Jesus had twelve “bros” – so what?

There seems to be a lot of this “Man’s Church (grrrrrr)” going around at the moment – posturing and faux-butchness, saying Christianity has become weedy and feminised, that it needs a good manly rescue in the guise of complementarians. I don’t buy it.

This time it’s John Piper – I read some edited ‘highlights’ of his address at the Pastors Conference his ministry runs with disappointment and a little bit of shame that there still so many high profile Christians who have views that seem to marginalise women at every turn.

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother,” Piper said at this year’s annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry. “Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male.”

He continued, “God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.”

“Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And being God, a God of love, He has done that for our maximum flourishing both male and female.”

When a biblical literalist like Piper needs to infer from a short and very selective, biased list of data, something’s not right. Now I can’t claim to have the years of grounding in study, scripture, pastoral leadership and teaching that Piper has, but it seems that argument from inference here is the weakest of all possible reasons to say that male dominance is not only OK but the right thing for the church, that it is God-ordained for the benefit of both men and women.

There are plenty of good posts being written that that show there’s more balance to the both the Old Testament and the New Testament than is being granted by Piper (see Frank Viola on God’s view of a woman, Daniel Kirk on Imaging the Biblical God and Brian LePort on Christianity began in a patrilineal society for example, or look at the comments on Rachel Held Evans’ post John Piper wants a “masculine Christianity.” What do you think?)

LePort makes a very important point about the culture of the Ancient Near East – it was ‘patrilineal’, patriarchal, father-son oriented. Property, titles, businesses, skills, names and family identity: all passed down from father to son. Look at the genealogies in Genesis: Father begat Son, rinse, repeat. If we read the Bible as a document that was actually written in a place, at a certain time, by human people with human lives and influenced by the humans around them (not discounting the inspiration of God, but saying that people had more influence on the final text than just taking down a dictation from above) then we must expect the patriarchal system to have influenced them.

When Israel imagined God, they looked for a strong God, a mighty warrior ‘Lord of Hosts’ who would rescue them when their enemies oppressed them. They used the metaphors of power and influence that were available to them – and in a male dominated society, no wonder that so many of them were masculine.

Going further, there seem to have been two major gods of Canaan that they particularly struggled to stop the worship of: Baal the weather god, (he controlled thunder and rain, among other things) and Ashera, the (female) fertility god. As those who said that Israel should worship YHWH alone pushed back against these idols, their attributes were either shown to be in the control of YHWH (e.g. the drought and then deluge in the time of Elijah when they had the contest to see which god was real) or largely sidelined as not really divine.

So we’d expect women and female attributes to play a vanishingly small role in the Bible – it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t. Yet time and time again, women play key roles in leading Israel and in their important origin stories. Here are two.

The narrative of the Exodus is the key story that Israel used to explain who they were as a people – and Jews today still do, the people who God rescued from Egypt. Yet reading through the book recently, I was struck by how as they are delivered from Pharaoh and the Red Sea, it is Miriam and the women seem to have a key role in worshiping God – and this after her role in saving Moses, the ‘saviour’ of Israel. Then, as they come to build the tabernacle where God would live among his people, it is the jewelry of both women and men that provides the gold for the lavish structure.

A second ‘origin story’ of the people of Israel is that of Samuel and his establishing of the Kingdom of Israel in the first kings, Saul and David. The narrative would seemingly lose nothing if we were told nothing of Samuel’s background, yet the first chapters fo into detail about his godly mother and her prayer and commitment of her son to God. David is pictured as the ultimate king, anointed by the great prophet Samuel, who is able to do these things because of a holy woman who was not afraid to talk to God, make a bargain with Him, make a decision that her husband had to go along with.

Or take the ‘origin story’ of Jesus – the long genealogy in Matthew 1 which famously includes five women, each with a ‘complicated’ story. The “father of… father of…” repetition of patriarchy is interrupted by women whose stories can’t be ignored – and that’s the pattern of the whole bible: despite the male dominated background, women whose stories can’t be ignored.

Women who are leaders, prophets, business owners, teachers, apostles. Women who seem to sow the seeds of greatness in their sons. Women who overcome every obstacle thrown their way to make sure they are treated fairly by God. And God who listens when they say that it’s not fair, they need more, God who makes things fairer.

So Jesus had twelve “bros” – does that mean it’s only bros are important to him? Of course not! The twelve bros mirror the twelve actual brothers who became the twelve tribes. Sisters didn’t count when it came to founding tribes, so Jesus couldn’t have picked six men and six women while still making the picture of a new Israel work.

It’s also not like the only people with Jesus are the bros, either – and the women around him are not just in supporting roles. They travel with him, learn from him. They are the ones who stick by his side during his torturous death when all the “bros” ran away in terror. It’s women who hear of his resurrection first, a woman who sees him alive again first, despite having no legal standing as witnesses. Women are there in the upper room when the Spirit falls, telling people about the good news in different languages.

I think that if we are to make an inference, it’s that the exceptions show what God really thinks of the ‘rule’: God values women, no matter what culture or tradition says.

Ben Gosden says

 I want to thank, Rachel Held Evans… for issuing the challenge to men to respond to John Piper’s remarks. Too often we men who agree with wonderful voices like Rachel sit back and depend on her and others like her to raise these issues so that we can rubberstamp them with our quiet, “Amen”

Worse yet, we see the (appropriate and justified) responses from gifted female leaders like Rachel Held Evans and keep the ‘quiet “Amen”‘ inaudible, not even spilling pixels of approvement in comments or tweets. That won’t do: we need men and women to stand together on this issue and show that there is a different way of imagining the church.

I am not so naive as to think that my little voice will change the mind of a titan like Piper, or even that I could argue the least of his followers into submission, for arguments very rarely change minds. Rather, I hope that by putting myself on what I see as the right side of this conversation, I might show to some other young woman or man that there is more to be imagined than the 1950’s style roles that are prescribed in some churches.


  • Thanks for your thoughtful reflections, Jon.I don’t want to steal any thunder from you (or others) but, to a certain extent, what goes around comes around. I recall rehearsing almost identical points & arguments 10-15 years ago with (a) friends in ministry in the UK, and (b) US colleagues in our mission organisation in Africa. At that point both Dick France & Gordon Fee were ‘on hand’ to give some useful exegetical weight to arguments.The ground of the debate has moved on (and Mark Driscoll rushes in wjere even John Piper fears to tread!), but the substantive arguments haven’t changed.I have always thought that the biblical narative cheerfully and frequently turned itself on its head by the inclusion of counter-examples, exceptions and plain story. It is almost as if God is saying, “Guys, you cannot be so foolish as to think that I’m simply maintaining the staus quo, can you?” This happens from the very start where the creation account(s) undermine the received ANE narratives of Enuma Elish & En-Lil, all the way up to the end of Revelation where there are some significant disavowals of “traditional” Jewish apocalyptic.In a word God both undermines & trumps culture.

  • Alan Cartwright

    I don’t like Piper’s comment that Christianity has a masculine feel, but I’m not sure there’s anything else he says there that’s wrong. He points out the prominence of men in God’s plan, which is true. He didn’t deny that God frequently used women just as prominently either, that’s not so much the issue is it?

    To my mind the root of the problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between equal importance and identical roles. God gives equal importance; God assigns different roles.One side is shouting that God isn’t treating all equally; the other is either insisting that He is, or that they shouldn’t be.

    If it’s worth anything I agree that the elders of a church should be men, but the deacons can be women and men. I also agree that the man should be the head of the family. But the most important detail is how Christianity defines leadership – it is service. The elders are to serve the church; the husband is to serve the wife. And the example is Jesus’ service in John 13, in His life, and on the cross.

  • Anonymous

    Piper points our the importance of men in the Bible but misses out entirely the how important women are – that’s the definition of an unbalanced argument. He then goes on to make the mistake of thinking that because it’s so in the Bible that it should be so in all Christianity, missing the direction of the Biblical narrative. Think about it, the early church was made up mainly Jews and included many slaves, but that’s not how it _has_ to be for all of history. 

    I’m not sure to what extent God gives different roles to genders any more than society does. God gives roles to individuals, each to use the gifts they have in the context of community. 

    I’m not sure how exactly you understand the roles of elder and deacon – there are lots of ways of understanding them. What I do gather is that you believe there are some roles that, to put it crudely, your genitalia may exclude you from. I don’t think that the y-chromosome encodes a gene for spiritual leadership – it’s a spiritual gift that is given by God, not selectively by gender.

    The passage you allude to in Ephesians 5 is a whole different game, deserving of much more than a comment after a blog post. What if you read ‘head of’ not as ‘has authority over’ but ‘is the origin of’ (think ‘headwaters’ rather than ‘head of the school’). It all looks a bit more enculturated now.

  • Shuvyah

    Please read this thoughtful response to Frank Viola’s “God’s View of a Woman,” written by a Jewish friend:

    Here is an excerpt:

    “After God had founded the earth, the unfathomable depths of the sea, the gigantic burning stars, sunsets, gentle breezes, puppies, tigers, trees and their fruits, man with his creative faculty, wonder, yearning, capacity to care and feel, and every other good thing in the physical world and said it was very good, then God created as his finale: Woman. In the Israelite mind, she is the crowning achievement of all of God’s creative work in the first six days.”