A Review of John Piper’s What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible

To start, I didn’t sympathize with Piper’s irrational emotional appeal for writing this book:

[T]here is another way to commend the vision. A person also wants to know, Is the vision beautiful and satisfying and fulfilling?… Commending Biblical truth involves more than saying, “Do it because the Bible says so.” That sort of commendation may result in a kind of obedience that is so begrudging and so empty of delight and hearty affirmation that the Lord is not pleased with it at all…. Not only must there be thorough exegesis, there must also be a portrayal of the vision that satisfies the heart as well as the head…. This little book is meant to fit mainly into the second category. (15-16, emphasis his)

Believers keep God’s laws precisely because “the Bible says so.” Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:21). Period. Not because we find them “satisfying”: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Romans 3:31). “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). A true believer desires to obey, and grows in obedience to, his heavenly Father out of gratitude, because he’s been forgiven by Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. The Law of God is only burdensome and “empty of delight and hearty affirmation” to unregenerate sinners because it condemns them and because they hate God. We don’t need to somehow be emotionally convinced in addition to “thorough exegesis.” The Bible simply says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

The Bible also contrasts the mouth (what one professes) and the heart (which really means the whole person—the true, inner self—not just emotions) rather than the “head” and the “heart.” That’s why Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me'” (Mark 7:6). The psychological distinction between head (“intellect”) and heart (“emotions”) is unbiblical, which leads Piper to overemphasize emotions and create a false dichotomy between obedience and desire. Unfortunately, this is arguably Piper’s most fundamental conviction that drives his entire ministry, from his preaching, to his teaching, to his writing. Much of what John Robbins said in his review of Colson’s Loving God applies to Piper’s book as well:

…In your [Colson’s] book and tapes you attack creeds and philosophies and emphasize the Person and cross of Christ. You contrast a “magnificent philosophy” with a “living truth,” and “academic theory” with a “living Person.” But the Bible makes no such contrast. Indeed, it teaches the opposite: As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. Christ said, “My words are spirit and they are life.” The words are the Spirit. The Gospel, the truth, the words are powerful. There is no contrast in the Bible between words or teaching or doctrine or philosophy and Christ. There is a contrast between profession of belief and actual belief, but not between Christ and his words. The contrast is a figment of modern psychology. We know Christ only insofar as we know about him. One cannot know Christ, or any other person, except by knowing propositions about him. Knowledge is always knowledge of a proposition. Saving faith is always assent to one or more Biblical propositions. Therefore, please do not disparage knowledge or teaching or doctrine, for by doing so, you are disparaging Christ. As Calvin put it, we owe to Scripture the same reverence that we owe to God. (See http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=187)

Piper also confused me when he, apparently referring to liberal theologians Emil Brunner and Paul Jewett, states that “our best Christian thinkers claim not to know what masculinity and femininity are” (20). Those men are a far cry from being “our best Christian thinkers,” especially if they can’t define something as basic and fundamental as manhood and womanhood. Anyone who studies the Bible can know exactly what true masculinity and femininity are.

Moreover, the book’s subtitle, “Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” is misleading. Piper defines manhood and womanhood as the following:

At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.

At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships. (22)

These definitions are “an attempt to get at the heart, or at least an indispensable aspect, of manhood and womanhood” (21). But a more appropriate subtitle would be, “Manhood and Womanhood defined in relation to each other.” Although Piper is a complementarian (20-21), his definitions of manhood and womanhood tend to overlook the fundamentals: God’s order and creation roles. And why does a woman, according to Piper’s definition, seem to have more than one head? 1 Corinthians 11:3-13 reads:

I [Paul] want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God…. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

Piper doesn’t mention that man was made for God and woman for man. And although spiritually “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), Christ explains why there is a prescribed natural order:

The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. (Luke 20:34-36)

So in this life, God institutes an order for us to follow until the resurrection comes because we are still in the flesh and marry and have kids…and die. Women should “have a symbol of authority on their heads because of the angels,” that is, a woman’s “hair is given to her for a covering” (Ephesians 5:16), and the man also covers her because even though women are spiritually equal to men and to the angels in heaven, they are still in the flesh, so they must “submit to [their] own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22ff.). This order won’t be necessary for believers after the resurrection because they will no longer marry and die, and because there will only be one marriage in heaven: Christ (the Husband) and the church (the bride, Revelation 19:7-9). This also shows why God has historically destroyed societies that embrace homosexuality: it violates God’s natural order and unravels the moral fabric of society; the most fundamental institution of society is the one that God Himself established first and foremost—marriage.

Piper also argues that “It is not primarily the responsibility of women to build procedural and relational guidelines to protect themselves from the advances of ill-behaved men. Primarily it is the responsibility of mature manhood to establish a pattern of behaviors and attitudes” (45, emphasis his). Nonsense. It is primarily the responsibility of both! Not just the man’s. A woman’s head is her husband or her father, or God if neither are available; she does not need to rely or depend on any other man to “establish” boundaries. Women must protect themselves and establish biblical boundaries with other men, especially if she’s alone. Piper later claims that “the natural expression of…womanhood will be hindered by the immaturity of the man in her presence” (55). This is also absurd, for true womanhood is affirmed by God and her husband or father, and is only hindered by other immature men if the woman is insecure. But even a mature married woman, according to Piper, “will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men” (59). This too is false and even dangerous, for the only men a woman needs to “affirm and receive and nurture” is her father and husband! Not every “worthy” man she comes across!

The book had some helpful points, but overall it confuses rather than clarifies biblical manhood and womanhood. For better material see Gary Smalley’s If Only He Knew, Pastor Tom Nelson’s teachings on marriage and the Song of Solomon (http://dbcmedia.org/), and Pastor G. Craige Lewis’ teachings on creation roles (http://www.exministries.com/sermons/atcp-archive/) instead.

1 Comment
  1. ToniB 1 month ago

    This is an excellent review. I am increasingly troubled by the influence Piper has in reformed circles. Thank you and please keep warning God’s people.

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