In case you missed it, there was a minor ripple through the evangelical portion of the web recently. John Piper was reported to have declared that Christianity has a masculine feel in a talk he gave on J.C. Ryle’s ministry to a men’s conference on ministry. Blogs and Facebook lit up as Christians reacted—and as is usual with the social media, with those unhappy with the statement responding first, and then others reacting to the first group’s stated disagreement with Piper.
In many ways the reactions were predictable—egalitarians expressed their shock and horror, and some complementarians fisked the egalitarian responses in their trademark irenic fashion. But there was an interesting wrinkle within the responses to Piper’s sentence. Many negative reactions came from people who were concerned to identify themselves as complementarians. That is, it wasn’t simply people who reject the idea that gender is an issue in the structure of family and church who didn’t like what Piper said, there were also people who strongly disagreed with his statement yet who identified themselves as complementarians. Egalitarians were unanimous in their opposition (as you’d expect) but complementarians were divided.
I think it was a significant moment in the debate over women’s roles in public ministry, and the basic structure of marriage, because it highlighted a bunch of dynamics going on in and around the discussion. Over these five posts I’m going to mull over five things that struck me from the way this sentence was received among complementarians, things that it seems to reveal about where the debate is up to on the complementarian side and what it means about how we complementarians should act going into the future. It is, in a sense, a sequel series to the previous one a year or more back—this time focusing on the dynamics for complementarianism whereas we previously focused on egalitarianism. It’s not the series that was to come that I flagged back in 2010—that’s still in the future—this is something limited arising from reflections on this reaction to Piper.
The first observation is that there is clearly a strong instinctive push to ensure that people have to say things on this matter in ways that cannot be misunderstood. One of the criticisms I witnessed was that, even if the ideas behind Piper’s statement were okay (and not all complementarians agreed with that), he was wrong to have such a provocative sentence as his thematic sentence. People too easily reacted badly to it, and so Piper was guilty of misrepresenting himself.
My basic response to that is the same as Tony Payne indicated a while back. To the degree that the reaction is over how Piper said things and not over the substance of his actual talk from which the sentence came, then I think people need to basically take their criticisms elsewhere. We need as much freedom as we can have in the area of how we say things. “High risk” strategies (hyperbole, one-sided statements, black-and-white statements, sustained irony etc)—ones that have a greater room for misunderstanding—are a good part of speech. Without things like this we might have more clarity and less room for misunderstanding, but it would all be very boring, and our proclamations would be much less effective in their ability to move people and not just inform them. That goes double for us Aussies, many of whom are the beneficiaries of D.B. Knox’s and Phillip Jensen’s ministries either directly or indirectly—both of which are characterized by extensive use of ‘high risk’ strategies of communication. Yes, high risk strategies are, by definition, more prone to causing misunderstandings. But they are better able to do things than other approaches that focus on clarity and removing the possibility of misunderstanding. We need to use all the resources that language offers us—not individually (some of us shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a hyperbole)—but as a group.
However, the extent of this reaction to how Piper said things suggests (again) that almost everyone’s emotions are well and truly engaged on this issue and the slightest pressure can cause people’s nerves to react painfully. And that’s worth being aware of as well—this is one area where we need to be prepared for a possible firestorm even if we aim for our comments to be relatively innocuous. I am constantly surprised, when I write in this area, as to which things I say cause a strong reaction and which things don’t. Far more than other topics, people see in one’s words things one never even imagined. There’s no point getting upset about that—it’s so widespread that it is a signpost that emotions are often getting in the way of listening and understanding. So when and if we do use a ‘high risk’ approach, then we shouldn’t complain if people misunderstand us. This is an area where any speech is ‘high risk’ and ‘high risk’ strategies become ‘even higher risk’ ones. We need to weigh that cost/benefit up before we open our mouth/hit “publish” on the keyboard on “the gender debate”. That’s not an invitation to be silent—I think we need to be talking about this issue—but it is to say that we need to think about our words carefully and be prepared for possible unexpected strong reactions.