Month: January 2019

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.