Recovering FROM Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Pt. 2: John Piper’s Vision

Before this, please read the housekeeping stuff first.


Not all articulations of complementarianism are the same. Labels are always difficult, and within this umbrella of views called complementarianism there are varying nuances and differing terminology, and important distinctions. Definitions and clarifications are often necessary. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991) is one attempt among many to engage with Scripture and other disciplines to present one vision of what humanity in two genders looks like in practice and how we are to understand what it means to be men and women. The first essay is presented to define what the editors of the book (John Piper and Wayne Grudem) and the organization which backed the book (Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) understand to be the definition of “manhood” and “womanhood” as they understand it from Scripture.

Before I critique this first essay by John Piper, let it be reiterated that I am critiquing as a fellow Christian, a pastor, and someone who unapologetically holds to a view very different from the authors and editors of this book. I recognize that Piper, Grudem, and the other contributors are attempting to follow Scripture as they understand it. That said, I find their position to completely out of sync with Scripture, and Piper’s introductory essay is probably the worst of the various essays, and is frankly not only full of shortcomings in providing a biblical basis for his definitions, it is even offensive, and I can’t say strongly enough how harmful I find this essay. To put it bluntly, I have to censor my notes here, because I was so offended and frustrated by some of the claims Piper made, my language in the notes became quite antagonistic, snarky, and ungracious. So, now that I’ve had time to cool down and go over my notes again, I am going to take my objections and put them as graciously as I possibly can. And once again, please keep in mind that I am responding to John Piper and his definitions, not making generalizations about complementarianism as a whole. Piper has a very specific definition of “biblical manhood and womanhood”.

Before we get to those definitions, let’s begin where Piper begins- the 1950s in Greenville, South Carolina. Piper begins with remembering with nostalgic joy his childhood, his admiration for his mother, and the distinct way his mother and father related to one another. Piper’s father had an itinerant preaching ministry, and his mother managed the household when father was away. But when father was home, he was head of household. Mother submitted. Piper idealizes his own experience, and it seems to me fairly obvious that he has imposed this nostalgic ideal onto Scripture. His foundation appears to be Scripture read through the lenses of the Post WWII American South, so that it can bolster his own dearly loved vision of his childhood family experience. He has such a rosy picture of his “traditional family”- which is culturally specific to America in the 40s and 50s- that he seems to view anything else as less than what God desires for all humanity. He imposes the idyllic picture onto the text in a way I find incredibly unwarranted (eisegesis).

Piper then sets out to describe the ills of society as stemming from the break-down of the traditional family structure and clearly defined gender roles. He asserts (with no actual evidence; we just have to take his word for it) that contemporary culture stresses equality of men and women “by minimizing the unique significance of our maleness or femaleness” and this minimizing “is taking a tremendous toll on generations of young men and women who do not know what it means to be a man or woman. Confusion over the meaning of sexual personhood today is epidemic” (26-27). But I wonder what this is based on and referring to? Perhaps he has some study which he didn’t cite which demonstrates some of this? How is the shifting opinions about gender roles causing social problems? I’m not sure how anyone would demonstrate that sort of causal relationship. He suggests “we do not know who we are as male and female” (28). I am left asking “who is the we here?” Apparently society is having a crisis over sexual turmoil and confusion regarding gender, and nobody (except, thank God, for complementarians) knows what it means to be male or female, and to save American society, we have to recover previously held gender roles and distinctions. The only resource he cites in this discussion of the crisis of gender identitiy is Paul Jewett’s 1975 book, which is somewhat odd, since although he does support a strong distinction between the sexes, Jewett was an adamant supporter of egalitarian views of gender, especially in the Church. So, I am left scratching my head.

In one of the few places Piper ever interacts with Scripture at all, he falls flat. He argues

when the bible teaches that men and women fulfil different roles in relation to each other, charging man with a unique leadership role, it bases this differentiation not one temporary cultural norms but on permanent facts of creation. This is seen in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (especially vv. 8-9, 14); Ephesians 5:21-33 (especially vv. 31-32); and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (especially vv. 13-14). In the Bible, differentiated roles for men and women are never traced back to the fall of man and woman into sin. Rather, the foundation of this differentiation is traced back to the way things were in Eden before sin warped our relationships. Differentiated roles were corrupted, not created, by the fall. They were created by God. (28)

Well, the problems here are many. First, he doesn’t unpack these passages at all (he does recognize in the endnotes that the articles in the book will do that), and he makes no attempt to connect what follows in his essay back to these Scriptures. His definitions are essentially arbitrarily made. He speaks at great length about how men and women should interact based on his definitions, but hasn’t really shown how those specific things relate to anything in Scripture.  As I said in Part 1, “The application stuff becomes a moot point if the exegesis draws faulty conclusions.” Piper produces pages and pages of rules for application without explicit exegetical connections. And, as we’ll see when we look at these passages in detail and the way they are read by complementarians, we’ll see that Piper’s conclusions are certainly not undisputed, and from my own reading, those conclusions are erroneous and Scripture doesn’t support his definitions.

We don’t have space to get in depth into this, but in quick summation: 1 Cor. 11:5 affirms women’s participation in prophecy and public prayer, so long as they follow decorum (head coverings- a social, not creation based construct- so Paul does indeed, at least in this case, appeal to cultural norms) and participate as women. In other words, Paul does see gender as having distinctions, but does not allow those distinctions to exclude women from full participation. Women need not become male (or some genderless monad) to participate fully in the Assembly. In 1 Cor. 11:12-13 Paul asserts mutual dependance, and earlier in 1 Cor. 7, Paul affirmed mutual submission of husbands and wives. So, even though the language of headship appears in vv. 3, 8-9, language of mutuality and interdependence is present throughout 1 Corinthians specifically, and the Pauline corpus more generally, and so we need a far better reading than Piper (and as we’ll see later, Thomas Schreiner also) provides.[1]

Ephesians 5:21-33 is a popular passage for complementarians to appeal to, and 5:22 & 25 in particular, but I’m sure even Piper would recognize the problems with that passage, since 5:22 is a dependant clause, completely lacking a verb (in spite of how it is presented in English translations with a full stop and paragraph break between 21 & 22, and a verb inserted). 5:22 is completely dependant for meaning on verse 21, which calls on all Christians to submit to each other. In fact, 5:18-22 is all one run-on sentence broken up by English translators because run-ons are considered problematic in English, unlike Greek, so citing 21-33 is weird if you’re working from the Greek text since that begins mid-sentence. And of course, the entire train of thought in the household code begins with 5:1 (notice the repeated language in 5:1-2 and 5:25) or perhaps it could be said to go back even further, to 4:17. In other words, Eph. 5 calls on wives to submit to their husbands (“your own husbands” not “men”) as was culturally appropriate, but he also calls on husbands to love their wives “as Christ love the Church” which is in a self-denying, self-emptying, cruciform, submissive, and subordinating way (see Philippians 2:5-11).[2]

1 Timothy, like all of Paul’s letters, was written to specific people, with specific questions/struggles/shortcomings. Timothy is in Ephesus, and we know from 1 & 2 Timothy (1 Tim 1:3, 6:1-5, 20, 2 Tim. 2) and elsewhere (Rev. 2:1-3) that the Church in Ephesus was combating false teaching, the details of which are not entirely clear, but 1 Tim. 5 suggests that some women of the Ephesian church are at the centre of this problem. The argument from creation was not that because woman was created after man, woman must be subordinate to man and prohibited from teaching. The issue is bad theology. Eve transgressed because she, unlike Adam, had not received the word directly from God. The women of Ephesus were not to teach or inappropriately assume or wrench authority (the Greek is authentein which is not Paul’s usual term for proper exercise of authority, and in extra-biblical literature frequently carries a negative sense of usurp, take by force, dominate, or even murder[3]) from men, because they had not be taught fully. Women had been excluded from Rabbinical teaching, so had never had proper instruction in the Scriptures, and were in need of learning (notice that there is no object for learning in quietness and submission- in other words, submission to whom? To the teaching of the Scriptures!).

In other words, the argument that female submission comes from God’s created order is simply without basis. When we come to Ortlund’s essay on Genesis (which is an absolute train wreck to be frank) this will become abundantly clear. Genesis 1 & 2 presents no basis for assuming woman’s submission to man. The first mention of male headship over woman is found in Genesis 3:16. In spite of what complementarians argue, this is simply what Genesis presents. If Paul is in 1 Cor. & 1 Tim. making the argument that Adam being created first places Eve in a subordinate role, then Paul has failed to understand Genesis. This is actually argued by Luke Timothy Johnson, who suggests the Paul’s patriarchal comments in 1 Tim. 2 are because he lost his egalitarian nerve and conceded to cultural norms[4]. Either Paul is a terrible exegete, or we have to move away from these patriarchal readings of Paul.


Now, onto the actual definition of manhood and womanhood themselves. Here are the definitions Piper provides:









First, is putting this in ALL CAPS some sort of trick to make it more forceful and convincing? It’s just bizarre.

There’s lots to nitpick on when he breaks down the definition and elaborates phrase by phrase but space doesn’t allow for every little bit of this to be analyzed so we have to make generalizations.

First, as I have already noted, the definition itself is completely arbitrary. Nowhere does Piper explicitly link this definition back to Scripture (I guess he assumes because of his prooftexts above we all buy into his paradigm without hesitation and will see the supposed links between those and his definition?). This definition is simply the construct of Piper and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and reflects the fact that patriarchy is assumed in advanceBut that assumption is simply unwarranted.

Second, in spite of Piper’s frequent assertions to the contrary, this definition’s logic implies an inferiority of women. It assumes women need and want to be led, provided for and protected by a man or else they aren’t truly feminine. A “mature femininity” renders a woman dependant on the men in her life. And on the flip side, a man who doesn’t have a disposition to lead, provide, and protect is either not mature or not masculine. I fail as a man if I encourage my wife to be independent, self-sufficient, and capable of taking the lead. These are strong assertions without any real basis beyond Piper’s own opinion that a man who is not properly inclined to lead is not a real man (or more precisely, to use Piper’s own wording, “his masculinity is immature”). This sort of shaming is inappropriate and frankly disturbing, and ironically, immature. I don’t feel the need to provide for my wife and protect her in order to fulfil my manhood. That does not mean my masculinity is immature or inept. It means I think highly enough of my wife to let her use her gifts to their fullest extent. If she is my equal in dignity, intelligence, and value, as Piper is so adamant to point out, why is this necessary? This very definition implies a woman’s inferiority to men. She has to receive his leadership, and he has to take benevolent (insert some sort of sarcastic remark here) leadership over her. The implication is that she needs him to do so because she lacks the requisite skill to do so, or because she is simply out of line and disrespectful to her husband if she doesn’t allow him to do so. If this is how a family operates because of giftedness and resources available, and a couple agrees to this, then by all means; the traditional paradigm of male bread winner and female subordinate is not oppressive ipso facto. But to impose this from the outside as necessary for manhood and womanhood to be fulfilled in all cases is just ridiculous. I cease to be a mature man if my wife has greater education and qualifies for a better paying job? She fails as a woman for wanting that education and vocation instead of receiving her provision and leadership from a husband?

Third, a woman’s role is reduced to receiving from her man and supporting him, even if she has giftedness to lead and teach. Where this is outlined in the bible is not made clear. Even the Proverbs 31 woman is strong, independent and earns her own provision, and provides for the children and her own servants if applicable. Although Piper insists “I do not mean to imply by my definition of femininity that women are merely recipients in relation to men”, the provided definition actually says precisely that. Even though he insists she has a responsibility to encourage her man in such a way as to draw that out, he is still left with a view of womanhood which depends on a “mature” man who adheres to this definition of manhood. An unmarried woman cannot fulfil this completely (meaning she is less than a fully mature woman), and a woman called to lead and pursue vocations which give her a position over men will be forced to quit or feel ashamed of her calling.

Presumably to clarify what “leadership” does and doesn’t mean to him, Piper outlines what “mature masculine leadership” is supposed to look like in practice, and points to 9 separate statements. These 9 points are full of contradictions, elements which are in no way gender specific, and point 6 even gets a little creepy in describing the man’s responsibility to be the initiator and pursuer in sexual relations. It’s just plain bizarre. Women are encouraged not to work out too much, because if they get too muscular it will lead to sexual encounters which are “hasty and volatile, and in the long run unsatisfying” (33). Sorry fit ladies, you are incapable of being romanced and pursued by a man, so you are violating and insulting his biblical manhood and your own womanhood. So women shouldn’t have too much muscle. And women who order for themselves or their husbands in restaurants, open doors for men, or drive violate creation order and violate the manhood of their husbands (34). He insists his vision of manhood and womanhood ins’t oppressive or restrictive, but that simply doesn’t hold weight. It isn’t freeing, it’s legalistic.

Piper then backs himself into a corner (which he tries to get out of later) by suggesting that in all her relationships with men, she will “affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form… even though she may find herself in roles that put some men in a subordinate role to her.” (41) She will receive leadership from her subordinates. He then tries to nuance it by saying women can lead in ways that are non-directive and/or non-personal (42). Which is an entirely arbitrary construct, and makes very little sense, since leadership roles can’t be defined with this sort of specificity and all examples he brings fall when examined more closely. In particular his one biblical example- Abigail’s supposedly personal, but non-directive leadership with David (which ignores Abigail’s blatant defiance of her husband Nabal, subverting patriarchal roles, and the personal and directive leadership she took over the household servants to make preparations for David [1 Sam. 2514-19]). He also ignores the clear biblical evidence of multiple women in leadership which was both personal and directive; Miriam, Deborah the Judge and prophetess, Mary Magdalene sent to the 11 remaining disciples to instruct them to go to Galilee (Matthew 28:5-7), Phoebe the Deacon at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1-3), Junia an Apostle (Rom. 16:7- we’ll get to her in a future post), Priscilla teaching Apollos (Acts 18:24-26), Lydia and Chloe who hosted churches and supported missionaries (Acts 16:11-15, 1 Cor. 1:11), Joanna who financially supported Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), Tryphena, Tryphosa, Euodia, Syntyche, who were co-workers (synergon– the same term used of Timothy, Titus, Clement, Justus, and Epaphroditus). Paul also encouraged women to prophesy and pray in the assembly (1 Cor. 11:5). So yes, women are permitted, and encouraged to lead, and commended by Scripture when they did so.

Fourth, it is worth noting that even though Piper has an aside in which he says singleness is a viable option, it is very difficult to see how that fits into this definition, since it defines masculinity and femininity as they relate to each other. So, unmarried men and women will not be able to sufficiently fulfil this definition.

Finally his conclusion is just plain insulting, and ridiculous. The use of archaic terminology (throughout, but especially towards the end), imagery, etc. reveals Piper’s underlying assumptions- that the good ol’ days were better, and I want that way of life back and imposed on all of society. It’s less about careful biblical exegesis, and more about pre 1960s Southern American chauvinism. He declares “If I were to put my finger on one devastating sin today, it would not be the so-called women’s movement, but the lack of spiritual leadership by men at home and in the church.” (44) What’s worse than feminists? Men who don’t stand up to feminists! So, my support of women in ordination is sinful? My desire to see my wife as an equal partner who I can and should serve and celebrate her leadership over me in a reciprocal giving of self is sinful? He continues in this harsh and deplorable rhetoric “The spiritual aimlessness and weakness and lethargy and loss of nerve among men is the major issue”. So I am aimless, weak, lethargic and have lost my nerve? No, I am decisive, adamant, and insistant in supporting my sisters in their calling to lead and to be free to partner with men in all things. I haven’t lost an ounce of nerve, and frankly, Mr. Piper, if you read this, thank you, because you have encouraged me to be even more outspoken in my opposition to your disgusting and embarrassing theology, which at moments like this reveals the true heart of the matter- you are sexist. I have defended you and Driscoll in the past, calling on people to stop using labels like misogynist (I still think that’s pushing it too far). But when I read stuff like this, I lose my desire to defend you, and I lose my desire to pray for you (but I will continue to do so), and I lose my desire to try to be gracious (but I will try, Lord be my helper, to do this as much as possible). You insult women, and you insult the men who fight alongside them to be free from this malarkey. God has poured out his Spirit on all people, empowering sons and daughters declare God’s Good News (Acts 2). A truly biblical manhood seeks to partner with women as equals, not view them as weak and in need of protection. A truly biblical womanhood is free to serve in whatever way the Spirit of God has gifted- and the Spirit, not human gender, is the only source of these callings and gifts. To say a woman can’t teach is binding the Holy Spirit. To say men who support women are weak or have lost our nerve is disgusting. Many brave men have lost jobs or walked away from ministry opportunities because they cannot support these restrictions on women which deprive the Church, quench the Spirit, and reject the freedom Scripture announces. Mr Piper, you and your theological kin have argued that Christians ought to be counter-cultural, and stand with Scripture against the cultural tide. What you forget is that Scripture was written when the cultural tide was patriarchy.

This destructive and disgusting rhetoric from Piper bears little or no resemblance to the Jesus the Church has been redeemed by. Even if you are convinced that Scripture places certain limitations on people according gender, let it not even cross your mind that those who disagree do so out of laziness, weakness, apathy, or any other reason. We are not compromisers, or cowards. We are not people who reject the authority of Scripture. We simply do not see a place in the Gospel and the family of God for this type of thinking. We read Scripture and see in it God redeeming mankind from sinful brokenness (which produces hierarchies, competition, and a desire to be above the other) to create a beautiful, flourishing koinonia (the Greek word which can mean community, fellowship, participation, and partnership). We are partners, called to chose out of love to become slaves to each other (Gal. 5:13-14), to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21), to lay aside the cultural constructs of patriarchy and chauvinism, so that there might truly be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female, but simply a body of men and women created in the image of God (Gal. 3:26-28), bringing uniqueness out of their male and female distinctiveness to Spirit given callings which are given to each person as Christ has apportioned them. This is not liberalism. This is not Christianity which has lost its nerve. It’s the bold declaration that Christ is all and is in all (Col. 3:11), and we all share and participate equally in the image of a God of beautiful and infinite complexity.



[1] Richard B. Hays. First Corinthians (Interpretation). (Louisville: WJK, 1997). 182-192.

[2] Klyne Snodgrass. Ephesians (NIVAC). (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996). 285-299. Walter Liefeld. Ephesians (IVPNTC). (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 1997). 140-150.

[3] Philip H. Towner. The Letters to Timothy and Titus (NICNT). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). p. 220-221. See also Philip B. Payne. Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009). Chapters 16-24 are all directed at these verses from 1 Timothy. And also Craig S. Keener. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992). p. 107-121 (esp. 115-120) is very helpful on 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

[4] Luke Timothy Johnson. The First and Second Letters to Timothy (Anchor Bible). (New Haven: Yale, 2001). p. 205-211. I don’t really agree with Johnson that Paul is making a strict patriarchal argument, but if he is, the criticism of Paul’s reading of Genesis would become entirely valid.

This entry was posted in Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, books, Complementarianism, egalitarianism, ethics, gender, hermeneutics, leadership, New Testament, Paul, practical theology, rants, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Recovering FROM Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Pt. 2: John Piper’s Vision

  1. Tim says:

    Excellent, Graham. Thanks for taking the time to go to Scripture where Piper does not, and leading us to a clearer understanding where Mr. Piper merely obfuscates. Well done.

  2. Rachel says:

    How refreshing. Thank you so much for this as a woman in the church I feel so crushed and oppressed by the legalistic burdens being placed on women and to a certain extent men by the rampant and egregious complementarianism. It really is a case of the Pharisees spying out our freedom in Christ and trying to put us in bondage again and we must stand firm against it. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’

  3. i find that comp/pat beliefs vary in scope and intensity from very patriarchal hard and fast rules as to what a christian woman is allowed to think, do wear, etc to those that allow more give and take in the relationship, even though the basic idea is ” Me Tarzan, You Jane,”

    Some pat/comp blogs say it is ok for a woman to work outside the home and then give a variety of reasons…. 1- if she is a widow or her husband has abandoned her 2- her husband directs her to a certain times in the marriage 3–she remains unmarried and works in a service area such as teacher, day care worker, nurse. (i like how they label some professions as feminine and ok for women to do. )

    I have questioned those writers of blogs such as “biblical gender roles” if it is a sin for a wife to work outside the home why is it ok in some instances such as stated above. Isn’t sin sin? But if a woman has a desire to work outside the home and get an education say a career as lawyer or head of her own company or science field, why is that a sin? the usual response is they are losing the blessing they would have had from god for being a devoted submissive wife and mother. then after a little more back and forth I am banned from their sites for disagreeing with what they say is God’s only will for woman which brings me to my next point.

    Mostly on sites that promote patriarchy if you disagree with them you are going against god. On egal sites, they present their side usually with lots of research into languages and cultural influences to back their stance. And i have yet to find any attempt to condemn anyone from disagreeing with them or banning their comments from their sites. .

  4. June says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful essay – I attended a Baptist church for about a year and left so many times in tears crushed to the core by what was being preached. I thank God that I have a personal relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit as my teacher. Never again will I go to church. I’ve had it. It is so wonderful to know Him and serve Him outside the so-called church. Jesus never makes me cry – except with His ecstatic love.

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