Robin Bunce 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. He’s written a few posts for us that can be found HERE about Think Theology’s conference, and this is his first that reflects ont the content of the conference.
As England took to the pitch on Tuesday, the THINK 2018 conference kicked off in South East London. In case you’ve been distracted by Eurovision, Brexit, the World Cup, or Love Island, THINK 2018 concerns ‘the Future of Complementarity’.
So far ‘complementarity’ has been defined against ‘complementarianism’, and ‘egalitarianism’, a kind of via mediabetween the hierarchical theology of Piper, on the one hand and the egalitarianism of Elaine Storkey on the other. It’s unsure whether the rest of the event clarified what this new doctrine will come to mean.
Jen Wilkin was one of the first to inject some meaning into the term. Wilkin undoubtedly has an interesting position. She argues that men and women have different relational styles. Whilst acknowledging exceptions, she claims that gendered relational styles are universal – true across cultures and across history. One of Wilkin’s examples concerns male and female approaches to morality. ‘Men and women are both moral’, she argues, ‘but actually research shows we are differently so.’ Her example is a version of the Heinz dilemma, a thought experiment in which a man steals medicine to give to his sick wife. A young woman, Wilkin argues, would tend to view the act of theft as legitimate, as her morality would be relational. A typical young man, by contrast, would conclude that the act of theft should be punished, as his morality would flow from more abstract principles. Wilkin appears to get her account of male and female morality from Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development(1982), which I will return to later.
The idea that women tend to see the world relationally, and men tend to see the world in more abstract terms has been doing the rounds in theology for a while. Jody Killingsworth, a worship pastor at Clearnote Church Bloomington, bases his theology of worship on a similar notion. However, while Killingsworth seeks to exclude women and femininity from worship, on the grounds that women prefer relationships to truth, and are therefore naturally heterodox, Wilkin takes difference in a new direction. Wilkin argues that both male and female takes on morality are legitimate. Therefore, in answer to the question ‘what do we need from women as a church’ she argues that the church needs the perspective of women, particularly when decisions are being made. After all, women have a different worldview to men, anda valid worldview, which Elders ought to consider. So, male Elders should accept the advice of women. Indeed, she argues ‘the help that a woman has to offer is essential and indispensable’ to church life. Particularly, Wilkin argues, churches need women’s ‘relational capital’, for women are ‘designed’ to enrich church life through relationships.
More than this, Wilkin argues that churches ‘need their [women’s] visible leadership.’ How visible? ‘As visible as your church’s complementarianism allows.’ Therefore, she argues that interpretation of scripture should be calibrated to make women’s participation in leadership as easy as possible.
Wilkin’s second question ‘what do women need from the church?’ yields an important answer. ‘Women’ she says ‘need to be shepherded’. In practice this means ‘single gender learning environments specifically, and single gender environments in general, where women can gather as women and develop relationally along lines that are comfortable to the women.’ These women only environments must also, she says, be comfortable to the church. In practice this means that all-female groups need to be overseen. Ultimately, the oversight of all-women groups falls to male Elders, who understand contemporary influences on women. ‘Do you [male Elders] know what trends in the market place are attracting them? Do you [male Elders] know anything about essential oils? What messages are women drawn to? What voices do they listen to? Do you know what books or blogs the women are reading – both secular and sacred?’ For the male Elders have a duty to point women to voices that they can trust. Crucially, women need the input of male Elders. ‘[I]n most cases’ Wilkin argues women ‘have only been given a feeling faith not a thinking faith.’ Therefore, women ‘will not objectively measure the message they are hearing, [rather] they will ask “do I like her?”’ If a teacher that a woman likes ‘says something that is crazy talk’ the woman will respond ‘you know what, I just like her so much I guess what she said is OK.’ As well as male oversight, women need mothers, to help them find good teaching, to be role models, and advocates. Consequently, Wilkin argues that women should be taken on to church staff to fulfil this motherhood role, and be paid as much as men who do similar jobs. This, and men who will celebrate gifted women, and ‘dignify our work’, is Wilkin’s recipe for fixing complementarian practice, which she acknowledges has been broken by male privilege, and men with a ‘shrivelled understanding’ of male-female relationships.
Having reconstructed Wilkin’s lecture, I have a few observations. First, I wholeheartedly agree with her account of the brokenness of complementarian practice. She says that ‘the way that most [male] pastors are taught to think about the opposite sex is only as a potential sex partner . . .’. I’ve seen that. She says that women in complementarian churches struggle to find mentors and advocates. I’ve seen that too. She says that when women are abused, male Elders quickly rush to blame the victim. Having listened to sermons by complementarian preachers, having read books by complementarian writers, having been in complementarian churches, I can attest that Wilkin’s critique of complementarian practice is painfully accurate. Wilkin sees the problems of complementarianism as clearly as any, and I applaud her for the clarity of her critique.
Her view of women is more problematic. At least one of her views of women is problematic, for she has two wholly contradictory views of women. On the one hand, her account of women as people with ‘feeling faith’ rather than ‘thinking faith’ reduces women to the status of children, for the cognitive process she attributes to most women (I like her therefore I agree what she is saying must be true) is infantile. But Wilkin’s picture of women is radically incoherent because she also presents women as highly rational. Consider her account of why women leave complementarian churches: ‘women are leaving complementarian churches because they believe a theological trade is necessary, for them to serve a meaningful role.’ Here, Wilkin presents women as tending to goal oriented behaviour that is based on a clear reading of data, and calculated trade-offs that tend to self-interest. Indeed, Wilkin’s argument for a reformed complementarianism, that ‘women need to be leveraged’ only makes sense if she believes that women tend to operate on the basis of rational calculation. If women really were as relationally minded as Wilkin sometimes claims they would stay in complementarian churches as long as they had friends.
Turning to Wilkin’s attitude to the Bible, she is pragmatic in the extreme. Her advice is that complementarian churches should interpret the Bible in such a way as to preserve complementarianism and keep women from looking elsewhere. On this account exegesis reduces to a marketing strategy, with no need for a careful reading of the Greek or Aramaic, or a consideration of the original context.
Finally, what about the psychology that underpins Wilkin’s theology? First, and this is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said, its contested. Baumrind, 1986; Bussey & Maugham, 1982; Ford & Lowery, 1986; Gibbs, Arnold, & Burkhart, 1984; Haan et al., 1968; Holstein, 1976; Kohlberg & Kramer, 1969 reached the opposite conclusions regarding gender and the Heinz dilemma to the research on which Wilkin relies. And other researchers such as Brabeck, 1983; Gibbs et al., 1984; Hoffman, 1975; Kerber, Greeno, Maccoby, Luria, & Stack, 1986; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974; Rest, 1979, 1983; Thomas, 1986; Walker, 1984 have concluded that gender had no relationship to judgements made regarding the Heinz dilemma. Obviously, the Heinz dilemma is only one of the studies on which Wilkin relies, but all of her psychological observations are contested.
More importantly, where is Wilkin’s gender psychology in the Bible? As far as I can see the Bible does not define typical masculine or feminine psychology, and I’ve been known to see for miles.
Finally, Wilkin’s emphasis on gender segregation raises the question of just how far men and women are truly complementary. She argues that men and women have different relational and learning styles, and therefore that a degree of segregation is necessary for each gender to flourish. What is more, in some ways, Wilkins sees the church in terms of threegenders: (i) men/Elders, (ii) women and (iii) mothers who bridge the gap between men/Elders and women. Mothers, on Wilkin’s account, are like men/Elders in that they have a ‘thinking faith’ but have a female relational style. In that sense too, typical men and typical women are not truly complementary, as they need ‘mothers’ (atypical women) to make the church work. Therefore, although Wilkinmakes the case for male and female difference, and asserts complementarity, much of what she says indicates that men and women are so different that they are antithetical towards each other’s flourishing rather than complimentary. Why else insist on such a degree of gender segregation, and the intermediary role of ‘mother’?
At the end of Wilkin’s session, I am much clearer about what complementarity could mean. In so far as it recognises the profound problems with complementarianism as it has been practiced for the last 30 years, I’m on board. In so far as it reduces exegesis to strategy, and in so far as it degrades men and women by reducing them to crude psychological types, in so far that it says that a high degree of segregation is necessary to promote male and female flourishing I’m going to say thanks, but no thanks.
Baumrind, D. Sex differences in moral reasoning: Child Development, 1986, 57, 511-521. Brabeck, M. Moral judgment: Theory and research on differences between males and females. Developmental Review, 1983, 3, 274-291.
Bussey, K., & Maugham, B. Gender differences in moral reasoning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1982, 42, 701-706.
Ford, R. M., & Lowery, R. C. Gender differences in moral reasoning: A comparison of the use of justice and care orientations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1986, 50, 777-785.
Gibbs, J. C., Arnold, K. D., & Burkhart, J. E. Sex differences in the expression of moral judgment. Child Development, 1984, 55, 1040-1043.
Haan, N., Smith, M. B., & Block, J. Moral reasoning of young adults: Political-social behavior, family background, and personality correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1968, 10, 183-201.
Hoffman, M. L. Developmental synthesis of affect and cognition and its implications for altruistic motivation. Developmental Psychology, 1975, 11, 607-622.
Kerber, L., Greeno, G. C., Maccoby, E. E., Luria, Z., & Stack, C. On In a Different Voice: An interdisciplinary forum. Signs, 1986, 11, 304-324
Kohlberg, L., & Kramer, R. Continuities and discontinuities in child and adult moral development. Human Development, 1969, 12, 93-120.
Maccoby, E. E., & Jacklin, C. The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974. (See Chap. 8, “Sex Typing and the Role of Modeling.”)
Rest, J. R. Development in judging moral issues. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1979, pp. 120-124.
Thomas, S. J. Estimating gender differences in the comprehension and preference of moral issues. Developmental Review, 1986, 6, 165-180.
Walker, L. D. Sex differences in the development of moral reasoning: A critical review. Child Development, 1984, 55, 677-691.