CFN Meet Up!

We’re doing a women-only Christian Feminist Meetup on 30th November 2019 and would love you to join us!  You may or may not know that the world’s FIRST Vagina Musuem has opened in Camden Town, and we are GOING TO VISIT!  On 30th November, they’ll be a double-bill of two solo shows, “Hole” and “Fat Sex”, and we’re organising a CFN women-only meetup to go see them.  The show starts 7.30pm, and we’re going to meet at 6pm for drinks and to chat.  We’ll meet outside the Vagina Museum, and find somewhere for a drink, before heading to the shows.  Afterwards, those of us able to stick around for a bit longer will find somewhere for post-show drinks to discuss the shows.


For a bit more on the shows:

Hole is an autobiographical comedy about Vaginismus, holes, feeling whole and womanhood. Hole is like any other young woman, except she can’t have penetrative sex. This show follows Hole as she explores what sex really is, through quirky original music and multi role characters. [The focus of this show on vaginismus may be of particular interest, given that (at least) anecdotal evidence suggests that religious purity culture can contribute to women developing vaginismus, through alienating women from their own bodies.]

Fat Sex is an autobiographical solo performance, using comedy and references to popular culture to discuss fat female sexuality in society. Fat Sex is performed by a plus sized female who embraces the fat body as a sexual body. The performance explores the struggle to reclaim the fat body as a sexual body, and how the fat body either denied a sexuality, or fetishized.



DATE: Saturday 30th November 2019

TIME: 6pm onwards

LOCATION: The Vagina Museum, Unit 17 & 18 Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8AH (nearest tube: Camden Town or Chalk Farm)

TO JOIN US: Please book for the shows via the Vagina Museum HERE and email to let us know you’ll be joining us for the meet-up.


To keep up-to-date on CFN news, sign up for our monthly newsletter HERE.





Complementarity: the fallacy of male strength

Philosopher Robin Bunce reflects on the ideas of complementarity after CFN co-founder Natalie Collins participated in an Unbelievable debate with New Frontiers pastor, Phil Moore.  You can watch it HERE.  Robin is Director of Studies for Politics and Graduate Tutor at Homerton College, University of Cambridge.  He is a historian of ideas and has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published on complementarity  can be found HERE


Complementarity, New Frontiers’ new gender theology, is still in its infancy. I have t-shirts older than New Frontiers’ doctrine of gender, if truth be known. But for all its novelty, some patterns are starting to emerge. One thing I’ve noticed is that advocates of complementarityare very keen on 1 Peter 3:7, which describes wives as something like ‘theweaker vessel’, or ‘weaker partner’, depending on the translation.This is something new. The Danvers Statement, the founding text of Complementarianism, only mentions 1 Peter 3:7 once, compared to verses in Timothy or Genesis which crop up much more often. Equally, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which fleshed out Complementarianism in the early 90s, only refers to women being the ‘weaker vessel’ four times in more than 300,000 words.


1 Peter 3:7 was central to Phil Moore’s concerns in his recent discussion with Natalie Collins on Premier Christian Radio. For Moore, physical strength is central to the message he thinks men crave. ‘Actually,’ he claims, ‘men are hungry for someone to say to them: society is ruled by men, largely because men are stronger, and are able to make it so, that’s how it’s been through history. And what we’re to be is men who lead the way that Jesus led, he was not insecure, he didn’t say to the twelve disciples, “hey, the thirteen of us, we’re a focus group.” He ledthem. But he led them by washing their feet, by laying his life down for them.’ It’s an interesting argument.


The first thing to say is that Moore’s view cannot be found in the Bible. Nowhere do any Biblical writers say, ‘This is the word of God: men are stronger, therefore they rule, and they should rule with confidence, and like a servant.’ This idea is alien to the Bible.


The second thing to say, is that Moore’s claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Moore’s logic breaks down between his first statement that men are stronger, and his second therefore they tend to rule. In essence, while Moore is broadly correct about male strength, he is wholly wrong about its significance.


While Moore is essentially correct that ‘men are stronger’ this statement needs to be qualified. Put simply, male strength differs over time, and across each body. So, while the upper body strength of the average adult man is between 80 and 95 per cent greater than the upper body strength of the average adult woman (depending on which study you read), lower body strength is much less divergent. Nonetheless, Moore’s paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:7, ‘Guys, understand, she’s weaker than you, you can beat her in an arm wrestle!’ is essentially true.


The basic problem for Moore is that leadership is not determined by arm wrestling. To understand why upper body strength is less significant than Moore claims, I’m going to turn to Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who pointed out the flaws in the strength-leads-to-power argument almost 370 years ago. Hobbes was interested in the basis of power, and therefore he considered the idea that physical strength might be the foundation of political authority. Hobbes’ argument goes like this: physical strength has no impact on the power to lead because we live in a world where even the weakest person has the power to kill the strongest. This means that the strongest person can never rely on their own strength, and the weakest person can never be discounted because of their weakness. Hang on, is it true that the weakest person can always kill the strongest? Pretty much, and here’s why: what Hobbes remembered is that the strongest person had to eat and sleep. That means that the weakest person could poison them, or kill them when they were utterly defenceless. In terms of Moore’s argument, no one, however strong, has the power ‘to make it so.’


While Hobbes’ argument is counter intuitive it is basically correct. Indeed, it may have been reasoning like this which led so many writers of the Bible to place so little faith in the physical strength of mortal men.


That said, Moore may be right that men want to be told their physical strength makes them significant. But if men want to hear this all it shows is that men want to be lied to. Moore seems to work on the assumption that if men want to hear it, it must be true. That’s neither a reasonable assumption nor an assumption that is supported by the Bible. The voice of the people (or men in this case), is not the voice of God.


Hobbes set out his argument about the insignificance of physical strength in Leviathan. His book’s title was a reference to the book of Job, specifically the passage where God says,

Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook? . . .
The sword that reaches it has no effect,
nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. . . .
Its chest is hard as rock,
hard as a lower millstone.


God’s word to Job is the exact opposite of Moore’s gospel of male strength. God reminds Job of his physical weakness. God mocks the strength of Job’s arm, even with a sword a man is no match for Leviathan.


Hobbes’ conclusion is that leadership is built, to a very large degree on trust, noton physical strength. Ironically, Moore argues that trust is a distinctively female virtue.


Moore’s message to men is that they are strong, that their strength – like the strength of men throughout history – makes them leaders. He appears to think that physical strength is a superpower that men have and women lack. Moore’s complementarity is the Gospel of Goliath, the Gospel of Esau. In his determination to justify excluding women from Eldership, Moore appears to have lost sight of the Bible’s message that we should put our faith in Jesus rather than the strength of men.

The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Part I – CS Lewis)

This is part of a series philospher Robin Bunce is writing about THINK Theology’s Future of Complementarity conference.  Read the Introduction HERE.


Previously on I argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is one of the slogans to emerge from THINK 2018. Here I want to trace the phrase’s origins in the work of CS Lewis, and explore some of the ways that Lewis’s argument poses problems for contemporary evangelicals.


Lewis was the first writer to argue that men and women are not interchangeable. He made the claim in his 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’ Here, he argues,


. . . unless ‘equal’ means ‘interchangeable’, equality makes nothing of the priesthood for women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions . . .


At a basic level, Lewis argues that sexual equality does not imply that women should be priests unless we understand equality as interchangeability. For Lewis interchangeability means that men and women are basically the same, sexless and identical – a notion he rejects.


Lewis’s essential argument is clear enough, but his reasoning is complex, and to understand it, it is necessary to enter his intellectual world. Lewis’s rationale for this argument is bound up with the representative nature of the priesthood. ‘[A] priest’, he argues, ‘is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us.’From this, Lewis argues that only men can truly ‘represent the Lord to the Church.’Notably, although the priest is male, Lewis argues that the priest has a double gender identity. When standing before his congregation, or when standing before God as an individual, he is male. However, when standing before God as a Priest he is female, for he represents the Bride of Christ.


Significantly, Lewis does little to root his concept of non-interchangeability in the Bible. Indeed, he explicitly says that he has no intention of justifying his argument in this way. Rather, his ideas come from a range of Anglophone sources, which contain concepts which were unknown to the authors of the Bible.


The first key to understanding the roots of Lewis’s position is his reference to ‘legal fiction’. This concept, which cannot be found in the Bible, is the notion which helps him distinguish between the government, where men and women can ‘be treated as neuters’, and the church, where he argues they cannot.  The phrase ‘legal fiction’ was popularised by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his A Fragment on Government(1776), as part of his attack on Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published between 1765–1769. Blackstone’s view was that the legal system had to be based on certain fictions. For example, it made sense, Blackstone argued, to assume that government was based on an initial social contract, in which the people consented to being governed. Everyone knew, Blackstone argued, that this social contract was not real, but nonetheless, the law made more sense if we accept the fiction of an initial contract.


The second notion that Lewis’s argument rests on is that of representation, and dual identity. Again, this can’t be found in the Bible, because these concepts were not available to the authors of the Old or New Testament. Rather Lewis’s argument has its roots in mediaeval corporation theory, and early modern debates over the ‘Divine Right’ of Stuart Monarchs. It was in the mediaeval period that the idea that a person could have a dual identity entered anglophone discussion. Thomas Hobbes, for example, drew on these traditions when he argued that the King was both a natural person (for example Charles Stuart), and an artificial person (the person who can speak on behalf of the state).


But the story doesn’t end there. Behind Lewis’s essay is a specific legal fiction which tied notions of representation together with ideas of gender. I’m referring to the doctrine of coverture. Coverture was the legal fiction which described the legal relationship between husband and wife until the later Victorian period. It emerged in the eighteenth century in Britain and America, and at the same time analogous notions entered French law. The nineteenth century legal understanding of coverture, which found its way in to the legal systems of Britain’s colonies, comes from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which systematised the doctrine. Blackstone described coverture thus,

[b]y marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover[emphasis added], she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage.

Put simply, coverture was a legal fiction which embodied the principle that a husband was his wife’s sole legal representative. Consequently, coverture was the most controversial of the legal fictions essential to English law, as it was the basis on which married women were denied the right to vote, the right to own property, to seek divorce, or to make a will. It was the basis on which the first generation of campaigners for women’s suffrage claimed that women were legally enslaved. Therefore, when Lewis was developing a doctrine of gendered representation, thinking about gender equality, it was only natural that this Oxbridge Scholar should think in terms recognisable from the legal doctrine of coverture.


Before leaving Lewis, I want to draw out three points: first that his understanding of interchangeability is based on a notion of representation that comes not from the Bible but from medieval legal theory via Blackstone’s legal fictions. Second, it’s based on the notion of a representative priesthood which Evangelicals reject. Third, that the discussion of coverture is more relevant to the theology of Newfrontiers than it might initially seem. Kristin Aune’s excellent ethnography ‘Postfeminist Evangelicals: the construction of gender in the New Frontiers International churches’notes ‘The gendered concept of “covering” is important to NFI. When women are described as “covered” this means that they are under the (male) authority of their husband (if they are married) and/or their church leader.’ Aune argues that Newfrontiers’ theology of ‘covering’ read the English legal doctrine back into 1 Corinthians 11:4-15’s complex arguments about head covering, and that the article ‘Adjusting our Vocabulary: Covering’, which appeared in the 1983/4 Restoration magazine was crucial to the development of this aspect of Newfrontiers’ gender theology.


Wilson’s use of Lewis’s phrase is curious, because he disagrees so profoundly with the foundations of Lewis’s argument. Wilson does not believe in an Anglican view of priesthood; he does not believe that church leaders have a dual gender identity – far from it; and while Lewis councils us to turn our backs on legal fictions, Wilson is part of a church movement which has sought to revive the doctrine of coverture as a structuring principle of church life. What is more, it is peculiar in the extreme that Wilson, a writer who claims to set such store in the Bible, would borrow a concept from an essay which explicitly seeks to make an argument from the Anglican tradition rather than the Bible. Yet Wilson and Lewis are united in a common determination to exclude women from aspects of church leadership. And when it comes to complementarity perhaps that’s all that matters.


Part II will trace the idea of non-interchangeability through the 1960s and 1970s, where the phrase took on a series of new meanings, alien to both the Bible and Lewis’s original formulation.

The future of complementarity: men and women are not interchangeable (Introduction)

Philosopher Robin Bunce is back on the blog with some more insights about the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology earlier this year.  Robin is Director of Studies for Politics and Graduate Tutor at Homerton College, University of
Cambridge.  He is a historian of ideas and has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published about the conference can be found HERE


Complementarity is not merely a theology of gender, it’s an aesthetic: an understanding of beauty. According to several speakers at THINK 2018 women and men are not just different, that difference is beautiful. Surprisingly, for a theology which claims to be rooted an ancient text, this is a very modern aesthetic, perhaps even a post-modern one. For this ‘beautiful difference’ is a beautiful absence. The aesthetic of complementarity arises from what men and women are not: ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ This is the aesthetic of artists like Kazimir Malevich, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, or more recent practitioners of rigorous hard-core absence like Turner Prize winner Martin Creed.


‘Beautiful difference’ and ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ are the two slogans to emerge from THINK 2018, and it’s the second that concerns me here. As I’ve prowled moodily around Cambridge this autumn, I realised I’ve come across the phrase before. Not in the Bible of course – that goes without saying, but somewhere. It turns out that since the end of the Second World War a series of writers have used the phrase ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ Yet, even though the phrase occurs again and again in theological discussion it never means the same thing twice.  CS Lewis, then Karl Barth and latterly Tim and Kathy Keller have all argued that ‘men and women are not interchangeable.’ But for radically different, and often contradictory reasons. Advocates of complementarity are continuing this trajectory, repeating the same words, but meaning something new.


The story of how we get from CS Lewis’ view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ to Wilson and Alistair Robert’s radically different view that ‘men and women are not interchangeable’ is a long one. Fearing history-of-ideas-fatigue or ‘annalist’s fever’ as its sometimes know, I’ve split it into three parts, which I’ll be publishing between now and Easter.


You can find Part I HERE.

Complementarity: solving the evangelical feminist cube?

We’re really pleased to have another post about Think Theology’s “Future of Complementarity” conference.  Today’s post is from Eleanor Toye Scott; a feminist, Anglican, and full-time mother of three boys. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and a master’s degree and PhD in psychology. She also recently trained as a Godly Play practitioner.  You can find her on Twitter HERE.  We’ve published a number of blogs about the Think Theology conference, you can read them all HERE


It’s an exciting and somewhat scary time to be a feminist. Ireland’s recent historic referendum result in favour of reforming their constitution to allow abortion in some circumstances was surprisingly decisive. On the other hand, the UK Government’s proposal to allow people to change their gender by self-declaration, which is being welcomed as overdue in some quarters, is fiercely contested by others, many of them feminists. Long-established norms are collapsing and being renegotiated very rapidly, and there is much upheaval and acrimony in the online and offline debates.


For attendees at THINK 2018, an evangelical conference exploring sex, gender and “complementarity”, these raw public debates may have seemed a long way from their apparently much more conservative and sedate discussions of how sex and gender fit into God’s purposes for human beings and Creation. But the winds of change were blowing here too. In the first of three sermons, Hannah Anderson, one of the speakers, gave a carefully crafted and in many ways impressive talk, in which she argued from a complementariantheological position for “complementarity”, which turned out to mean essentially the equality of the sexes.


Not long ago, such a talk would have been unthinkable in evangelical circles. “Biblically sound teaching” was held to lead inevitably to the view that women’s abilities and position in society were ordained by God to be more limited in scope than those of men. So to begin from the same starting point, verses from the Creation story in Genesis, and then argue for the equality of men and women, and the necessity of allowing women the same access to power and responsibility as men, was a very interesting move by Anderson.


Of course, there have been Christian feminists arguing for the equality of the sexes for many years, so this on its own was not novel. The point was that Anderson was arguing specifically from within a complementarian perspective, which has been pushing back against egalitarian feminism for more than a generation. And her audience was clearly internal. Right from the start she highlighted her own conservative background. She was at great pains to avoid saying anything that might alienate an audience who might be male and have more conservative views than herself. She took trouble to highlight areas where her views were completely within the conservative evangelical mainstream – but then she gently pushed her audience to think a little differently about the relationships between men and women, and to make space for her quietly egalitarian agenda. (This is, of course, the only persuasive strategy that is likely to be accepted as appropriately feminine from a woman within a male-dominated complementarian sub-culture.)


The verses on which Anderson hung her argument were Genesis 1:26-28:


’26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”’


The use of these verses as a foundation for thinking about sex and gender is traditional in evangelical teaching, and they have often been used as a justification for conservative models of male-female relationships, marriage, the family and society. In the more recent past, they have grounded the complementarian view of gender, which conceded to evangelical feminists that men and women are equal in the sight of God as human beings, but stated that men and women have different abilities and appropriate “roles” – the punchline being that women were, in spite of their “equality”, not suited to taking on leadership positions in the church.


So Anderson signalled here, and throughout her talk, that she belonged squarely within an evangelical theological tradition that has historically been concerned to maintain male authority in the church. At the same time, however, as Robin Bunce has pointed out to me, while complementarians have traditionally referenced Genesis 1, they have typically focused much more strongly on Genesis 2 (in which Eve is created second, out of Adam’s side, to fulfill his need for a companion) and Genesis 3 (“your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” etc.). Egalitarians have, for obvious reasons, tended to focus much more on Genesis 1, and it’s telling that Anderson has chosen to do the same.


She argued from the passage that our understanding of gender is something that emerges initially from biological sex – but also from the way sex is understood and managed within society. Critically, in Anderson’s vision, the differences between men and women are relatively subtle, and their work is much more cooperative than in the traditional model of women as baby-and-homemakers, and men as go-getting subduers of the earth. Men and women are not on separate tracks, nor operating in separate spheres. Rather, women and men each exercise their femaleness and maleness respectively in both the home and the marketplace. Anderson calls this “complementarity”; but while her rhetoric perhaps emphasised male and female difference to a marginally greater extent, I found it difficult in practice to distinguish her views on the proper relationship between the sexes from those of an egalitarian feminist.


The second plank of Anderson’s argument was a metaphor for the problems of gender and society, and how we should go about solving them: the Rubik’s cube. The cube itself, in this metaphor, is society or culture. Gender is one of the colours of the cube, with the other colours presumably representing other social factors. We are presented with a society that is “all mixed up”, like a disordered Rubik’s cube, and we have the task of trying to solve it. And if we try to solve one face first, i.e. gender, we also have to consider the other issues at the same time, so that we get the right colours around the edge of the face we have solved, ready to move onto solving the other faces – otherwise we haven’t really solved the first face and have wasted our time.


Anderson also pointed out that there are many millions of possible ways for the Rubik’s cube to be “all mixed up”, but there is nonetheless one method for solving it which works every time. So, in the metaphor, there are millions of different ways in which society and culture can manifest themselves – but God has a formula for sorting out the ways in which they have gone wrong, which works every time, regardless of the starting point. That formula is, naturally, to be found in Scripture – and we’re back to Genesis 1.26-28, which instructs us on how to resolve our sex and gender issues, whatever they may be. “We must compare our culture to God’s vision for male and female complementarity as a baseline, a plumb-line for evaluating our common culture…so we have to find the formula, find what’s ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and what’s fallen, solve the Rubik’s cube.”


The final and most important theme in Anderson’s talk was justice – justice for women as a necessary component of justice in society as a whole. This was where her argument was strongest, because this was the case she wanted to make. Genesis 1:26-28 and the Rubik’s cube metaphor were the support structures, designed to demonstrate her commitment to evangelical principles, but a plea for justice was at the heart of what she had to say.


On this theme, Anderson made some fascinating arguments. On the one hand she rejected out of hand Second Wave feminism and pro-choice views on abortion without discussion, on the understanding that her audience would agree these were outside the pale of Christian morality. On the other hand, she argued that it was necessary to look at the cultural environment in which these views emerged – an environment dominated by what she called “the marketplace” and “radical individualism”, affecting the attitudes of both men and women. In that environment, when a woman says “I want an abortion because it’s my body”, she is expressing a radically individualistic view, which Anderson regards as antithetical to Christian morality – but which, she argues, is not really different from the attitude of a man who helped conceive a child, but accepts no responsibility, because his body isn’t the one that gets pregnant.


Anderson here fully endorsed the standard evangelical anti-abortion view – but at the same time, subtly changed the focus from criticisms of the individual attitudes and behaviour of women, to the attitudes and behaviour of (a) men as well as women, and (b) society as well as the individual. It’s all very well, she argued, to criticise the decisions of individual women – but when we fail to understand the social context that gave rise to those decisions, we end up adopting individualism in our politics and our churches, and never asking the deeper questions about what’s going on in society and how we can help solve the problems society presents.


Later, she made a much less convincing argument, which appeared to fly in the face of these nuanced points. She said that in her work with women in local churches, she had observed that because they were excluded from leadership roles in the church, they were also held to a lower moral standard than men, and were, in her words, “getting away with all sorts of stuff”. She never gave examples of the “stuff” women were getting away with. The idea that women’s behaviour was not being sufficiently closely monitored was also in stark contrast to her earlier argument that individual women’s behaviour should not be highlighted without reference to men’s behaviour or the wider social context. But what better way to convince a doubtful conservative than to suggest that under the status quo, women are not being held sufficiently personally responsible for their behaviour?


She went on to talk about women’s work, and the need for both women and men to take on the responsibilities and privileges that go with work. She brought up women’s vulnerability, citing 1 Peter 3:7:


“Live with your wife in an understanding way, showing honour to the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life.”


She also talked about the need to honour all of women’s work, not just the kinds of work which are typically associated with male success, but also reproductive and domestic work. Significantly, all of these points would be uncontroversial to an evangelical audience, but also would be a good fit with the agenda of most egalitarian feminists, including many non-Christian feminists.


Finally, she spoke of the church’s role in offering hope to the world, the ways she feels the church has failed, and the opportunity she sees in the current zeitgeist. She describes the church as having put up a wall in the past to “hold back the flood” of cultural change and hold to traditional values. The church had been focused on telling people what was right and what they needed to do, but not on sharing the good news. Now, with the #MeToo movement, she felt that the apparent freedom offered to women by the sexual revolution has been exposed as a sham, and this has given the church an opportunity to offer a more genuinely liberating alternative, focusing on justice, forgiveness and redemption. “This is a moment for the church to give the good news that God made us male and female in his image and he will redeem that image.”


So what can we make of all this? I have very mixed feelings. It’s encouraging to hear an evangelical woman arguing for women’s equal humanity, ability and responsibility in the world, society and the church. She’s clearly a smart woman and she’s on a reforming mission.


At the same time, though, I found the whole talk extraordinarily frustrating. I understand enough about politics to know that you have to respect the beliefs of your base and know how to pick your battles. But it’s very difficult to swallow such an intelligent speaker adopting wholesale such a deeply flawed approach to the Bible.  Her Rubik’s cube metaphor is clever, neat and memorable. It follows in the Wayne Grudem tradition of systematic theology – Scripture is reduced to a system or formula, a set of self-consistent doctrinal statements, which we can apply to any and every problem we see in the world, the church or our personal lives, and derive the correct solution. Unfortunately, this is a simplistic and wholly inadequate understanding of the Bible and its role in our lives.


Life is open-ended, messy, good, evil and morally ambiguous, full of paradoxes, mystery and much to wonder about. The contents of the Bible reflect that diversity, moral difficulty and mystery. The Bible is not, as is frequently claimed, a manual for life, because it is not a manual. Manuals didn’t exist when it was written. Nor is it a set of provable theorems. It is a library including myths, legends, history, fables, poetry, philosophy, proverbs, parables and prophecy. Many of its stories are shockingly violent and morally upsetting, while others are beautiful, inspiring and encouraging. Some, somehow, even manage to be all those things at once. Even Jesus’s parables, which might be candidates for riddles with neat logical solutions, offer us mystery and paradox at least as often as they offer us clear moral lessons.


None of this should need saying to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the contents of the Bible. If the evangelical church is serious in its commitment to Biblical study and living, it is simply not good enough to pick out a couple of verses from Genesis and then extrapolate from them to draw conclusions about modern life in our industrial globalised society. Even Anderson’s choice of Genesis 1:26-28, rather than other less sympathetic verses in Genesis 2 and 3, demonstrates the way this approach allows two verses to be taken out of context and used to develop an entire theological worldview. While Anderson believes the Bible is a historical record, she also seems to be largely unaware of what it says about human society and sexual morality. For instance, at one point she set up a contrast between modern society, which she claimed had entirely lost sight of the need to regulate sexual relationships, and the monogamous “No, no, no, no, no, ONE yes!” of Biblical sexual morality. But a fairly cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals that heterosexual monogamous sexual relationships were not the only ones that took place, even in Genesis. Two of the patriarchs themselves, Abraham and Jacob, each had children by more than one woman, and those are tame examples. Reading further on in Genesis, we learn in chapter 38 of the extraordinary story of Jacob’s son Judah, his three sons Er, Onan and Shelah, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Look it up if you are interested, but suffice it to say that Tamar daringly and successfully exposes Judah’s sexual double standards. While the story justifies Tamar’s controversial actions, it is clear that the society she lived in was run by and in the interests of men, and that she had to risk her life to get justice. If Anderson is serious about justice for women now, she must recognise how severely the odds have been stacked against us, not only recently, but throughout the whole of human history, including in the stories of the Bible itself.


There’s also an assumption in the way Anderson fleshes out her “Rubik’s cube” derivation of sexual justice from Genesis 1:26-28, that what we are looking for is a model for human relationships that is self-evidently “natural” and “normal”. In spite of her awareness of her own cultural background, she doesn’t recognise that “natural” and “normal” are usually simply ways that people describe what is habitual or comfortable for them personally, based on their own experiences. To honour everyone’s humanity equally, we have to be willing to study human societies globally and look at the full range of human conditions and experiences. We have to be willing, in fact, to study history, literature, art, natural science and social science, rather than simply adopting a particular model of “natural, normal relationships”, even one apparently inspired by Genesis 1.26-28. And of course, for conservative evangelicals, this is deeply problematic, since science in particular is regarded as suspect except when it happens to confirm certain rather literal interpretations of parts of the Bible.


Maybe this lack of trust in non-Biblical knowledge, and the secular world more generally, goes some way to explaining why Anderson was at times so casually wrong in her characterisations of the world outside the church. She did not seem to have given any serious thought to how sexual morality functions outside of the church, instead making the lazy and evidently false assumption that the non-Christian world is absolutely sexually amoral and depraved. Then there was the mind-blowing notion in her finale that the sexual abuse of women originated in the 1960s with the sexual revolution, which betrays an extraordinary ignorance of history. I wonder whether Anderson is aware of the fact that many slave women in the United States were routinely raped and abused by their owners. For instance, Thomas Jefferson is now widely known to have had children by one of his slaves, who by definition was in no position to consent to their relationship. Anderson’s idea that the church can now present itself as a beacon of light, hope and redemption to those recovering from sexual abuse is naturally appealing to Christians; but completely ignores the recent revelations of the way churches have been complicit in exactly this type of abuse. More recognition of hard facts, followed by public repentance and self-examination, and a massive re-orientation of power within the churches, will be required before the Christian church as a whole will look credible to outsiders as a place of safety and recovery. Anderson’s attempt to make women’s equality acceptable within a complementarian theological perspective is not sufficient, because that perspective itself requires a complete overhaul.


There are huge problems with Anderson’s entire approach, because of the fact that she is embedded in this particular tradition. From a rhetorical point of view, her talk is masterful, because it accepts so much of the theological baggage of the people she aims to persuade – but unfortunately, if you unpack that baggage, it does not really support the work she is asking it to do. In the end, Anderson’s failure to challenge the intellectually limited basis of evangelical theology, and her lack of awareness of the world beyond the evangelical church, limits the scope of what she can achieve in practice. Maybe this is all that is politically possible within the complementarian church at this time, and maybe, nonetheless, for now, it is progress and worth having. But those arguing for “complementarity” will only be part of a truly progressive feminism when they find a way to recognise and challenge the limitations of a model of society based on Genesis 1.26-28 and an analogy with a Rubik’s cube.







Is “David’s Tent” Achieving Equality?

This post is from Becca Sillett about her experiences of attending the UK event “David’s Tent“, considering whether it practices gender equality,  She describes herself as “a daughter of God, student, worship leader, blogger, and songwriter (amongst other things)”. She is heading into her final year at Cambridge studying Biology, and is passionate to live an authentic life of worship, beckoning others to do the same. She says that, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and he is worthy of our every breath”.  You can check out her blog HERE.


David’s Tent is 72-hour festival of non-stop worship in a big, blue tent in a field near Brighton. It takes place over the August bank holiday weekend (24th-27ththis year). People from all over the world and from different church expressions gather to join in one song of praise to our King. The vision of David’s Tent is to restore the tent or tabernacle of David depicted in 1 Chronicles 16. King David dared to establish a tabernacle where all people could come to worship God without being separated from his presence by a veil. He boldly invited everyone into the Holy of Holies and declared the King of Kings accessible to all. For the 33 years that King David’s tent was established, musicians played before the Lord day and night without ceasing. This is the heart of David’s Tent – to once more prepare a holy place where only he is exalted and to pour out the praises that he deserves.


2018 marks the 7thyear that this family of extravagant worshippers has come together but is the first year that I was there to be part of it. I had heard a lot about the festival from various friends and had high expectations which were not disappointed. The sense of joy and excitement was tangible upon arrival as campers were pitching tents and unloading cars. The worship began at 2pm on Friday and continued without ceasing until 72 hours later. David’s Tent is fairly unique compared to other Christian festivals in that the main event is not teaching or sermons, but simply the presence of God in worship. A few large blue sheets and some metal scaffolding become a temple and God doesn’t hesitate to manifest his presence amongst his children.


The atmosphere of the whole festival truly is one of family. The team of volunteers (coordinated by the amazing Sarah Schrack) is just that, and from the moment each person enters the gates they are warmly welcomed as a brother or sister into the family party. ‘Family sustains revival’ #famsusrev is not just a catch phrase when it comes to the wonderful people working so hard behind the scenes; it’s the reality that they live out. This is what every single person is invited to come and be a part of at David’s Tent. Revival itself is not sought out, but it is expected out of the overflow as we seek God’s heart worship. He is a God of extravagance and abundance and as we pour ourselves out so does he – and revival rushes in.


There are many worshippers who have led sets at David’s Tent year after year and carry the vision in their hearts. Each brought something beautifully unique in their own expression of worship and many spontaneous songs were birthed. For me, the song of the weekend was Jason Upton’s ‘This Garden’s Gonna Grow’ which became somewhat of an anthem over the few days. Jason is a true father and worshipping heart and his authenticity radiates through his lyrics. Another new song that was shared was led first on guitar and then again on keys by the multitalented Molly Skaggs of the Cageless Birds. ‘There Ain’t No Grave’ is an old spiritual revamped by Molly with an original and powerful sound. There were also profound moments of breakthrough in the tent when the atmosphere tangibly changed as a refrain or song was sung out in the Spirit.


On the stage the equality between men and women was evident. It was a joy to see many women powerfully leading in their anointing and identity as a daughter of the King. Melissa Helser made it to the UK against the odds following a serious back injury and carried with her a spirit of perseverance and freedom. The way that she and Jonathan honour each other and mutually submit to the other’s anointing is beautiful to watch. In most sets there was a male and female vocal and the spirit of respect and equality was seen between them. Almost every male worship leader led with an instrument, whereas several women led solely with their voices. Those leading without an instrument have a greater physical freedom to move and dance, a freedom most definitely enjoyed by Steffany Gretzinger in particular.


As well as the main tent, there are other smaller tents dotted around the site. There is a breakout tent, where a few seminars are run, a community tent, a café, a market place and a prayer tent. There are also kids and youth tents where they get up to all kinds of exciting things including prophecy and their own exuberant worship. The atmosphere of the prayer tent was particularly peaceful as I frequented it at 7am each day. One morning prayer session I attended was led by a powerful daughter of God, Bobbi Kumari, around the topic of identity and sexual brokenness. Bobbi shared her story and declared the victory and blood of Jesus over all brokenness, shame and lies. The anointing over her life and ministry is evident. All through the day there are people on their knees before God praying and interceding for his world and his people. From peaceful soaking to passionate spiritual warfare, prayers of all kinds, of authority and of hope are lifted up in that small tent.


In every single tent, big and blue, medium and white, or the small multicoloured array down the hill, it is clear that David’s Tent is an event where Biblical gender equality is of the utmost priority. From those planning behind the scenes, to those volunteering on the doors and those leading on the stage, women and men are valued for their unique God-given identities. David’s Tent is a family that aims to release each individual into the fullness of their created potential and strives to see heavenly unity become our earthly reality. Equality isn’t an unobtainable ideal. It is a created reality which can and will be perfected once more. David’s Tent really seem to know this and live it out.

This Woman’s Journey – Sue Eldridge

Sue Eldridge is one of the Directors of Presence Ministries, Director of Alive and Kicking, and the School of Empowerment for woman. Together with her husband Tim she is co-directors of the annual European Leaders Advance conference, which from 2019 will become European Leaders Alliance. Whilst she would not describe herself as a feminist she is a champion of women in leadership and female empowerment. In this essay, she describes her journey.


I’m not a feminist, but I love being a woman.

I’m not a feminist, but I believe woman are capable of greatness.

I’m not a feminist but I don’t see a ceiling, glass or otherwise, that should prevent a woman from being who she is called to be. To me, character, gifting, integrity and ability are the factors that should determine who and what someone becomes or achieves, not their gender.


I love women. I love all their different facets and strengths. I love that women love so well, and that we are beginning to realise that vulnerability is not weakness but the kind of courage that will enable us, not just to survive, but to thrive and conquer.


Growing up as the youngest daughter of a Squadron Leader in the Air Force I was encouraged to be adventurous, determined and strong. I was what was affectionately known as a ‘Tom Boy’, up to the age of 11 … when I discovered the joy of ‘boys’ and Kiss Chase!! I know . . . Shoot me now! Rock climbing, hiking, fishing, swimming, snorkelling and diving were all part of my life growing up, but so were baby dolls and teddies. I would spend the day in the woods, making dens, climbing trees, stealing sweets (I’m sorry) and then come home to bath my dolls, wrap them in a blanket and feed them with a plastic bottle that never ran out of milk. I wore jeans, scruffy T- shirts, and shorts most days, but also loved dressing up in pretty things when the occasion arose. Life was good, and I believed I could be anything or anyone I wanted to be.


At the age of 13 we joined a church that had an interesting view of women. A view that said that woman could be a part of the Church Family, but not a ‘significant’ part. Woman could participate to an extent, but only if they honoured the angels by wearing a head covering. You could serve, and in some circumstances, lead small groups, but you could never hold any area of government. As a teenager, ‘the rules’ also looked like this: you had to be thin, feminine, quiet, have long straight hair and obviously an amazing singing voice. Ooops, I had no chance… I was NOT thin, not feminine, I was loud, I had wild curly hair and my voice was three octaves louder than anyone else, but not sweeter! I was doomed!


These ‘rules’ stayed with me for many years. I married a man from the church at the tender age of 21, after completing my Nursing training. Then, I took up the role I was born for, ‘keeping house’, and being a ‘Mummy’.  To be fair, I loved this role. However, I made a rod for my own back with regards to my hubby, because a warped sense of pride meant that I had to keep house as well as his mum had, and my mum had, and everyone else we met, ever had kept house. I had to be the best cook, homemaker, money-spinner, breast feeder, craft maker, and leader’s wife! I had to be better than anyone at anything to do with motherhood or housekeeping. It was exhausting. It was not empowering. It was competitive.


Fortunately, I grew up!


Well actually…I found myself at 38, having left Nursing, I was now a high-powered Sales Executive for a top Health-care company, working full time, being a mum and co-leading a church in Harrogate. I ran the children’s work, I led worship, I preached and I held dinner parties. I was super-mum. Until I wasn’t. Until the day I woke up and couldn’t move. Until the day that I sat sobbing in the doctors’ surgery while he told me I had had a breakdown and was clinically depressed.


I gave up my job…. I stayed alive. I ignored the jibes from colleagues, to ‘Pull myself together.’ I ignored the notes from Christians which said that I must have done something wrong for this to happen to me. I even managed to ignore the fear inside me that said I was never going to get better. And “better” I got, slowly, painfully I came back to being me.


Then God took me on the most amazing, sometimes painful, but beautifully liberating journey. A journey into who I am. I was in my 40s before I dared to believe I was worthy of anything. To believe that I was enough, just as I was. To believe that I didn’t have to do anything to ‘prove’ my worthiness to anyone, let alone God.  He then took me on the journey of who HE was. Not the judging tyrant I had tried hard not to believe all my life, but had always held onto. I found he was a loving, Grace-filled Father, who desired an intimate relationship with me, his daughter. I started to dare to believe what this loving God said about me, and everything changed.


You see I had believed I was fundamentally unworthy, that I was not good enough. So I had to spend my whole life proving that I was something I’m not. Brene Brown writes in her book I Thought it was Just Me, ‘You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.’ That’s what I was doing, in all my ‘busyness’ I was trying to earn my worthiness. My ‘worthiness’ for being a woman, for being a wife, a mother, even a Christian. So I have started to own my story. I now celebrate who I am, warts and all. I own my mistakes and I have grown because of them. This makes me the best me I can be. Not hiding. Not shame ridden, but 100% free.


This is what will make woman smash through the man-made ceilings. This is what will make top businesses fall over themselves to have woman on their boards. This is what will make Government sit up and take notice. This is what will make nations listen. Woman and men who are secure in their identity, who acknowledge their strengths and their weaknesses. Women who can celebrate the success of others, due to the confidence of their own self-worth. Woman whose worthiness is not reliant on being recognised by others.


Each of us has our very own part to play in this wonderful journey of life. Our part is to be the BEST us. Dr Caroline Leaf says in her book The Perfect You,‘God DOES understand you. He has placed significance in you-your “perfect you” – Your unique way of thinking. The blueprint of your identity is a brilliant design that unlocks something only you alone can do. As neuroscience shows us, every thought you think matters because it changes your brain. You create your unique reality and shape your brain with your thoughts.’


As women start to change the way we think about ourselves and the way we think about other women we will begin to believe that no one can be US better than WE can.

The Future of Complementarity: Families not Corporations?

We have another post today from philosopher Robin Bunce about the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology.  Today we get some insight into Andrew Wilson’s views.  Andrew runs Think Theology and is a New Frontiers pastor.  Robin is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published about the conference can be found HERE


On the last day of THINK 2018 Andrew Wilson made a bold statement. Speaking of ‘application’, of what the church could look like, he said, ‘the future of complementarity involves seeing the church as a family and as a household, rather than a corporation.’ He acknowledged that ‘the framework we’ve imbibed from the culture is much more a corporate one, not only in the church but actually even in the family, in the way we make decisions in our everyday lives.’ I agree wholeheartedly with Wilson that for years many complementarian churches and families have functioned like corporations. But I think he’s wrong about the cause. Wilson attributes the corporate character of complementarian churches to the influence of contemporary culture. In reality, corporatism is a necessary consequence of complementarian theology.


Greg Haslam’s book Moving in the Prophetic: A Biblical Guide to Effective Prophetic Ministrycontains an excellent example of corporatist complementarian theology. It’s also typical of complementarian theology in the period between 1994 to 2016, in the period where Wayne Grudem’s heterodox doctrine of the Trinity was allied to a gender theology of equal personhood but different roles. Moreover, its indicative of how the leaders of Newfrontiers, at least the leaders who tried to articulate their views on gender coherently, understood their theology. Indeed, Haslam was highly regarded within Newfrontiers as an authority on theology, as a person who thought rigorously, and argued coherently – and rightly so. At the time the book was published, Haslam was no longer part of Newfrontiers. Nonetheless, the bulk of the book was written whilst Haslam was an Elder in a Newfrontiers church, and after leaving the movement in 2007 he remained on excellent terms with Newfrontiers’ leadership. What is more, the book was dedicated to Terry Virgo, Newfrontiers’ founder, and Virgo reciprocated with a glowing review of Haslam’s book.


Haslam’s book concerns prophetic ministry. His chapter on women and men is crucial, as it explains the best way in which to allow God’s prophetic power to flow through the church and the home. Haslam argues that the submission of women to male ‘headship’ is essential to this process. God’s power, Haslam argues, flows in a linear and downward direction, through a hierarchical structure in which there are clearly defined roles. If the hierarchy is disordered, or if people do not conform to their gendered roles, God’s power is impeded. In fact, Haslam claims that failures of submission and ‘headship’ are ‘invitations for demons to infiltrate’ families, the church and the world.


According to Haslam, the hierarchy starts in the Godhead, where Jesus submits eternally to the Father. The Spirit, in turn, submits eternally to the Son. This hierarchical relationship in the Godhead is mirrored in the submission of women to men in the church, and in the home. Together, men and women have authority over non-human animals. The fall, Haslam argues, came about because this divine structure was subverted. He writes,

‘[t]his was a divinely planned and created order implying hierarchy, and designed to safeguard God’s perfect paradise from the encroachment of uncleanness . . . as long as God’s arrangements and personal authority were respected by Adam and Eve. If this authority structure – God, the man, then the woman, – was respected and observed in their joint task of dominion over the animals (including the serpent) and the rest of the created order in God’s world, then the evils that have invaded our planet . . . would never have been allowed to enter.’

So, Haslam understands the family, which he says is the model for the church, as a God given structure, in which authority is exercised according to a hierarchy implied by gendered roles. Crucially, this emphasis on hierarchy and rigidly defined roles sounds much more like a corporation than a family. Haslam does acknowledge the equal value and dignity of women and men, but this never deflects him from his central claim that ‘[i]n the home, as in the church, there is a God-ordained authority structure . . .’


Haslam’s description of female and male roles is corporate in the extreme. He describes the role given to Adam thus: ‘initiator, chief executive officer, director, inspirer and visionary.’ So, for Haslam, in a complementarian family the husband should be CEO. Clearly, for Haslam, the family is a corporate hierarchy. Haslam acknowledges that women can exercise authority of all kinds, when correctly authorised by their husband or Elder. Nonetheless, he warns ‘[w]herever divinely ordained authority structures are denied or overturned, the emasculation of men and the unseemly domination of women over men is the result… Witchcraft, control, intimidation and manipulation begin to distort male/female encounters, creating ugly caricatures of God’s beautiful initial design…’ For Haslam, a truly equal partnership between women and men is unthinkable. He argues that hierarchy is unavoidable. Consequently, we must choose between men exercising Godly ‘headship’, or female domination, which opens the door to demons.


With the rigour for which he is justly celebrated, Haslam’s argument shows that a theology which starts from gendered roles, necessarily leads to a conception of family and church which is hierarchical and rigidly structured. In fact, Haslam’s description of church and family is more corporate, and less flexible than any of the formal structures that I’ve ever worked within. To take one example, I have never come across a corporation that suggests that failure to work within its structures opens the door to demonic activity. Yet, for Haslam when a person disregards authority, this ‘becomes a landing strip for the demonic to gain a foothold in his or her life.’ The metaphor is mixed, but the message is clear.


Wilson is right, complementarian churches and families often tend to work like corporations. But this is no accident, nor the result of the prevailing culture. Corporate culture is a direct result of the hierarchy implied in the gendered roles central to complementarian theology, a theology that presents Adam as CEO and Eve as his subordinate. If complementarity is to escape the trap of corporate church and family life its advocates will have to be honest about the theological roots of the church culture they rightly reject.

Gender at the UK Bethel ELA Conference

Today we have a post from Ella Green who is the Charity Officer for an ecumenical charity based in Harrogate. She studied English Literature at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge and is now studying a part-time course at Leeds School of Theology.


European Leaders Advance is a conference with the senior leaders of Bethel Church, Redding, California, that aims to equip churches in Europe. It ran from the 24th-26thJuly this year and has taken place in Harrogate or London every year since 2013.


There has been a lot of hype surrounding Bethel church over the years and so I confess I was both a little nervous and excited about attending the conference. Bethel has been hugely influential upon the worldwide Church and has received praise and criticism for its strongly revival-focused ministry. There was no doubt from the title on the event programme, ‘Heaven invading Europe’, that revival was going to be a key theme of the conference.


The sense of expectation on the first night was palpable, and it wasn’t just on the first night I felt this, but indeed at every session. There were five fairly chunky sessions each day, and that’s not to mention the other endless opportunities for spiritual nourishment. There were ‘vision’ lunches, an ‘Encounter’ space for worship and ministry, a ‘Transforming Arts’ exhibition and plenty of chances for deep conversation with fellow delegates over break-times. It was certainly a spiritually intense few days and left me with a lot of meaty truth and wisdom to chew over!


The line-up of speakers included Bill Johnson, the senior Pastor of Bethel, Eric and Candace Johnson (Son and Daughter-in-law to Bill), Danny and Sheri Silk, and Paul Manwaring. Sue Manwaring, along with Tim and Sue Eldridge (co-hosts of the conference) also played key roles throughout the week. When I saw the names in the programme, I wasn’t sure what to make of the strongly family-orientated structure of the Bethel leadership team. I have to admit that as a single Christian woman, I sometimes struggle to relate to this very couple-focused perspective of ministry. However, the content of the sessions actually provided a refreshingly broad perspective of church and mission, with a strong emphasis on seeking a revival that lasts through the years and across the generations.


It was this focus on successful ‘fathering and mothering’ in God’s kingdom that particularly struck me. Clearly, the leaders of Bethel realise the importance of both fathers and mothers within the church, and yet there was no sense that these roles needed any kind of differentiation. In fact, there was very little explicit teaching on gender at all. Perhaps the closest they got to a discussion of gender roles was in a session led by Candace and Eric Johnson where they talked about co-leadership. They stood either side of the podium and spoke for equal lengths in turn; it was certainly not a case of the man giving the main talk and the woman tagging on at the beginning and end. Interestingly, Candace actually spoke about how she used to face this issue in their church staff meetings. Eric would naturally leap to the role of leading the meeting, jumping between ideas and giving her little space to speak, until the very end of the meeting when he would ask her if she had anything to add, by which point she felt frustrated and had given up on having anything to say at all! Eric was completely oblivious to the effect his behaviour was having upon her until she spoke to him about it, and so they now plan the meetings beforehand to ensure that each of them gets a chance to speak and share their ideas.


Candace also talked about her frustration at being labelled the ‘pastor’s wife’ when she initially joined the Bethel staff team. Whilst she didn’t feel any great need to be constantly praised and acknowledged, she couldn’t help but notice that Eric was often given credit for the work that she had done. I loved the fact that Eric’s response to this was to start referring to himself as the ‘pastor’s husband’ in his conversations with people.


As well as a few joint slots where couples spoke together, each speaker also had their own slot. I found it interesting that both the main female speakers, Candace and Sheri, placed emphasis upon the importance of ‘shining’ in our culture and context. In our self-deprecating British culture, this kind of message is perhaps less commonly heard, but it was empowering to be reminded that God uses us to ‘call out the greatness’ in each other. Candace explained that “we are called to develop our own voice and story….when we shine, we give others permission to do the same.” These women certainly practice what they preach; in a context where they could have easily become stuck as ‘the pastor’s wife’, they have clearly developed their own voices (indeed they have quite literally practiced preaching!) and it gives me hope that they are influencing a new generation of Christian leaders, both female and male.


Bill and Danny particularly focused on the need to successfully grow and equip future leaders. In an exegesis on what might be called a rather ‘niche’ passage in 2 Kings, Bill identified Hezekiah’s lack of concern for the future of his children and grandchildren as a symptom of his distance from God towards the end of his life and a sign of his fall from greatness. Danny followed with a talk later in the week about the importance of giving over responsibility to younger leaders, however risky this might sometimes feel: “Our role is to protect the momentum, not our ministry.” This seems to me to be a vital message, not just in relation to the kind of multi-generational leadership that Danny was speaking about, but also in the context of seeking gender equality in the church.


If we are to be led by the Spirit, in all His power, creativity, and glorious mess (if I’m allowed to call God messy?!), we cannot afford to be protective of our own roles and ministries; to be competitive or self-seeking. I have been convinced again by many of the words spoken at ELA that selfless investment in others is a sure gateway to seeing more of heaven on earth, and that means mature leaders have to be ready to give leadership roles to the younger generation. And yes, I believe that that also means that men need to be secure enough in their own identities as God’s sons to let His daughters step out fully and freely into the gifts they have been given.


Perhaps one of the reasons that Bethel is known by many Christians as a place where God’s kingdom is breaking through onto earth is that this church is creating a culture where people are empowered and released into their giftings. I would say that my time at the ELA conference has given me a wider window through which to see God’s heart for His church, as expressed so beautifully in Acts 2:


In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.


It seems to me that the leaders of Bethel get this. The Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate. We get to see God’s power fully present and active in our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, in both men and women. And that is something that truly excites me.


The image on this post is of Candace Johnson speaking at the conference, courtesy of John Mudie.

The Future of Complementarity: The Significance of the Orchestra


IMG_7550Philosopher Robin Bunce is back this week with another post on the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology.  This post focusses on Livy Gibbs‘ talk.  Livy is a New Frontiers church planter and pastor.  For those who are new to Robin’s posts or the conference, Robin is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts he’s written about the conference can be found HERE.  We’re really grateful for all the work he is doing unpicking the ideas from the conference!


If I’ve learned one thing from attending complementarian churches, it’s that car metaphors abound. Maybe it’s just the sermons I’ve heard, but the car was the go-to metaphor, whatever the theological issue. Baptism: its not a car-wash, it’s like having a new engine. Church: it’s not just a pitstop, it’s like a spiritual MOT. Who’s in the driving seat of your life? This Church needs a gear change! We need the Word and the Spirit, just like a car needs petrol in the tank and air in the tyres. Discipleship: it’s like learning to drive. And it wasn’t just the preaching. One Sunday the meeting ended with an impassioned prayer, ‘take the hand-break off Lord!’ After a while I began to wonder how first century Christians managed to think about God at all without the car. Perhaps it’s a sign that complementarity really is something new that Livy Gibbs ditched the car and talked in terms of the orchestra.


Gibbs played a crucial role in the conference, as the first speaker to really get to grips with the ‘beautiful difference’ between men and women, a notion central to the concept of complementarity. Like Jen Wilkin, Gibbs acknowledged her struggles with complementarianism. In terms of her marriage, she reflected that growing up ‘I understood that I was different by design to my brother, different to my Dad, and in my friendship with guys, I had different ways of thinking.’ Yet, when she got engaged and started grappling with issues of ‘headship’ and submission, she says, ‘I guess I felt like, I’m not inferior, but the differences I’m experiencing between male and female are not feeling comfortable to me anymore.’ She describes being committed to complementarian teaching, ‘but in reality, I couldn’t probably actually say that we were beautifully different – different, yes – but there was a lack of harmony.’ The ‘battle of the sexes’, that Gibbs says she experienced at home was also a feature of church life, where she saw ‘the struggle of women feeling put down, and side-lined, and like the doors had been shut to them.’ This struggle led her to ask, ‘why do I feel like when I explore ambitions for my future calling of God, that doors are closing on me?’


Breakthrough came, Gibbs recalls, when she ‘had a new metaphor to understand male and female, and it wasn’t a battle – a tug of war – it was more like an orchestra.’ For Gibbs, the orchestra metaphor helped because it described essential difference andharmony, lots of different people playing the same piece, all led by the same conductor.


Gibbs likens women to the string section, and men to the brass. Crucially, these instruments are made of different materials, and they make sounds in different ways. Yet they both make music. Within that, some women are like violins, some like double basses; some men are like trumpets, others like tubas. For a while, Gibbs says, she was encouraged to use her gifts in ‘women’s ministry.’ This she likened to playing in a string quartet. However, she wanted to play with the full orchestra.


Gibbs’ metaphor is extremely important, but before I consider its significance I want to highlight a few problems. First, the orchestra metaphor did nothing to clarify the nature of the ‘beautiful difference’ between women and men. Indeed, while Gibbs could give a detailed account of the differences between string instruments and brass instruments, she did nothing to elucidate the nature of sexual difference.


Second, the metaphor doesn’t really justify male headship, as brass and strings do not have a ‘headship’/submission relationship within the orchestra. Rather, the orchestra is a great picture of complementary difference and harmony withoutthe ‘headship’ of one section over another.


In addition, Gibbs’ metaphor has the potential to be much more radical than she intends. For example, the orchestra, as Gibbs acknowledged, has not two but foursections. If women are the strings and men are the brass, who are the woodwind and the percussion? Inadvertently, Gibbs has come up with an excellent metaphor to support a harmonious genderqueer church. Equally, Gibbs acknowledged that there are complementary differences within the sections of the orchestra, as well as between them: that a violin and a double bass, for example, are different and capable of beautiful harmonies. Again, unintentionally Gibbs has come up with a great bit of analogical reasoning to advocate for same-sex marriage.


No metaphor is perfect, but these issues raise an important question: why use the orchestra as a metaphor, rather than exploring a metaphor from the Bible to describe the relationship between men and women in the church? The simple answer is that the Bible doesn’t have a metaphor of this kind. The Bible does have a metaphor for diversity and harmony: 1 Corinthians 12 says, ‘a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though we are many.’ Crucially Paul’s metaphor is not gendered.


There are problems with Gibbs’ metaphor – even before I mention the Stroh violin and the Stroh cello, which is a metaphor waiting to happen – but not a metaphor that will sit well with complementarity I fear! But to focus on the problems is to miss a bigger point: Gibbs’ metaphor is significant because it shows that there are resources within complementarianism which can be mobilised by sincere believers to champion ambitious women – and Gibbs made no apologies for being an ambitious woman. Gibbs has found a way to convince complementarians that women should play a key role in preaching and leadership – in a way which is consistent with their sincerely held views of gender. The great Caribbean intellectual CLR James argues that within any social system and any intellectual position, however reactionary, there is a ‘progressive moment’, a key which can unlock progressive change. Whatever else complementarianism is, it’s the belief that women and men are equal in value and dignity. The problem is, that this has rarely been realised in practice. Gibbs has found a way within complementarianism to begin to make theory a reality. For all its problems, that’s why her metaphor is significant.