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What’s in a definition?

August 19, 2015

Several years ago I was attending a large conference of Christians involved in broadcast media.  Late one afternoon I was going down to meet some friends and, as I got on the elevator, only one man was in it – John Piper.  I had known of Piper but not met him personally.  I introduced myself and we had a pleasant chat as we went down the 15 floors to the lobby; a trip that included stops on many floors.  I found him to be humble and charming; I liked him immediately.

In the aftermath of that encounter I had the pleasure of reading some of his material and concluded that he was a clear thinker.  But lately I’ve wondered more and more….has he changed?  Or have I?  This was brought home to me when I read this article he wrote in response to a question from a young woman wondering if it was OK for her, as a female, to be a police officer.  While he did not directly say no, his answer made it clear that he thought women should never be in “personal, directive” authority over men.  His analysis included this line:

“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. “

It could hardly be clearer if he had said “I don’t want no dame bossing me around!”  I can think of hundreds of examples where it is not only acceptable but quite wise to have a woman lead; a woman doctor trying to save your life for example.  A good rule of thumb might be to ask who is the one that is best equipped to lead in this situation.

But more shocking than that is his definition of mature manhood and womanhood:

“At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women…”

“At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men…”

Seriously?  That is what makes a woman mature?  To me it sound more like a cheerful but helpless ninny sitting around waiting for some man to tell her what to do.  Note that these definitions are not limited to husbands and wives; they are for all men as they relate to all women.  This is an expression of Piper’s version of complementarianism.

When I first heard the term complementarian I actually liked it; liked the idea that Peggy and I were complementary.  I particularly liked the concept that my wife was my Ezer Kenegdo, as Eve was to Adam, even though I do tend to think that phrase more likely means “strong ally” rather than “suitable helper.”  But pretty soon the movement seemed to gallop off in all directions, which might be expected for a term basically made up out of thin air in my lifetime.  (Although Piper and others have managed to read it back into church history.)

When discussing roles in church and the home complementarianism is a position worth debating, even if I don’t fully agree with it.  For the record I don’t think I am an egalitarian either.  I like Scott McKnight’s term “mutualist.”  But when Piper takes his screwy, absolutist, definitions for manhood and womanhood out into the world all kinds of folly will ensue.  I can’t help but wonder – where did the John Piper I met in the elevator go?

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