The Negative Doctrine of Biblical Manhood

Getting doctrine right is important. Reading the Bible – knowing what it says and what it means when it says it – is a blessing given by God. Which means that when you see the Bible say something you should strive to understand it.

It’s important too not to create doctrines based on things the Bible doesn’t say. This is a trap which a prominent ministry recently fell into.

Creating doctrine out of negative space

A student at the University of California at Santa Barbara visited the Grand Canyon years ago. An art major, she chose to represent her impression by sculpting the Grand Canyon. Rather than display the deep emptiness of the canyon with the walls rising high around it, she sculpted the emptiness as a solid mass by making the canyon’s actual shape into a mold, pouring plaster into the emptiness, and then removing it to show the shape of that emptiness as a free standing body.

Grand Canyon – National Park Foundation

It was a clever way to get people to think about the Grand Canyon, but nobody was fooled into thinking they were seeing the gorge created by the flow of the Colorado River flowing along the base of the canyon. The solidity of the negative space was a representation of an aspect of the canyon, yet it was not what anyone would call the reality of the canyon itself. The solid plaster represented what had been taken out of the canyon in its formation, not the canyon as it truly exists.

John Piper’s recent article at Desiring God, Do Men Owe Women a Special Kind of Care?, is likewise created from negative space. He uses the absence of information in a few passages to create an entire doctrine on how men and women are to relate to one another.

The article starts by decrying what Mr. Piper sees as an inability of some people to understand that men as a sex are spiritually – not just anatomically – different from women as a sex. He believes there are some things the Bible requires of men toward women that it does not require of women toward men. He calls this requirement “peculiar”: men, he insists, have a responsibility that women do not and cannot have if they are each to live out their spiritually sexual natures.

He starts by acknowledging that women and men are to care for each other generally.

While affirming the importance of mutual love, respect, honor, and encouragement between men and women, there is in our day a resistance against the biblical summons for men to show a peculiar care for women that’s different than they would for men — and a strong disincentive to women to feel glad about this.

He then cites a few passages where husbands are told to care for their wives.

But in Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul told husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” That is not the same as saying, “Neither of you should be harsh.” We can tell from Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 that this admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough — even cruel — and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.

Contrary to Mr. Piper’s assertion, the passages from Ephesians 5 (which he failed to start with verse 21’s call for mutual submission) and 1 Peter do not reveal an inherently male temptation to be cruel and an inherently female gladness to be honored with protection. Yet he insists that these passage reveal:

God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women. As a complementarian, I do not say that this calling is to the exclusion of women protecting and caring for men in their own way. I am saying that men bear a peculiar burden of responsibility that is laid on them in a way that is not laid on women. (Emphasis in original.)

Those concepts, in fact, are entirely absent from the Bible passages Mr. Piper cites. He looks at this emptiness and tries to make it stand as a solid body (much as the art student created a solid mass from what is missing) and sees a doctrine in what is not there.

That might work as an art student’s project but it doesn’t work as doctrine.

Learning from what is actually there

The passages Mr. Piper cites actually do lead to a discernible doctrine, but it is one found by looking at things that do exist, not matters that are absent. Look at them together:

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:19.)

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:28.)

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Peter 3:7.)

While Mr. Piper’s doctrine posits these passages somehow reveal that men have a responsibility to women that women do not have toward men, a more reasonable reading is that these passages teach that people in positions of authority and power (for example, husbands in ancient households) should not use their position to harm those in weaker positions (like wives in those same households).

Take 1 Peter 3:7, for example. As Margaret Mowczko explains in A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7):

Peter calls wives “weaker vessels” because he wants husbands, not necessarily to pity them, but to be more understanding with their wives who were, with few exceptions, disadvantaged economically, legally, and politically in the first century.

Cultural context – something that exists for all writings, including the Bible – helps inform the reader’s understanding of the writer’s meaning in a passage. The place of women in Peter’s day shows them to be disadvantaged compared to men.

The verses from Colossians and Ephesians likewise show a relationship where the husband is told not to use the superior position given by the world, but to love his wife with the same love Jesus has for all his people. These passages recognize the cultural context (something that actually exists) and tell people in power not to abuse that power.

This is a doctrine that applies to men and women alike.

  • If you have power, never use it to harm those who are weaker than you.
  • If you have authority, never use it to harm those who are subordinate to you.
  • If you have a position of responsibility, never use it to harm those who are under that responsibility.

Instead, use the power and authority and responsibility God has given you to love everyone he has put in your life, whether a family member, a co-worker, a classmate, or a stranger on the street.

This is the doctrine you can glean from those passages, and there is nothing negative about it.


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39 Responses to The Negative Doctrine of Biblical Manhood

  1. uplandweb says:

    Isn’t there a possibility that Peter in writing “weaker vessels” was revealing that he was a man of his culture?

  2. Angie says:

    “He uses the absence of information in a few passages to create an entire doctrine on how men and women are to relate to one another.” Exactly. Also, how strange that he extrapolates his interpretation from negative space to the nature of all men and the nature of all women when the instructions are to first century husbands and wives, specifically.

  3. Kevin Mason says:

    I believe John Piper would agree with everything you said. One article that address one small aspect of a teaching does not mean the other aspects (like those you mentioned) are excluded. John Piper co-authored a book that spent more than 500 pages on the subject. You may want to consider reading the entire book to see if it addresses that areas not found in his article.

    • Kevin Mason says:

      … a typo. It should read “…if it address the areas not found in his article”

    • Tim says:

      My issue is with his insistence that passages say things they don’t say at all.

    • Lynne says:

      Do you not find it odd that he was able write 500 plus pages about this subject which is specifically addressed in perhaps 5 or 6 short Scripture passages?
      Isn’t that alone indication that Piper might be reading more into the text than is actually there and/or constructing a large and flimsy complimentarian doctrinal structure on a very narrow foundation?

  4. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    The Bible is being adjusted to fit into his complementarian box. That’s how it appears, anyway.

    • Tim says:

      He’s finding things that aren’t there and using them to promote the same doctrine he’s been teaching for years. Maybe he can’t read the words as they are any more.

  5. Donna Gonzalez says:

    These two words always come to my mind after reading anything by John Piper…

  6. Ruth says:

    What an apt post.😔 Our church has just had a members meeting and vote on changing our constitution to allow female pastors and elders, sadly the yes vote side didn’t make two thirds of the vote. To be fair, we have had submissions of opinions put on a private web-site, a forum with an independent convener, group discussions and a presentation of a yes and no side, using scripture to make points.
    In our forum, partners, home group members and leaders were not to be in the same group, which I thought was fair, and allowed free discussion.
    Women in our church are deacons, run the church office, are on Pastrol Care with the minister and several men, we have just had a publicised meeting with members of the community, local police, and Safe House coordinators who explained how to safely help anyone in need.
    Our pastors gave very strong sermons on domestic violence, in any form, and encouraged us all to be aware and that it was NEVER ok to do anything negative to another individual.
    We are strongly encouraged to look out for anything like this.
    Last week, we had a man pull his wife out of the service. Swearing and verbally abusing her. They were know only to a few, but our PC group, of which I am a member, is following up on the situation. There are not enough male deacons, and women willing to step up, but, some very conservative people in our church along with very out there men and women.
    “How does this compute, Will Robinson?” It doesn’t, but we have a strong voice, and change will come. Long, rambling post. But, well, I am still feeling a bit sick at the vote, and slighted as a woman somehow.
    If you ever watched Lost in Space, that question above will make some sense!

  7. Ruth says:

    I should have proof- read the above comment! Too full of a jumble of feelings to do that, I just typed and posted. It does feel a less of a burden now, being able to share here.

  8. JYJames says:

    Koffi Olomide, Congolese singer once said, “Lies take the elevator. The truth takes the stairs but gets there eventually.”

    Thanks for the stairs, Tim Fall, to get us past this elevator of nonsense (that goes nowhere fast).

  9. Pingback: The Negative Doctrine of Biblical Manhood — Tim’s Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another – Suman Freelancer

  10. Pastor Bob says:

    I cannot help but think that what we understand as western styled courtesy, loosely based on biblical principles has been over expounded and interpolated back into the Bible.

    Courtesy is more than displays and actions, it is a heart attitude.
    There is no law for that.

  11. FW Rez says:

    I am currently reading a commentary on Luke by Darrell Bock I like his guideline on interpretation: “the rule of exposition should be the less speculation, the better.” Piper, however, exceeds even the boundaries of speculation. I wonder if this is because he has an agenda.

    • Tim says:

      Bock has some wisdom there. Plus, if you do delve into speculation make sure it’s for a good reason, and notify the reader what you’re doing and the reason for it.

  12. Pingback: Peculiar Biblical Manhood? | See, there's this thing called biology...

  13. Vashra Araeshkigal says:

    I hear many men say they must die for their wives if necessary…but thatcwives have no duch obligation to their husbands. This “on call to die if the … hits the fan” status apparently justifies the superiority men are granted…as a reward(?) for being called to such potential sacrifice.

    What say you?

    • Tim says:

      It sounds like manipulative misogyny to me.

      • Valerie says:

        I’m going to present a less academic perspective here. So on the subject of “a man having to die for his wife”, practically speaking then, a man’s love for his wife can only be fully exemplified if he dies for her. I notice churches are still filled with a lot of very alive husbands. The next time I hear a married man repeat to me that line (which I have heard several times) I think I’ll ask “well why on earth are you still here?”
        As I said, it’s a less academic perspective.

  14. Jacob says:

    I don’t think you made your argument very well and you haven’t convinced me to become an egalitarian. Piper’s argument is structured like “this passage says this, which implies that.” And your counterargument seems to be “no it doesn’t.”

    Take just the example of “We can tell from Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 that this admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough…” Okay, that *is* a reasonable thing to imply about that verse. When a verse says to men “don’t be harsh to women” but no matching command to women about men, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that this admonition was chosen for a reason. Men *are* generally harsher than women. We commit assault more, we murder more, we commit suicide more, we get in fights more, we hit spouses more, we are more likely to go to prison, etc.

    Then to continue the quotation: “…and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.” One could argue that this is a bigger leap to make than the last part, when argued solely from these verses, but I don’t think that’s what Piper is doing. Women *are* more vulnerable to violence from men. I see far more women than men carrying pepper spray, or walking with dogs at night for protection. If you work in an ER you’ll see far more battered wives and girlfriends than husbands or boyfriends. I think Piper is making perfectly reasonable inferences from these verses and from life. Are they ironclad? No, but they are reasonable inferences to make. Same goes for other passages he cites.

    Your approach on the other hand, is much less convincing. You are taking the approach that these verses don’t really mean what they seem to say on the face. Now this is sometimes the case with reading the Bible, that some verses simply don’t make sense unless taken in a figurative or qualified way, but you need a compelling reason for it beyond that it fits into your viewpoint, such as arguing from other parts of the text. Throughout the verses cited the comparison of a husband to Jesus and a wife to the church is invoked repeatedly. These are not just generalized verses about people in a position of power over another, whether that hierarchy is purely worldly or Godly, as you say. If that was how it was meant to be interpreted then there would be no need for companion verses such as 1 Peter 2:13-20.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the perspective, Jacob.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Jacob,

      I agree with Tim’s take on the pertinent verses, that they are not so much about sex but about power: “. . . these passages teach that people in positions of authority and power (for example, husbands in ancient households) should not use their position to harm those in weaker positions (like wives in those same households).”

      In the same vein, Paul tells fathers not to provoke their (male or female) children (Eph. 6:4: Col. 3:21). Yet, both male and female children, including adult children, are told they should honour and obey both parents, not just the father. There is no gender hierarchy between parents despite the fact that fathers are given an extra instruction(s).

      Greco-Roman society within and outside of the household was highly stratified and the senior male usually did have more power than others in his own household, including that of other other adult males. But some women could also be in positions of power within their households. These women are included in NT instructions that are designed to curb the misuse of their power in the household, including their power over men.

      In the community of God’s people and in Christian marriage, hierarchies and social stratification are the antitheses of what Jesus wants for his people. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we are all to look out for, care and protect each other according to the situation and according to our ability.

  15. Neil Short says:

    Could the application of admonishing people in positions of power also be an argument from silence?

  16. Annabelle says:

    All Piper has to say is, “there is in our day a resistance against the biblical [whatever he’s going on about]…” and people will fall in line. Nobody wants to be accused of preferring culture over the Bible, after all. Unfortunately, this has led to Christians making assumptions (e.g. that Piper always knows what he is talking about) instead of looking at the text itself, and the context in which it was written.
    God always instructs us to care for the weak, the dispossessed, the alien, and the alienated. This is the context in which “don’t be harsh with your wives” is written – women who had little social, economic, legal standing.

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