We've been hearing a lot about masculine Christianity lately.

By now we're used to hearing Mark Driscoll campaign for more masculine church leaders and expressions of Christianity; late last year, Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson invited Driscoll to his church to speak at a Grace Agenda conference—a gathering that tactfully segregated women by offering a separate pre-conference just for them. In turn, Wilson spoke at John Piper's Desiring God Pastor's Conference, which this year had an explicitly masculine theme: "God, Manhood & Ministry: Building Men for the Glory of God." No stranger to strong statements in the blogo-twittersphere, Piper again drew attention by declaring that "God has given Christianity a masculine feel."

The insistence that Christianity ought to be muscular is often traced to American evangelists of the early 20th century, such as Billy Sunday and D. L. Moody, who emphasized sports and physical strength to counter the perception that Christians were soft and docile, in other words, feminine: a concept attributed to the 19th-century idealization of women as keepers of home and hearth and nurturer of the family's spiritual well-being. But even then, the perception of "spirituality" as "feminine" was itself a relatively new idea. For millennia, Western ideology tended to understand women as being grounded in body and matter, while men dealt in the realm of the mind and spirit.

If nothing else, it's clear that masculinity and femininity are not fixed and eternal sets of attributes, but are by and large culturally defined, and always changing. For example, blue was once more closely associated with "feminine" while pink was associated with "masculine." In parts of Europe, it's still not unusual for men to greet one another with kisses; in India, you might see two male friends walking arm in arm. And we have many examples of renaissance poetry—essentially love poetry—written by and for non-homosexual males who were close friends. By looking to other times and other places, we can see that masculinity is a way of behaving culturally that looks different in different times and places.

In their 1990 book, What's the Difference?: Manhood and Womanhood Defined according to the Bible, John Piper and Elisabeth Elliot acknowledge that the cultural forms of masculinity and femininity can change, but insist that Christians ought to respect, not challenge, these cultural codes, including things like, "Who speaks for the couple at the restaurant?" and "Who drives the car? … Mature masculinity will not try to communicate that such things don't matter." I doubt such displays of masculinity—driving the car, speaking to restaurant staff—held much more cultural sway in 1990 than they do today, so it's worth asking: Why do Piper, Wilson, Driscoll, and other neo-Reformed leaders feel the need repeatedly to defend masculinity, often stridently?

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I think it's because they see the handwriting on the wall. Women are half the church (maybe more than half), and women's voices are being heard loud and clear in and out of pulpits around the country. While gains for women are uneven, most studies show a slow but steady increase for women in church leadership. And that's just inside the church: Outside, U.S. women are outperforming men in higher education and the workplace. When men did represent the dominant voice in Christianity—as they have for most of church history—there was no need for these public performances reinforcing both male leadership and cultural notions of masculinity.

As to Piper's specific claim that "God gave Christianity a masculine feel," which personally, I take as a kind of whistling in the dark, I join many others in regarding this as patently untrue. Leaving aside Piper's conviction that churches must be led by males—a concept that some Christian scholars believe to be rooted in the New Testament's cultural context—none of the eight marks of leadership Piper referenced in his speech could be considered specifically "masculine." Attributes like bravery in the face of criticism and boldly teaching scriptural doctrines in ways that press forward to wise application in life even when those truths are hard to hear cannot be persuasively put forth as qualities that are masculine rather than feminine.

A prominent Reformed church I once attended prohibited women from "teaching or holding authority over [men]" yet made a curious exception: the pastor of disability ministries was a woman. Consider the implications of this: Disabled men in the church were put into the category of women and children. And yet, the Old Testament does privilege physically perfect males as the only ones who could serve in the temple. However, as Thomas Hentrich points out in a scholarly paper on masculinity and disability in the Bible, Jesus' ministry is marked by healing and inclusion. He reaches out and ministers not to "perfect" males but to society's most reviled, in specific reversal of Old Testament laws and of society's expectations. The King came as a poor boy to an unwed mother with a checkered ancestry including foreigners and prostitutes, appeared to smelly shepherds, was followed by smellier fisherman, was crucified and risen again, to present himself to women first, establishing a church in which the divisions of race, class, and gender ultimately are erased for "Christ is all, and in all."

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I don't believe God has given Christians a mandate to preserve and perpetuate cultural notions of masculinity and femininity any more than God wishes us to adopt Ancient Near Eastern (or Greco-Roman) blindspots about (dis)ability, race, and social class.

I do believe God in Christ has given Christianity a redemptive, inclusive, good-news-for-the-least-of-these kind of feel. And that is glorious.