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.








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