John Piper, Women in Combat, and How Gender Roles Fall Short of the Glory of Humankind

Women In Combat
Co-Ed Combat and Cultural Cowardice, an article written by John Piper in 2007, has resurfaced in light of the U.S. military’s decision to let women serve in combat. I’m posting part of it here not because I want to pick a fight with Piper, or discuss women in combat (I don’t love the idea of anyone in combat), but because it gives an excellent overview of one of the primary differences between egalitarian and complementarian thought: should we function according to our giftings, or gender role? Even more interestingly, it hints at the reasoning underlying the complementarian paradigm. I think discussing this could be helpful.

Piper writes “Back in the seventies, when I taught in college, feminism was new and cool. So my ideas on manhood were viewed as the social construct of a dying chauvinistic era. I had not yet been enlightened that competencies, not divine wiring, governed the roles we assume. Unfazed, I said no.

“Suppose, I said, a couple of you students, Jason and Sarah, were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened you. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.”

Before we go any further, I need to address the idea that men are “hardwired” to protect women. While Western culture has developed a beautiful code of chivalry regarding the protection of women and children (at least in theory), I am not sure that history, sociology, or even the Bible bears Piper’s generalization out. In many parts of the world, women are considered less valuable than their male counterparts, and are treated accordingly. Look at gendercide, at the estimated 100 million females missing from world population. Look at rape and other forms of violence against women, almost always perpetrated by men. The fairy tales and cultural myths we grew up with are filled with stories of noble knights rescuing damsels in distress, but the Bible stories aren’t so warm and fuzzy; the wives, daughters, and concubines of “godly” biblical men were often treated like camel dung, more likely to be used as a human shield than vice-versa (with a few shining exceptions). Culturally, women were pawns, to be used in whatever manner most benefitted the patriarch. The Apostle Paul’s instruction that a man should lay down his life for his wife was radical, and it’s doubtful that a stated willingness to die in combat was the type of sacrifice Paul had in mind.

Related: Driscoll, Piper, Calvin and God’s Gift of…Racism? by Christian Piatt

This is not to diminish the fact that many men would willingly die to protect their wife, or any woman in the vicinity. But is this because he is a man, because sacrifice and protection is what manhood does? Or is it because he has a godly impulse to defend those he perceives as vulnerable, because he was taught that it is the honorable thing to do? And don’t godly women have that same impulse? Is a man more likely to sacrifice himself for a woman than, say, a woman is to sacrifice herself for a child? (Anyone who can convince themselves of that has clearly never been a mother at a crowded playground.)

I would suggest that society has assigned men the role of protector not because of “divine wiring,” not because God designed men to be more protective and sacrificial (and dare I say “heroic”) than women, but precisely because of those competencies that Piper pish-poshed. Men are, on the whole, bigger, stronger, and sturdier than women. They have more testosterone pumping through their veins. It just makes sense for them to be the protectors, until it doesn’t–until the boogeyman jumps out at Black Belt Sarah, and her scrawny date insists on proving his manhood by leaping in front of her, effectively hindering Sarah and putting everyone at greater risk.

That’s not manhood. That’s prideful and stupid, even if it is sacrificial. And it’s almost certainly going to do more harm than good.

Why not work together to disarm the bad guy, leveraging both parties’ unique strengths and competencies to achieve the best possible outcome? (This sentence has been brought to you by the letter P, the number 7, and the word “cooperation.”) That seems a much better approach not only to knife-fights in dark alleys en route to Micky D’s, but to life in general.

But I digress.

The really interesting thing here is that while Piper acknowledges that gender stereotypes do not always line up with reality, and that clinging to traditional gender roles is not always the most efficient, effective way of getting things done, he insists that it is right to cling to them anyway, even at the cost of life, limb, and a competent woman’s conscience. It seems to me that this is because he views masculinity, femininity, and the relationship between men and women as symbolic, almost a Christianized version of Plato’s Theory of Forms. In this paradigm, the individual is subsumed by the ideal, the here-and-now human relationship by the eschatological one it points toward. It doesn’t matter if Sarah has a black belt, and Jason is physically handicapped in some way–the important thing is that they live up to some cosmic ideal of manhood and womanhood, as a way of representing God and humanity’s relationship with Him.

This is, to my mind, completely backwards.

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Certainly, the masculine and feminine aspects of humanity reveal something beautiful and important about God’s character, and marriage is often used as an analogy of our relationship with God. When masculinity, femininity, or marriage is in some way diminished, our understanding of God is, as well.

Also by Jenny: 50 Shades of Broken — Why Do Women Fantasize About Abuse?

The human tendency, however, is to take this too far; to sort and systematize and simplify gender until all we’re left with is a dry list of desirable characteristics and behaviors assigned to each gender. It’s like the stick-figure men and women used to mark public bathrooms; while we can easily identify which gender they are supposed to represent by the characteristics they portray, they fall impossibly short of the breathtaking beauty and complexity of real human beings. While gender stereotypes do serve an important cultural purpose, we should be wary of turning functional caricatures into cosmic ideals.

When we force people into gender-based boxes, insist that individuals conform to our concept of what men and women are supposed to be, we lose the wonder, the mystery, and the full-orbed expression of God’s image uniquely revealed in each human being. God created us male and female, yes, but He didn’t just create us male and female; he created us Jenny and Aaron, and Jason and Sarah, and John and Noel. All of us reflect God’s image in different ways. And it is very good.

Here’s what it comes down to for me. My gender is not something I perform; it is something I am. Womanhood is not something I do; it is something I live. Femininity does not define me; as a woman created in the image of God, I define it, in community with my sisters. When we reduce manhood and womanhood to a list of characteristics, behaviors, and roles assigned to each gender, we are not defending masculinity and femininity; instead, we are diminishing and impoverishing them.

Symbolism is all fine and good. We could do with a lot more of it. But when it comes to being the person God created you to be, to living the life God gave you to live, and stewarding the gifts and relationships God has blessed you with, chose the real over the hypothetical, the truth of who you are over traditions regarding gender roles. You, with all your unique strengths, quirks, and idiosyncrasies, are a symbol, made in God’s image to reflect Him as part of Christ’s diverse body here on earth. Don’t let anyone hide your light under their gender-shaped box. Burn bright, burn fierce, burn free, and do it for the glory of God. And when necessary, kick some a.

Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.


Jenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who blogs about faith, social justice, and women’s issues at http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com/. She is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women, in her rural community and around the world. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog and say hi, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo Credit: Reuters

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About the Author

Jenny Rae Armstrong

Jenny Rae ArmstrongJenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who blogs about faith, social justice, and women’s issues at http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com/. She is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women, in her rural community and around the world. Currently, Jenny is pursuing an MDiv. at North Park Theological Seminary. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog and say hi, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.View all posts by Jenny Rae Armstrong →

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