabled to be/ become themselves, not having to be conformed to serving the minister's/pastor's mission but encouraged to find their own worth and "mission", gifts and talents in day to day life.... I don't know how to do this 'tho  (sorry "mothered" seems a totally non-pc expression and especially given the many times that God is referred to as a Mother-type! but I don't have another way of phrasing it that comes to mind...)

  12. Exactly my question...  I'm not a man, obviously, so I guess I can't speak from experience.  :-)

    I have to wonder whether the authoritarian /complementarian model of church has discouraged more than encouraged men to take responsibility and mature.  I don't think it is a realistic responsibility or a healthy expectation in the first place.

  13. Weighing in as the mother of a teen boy, I think the best gift we can give our sons is the idea that masculine is not the opposite of feminine. A lot of the problems I see in teen boys have nothing to do with being mothered, smothered or repressed. It's that studying and achievement via hard work are now seen as feminine because that's what girls do, it's how girls are succeeding, and boys want to be men. They've gotten it into their heads that girls are grinds, not geniuses, so the boys try to be geniuses. Lucky is also a good alternative, since it's also seen as independent of hard work. Naturally, it fails most of the time. That we turn on the girls and tell them to stop doing so well does a disservice to both sexes.

    I really think the best gift we can give our sons is the idea that being a man isn't the opposite of being a woman, that there is no "opposite sex". Unfortunately, that's an extremely hard sell, both individually and collectively, with catastrophic consequences for boys, who are now taking to underachieving as a way to prove their manhood. 

  14. By "fine" I don't mean okay. I mean even if I grant your premise your conclusion doesn't follow.

  15. Dr. Beck, I have been reading some interesting links over at Jesus Creed within the 'Weekly Meanderings' post.  The content of these links seem relevant to my question of males (masculinity) in church (particularly evangelical) culture.  The first is 'The New Black Theology' at the Christian Century; the second is Mark Sayers' blog post, 'You Will Never Guess Who Is Really Responsible for Males in the Church.'  Gosh, I hope we can learn from history's mistakes and get our collective Christian calling right.  I have a "dream," at least, that it *could* happen; and hope for healing to take place.  I imagine God asking, "Whom shall I send?"  Surely not the "alpha males" among us?!

  16.  Oops!  That should read (in line 4) -- "...for the 'Softening of' Males in the Church."  Strange (Freudian?) slip???

  17. I just can't keep from thinking that these "category" discussions are antithetical to what the gospel is.  There has been a lot of news this week on extroverts and introverts (and ambiverts, for that matter).  Categorization of people is problematic when it comes to the matter of "typing".  Yes, I know there are males and females; I acknowledge there are some frequent patterns but moving from patterns of behavior to type-casting is quite a leap--and that leap may lead us away from the gospel rather than toward it.

  18. For me, individuality has to be a factor rather than categorical "you're a guy, so you need to step up and take the wheel" or "you're a girl, so scoot over and take shotgun." Individuality tends to be a 4-letter word in Christianity at large, because "community" gets emphasized over all. But any community comprises individuals, differently from how cells comprise an organism, because cells don't think autonomously. And when individuals cease to think autonomously someone is doing their thinking for them, and, it seems it's more of a cult than a community.

  19. Hi Patricia, all that you have said is true, in my experiences.  If you're a non-conformist to the community "norms", participating in church and Christianity at large can be a painful and lonely existence.  An apt analogy is, what "The Bible Made Impossible" is to a belief system, individuality/unique personhood is to belonging within a community.  Even if one continues to do his/her own thinking, he/she may not be permitted a "voice" in the life of the community.  I have heard a leader admonish his congregation to put aside any "minor" differences to preserve the unity of the church.  To some extent, I heard that as a silencing of any discussion.  Cult is not an unfair assessment of this type of religious environment.

  20. Thanks, Susan. You hit the nail again, with whether or not voice, whether dissenting, agreeing, or in different perspective is permitted. In churches, that singular focus on preserving the "unity" makes being yourself impossible, male or female (thus the current evangelical brouhaha). But think about it in terms of a group of friends. If one person is deciding what the group does ALL the time and how things should be, that friendship is not going to last. Friendship isn't based on controlling others -- it's a matter of each person being accepted and liked as an individual. But church depends on keeping the group herded, thinking about themselves only within controlled parameters. And if men are eschewing church's herding into such a defined pen, (even if they're being told to be large and in charge) who can blame them? They can't be themselves. And if women are stepping up and speaking out against having been historically forced to accept restrictive parameters based on their sex, who can blame them? Individuality can't be so bad when it's God's creative design. It's the church that is denying the obvious aspects of personhood in creation, demonizing individuality and the real engagement of one's heart, mind, soul and strength in the context of one's life.

  21. I'm thinking of the graphic novel 'Blankets', that makes exactly this status, that Church does not leave room for the individual who needs to fill in empty spaces himself.
    The protagonist of this novel grows up in a restrictive christian environment, in which his creative talent is frowned at. He struggles with this need to act like everyone else (e.g. singing in church, even when you don't like to sing, and the prospect of heaven being just that for ever: doing what everybody else does).
    The novel connects the way the church shames his creativity, his artistry, and the way the church shames his sexuality. Both are expressions of the individual, very individual expressions by which the individual leaves his mark on the world (beautifully shown in the book - after a scene about the shaming of his creativity, the protagonist tells how he masturbates, and how that leaves a mark on paper). This threatens the community that is not based on love or acceptance, but on adherence with the 'rules', the 'hero system' to quote our host, in which the individual is 'other' and thus to be repressed.
    Interestingly afther the protagonist leaves his parents home and church and moves to the city, he observes that it's hard to be an individual there too. There is also a mob, a mass of people in which individuality is submerged. So it's hard to escape - it's not a tendency that is unique to church, but to every human group.
    Part of a resolution comes when the protagonist reads his bible again and notices the ambiguity in the text where Jesus says: 'The kingdom is among you' - which can also be read as: 'The kingdom is IN you'.
    The kingdom of God is IN us, individuals. And the expression of the kingdom love in individual people is what goes out AMONG them and creates community. A community form the ground up, not imposed top down.
    It made me think and I recommend this book to everyone struggling with questions like these.


  22. Hi Johan, I'm glad I'm not alone in seeing this. You're right about this squashing of individuality being in other places besides the church. The church, however, makes such a big deal about "authenticity" and then squelches and shames it whereever it appears.I guess that's one reason I'm so thankful for Dr. Beck and his blog here. Even though we appear to each other only as words on the screen, personality does come through, and it's wonderful, because each person gets to be him/herself.

  23. As the great Scots psychologist Tommy MacKay once put it at a conference I attended:

    "Team may not have an " I " in it, but community sure does."

  24. Hi Johan

    You beat me to it with your comments on hero-cultures.  I was struck by the fact that Becker (from whom these ideas originate) does not dismiss hero cultures completely.  He recognises that people are on the horns of an existential dilemma, paralysed by the very self-consciousness that urges them to be something better.  I wonder if this is the spirit behind all this talk of masculine Christianity - a semi-conscious recognition that the Christian man's traditional hero-culture has been uprooted with little done to point the way to Becker's 'cosmic heroism'.  Perhaps the modern Christian man feels disorientated, and is grasping desperately for a frame of reference - a way to be authentically himself.  The danger, then, is that church men find that their traditional role - which they wouldn't be able to pull off in mainstream society - is the closest model to hand. As a result, he puts more distance between himself and those outside his church culture who would threaten this self-deception.  Love is once again the casualty of fear.

  25. As I've learned about NPD this year and the defining characteristics and traits, such a person views others as serving only as an extension of him/herself, and not as another person equal to themselves.  Church does exactly that, too.

  26. This actually goes with a couple of works I just finished reading:  Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow, and
    Understanding Manhood in America, by Robert G Davis.  (Full disclosure, I have heard Davis speak a few times before, he and I are both Freemasons, and one of his main tenets is that Freemasonry provides a missing rite of passage that men need.  Women have an 'obvious' one with the onset of puberty)

    Both of these works (in different ways) address the "religion of masculinity" culture that seems to be rearing its head here.  Personally, I was raised by a father who basically insisted that "If you ever feel the need to demand anything, you likely haven't earned it, so get working.", and I am a professional mathematician with a degree of Asperger's syndrome, so I find this all rather funny. 

    However, I wonder if much of this is a flight or fight response from many who simply cannot think of any other way of dealing with genders than what they see as traditional, i.e. somewhere on the Archie Bunker to complementarian scale. We have had a "women's role in the church" discussion for a while, and then the idea of a "metrosexual", and of course the Gay rights movement.  I wonder if the fight response has simply boiled over into public action, and these groups are going to "take back" their manhood.

    I think I saw some of this at my church this morning, in Sunday school class, where we were discussing family and touched on the Ephesians passage about "husbands love your wives...wives submit" stuff in Chapter 5.  The teacher asked the question "how are women supposed to act" and several people, both men and women, shouted out "submit."  I waited a bit before saying, "Actually, it would seem both are supposed to act 'as Christ did' ".  One of the men in class joked "leave it to the guy in the pink shirt to say that."

    From a mathematician trying to play social psychologist, so take it for what it's worth......

  27.  I think perhaps they cling to it precisely because it oppresses half the world. But I'm in the same part of the crayon box as you so what do I know.

  28. Interesting. I tend to agree--to the degree that God is masculine, God is masculine in a way that makes all of us men non-masculine. I can live with that.

    My problem is what (if anything) the church has to say to men as men. All my growing-up years it was simply accepted that the women of the church got together as women, had women's retreats, and were honored as women. People weren't sure what the comparable approach for men was--except the tired, and oppressive, and unhelpful-to-either gender, notion that all leadership should come from men.

    I watched Courageous with my family. After the movie my wife and I said to our 10-year-old son, "We think that Mom and Dad lead the family together, not just Dad." But you know what? That movie still touched a part of my heart, and my wife is still glad that I (and our son) saw it. Because the alternative to man-is-in-charge has been, too often, man-is-passive, man-is-repressed, man-is-despised (not least for his history of oppressing women). I get all of that, I DESERVE all of that--but it sure doesn't help me, or the boy I am trying to raise to follow Jesus.

    Is there a place for the gifts, longings, hurts, leadership, servanthood of men to be challenged and honored? I sure hope so.

  29. Christianity hasn't had a masculine feel in a long time. In fact it is very much the opposite. It has an extremely feminine feel.

  30. I think men need to serve. This sometimes involves a serious word, but usually it involves thinking about others and doing things to help them. In fact it's too easy, in our modern industrial world, not to be able to find ways to help people. There is always praying, and praying with endurance, to soak up a man’s spare drive and passion to change things; only God can take all the "this should be so"s you can give out. And it's better to be wrong to a God who'll forgive you than to a man who will be seriously hurt by it, when you’re speaking more from frustration than wisdom.
    But given all that, there are still ways to help people, mundane exertions of endurance, like working in a tough job and refusing to take your pressure out on the vulnerable, especially if you can shield those below you in the management tree.
    When men honestly get into feat washing, scab cleaning, patient endurance and generosity, you see amazing results. I don't care that women can do this too, still the men who have done this have been great examples to me, of joy, passion and brotherly love.
    Of men that have grown sons from their body, not grabbed them for themselves, and, sort of surprised, lay the world in front of them, and draw carefully from their own storehouses of memory things that might help. And carefully see if they apply.
    Of men who help with each others weaknesses, and know that they cannot hide them from their friends.
    And they are great examples of encouragement, of vision, and "imagine if", of looking for the will of God, and for opportunities for good to be done. Of the kind of enthusing that doesn't stare at you to demand you follow, but takes on that heroic moment of withstanding silence, so you can be free to be as engaged and "with them" as you actually are.

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