Philosopher 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.