The gender conversation 10: some final reflections

Click here for part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9

It’s been a really interesting conversation with Hannah and I’ve been reflecting for a while on what I’ve learnt and observed. There is so much we could discuss and perhaps on another day we’ll come back to this and take some of the discussions further, I certainly have a lot more questions. My main goal was to simply listen and try to understand not to drive home my point or why I think X or Y is wrong, as a result I’ve probably come away with a few more learning points. Here are a few of them:

Common Ground

The debate between egalitarians and complementarians is often more like a battle-ground than a debate. We can do better. Listening and civil conversation even when there are significant differences can help remind you that while the person you’re talking to maybe an opponent on this issue they are not your enemy.

There is more common ground than we think. So the discovery that in different ways we both agreed with the idea of ‘equal but different’ was a surprise. Which means there is room for discussion. Egalitarians are unhappy with our definition of ‘equal’ and complementarians are unhappy with their vague ideas on ‘different’ but that doesn’t mean progress can’t be made by talking them through.

There are a vast number of issues on which it surely is possible to agree but let me give just one as an example: Violence against women. Churches that believe in a leadership role for men in the church and husbands in the home SHOULD be, even MUST be the first to stand up and say the persistent violence of men toward women around the world is wrong, is evil and must be fought tooth and nail. No equivocations, no qualifications, no ifs and buts, not as a token gesture but as a committed, heart felt response. There are so many causes and issues in a society that a church could take up and support and it’s impossible to do justice to all of them, but I think this issue really should go WAY higher up the list.

I simply don’t agree with the notion that a leadership (headship) of a husband in the home gives any kind of permission or slippery slope to domestic abuse – it’s like suggesting all feminists hate men or are secretly lesbians. It’s simply not true. Sin can twist everything and anything. So a stand on this issue would go a long way to putting our money where our mouth is on this.

Observations on feminism/egalitarianism

One of the main observations was about the issue of gender, in that Hannah who has given a lot of thought to these issues, really couldn’t point me to anyone or anywhere that had a good answer to the questions, ‘what is a woman?’ and ‘what is a man?’ It seems that most Christians here are somewhat bemused, they can see from scripture that the two are not the same, scripture and experience suggests it is something more than biology but what? I was expecting something here even if I disagreed with it but really there was nothing. I think again here both sides have some more work to do: clearly the personality distinctions often made by complementarians of men as logical and women as emotional is inadequate because it seems arbitrary – can you give me a verse or narrative thread for that? At the same time without any clear notion of ‘difference’ egalitarians lack a compelling explanation for what seems obvious – men and women are not the same.

Headship is touchy subject and egalitarians are split on this – some think there is headship in the home and others don’t. Hannah and her husband don’t. What surprises me again is that there really is very little to say or show how Eph 5:23 applies today, in fact it doesn’t. That however is an inadequate response to that passage. There are poor exegetical grounds for applying Eph 5:21 but not Eph 5:23.

I’ve often thought what would it take for me to change my mind on this issue and the first requirement would be more compelling exegesis and then more compelling application. No one has given a good answer of how I go about being a ‘source’ to my wife. I’m still looking but I’m not sure it exists.

Feminism has done an awful lot of good on a whole range of issues and I’d have no problem in being supportive of that but I have a number of concerns. Firstly the distinction between feminism as a cause and feminism as a philosophy. I think there is significant risk in that feminism actually becomes the dominant way of seeing and understanding the world and everything interpreted in this light. I think as Christians there’s much to learn but, but, but…how does the person of Christ transform feminism, how does He stand over and above it, for surely He must. It’s Christ who is Lord, who claims a Christians highest allegiance and it is Christ who gives us identity and meaning in our lives – I think feminism as a philosophy isn’t far from being an ideology that challenges that – that instead it’s feminism that gives identity, belonging, purpose, meaning first and foremost.

Observations on complementarians

Well, we don’t do ourselves any favours do we? I think we could do a lot better at listening to women and how they’re being led. It’s not weak leadership to ask. We could do a lot better at speaking up on issues like violence against women, we could do a lot better at including women in much of the ministry and mission of the church without having to sacrifice any principles or confine women to looking after the children and the coffee. We can do much better at encouraging, developing, using and including the gifts of the women in our churches. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

We would also do well to be more positive in articulating our view, we’re just negative. By that I mean we’re increasingly defined by our opposition, by explaining why the other side is wrong and not holding out a clear and compelling picture of why we might be right and why the lunatic fringe like the patriarchal folk are completely wrong.

We would also do well to respect women better on social media and blogs – reasonable discourse is far too often absent from social media and Christians should be shining examples of it and not the worst examples of it. Avoiding the use of ‘Jezebel’ would be a good too.

Conclusion

I’m learning and this conversation has given me some fresh food for thought and a greater appreciation of some of the injustices that women face, some of the deep insecurities they deal with that are not being adequately dealt with by the church but is being dealt with by various women’s groups and movements. I’ve learnt more about how complementarians are perceived (not very positively) and how there are numbers of areas and issues which collaboration and discussion would be far more beneficial than division and fortifying our respective trenches.

What have you learnt? What are your observations? Leave a comment and keep the discussion going.

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  • Sue

    This is very generous of you, and you answer my (unwritten) question in reading a few posts from a while back – so why isn’t the voice of women heard?

    I would be in a very bad situation without feminism. The laws that protect women from domestic violence and rape in marriage are relatively recent. Christians need to accept that feminism brought in laws that are essential to the basic safety of women. It is no use being a Christian and knowing you are going to heaven when you die, if every minute of life on earth is terror.

    For me, complementarianism entailed unmitigated suffering and those non-comps who know me want nothing else than to protect me from it forever.

    The unspeakable tragedy of offering women a choice, lose yourself entirely, be effaced as a person, OR fight back, overpower the aggressor and control him. What a choice! So sad. Personally, I lost that fight.

    It was a very tough journey later to regain any sense of self, to regain health and normalcy after leaving complementarianism. But while I was in it, I was mute on its drawbacks, and did not speak up at all. How could I? I was not given permission to disagree.

    • http://www.thesimplepastor.co.uk/ Phil Whittall

      Hi Sue
      Obviously your story is one full of pain and hurt and it’s hard to defend the abuse of a practice. So I won’t try. I’m sorry that has been your experience.

      • Sue

        I thought your concluding paragraph was right on, and I hope you will see how women need to be released from all that. Thanks so much.

        • http://www.thesimplepastor.co.uk/ Phil Whittall

          Thanks Sue, I appreciate the encouragement.

  • markheath

    hi Phil, just wanted to say thanks for hosting this series and to Hannah for contributing. Lots of good stuff to think about.

  • http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog matthew Hosier

    Thanks for this Phil. In answer to the Q, “What is a woman? What is a man?” i think a large part IS biological, because so much of the biblical definition is tied to the generation of children. We tend to miss this, living in an age in which contraception has appeared to sever the link between sex and reproduction, but it is a key distinctive, that then shapes so much else. ‘Gender’ itself is a social construct that is more about personal identity choice than creational/biological reality – so as soon as we start to talk about gender (rather than sex) we get ourselves into trouble. Gender is relative, mutable; sex is the ability to father a child or to carry a child. If you and Hannah wanted to do some more posts there is plenty to work on there!

    • http://www.thesimplepastor.co.uk/ Phil Whittall

      Thanks Matt, I think that’s an answer that really challenges people today and you can see resistance to that in so many different areas. I think you’re right though!

      • Sue

        For the over 50’s, the perspective shifts again. More than 50% are single, and supporting themselves, their parents, their children perhaps siblings. A woman sits down beside a man and discusses retirement strategies, investments, eldercare, and how to invest in the younger generation. The centrality of procreation in our humanity decreases, as supporting all of our family, and our community, surpasses it. We become a team and we can never go back to the differentiated roles of our reproductive years. Do we want to extend what is only a phase of life into the second half of life? Doesn’t this second phase of life more closely represent the life of Jesus and Paul, the life in which biological reproduction does not play the central role, but commitment to God and community does. Isn’t the provider in 1 Tim. 5:8 equally a man or a woman? So can we not make common cause?

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  • Rebecca Acres

    It is amazing to me to see a complementarian holding their hands up and saying that their approach (but not their views) may have been wrong; that people might have been hurt and that they need to do better. I am deeply grateful for this. Thank You.

    I am a woman who has experienced much of what Hannah talked about in my university church: I was utterly puzzled by the idea that women would sing, serve coffee and do kids work and that ladies events within the church centred around pampering, clothes and cake!

    I agree with the perspective of an earlier commenter who says that Male/Female differences are pretty much just physical and this for me is where complementarianism falls down. My view on a lot of this biblical quotation (especially the bits on marriage and headship) is that it all advocates something beautiful and, at the time, revolutionary. It is a call to relational marriage with love and mutuality from an environment where marriage was a transaction. Contrary to the popular portrayal it was a radical denial of societal values and should have created marriages that are different in that they reflect the glory of God. Therefore I expect that my future husband would be a counterfoil to me not because of his inherant “maleness” but because of his God-given character! I would not be expected to submit my thoughts, feelings and desires to him without absolute reciprocity!

    Thank you for your wise approach to the topic (when I have been shouted down so many times). I wish you all the best in future discussion/investigation.

    • http://www.thesimplepastor.co.uk/ Phil Whittall

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for your kind and gracious comment. It’s always slightly frustrating to me to hear surprise at humility from complementarians. Sad that our reputation is instead the opposite.

      I guess I would ask a few questions back and be interested in hearing your responses.

      1) The ladies events you describe are fairly stereotypical, but sometimes isn’t it because that’s what the women themselves choose? A friend of mine would love the womens events in her church to include go-karting and paintballing but the other women choose to have pampering events because, well, that’s what lots of women like. I think that would probably be true whatever the theology of the church wouldn’t it?

      2) I agree with you that a large part of the answer to difference is in biology. I guess I also think that that carries meaning. That our given biology is not inconsequential to who we are and what we do. That ‘the real me’ is not somehow entirely detachable from my body. We are given shape and form and, I think, differing responsibilites. We see it in families most clearly I think but also in other ways. What do you thnk?

      3) I love much of what you say about marriage, except I think that part of the counterfoil of a husband to his wife is precisely because he is male. I’m also not sure why submission requires ‘absolute reciprocity’. Submission isn’t the same as obedience. Obedience is required. Children should obey their parents. A slave their master. But a wife gets to give her submission. It can’t be forced from you (like a wrestler with an arm held behind the back), just as a husband isn’t forced to lay his life down, he doesn’t have to but gets to – it shouldn’t be a joy but a delight. So in that sense there is absolute reciprocity but it looks different – equal but different.

      Anyway, thanks for contributing to the discussion. I hope you won’t get shouted down here.

      • Rebecca Acres

        1) I agree that a lot of women like these sorts of events but only in a complementarian church would these be the only womens events available? Unless you put as much effort into heavy theology and equipping for women as you do for men you are perpetuating a culture that says that in order to prevent women from desiring/demanding leadership we will remove the impetus upon them to further the gospel and allow them to freeload until they find the man they are supposed to be supporting to do the Kingdom’s work.

        2) I think to say that any person is identity-linked to their biology will cause you a whole can of worms. What about our new bodies in the new heaven and the new earth: without the need for procreation will we still have gender?

        Also by saying that the shape your body takes gives you different responsibilities takes you away from a purely biological argument of gender fairly quickly. Your responsibilities are an internalisation of a set of values from outside: they are a heavy influencing factor on and are themselves heavily influenced by personality. Personality is I believe entirely seperate from Gender and a whole spectrum of personality exists within the binary approach to sex.

        3) Only a very small part of Marriage is physical just as a very small part of one as counterfoil to the other relates to gender! The relationship between spouses will work because they will be emotional and spiritual partners and where one has weaknesses the other has strengths; those strengths and weaknesses will not be proscribed because they are male and female but beautifully unique to the couple.

        No submission is not obedience (I had an interesting conversation about marriage vows on this point once but that’s another story!) but if you read ephesians 5 without the odd interruption of the verses added in the middle ages the start of the passage on submission is prefaced with “submitting to one another…”. How would you deal with that as in your post you talked about the improbability of following v21 to the letter without v23? Could you see an argument that says that we hear this passage now in a vastly different way to how it was heard then? For example for women of the 1st century who have spent their whole lives as chattel (glorified slaves) to be told that they should submit is nothing new but to be told that their husbands should love and respect them is revolutionary. Furthermore what if you did read head (the most disputed word in the passage) as source? The husband as the source of the marriage and therefore the wife is something that pervades even to this day (who proposes?).
        I don’t think that this is about equal but different, it is about marriages that reflect the mutuality of the Trinity.

        • http://www.thesimplepastor.co.uk/ Phil Whittall

          Hi Rachel
          Thanks for your further comments.

          1) I know for sure that egal churches fail on the women events front because I’ve had friends complain about it. But minor point!
          2) I agree that women should have the same opportunities for theological learning
          3) I think there is no reason to think we lose our gender because we don’t procreate in heaven. Jesus remains a man, the Bible says that other male (and I assume female) characters remain recognisable – Abraham, Moses and Elijah being named instances.
          3) I agree personality is distinct from gender but it’s also connnected.
          4) I was seeing responsibilities slightly differently, as in tasks given, duties etc…
          5) Whatever the size of the part relating to gender it is a part and I think an indispensable one. Certainly given the current redefinition of marriage in the UK, where gender distinction has been made irrelevant.
          I think your description of a marriage relationship is (if you’ll forgive me) a bit idealistic. Speaking from experience (in my own marriage) and in pastoring others, that there is no guarantee at all that strengths and weaknesses will complement each other and that absolutely part of the ironing of character within the other comes about precisely because one is female and the other is male.
          6) If we reflect the trinity then there must be submission because the spirit submits to the son who submits to the father and never the other way around.
          7) As a husband I’ve no idea what it means for me to be a ‘source’ to my wife and I’ve never read one good reason from any egal scholars and that number is not small any longer.
          7) I think the mutual submission Pau talks about is within the church so yes there should be submission but then there are specific forms – Paul outlines three examples of what that submission looks like within relationships that have been transformed by Christ – marriages, families and businesses/housholds (slavery, having an economic dimension).
          And I think submission wasn’t not new because what was expected was obedience, a woman had to be brave not to obey because they literally risked everything – plus Paul is freeing them from danger if they are married to non-Christians as they must be obedient to Christ but submit to their husbands.

          Still, lots to think about as always. Thanks again for responding.