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Two Definitions of Femininity


I remember the first time I read John Piper’s definition of femininity in “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”. I was aghast. He defines femininity purely in terms of female responsiveness and submission to “worthy” men. (What constitutes “worthiness” is surely arbitrary.) And he defines masculinity purely in terms of leadership.

According to Piper’s view, leadership and submission are what distinguish masculinity from femininity, and men from women. This is nonsense. How can all of diverse humanity, from every continent and culture, and from every age, be squeezed into two tiny restrictive categories with no overlap? Piper’s definitions are ridiculously inadequate.

I like what Stephanie Phillips Wilkins has written about definitions of femininity in her article below. Stephanie blogs at A Profound Mystery.

Two Definitions of Femininity

I’ve recently come across two very distinct definitions of femininity. One comes from John Piper’s book, What’s the Difference? The other comes from Jonalyn Grace Fincher’s book, Ruby Slippers.

John Piper’s definition of femininity:

“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.”

According to John Piper, being a woman means affirming men’s leadership. That’s it. So, I’m not really a woman unless I’m affirming the leadership of men around me. All men. Do I even have a purpose on this earth if I don’t come in contact with men very often? Think about this definition…I mean really think about what he is saying here. My purpose, my life, as a woman is to affirm and receive the leadership of men. I don’t know where Piper got this idea, but I can’t find anything in the Bible to support it. (If anyone can find the Bible verse where it says that men should lead women or that husbands should lead their wives, let me know.)

Jonalyn Grace Fincher’s definition of femininity:

“…the unique, unfallen ways God shows himself on earth in women. . . . femininity is the way females are made in God’s image.”

Now, this is a definition I can understand. I am made in God’s image. I am a woman. It’s right there in Genesis: “He made them, male and female.” I don’t have any list of things to do to prove I’m a woman; I just am one.

Fincher’s definition may seem vague to some people. I think that’s because, as Christians, we crave rules. We want to be told what we can and cannot do. We want the law, in black and white. But it isn’t always going to be easy to know what to do. I believe God doesn’t tell us exactly what to do in many situations, because He wants us to seek Him, to pray, to cry out to Him for wisdom. There are restrictions on us as believers, but I’ve found that most things aren’t black and white. There are many gray areas where we have to seek, pray, and trust that God will show us the way.

Jesus didn’t come to give us more laws and rules, or to tell us to fill roles. He didn’t tell women to “get in their place”. He came to set us free from the Law. This doesn’t mean the Law has no value or that we can purposely sin and take advantage of God’s grace. But what it does mean is that we are free from prejudice, from meaningless restrictions on our personhood that are based on gender. Women and men should be free to pursue giftings and develop their talents and intellect in any area, regardless of their gender.

© 10th of May 2012; Stephanie Phillips Wilkins

Defining femininity and masculinity is difficult, especially as some (many?) gender differences vary from culture to culture, and from person to person. Even John Piper has admitted that men can display what society (or Piper) regards as feminine traits, and women can display what society (or Piper) regards as masculine traits. I can’t see that it is at all helpful to define femininity or masculinity, assuming it is even possible to do this, especially if these definitions include specific “gender” traits.  ~ Marg

Explore more

Gender Obsessions: Emphasizing our Differences or our Similarities?
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
A Gentle and Quiet Spirit is not just a Feminine Virtue
Made in the Image of God (Gen. 1:26-28) in a Nutshell
Is God Male or Masculine?
Gender Division Divides the Church
Complementarianism and Same-Sex Friendships

11 thoughts on “Two Definitions of Femininity

  1. ‘ I don’t have any list of things to do to prove I’m a woman; I just am one.’

    Love that. Thank you, Marg, for sharing this article by Stephanie. I clicked through to the article by Jonalyn Fincher and really liked what I read there, too, including the comments.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that it is more important to ‘be like Christ’ and love one another as He has loved us, so that others see Christ in us. Then, I think, we will each become the woman, or man, God created us to be.

  2. I love this post. Thinking about the implications of what Piper says. That one group of people is born to be led by another group of people. One permanent ruling class, one permanent servant class. That’s what he’s really talking about.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I’ve had a few computer problems so have been slow in replying.

    Estelle, Jonalyn’s quote really resonated with me too. I just am a woman. I just am feminine. For some reason this makes more sense to me than clunky (and ridiculous) attempts to define femininity. Femininity and masculinity really are difficult to define.

    I agree that the more we become like Jesus Christ the more we will become the men and women God wants us to be. So true! D

    Kristen, I really don’t understand why godly men and women cannot see the implications of what is being taught by Piper et al. 🙁

    I just don’t get the logic of it either. Blind Freddy can see that some men do not have leadership abilities and some women make great leaders. Deborah anyone?

    Hierarchical complementarians are denying and hindering the use of the talents and gifts of Christian men and women who do not fit their narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity. Individuals, the Church and the world are the poorer for this.

  4. Several people have noted that Piper’s notion of femininity and female submission is more akin to Aristotle’s teaching on gender than what the Bible, as a whole, teaches.

    “. . . between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject. And the same must also necessarily apply in the case of mankind as a whole . . . ” Aristotle, Pol. 1.1254b.

  5. You obviously didn’t read the entirety of Piper’s article (I say that trying to assume the best of you) or you have deliberately misrepresented much of what he actually says in that article and grossly so. I would recommend that your readers actually read Piper’s article and not assume you have correctly described because you certainly haven’t.

    1. My partial quote was taken from chapter one of a book edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Chapter one was written by John Piper. You can read it here: http://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/RBMW.pdf I did indeed read the entire chapter.

      Stephanie’s quote was taken from John Piper’s book What’s the Difference?, but the same sentence is found in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

      Neither quotes were taken from an article.

      In what way have we misrepresented what John Piper wrote?

      1. Here is another quote from the same chapter where John Piper describes a “biblical woman.”

        “But she will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men.” (p.50; Piper’s emphasis in italics, my emphasis in bold.)

        The Bible nowhere states that godly women are to have such relationships with all men. I maintain that John Piper’s basic premise of manhood and womanhood is preposterous and does not have a valid biblical basis.

        The Bible contains stories about women in a vast variety of settings and situations – stories where women are involved in all kinds of activities and ministries. The different pictures which the Bible portray about women and their roles cannot be summed up with “men are to be strong leaders, women are to responsively submit to male leadership.” John Piper’s idea of womanhood does not come close to representing genuine biblical women.

        Moreover, biblical women are not necessarily our role models; Jesus Christ is our role model who shows us how to live and relate to others, to both men and women, young and old.

        A brand of “womanhood” that is only directed at adult males is limited indeed. This brings me to my next point, John Piper’s brand of manhood and womanhood tells us nothing at all about how we are to relate to people of our own sex. I am in no way less womanly when I am with women, or with children, or on my own.

        I am usually cautious about making strong statements, but I have no hesitation in saying that Piper’s views, which he calls “biblical manhood and womanhood,” are faulty and deeply flawed.

        I have no intention of affirming, receiving, or nurturing the strength and leadership of every man I have a relationship with, in any form. Instead, I encourage and receive the strength and leadership of good people, regardless of gender, where appropriate and needed.

        JS, If you think I have misunderstood John Piper, or misrepresented his view of biblical manhood and womanhood, please point out my error and I will gladly make the correction.

        1. Dear Marg,
          Let me try to explain and be more precise. It’s not that I think you didn’t read the article as much as it is that you didn’t really “hear” the article. You drew selected quotes which actually distort what Piper actually says in the article. His article is much more nuanced and with numerous qualifications that you have chosen not to include or reckon with. To simply draw quotes out of the article that would be most provocative without giving the author’s context or his own qualifications of those statements is actually to distort it. For example, Piper is very careful to explain in detail each part of the statement and to carefully qualify what he means by “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships”. You seem to wish to ignore at least two parts of that statement and the detailed explanation he gives of each of those parts…Namely “worthy” men…not any man…and “in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships”…i.e. he makes very clear that he is not intending to say that women are to respond to every man in their life in this way. There is more but let me just leave it at this..credibility in addressing a position requires care to accurately represent that position. To distort, build a straw man and then beat up the straw man is a form of deception and it undermines credibility. This is why I ask everyone who reads this blog to read the article the whole article for themselves…what he says to women AND what he says to men. And not only read it to pick out juicy statements to rip out of context to paint a false picture of what Piper is actually saying. And also consider carefully the scripture references that he uses and also places in the footnotes. Then if you disagree with his complementarian conclusions or certain aspects of it you are in a position to address precisely what you think in the whole of the presentation is a distortion of scripture. I think you will have a difficult time doing that.

          With Respect and Warm Regards

          1. Hi JS,

            A couple of comments:

            I clearly use John Piper’s choice of qualifier “worthy” in my post.

            I am well aware of his other qualifiers, but this does not mean that the quotes that appear in my post are not representative of John Piper’s views.

            A few questions:

            What is the straw man argument in my post? Please point it out to me.

            Why are the statements I have chosen, which Piper himself uses as main statements, deceptive?

            Can you give me a specific example in my post where I have misrepresented his understanding of femininity?

            My post is about defining femininity and, to the best of my ability, I have tried to show how John Piper defines this. If you can show me where he defines it differently, I will include it in the post.

            I am very happy to learn more and include corrections, but you haven’t actually shown me where what is written in the article is perhaps incorrect.

  6. Perhaps this quote from Piper giving an overview of the complementarian understanding of scripture to which he holds could be helpful, “The intention with the word ‘complementarian’ is to locate our way of life between two kinds of error: on the one side would be the abuses of women under male domination, and on the other side would be the negation of gender differences where they have beautiful significance. Which means that, on the one hand, complementarians acknowledge and lament the history of abuses of women personally and systemically, and the present evils globally and locally in the exploitation and diminishing of women and girls. And, on the other hand, complementarians lament the feminist and egalitarian impulses that minimize God-given differences between men and women and dismantle the order God has designed for the flourishing of our life together. So complementarians resist the impulses of a chauvinistic, dominating, and abusive culture on the one side, and the impulses of a sex-blind, gender-leveling, unisex culture, on the other side”

    Perhaps this will help you and your readers to have a more balanced understanding of Piper’s perspective and of others who believe strongly that the bible presents a complementarian perspective on gender differences and role relationships.

    1. Thanks JS.

      My post, however, is not about complementarianism; it is about defining femininity.

      I am a non-hierarchical complementarian. I fully recognise that men and women have some obvious differences as well as many similarities. However I do not believe that masculinity is defined by leadership, and that femininity is defined by submission to men. Perhaps you don’t believe this dichotomy either. Nevertheless, this is what John Piper believes and says so in the book I have linked to previously.

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