Author: christianfeministnetwork

This Is Complementarity

Here is another brilliant piece from the excellent Robin Bunce, who has written a number of pieces about complementarianism and “The Future of Complementarity” conference run by Think Theology recently (you can find them HERE) .  He 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.  


Following THINK 2018, we’re closer to answering the question ‘what is complementarity?’ The answer is genuinely interesting.


During THINK 2018’s final session, the following ideas crystallised:


  • Complementarity reflects the ‘beautiful difference’ between women and men – a difference that means women and men are not interchangeable.
  • The speakers seem to accept the essential theology of complementarianism.
  • The speakers, to varying degrees, rejected much of the practice of complementarianism.
  • Complementarity is both ‘softer’ and ‘broader’ than complementarianism as it has been preached and practiced over the last thirty years.
    • It’s ‘softer’ in the sense that it’s advocates want women to play a much more significant role in church life than they have in previous complementarian settings.
    • It’s ‘broader’ in the sense that, while complementarianism has focused on the church and the home, complementarity is conceived as the basis for the whole of society.
  • Some of the speakers saw considerable overlap between their vision of Christian life and that of egalitarians, although there was push back against embracing ‘functional egalitarianism.’
  • Advocates of complementarity see the church as a family, rather than a corporation – which, they argue, has tended to be the model for complementarian churches. Therefore, they argue that there must be a place for fathers and mothers, brothers and sisterswithin church life.


Thinking historically, I’d make two points about the nature of complementarity. First, complementarity grows from the progressive aspects of complementarianism. Complementarianism, is sometimes characterised as anti-feminist. This, however, is only half the picture. The intent behind complementarianism, was clearly anti-feminist. Nonetheless, the architects of complementarianism accepted the feminist argument that women should flourish, and the Evangelical feminist case that ‘Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons’. Today, Evangelicals take this for granted, but in 1988 this was radical. Indeed, although it is sometimes claimed that ‘Christians have always believed that men and women are both made in the image of God’, this is palpably false – at least in the most obvious sense of the statement. Anyone familiar with the teaching of Tertullian, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or even preachers as recent as John R. Rice will recognise the tradition in Christian theology, which runs from the second century to the twentieth, that argues, albeit in different ways, that men alone truly bear God’s image.


Rather than thinking of complementarianism as anti-feminist, it’s perhaps better to think of it as postfeminist – particularly in the context of Britain, where complementarianism has developed along softer lines than in America. Kristin J. Aune’s ethnography ‘Postfeminist Evangelicals: the construction of gender in the New Frontiers International churches’argues just this. This means that it is possible to challenge the power of men, by appealing to complementarian principles. Indeed, it was interesting that speakers at THINK 2018 appealed to arguments recognisable from the last century of feminist thought. The notion that women and men must both be involved in decision making and governance because they are different, articulated by Jen Wilkin and Phil Moore, was precisely the position taken by the suffragists and other first wave feminists at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, Jen Wilkin’s argument for equal pay for equal work reflects the concerns of second wave of feminism, which emerged in the 60s. And her analysis of how male privilege works in complementarian practice is informed by even more recent feminist discourse. These arguments could be made by people who have identified as complementarian, precisely because complementarianism as it was originally articulated from 1988-1991 conceded considerable ground to feminists, inside and outside the church.


Second, complementarity reflects, albeit obliquely, more recent concerns about people who identify as transgender, gender queer, gender fluid, or gender non-binary. These were the concerns at the heart of the highly controversial Nashville Statementof 2017, of which the conference organiser Andrew Wilson is a signatory.  Indeed, while speakers at the conference were repeatedly unable to define what ‘beautiful difference’ meant in a positive sense, they could define it negatively. By this I mean that although none of the speakers could say what masculinity and femininity are, they could say what they are not: ‘beautiful difference’ means that women and men are notinterchangeable. Indeed, Alastair Roberts’ suggestion that men and women should refer to each other as ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ in the work place surely reflects the concern about how trans people are addressed, articulated by John Piperand implied in Article 11 of the Nashville Statement.


While the broad outlines of complementarity are clearer than they were a week ago, the last session revealed that a great deal is still to be resolved. The Q&A raised crucial theological issues: what is the nature of the ‘beautiful difference’ between men and women? Is God our mother andour father? What about 1 Timothy 2:13-15? In what sense is the earth our mother? And isn’t that a bit pagan? There were considerable differences of emphasis on the panel on some of these points. Turning to practical matters, Wilson admitted that he couldn’t give much in the way of detail. He also acknowledged that the speakers at the conference were divided on theecclesiological implications of the new doctrine.


There was, however, one extremely important piece of practical advice, and fittingly it was the statement that closed the conference. The most radical voices at the conference were women, and this was a radical statement. (Perhaps, and I’d be interested to hear Wilson’s thoughts on this, perhaps part of the ‘beautiful difference’ between women and men, is that women are the more radical sex?) A female speaker, who asked not to be named outside the conference, highlighted the need for repentance:


What do I think is the future of complementarity? I think, maybe not the future, but the path to the future, I think about things like corporate repentance; I think about prophetic lament; I think the path lies through a valley of lamenting and repentance – that starts personal, but has to have some kind of church wide expression. Just in the same way that we think about race issues, we have to grapple with our history. It’s no good to go, ‘We had that, and we had that for ages, and now we want to get there, so lets talk about solutions, lets talk about how the future looks different, lets jump right to how this looks in the nitty gritty.’  And I think that’s really frustrated a lot of people, men and women, because how can you go quickly from ‘it was always like this but now let’s have some women preach’, that’s so granular.


What we haven’t dealt with is a lot of pain from men and women, messages that they received from the church that were about gender worth . . . Whether it’s a large scale thing like misogyny or sexism, or racism, or whatever else, the path cannot jump right to solutions, the path has to lead through personal and corporate repentance . . .


She’s right.








Grappling with the History of Complementarianism

At the end of the recent THINK 2018 conference, one of the speakers, who asked not to be named outside of the event, argued that complementarian churches need to ‘grapple with our history.’ She argued that before complementarians could move on, before they could put the church right, they needed to consider what had been practiced and preached in the name of complementarianism.


THIS article, by Dr Robin Bunce and Rev Lucy Dallas, is written to help people who are serious about grappling with the history of complementarianism, which is 30 years old in November. It considers where the doctrine came from, how it was initially defined, and how it developed in the three decades since its initial formulation.


Read the essay here: Complementarianism at Thirty

Dr Robin Bunce is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge

Rev Lucy Dallas is the Director of Pastoral Studies for the Eastern Region Ministry Course




The Future of Complementarity – First Impressions

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.

Holstein, 1976

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.

‘Complementarity’ – the history and foundations of a new theology

We have another guest blog this week from the brilliant Robin Bunce.  He 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. 


Last week I encountered a new word: ‘denuclearization.’ Following Donald Trump’s unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong-un‘denuclearization’ is now a thing. In fact, it’s a thing that the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are committed to achieving.


New words and phrases crop up all the time, and existing words take on new meanings. Remember the world before ‘Cheeky Nandos’? Remember life before ‘google’ was a verb? For all their novelty, new terms come with a history. ‘Denuclearization’ entered Webster’s dictionary in 2016, but even then, it was part of a broader story, the history of the Cold War.


Words enter language for a reason. Continuing the Cold War theme, in the mid-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev repurposed the word ‘perestroika.’ He wanted to reform the Soviet Union, but he needed a neutral term, devoid of the associations of backsliding, and failure that clung to the word ‘reform.’ ‘Perestroika’ did the trick.


A new word appears to be entering theological discussion in Britain: ‘complementarity.’ It’s been knocking about for a while, thanks to Andrew Wilson, a London based church leader and theologian. In fact, Wilson is organising next month’s THINKConferenceto explore the term. Like all new or repurposed words ‘complementarity’ has a history. ‘Complementarity’ has grown out of the failures of complementarianism, a word which emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, to describe the theological position codified in the Danvers Statementof 1987-8. Over the past 30 years complementarianism has failed in a multitude of ways. It has failed theologically. Indeed, leading complementarian theologians sacrificed the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity on the altar of male domination. A more profound theological failure is hard to imagine. It has failed practically, rather than protecting women high profile complementarian churches have been embroiled in abuse scandals. Complementarianism has also failed conceptuallyin the sense that it relied on modern notions that simply weren’t available to Biblical authors. In that sense, what was presented a ‘Biblical’ doctrine, was based on an anachronistic reading of the Bible.


Complementarianism failed in another sense too: it failed methodologically. That is to say, the whole approach to the Bible which complementarian theologians took doesn’t bear scrutiny. Complementarianism cannot be found in any one passage in the Bible. You can’t turn to Galatians, or Genesis, or any other book and find the doctrine laid out. Rather, complementarian theologians took a few verses from Genesis, a few from the Epistles, and came up with a theological position which, although they claimed was true of the Bible as a whole, was not the teaching of any single Biblical writer.


Advocates of ‘complementarity’, then, have a big job ahead of them. They’ve got to defend male domination in a way which doesn’t twist established theology out of shape; which finally stamps out the abuse of women; which is not based on ahistorical readings of the Bible; and which is methodologically sound. It’s a gargantuan task. Here, I’ll focus on the foundations: the methodology.


The Future of Complementarity conference leans heavily on theologian Alistair Roberts. Roberts is clearly much more sophisticated in terms of his methodology than the authors of the Danvers Statement. Helpfully, he has set out his approach to the Bible in his blog. He writes, ‘My concern has always been to read the Bible on such subjects closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively.’


He contrasts this to an approach to the Bible which he rightly considers unsound, ‘By contrast, a highly selective and piecemeal reading . . . a reading that takes modern concerns to the text and seeks to find biblical support, rather than an intensive, extensive, and attentive engagement with the Bible’s own witness on the Bible’s own terms.’


So, whereas others read the Bible selectively, Roberts aims to read it comprehensively; and while others read modern concerns back into the ancient texts, Roberts seeks to read the Bible in its own terms.


But here’s the problem: Roberts is trying to have it both ways. First, is it possible to read the Bible comprehensively, and in its own terms? The short answer is no. The Bible does not tell us how it should be read. Crucially, nowhere does the Bible say, ‘This I say unto you, read the Bible comprehensively.’ To read the Biblical texts in their own terms is one thing, to read the Bible comprehensively is another.


But surely, a comprehensive reading is what the writers of the Bible had in mind, even if they didn’t say so? This counter argument leads on to a second problem: does the Bible have its own terms? Again, the answer is no. At the most basic level, the Bible doesn’t even tell us which texts make up the Bible. Nor does it give us any criteria for judging which writings, should be included or excluded. Therefore, the Bible’s authors couldn’t have wanted us to read the Bible comprehensively, for the simple reason that they didn’t have the Bible as we understand it today.


Turning to practicalities, is it possible to produce a truly comprehensive reading of the Bible? Again, no. All readings are necessarily selective. Wilson and Robert’s ‘Complementarity’ will differ from John Piper’s complementarianism, in part, because it will focus on a different set of passages. Piper presents his position as comprehensive and ‘Biblical’, Roberts and Wilson will do the same. In reality, comprehensiveness will elude them all.


Concern over methodology may seem eccentric. But the absence of a robust methodology in complementarian circles meant that there was no check on the development and widespread acceptance of a heterodox doctrine of the Trinity. What is more, gender theology has a real impact on people’s lives. Sketchy methodology leads to bad theology, which in turn can have malign consequences for sincere believers.


The organisers of THINK2018 hope to launch ‘complementarity’ as a theological term. They may even succeed. After all, coming up with a new term is a good strategy. The early modern philosopher Frances Bacon understood the peculiar power of words. He realised that people often mistake the properties of words, for the properties of the things that they describe. In that sense, he argued, words, can be ‘idols of the forum’. Gorbachev played on this mistake. He presented reform as ‘perestroika’. Senior Communists, fearful of reform, were taken in by the properties of the new word. At the beginning of the 90s the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood made the same move. People who would never jump on board with ‘male domination’, might sign up for ‘complementarianism.’ However, thirty years on it’s clear that complementarianism really is just another justification for male domination. The word is tainted, a new one is needed. My advice to anyone attending THINK2018 is to question the reality behind the word. What will ‘complementarity’ mean in practice? And if it means excluding women from areas of church life, covering up abuse, and rationalising misogyny, are you OK with that? I’m not. Much as I love words I prefer to face reality.


Weaker but Equal: the Future of Complementarity?


Today’s post is from Dr Robin Bunce, who 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. 


I’m no monarchist. Back in the 1640s, Cambridge stood with Parliament rather than the King, and having lived in the city for more than 20 years, I guess I have picked up something of that spirit. Yet, the wedding of Meghan and Harry melted my republican heart. The combination of Gabriel Macht’s smooth Hollywood glamour, and Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s sure ecclesiastical authority was irresistible. The ceremony foregrounded the talents and voices of women, including many black women. Meghan herself stamped her authority on the proceedings. She was not ‘given away’, she did not promise to ‘submit’ or ‘obey’, and she walked down the aisle without a male escort. The wedding does not end racism in Britain, nor wipe away years of entrenched and institutional inequality. But Meghan’s entry to ‘the Firm’ seemed a statement of intent: the monarchy would change for her, she would not change for the monarchy.


As the Queen’s subjects celebrated perhaps the first feminist Royal Wedding, British evangelicals, at least some of them, gear up for an altogether more cerebral event: the Future of Complementarity, a Conference organised by THINK, a group with such chutzpah they always print their name in capitals.


Andrew Wilson trailed the conference in 2017. According to Premier Christianity, Wilson thinks it is time to ‘rethink gender and complementarianism’, and distinguish between ‘complementarianism’, and ‘complementarity’, apparently ‘a “softer term” which many egalitarians also hold to, where difference between genders is acknowledged.’


A month or so out, what can we expect from the conference? The programme, circulated on 15 May, gives some clues. Alistair Roberts appears to be doing the bulk of the work. With a PhD from Durham, and a book Heirs Together: A Biblical Theology of the Sexesin production he’s eminently qualified for the job.


Roberts is a prolific blogger, and therefore, it is possible to anticipate the general outlines of his position. He writes on a frankly prodigious scale. While it would be possible to synthesise a general position from his various works, this runs the risk of creating a position which is not true of any one of his essays. With that in mind, I will try to reconstruct and critique Roberts’ view of gender as it appears in a single essay: ‘Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character”.’ While this may not be wholly typical of his thoughts on gender, it does at least contain a broadly coherent argument, and, weighing in at just over 7,050 words, there’s a lot to consider.


Roberts’ essay focuses on contemporary cinema. The essay’s goal is to critique the trope of the strong female character, a response, he argues to the ‘social justice movement’, developments on social media, and the commercial logic of the modern film industry. Roberts claims that films which foreground female characters who exhibit predominantly masculine virtues are problematic, as they distort God’s natural order in a way which creates resentment among women, and demeans men.


Roberts’ argument gets into trouble immediately, as he fails to set out a metric by which the ‘strong female character’ trope can be measured. Without this, it is impossible to know if it exists, if it is a growing trend, or if it is typical of recent films.


Despite this fatal shortcoming, the essay is interesting as it sets out Roberts’ view of gender. Discussing Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, he writes,

Luke’s journey is a recognizably male one, emphasizing common masculine traits, interests, and concerns throughout: It involves an orientation towards combat, an exceptional interest in and aptitude with technology, a concern to protect women and deliver them from harm, and the existential importance of the male mentor and of the young man’s identification with his father.


Contrasting women and men, he writes:

Women’s greater natural orientation towards relational and caring activities leads to their underrepresentation within the more lucrative and powerful professions. Women are drawn to subjects and occupations that are more personal, artistic, and relational, while men to those that are more realistic, investigative, and thing-based.

Roberts is careful not to say that allwomen and men conform to type, but at the same time he builds his argument around typicality.


Referring to the work of anthropologist David A. Puts, Roberts pays some attention to natural differences in physical strength between women and men. Noting the existence of some exceptional women, he argues that ‘when we are dealing with the extremes of strength and performance, women simply cannot compete.’ Moreover, he argues that expecting women to engage in activities where men have an ‘exceedingly large’ advantage sets women up for failure, which causes resentment.


Roberts is on firm ground when he describes relative differences in physical strength. However, once he begins to consider the implications of these differences his argument quickly runs into trouble. The argument that ‘women simply cannot compete’ in tasks requiring extraordinary physical strength only holds water, if there is no alternative to the use of strength. In reality, a little ingenuity can negate even extreme physical differences. Lorry M. Fenner and Marie E. deYoung make this point eloquently in their discussion of a study conducted by the US Navy to determine the physical requirements of different tasks:

[Researchers] set up an experiment using typical forty-pound bags of mail. The bags were set on the mailroom floor, and postal clerks were told to weigh them. When the first clerk entered the room, he lifted each bag onto the scales on the counter. When the next clerk entered the room, she took one look at the bags and the scales, then moved the scales to the floor and proceeded to weigh the bags. . . . The researchers discovered that they would have to take creativity and initiative into account in setting physical job standards.


(Lorry M. Fenner and Marie E. deYoung, Women in Combat: Civic Duty or Military Liability? 2009, p. 8.)


In this sense, real natural differences in strength do not imply a domain of male competence which is simply out of the reach of women. Whatever else we are, humans are tool using creatures, and artificial aids can make up for a lack of natural strength. ‘Give her a lever and a place to stand and a woman can move the world’, as Archimedes might have said.


The irony is that Roberts presents himself as a person committed to celebrating women as women. Yet he fails to recognise that while women may do things differently, they can, and do achieve the same ends as men, if they so wish. In that sense, Roberts’ gendered view of human domains leads him to argue that women should not engage in typically male pursuits, rather than celebrating women who do things their way.


What of Roberts’ view that depictions of women exhibiting physical strength in film make women feel resentment? In truth, there are so many problems with this argument it is difficult to know where to start. The argument rests on all kinds of assumptions about human psychology, assumptions that Roberts does not acknowledge nor defend. Suffice it to say that Roberts offers no evidence that film leads to resentment. What is more, in order to do so, he would have to conduct a full scale psychological study.


Roberts’ thoughts on gender difference are part of a broader perspective on equality. Notably, Roberts believes in equality in one sense, whilst rejecting other senses of the term. Roberts summarises his vision of human relations thus:


. . . a world in which women are the weaker sex, yet can still attain to the stature and dignity of full agents and persons—the true counterparts and equals of men . . .


However, he argues that this conception of, what could be called, “weaker but equal” is beyond the grasp of those who adhere to a ‘socially progressive’ ideology, and therefore assume that equality means ‘men and women are interchangeable’.


Roberts’ characterisation of ‘socially progressive’ ideology is easy to critique, on the basis that very few feminists, liberals or socialists believe that men and women are simply interchangeable. JS Mill did not believe this, nor did Mary Wollstonecraft, nor Angela Davis, nor Kate Millet, nor Hazel Carby, nor Germain Greer, nor Alice Walker.  Egalitarianism is wholly compatible with a belief in natural difference. The point is that natural differences should not determine a person’s social status, role, or be the basis on which society excludes them or limits their ability to flourish.


Turning to Roberts’ view, the first problem is that he believes ‘the strength and dignity of women to lie, in no small measure in the fact that they are different from men.’ Whilst this sounds progressive, it is important consider the implications. For Roberts, a woman’s dignity is contingent (in no small measure) on the extent to which she conforms to the characteristics which he views as essentially female. By definition, then, a woman who exhibits masculine characteristics loses her value – in no small measure.


The second problem with Roberts view, is that he does not genuinely value all of the characteristics he deems naturally or typically female. Indeed, he argues that some natural female characteristics are dangerous to men. He writes:


The push for ‘diversification’ and ‘inclusion’ can be a threat to many male groups because their natural rougher socializing tendencies are stigmatized, they are no longer permitted to play to their strengths, and their shared cultures and cultural products are jeopardized by a sort of gender gentrification imposed upon them.


Put simply, he argues that when men include women in their friendship groups, their relationships with other men and their ability to be men suffers. This is a significant change from the complementarianism of writers like John Piper. For Piper, women were created as the ‘helper’ of men. By this he meant that women were made to be men’s perfect partners. This is clearly not how Roberts sees things. Far from viewing women and men as complementary, Roberts, the apostle of complementarity, views women’s natural tendencies as a threat to male flourishing.


What are the implications for women in the church? Its hard to be exact, but if Roberts wants to marginalise atypical women in film, I assume he will want to marginalise atypical women in the church. For Roberts, the only thing more dangerous to healthy masculinity than a typical woman is an atypical woman.


As a historian of ideas, Roberts’ theology is of real interest. My working hypothesis is that it emerges from two contradictory urges. On the one hand Roberts, quite naturally, wants to evade accusations of misogyny on Twitter. On the other, he is part of the post-Driscoll generation, who want to foreground a theology which celebrates heteronormative masculinity. The fact that Roberts ultimately fails to resolve this tension is no stain on his intellect, he has simply taken on an impossible task.


Speaking at Meghan and Harry’s wedding The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry gave a glimpse of what the world could be. Quoting the wisdom of people who were enslaved he instructed crowned princes on the importance of unconditional love. Unconditional love means accepting people as they are, not requiring them to conform to type, nor marginalising those who fail to do so. Roberts’ emphasis on the weakness of women is perplexing. We are all weak, it is God, not our gender typicality, that makes us strong. If complementarianism was the doctrine of ‘different but equal’, complementarity is the doctrine of ‘weaker but equal’ – that’s no improvement.

Christian Feminist Q & A – Sally Rush

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a lay free church chaplain, a mother, a wife. I’m also a Methodist lay preacher. My husband happens to be f to m trans & I happen to identify as queer. Beyond all those labels I’m an avid reader who loves wandering around art galleries.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I’ve been a Christian since I was a child, although I grew up in a house which was not at all religious and my parents didn’t go to church. When I was quite little a neighbour took me to an Anglican Church; by the time I was 9 or 10 I’d decided to go to the local Baptist Church that had really good youth facilities. I moved from Baptist to Methodist in the late noughties when I moved to Durham and needed a church within easy reach of public transport links. I’ve been going to Methodist Churches ever since, although a couple of them have been URC/ Methodist combined and because of my husband’s studies I live in an ecumenical Christian college.

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I came to identify as a feminist when I was a teenager. It was when I read Elaine Storkey’s What’s Right with Feminism I began to identify as a Christian feminist. I am not sure how I first came to own the general feminist label. I think it may well have been because growing up I supported the aims of the women at Greenham and I knew they were feminists.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I think certainly since I was in my early twenties, the two have naturally sat together. Whilst I had gone to evangelical Baptist churches the first one had women acting as deacons and the second had a female minister and so the leadership question was never a big one for me.

Also Elaine Storkey’s work had been such a big influence on me whilst I was studying sociology at university and so I could articulate why I identified as a Christian feminist as opposed to any of the other strands. For me it was to do with holding with the idea that men and women were of equal worth because of what the bible and my faith said not in spite of that.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I’ve never been heavily involved in feminist/ gender equality activism or initiatives but I have been more on the edge of those things. I have attended various demos and conferences and when I did a M Lit study into single parents in churches I tried to take some of the findings of that (which said the experience of single parents actually had to do with views of women in leadership more broadly as well as a few other reasons) into the public sphere, by occasionally preaching on Hagar for example.

With regard to gender equality more broadly I have been involved in helping support Trans Day of Remembrance events and so on. One issue I do fight for which is not gender specific but is more likely to impact women is trying to get people to identify the impact of loss and grief on the cis partners of trans people who are transitioning. So far that’s just involved giving some conference papers and writing on my blog.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

The key issues for me are to do with recognising the way in which churches particularly often exploit the unpaid labour of women when paying men for their involvement and talk about the Sabbath but often add demands on to women doing the “triple shift” already. I feel passionate about this because what the most recent stats are saying but also the number of women I know basically being exploited by the church.

The other key focus for me at the moment as I say is the recognition of invisibility in relation to cis women, particularly, whose partners are transitioning. Part of this comes from personal experience but also because I think there is a whole set of support starting to be put in place for people who are transitioning but not for their partners.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

I have become far less militant as I have got older and more aware of how men suffer too, often because of the same root causes as women. When I was younger, patriarchy was the obvious cause of gender injustices to me but now I am more sympathetic to the impact which wider structural issues related to the economy and environment have. Whilst still taking a Christian perspective I have read more womanist material and am much more conscious of the role of intersectionality.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

Hagar was a huge inspiration to me when I was a single parent, and became a central figure when I was doing my theology research. I think the way white majority churches particularly make her invisible through not including her in lectionary readings is absolutely awful.

The other big influence for me has been Antoinette Brown-Blackwell who was the first female ordained by a mainstream denomination in America. She was a feminist who felt herself to be a stranger in a strange land. I can really relate to the way she felt that she didn’t fit into the secular liberation movement or the church fully.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

I think that my being a feminist is just viewed as part of the mix which is me. In some churches it was just one part of my faith mix which was probably viewed as a bit dodgy but nobody really referred to. More recently I’ve been in churches which have encouraged engagement with feminist thinking.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think there has been a lot of really, really good stuff happening in Christian Feminism through the work Natalie Collins, Kristin Aune and others have been doing and in secular feminism through the Everyday Sexism projects. There has been the development of activism which has sought to deal with the variety of problems that women are suffering with.

To be honest for me that has been a relief after the focus within Christian feminism seemed to be middle-class women going on about leadership in the Anglican church whilst ignoring the experience of women for whom that wasn’t a calling.

I do worry about the rise of the feminists who are seeking to undermine trans rights by their insistence on using biological understandings of what it means to be male or female based on similar understandings as the most Conservative Christians, where it’s all linked to genitals and reproductive ability. For me those feminists are dangerous and reinforcing binaries.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

As I’ve already indicated I think the way women are being exploited and working “triple shifts” or even “quadruple shifts” where they often work, do household chores and have primary carer responsibilities for children or elderly relatives and then do a lot of unpaid work for churches without being able to take a Sabbath themselves as an area the church could do so much better on. I was really interested in the gender breakdowns linked to fresh expressions in the recent Church Growth data. For me that really highlighted a lot of the problem.

I’d also like to see churches engaging with trans issues fully and coming up with ways for the cis parents or partners of trans people (often women) to acknowledge their feelings of loss.

Finally with regard to domestic abuse churches are getting so much more right but I think they still have some way to go.

FB_20151121_13_24_02_Saved_PictureSally Rush lives in Birmingham and works as a lay free church chaplain.


Twitter: @Aston_Chaplain2

Christian Feminist Q & A – Natalie Collins

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Natalie Collins and I work as a Gender Justice Specialist.  I’m 31 and am a Northerner living in Essex with my fab husband and 3 excellent children.  I am working class, talk extremely fast and am allergic to small talk. 

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I grew up in a Christian home with parents who raised us to trust God for provision and who lived out deep faith commitment.  They also believed most things printed in the Daily Mail.  

Through various challenges as a young adult I discovered parts of what it means to love God and be loved by God in ways that can only be found through deep suffering and pain.  We attend an Anglican church (though I am not an Anglican) and I would probably identify as a radical evangelical.

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

Feminism enabled me to make sense of the abuse I had been subjected to.  It was when I discovered that there was an analysis which a) made sense of why male violence happens and b) how we change it, that’s when I began identifying as a feminist.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

Jesus saved my life. Feminism made sense of my life.  So in many ways, no there hasn’t been a personal fight between the two.  However, I totally get why feminists find Christianity incompatible with women’s liberation. Feminism works as an ideology.  Christianity only works as a relationship with the Living God that leads to the Way of Life. I have to wrestle with the Bible and Christian culture and Christian people (I don’t literally wrestle with Christians, only ideologically, or metaphorically).  But on a fundamental level, feminism and faith have never been a difficult thing for me to hold as true for my life and for the world.  

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

Yes!  I have worked delivering domestic abuse education programmes for women. I wrote the DAY Programme, a youth domestic abuse and exploitation education programme and train practitioners across the UK to run it with young people.  In my work I specialize in addressing domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation, pornographies amongst various other things. I set up a campaign to address the abuse within the Fifty Shades series.  Within a Christian context, I am one of the founding members of the Christian Feminist Network and I also am part of Project 3:28.  I’m also really interested in gender reconciliation and earlier this year organised a UK workshop with Gender Reconciliation International. I tweet, write and speak on lots of aspects of feminism and faith.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Male violence against women is the thing I am most passionate about addressing and also, within a Christian context, representing feminism in a way that challenges the patriarchy in the church, while also showing secular feminists that Christian feminism is not an oxymoron.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

Yes.  I’ve become much more radical and uncompromising.  

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

The Christian foremothers have been had a great influence on me; Cathy Clark Kroeger and Elaine Storkey amongst them. My daughter Megan is a massive influence and she inspires me to believe and hope for change. My dear friend Sue King who is an older woman and a Marxist feminist has challenged and encouraged me in so many ways over the years.  I love her a lot. Also my lovely friends Jo and Cath, who love women with all their being. And a wonderful woman called Jenny Parnham, who thinks deeply and has a massive vision for girls. Ah, once I start thinking about all the women I love and who inspire or influence me, I could go on forever!  

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

I think it’s changed in the last few years. I feel a sense of trepidation, like telling feminists that I’m a Christian is a sort of “coming out” in that space.  But I’ve never been treated unkindly for it. Even women who have told me they can’t follow my twitter account because of the God stuff haven’t been unkind. Feminism isn’t Christianity and so the two things are never going to be One Thing.  

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

I was in a church once where the leader said that feminism was spiritually evil. My mum took a long time to come round to the idea that feminism could be good as she was extremely committed to the “pro-life” cause and so feminist was synonymous with “baby killer”. I’m so deeply feminist now that I’m mainly oblivious to Christians who are anti-feminism. Some of my best friends are Christian feminists and I am in a really blessed position of knowing loads of people who are a Christian and get feminism, so I guess I’ve made Christian feminism my “norm”.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think there’s a lot to celebrate, but there’s also a lot to be concerned about. Patriarchy is always subverting feminist ideals to further its own purposes. Popularity is always on the side of the powerful and so there’s a questions about whether the popularity of feminism has degraded it, diluted it and undermined the primary goal of feminism, which is women’s liberation.  

I think that there are lots of ways that feminism is being controlled and dominated by issues and voices that are not, at core, feminist. But I also think that the rise of feminism has enabled change e.g. the end of Page 3, preventing Ched Evans being re-employed, keeping women on banknotes, making the struggle of women visible.

I believe that there is a prophetic move towards women’s liberation that has been happening over the last decade and so I think some of what we are seeing is God moving (often with non-Christians getting it more clearly than Christians).

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

I think there’s things I’d like to see a focus on and then there’s things I’d like to see the focus reshaped. I think things are changing in terms of women’s representation, mainly through the hard work and dedication of women and men to see things change, and then in the last few years, with the Project 3:28 statistics that are released each year detailing the gender balance on the national Christian platform.

I’d like to see a reshaping of the focus on trafficking, pornographies and the Christian white saviour complex. The issues of trafficking and pornographies are massively complex and the response must include a deep feminist analysis of the issues, which is sadly lacking in the majority of Christian responses to these issues. I guess the ideal would be that feminist analysis and practice would be mainstreamed through the social justice elements of Christianity.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Yes. I think feminist events could seek to ensure the voices of feminists of faith are included in their work, just as other intersectionalities are. I think articles, blogs, seminars and talks which discuss feminism and faith would be great. I’d also like to see it ensured that the majority of content published about faith and feminism is written by feminists of faith.

JBNWlWECNatalie Collins lives in Essex and works as a Gender Justice Specialist. 


Christian Feminist Q & A – Ali Wilkin

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m 46, I was born in London and was raised in Essex, and I lived in Hull and Sheffield before returning to my home town after my marriage broke down. I’ve been a single parent (and single) for 16 years, and I’m the proud mum to two amazing young men. I’m passionate about the things I care about, read like a demon, try to listen more than I talk, and talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

My parents are agnostic, although my family on my Mother’s side are C of E; my great-grandmother had very close ties with her local Quaker and Pentecostal churches too and I was always very influenced by her openness to worshipping as she felt led by the Spirit. I am an Anglican, and have been since coming to faith 12 years ago – the Eucharist is the place where my head faith and heart faith first truly came together, and I love liturgy.

Since becoming part of a fresh expression of church 6 years ago and one of the lay leaders of that, Monday night has been church night: that is either in the form of a shared meal, a social evening at a local pub, or coming together for a simple shared supper, worship, prayer and study in our local community centre. There are plenty of challenges in being part of ‘corporate’ lay leadership* of such a community, but I am blessed to be part of a group of people who are so generous, committed and gifted.

*There isn’t a single leader: each one of the lay leaders has different gifts and responsibilities, and decisions are made as a group together. 

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I identified as a feminist as a young child and right through to my early twenties initially: it was as natural to me as breathing. I used to doodle feminist things on my school note books (things like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”/”whatever we say, whatever we do, yes means yes and no means no”) along with feminist and CND symbols.

It was a very simplistic feminism, but as I got older I began to have a lot of questions and issues, which the feminism I was being presented with could not easily address. It treated all girls as being essentially the same, and as a result it increasingly didn’t speak to me or to some of the girls and women around me – in terms of class, race and sexuality particularly, the concerns of the feminism available to me were entirely unrelated to the lives and struggles of working class women, black women and women of colour, LBT women (and the intersections of those), and in my early twenties I began distancing myself from feminism increasingly.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I had distanced myself from feminism before I came to faith and from the start my own experience of faith felt deeply at odds with the patriarchal nature of the Church, with its gendered language and performance of faith as worship before a masculine God. Eventually I began to feel very strongly a particular call on my faith, and I believe God is raising up a generation of women (particularly LBT, black women and women of colour) to speak out against oppression: the feminism I was re-discovering through that has grown a faith and feminism entwined around each other.

In the early days of my faith I struggled with what I thought of as the tension between the two, but I had a wonderful example in my late great-grandmother whose own instinctive faith was such an amazing example – she had always encouraged me to learn to trust my own instincts, and this helped me to see past the human patriarchal constructs which men have spent 2,000 years building around God, Jesus and faith. I had a minister who encouraged me to use feminine language for God, and I am often the only person in my church singing to Mother (rather than Father) God!

One of the great blessings of the internet is how it helps me connect with and hear other feminists and queer people of faith and their stories, and having the opportunity to lift those up. The real tension is not between faith and feminism – the real tension is between people, and between those who see the patriarchy as something man made (one of the ‘traditions of men’), and those who think of it as something God ordained.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

To me, activism isn’t something which is separate from life: for many cis and trans women, simply surviving from day to day is activism, in defiance of the systems of power which silence or dismiss their existence. There have been campaigns which I have been involved in online by re-tweeting, doing something to lift up the voices of those who society wants to hear from the least. As someone who does not seek a media platform, my contribution to that is small but it matters that we all do what we can.  

Locally I am working to grow and raise awareness in my own community: talking to people, raising the issues, and recently I organised a prayer service for victims of abuse. That required working with my vicar, talking through reasons and issues, understandings of power and boundaries and so on. It’s small scale stuff but change happens from the ground up, not the other way round: like the mustard seed, it’s a tiny amount in the scheme of things, but big things come from that tiny seed. I am currently working on a new blog that will focus entirely on forgiveness – the theology of forgiveness is so riddled with victim blaming and its something I have been thinking, praying and meditating on a lot for the last several months.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Violence against women, rape and abuse, the inclusion of LBT women, racism, poverty, and disability and the intersections of those. These are where the patriarchy’s abuses of its corrupted power are most evident. As a survivor of domestic and psychological abuse and rape, as someone who is bisexual and who has struggled with mental health issues for most of my life, raising my voices with others to challenge the prevalence of rape culture (outside and inside the church) matters very much.

There is always a tension between the church and those whose sexuality does not conform to the patriarchal norm and even within the LGBTQ community, those of us who are bi experience a lot of erasure, and for my trans and non binary sisters the situation is often much worse – especially when whiteness so is completely centred in everything.  Secular feminism struggles with queer theory and theology easily as much as Christian feminism does so it matters to me very much that this is better understood. Feminists (both secular and of faith) are often uncomfortable around queer theology and theory, and this impacts the trans and non binary community particularly. I know there is much argument around this, but sooner or later we are all going to have to grasp that that working for all women (including trans and non binary women) does not prevent my (or any other cisgender woman’s) liberation. Quite the opposite.  

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

My feminism has evolved very much and one of the great joys of Twitter and social media is how it’s given me the opportunity to hear and learn from a multiplicity of voices. But I have also learned to be comfortable and welcoming of being unwelcomed even within feminist circles: I was never popular with the other feminists when I was younger, because I questioned why we were so white, so awful to trans women, so focused on getting the same jobs and power as the patriarchy, so willing to throw single mothers under a bus and so critical of women who wanted to stay at home to raise their children – in short, so eager to replicate the very patriarchy we were supposedly wanting to dismantle (I was 40 years old before another feminist called me sister!).

Being an outsider is something that has both deepened my faith – I think of how unpopular Christ was in His day – and offers a certain kind of freedom, as I am an introvert by inclination anyway.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

In scripture, I love Esther and Mary Magdalene, and Mary (Jesus’ mother) – in their own ways they were all outsiders, not popular, willing to take risks for what they believed in and always always full of faith.  In life the women in my family each inspire in their own way: I am blessed that the generations before me have each been sources of strength and inspiration in different ways. And in my life (online and offline) there are so many women, each with their own gifts and stories to tell.  

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

Honestly, I am more likely to be dismissed for being trans inclusive than for being a Christian feminist. My experience overall has been incredibly positive.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Sometimes I think people in the church treat it like a hobby, and there’s a huge misunderstanding from a lot of people that I put feminism before my faith. In some ways this is easier to cope with though than the rather patronising one, that I call  the ‘there there’ attitude: when someone responds as though they are patting you on the head like you are a cute, but slightly silly, child. In many ways I’m lucky that the leadership in my parish is open: generally my vicar is brilliant and even if he doesn’t understand the thing I’m banging on about he is always willing to listen and learn. I just wish this wasn’t the exception that proved the rule though!

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

There is a lot to be celebrated, and feminism is at its best when it is celebratory: but there is much that feminism still needs to do, particularly concerning race and our trans sisters. There are strong voices within feminism generally and Christian feminism that actively call for the de-centring of white, heteronormative voices and yet the media (Christian and secular) still give prevalence to those voices over women of colour and trans women.  It would be great if a black woman said something about racism and we listed to her instead of waiting for the white person to say before taking it on board. 

Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church-based feminist or equality-minded groups, projects or organisations?

I stay plugged in to various groups via newsletters, Twitter and so forth and much of my activism happens via social media – I think the reason some people don’t understand or value online activism is that they don’t understand that for many people, it’s something they can actually access because financial/physical/mental health/safety issues might otherwise prevent more conventional involvement.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The Church has to get to grips with its failure to deal with abuse, and its failure to properly address the needs of victims, and the C of E would do well to look to how the Methodist church have modelled submitting themselves to an independent enquiry in a spirit of humble penitence. I also think that the language we use about God, liturgically and theologically, has to change. Not to stop calling God ‘he’ or ‘father’ but to learn to use ‘her’ and ‘mother’ and ‘they’ just as frequently.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

My personal experience has been really positive – some people look askance at the whole ‘Christian feminist’ thing of course, and there are those who instantly dismiss me because of my faith. If I were honest, I would say that secular feminism is more welcoming than the Church.

Ali Wilkin lives in Colchester. She blogs at and tweets as @AliWilkin.

Christian Feminist Q & A -Hannah Barr

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a postgraduate student in Theology at Oxford University, specialising in Christian Ethics. I was once described as ‘if Tina Fey did moral theology…’ which I’m taking as a compliment!  When I’m not in a library, I work part-time for an organisation which seeks to equip Christian postgrads to integrate their faith and their studies.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I grew up in a Church of England-Baptist church plant which was a bit of an ecumenical headache, but somehow it worked. At 12, I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit which brought home to be the full realness of Jesus and what it meant to be in relationship with him. Since leaving home for university, I’ve stayed in the Church of England, first in a conservative evangelical church and now in a charismatic evangelical church. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, but there’s something so special about the Church of England, for me at least.

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I went to a church which didn’t have women in any leadership roles that weren’t for leading other women or children whilst doing my undergrad and the reality of encountering people stopping me and other women from doing things just because we were women seemed ludicrous. The attitude of a couple of dominant churches in the city had pervaded the Christian Union so women weren’t allowed to speak there or be in roles on the committee such as President and that made no sense either. Plus, I found myself in lectures where women outnumbered men considerably but men dominated all the conversations, and then I was introduced to feminist theology.

On the whole, I have several theological issues with the dominant thinkers and strands within feminist theology, but there was a perfect storm in what I felt as oppressive in my church and CU and lectures, and then what I saw these women theologians had stood for. It was like a lightbulb when on and I realised the effect my church, CU, and some people on my course was having on me – the crushing effect they were having on me – and I realised it was time to find my voice amongst all that.

It took a while to identify explicitly as a feminist because I certainly fell prey to the negative stereotypes around the word, but it’s the word which sums up best what I stand for when it comes to gender equality.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

For me, the two have always come together. I read the Bible and I study theology and I’m struck by a God who thinks women are great – and great sinners who’ve thought women aren’t so great. But whose opinion ultimately matters more: God’s or the guy who said that women are the devil’s gateway? (Yes, Tertullian, I am throwing shade at you!)

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I’ve been involved in setting up an equality and diversity forum, and I’m in talks at the moment about setting up a group which will help support Christian women in academia, which I’m excited about.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

I am really passionate at the moment about sexual consent because the sheer amount of violence against women is utterly intolerable. So often, the issue seems pushed under the carpet, but violence against women is not confined to a class or a culture, it has permeated the whole world and we still seem to lack concrete solutions for ending it. I think if we actually think about and interrogate what sexual consent should be like, it would go a long way to helping tackling the issue of violence against women.

On a more micro level, I think it would be great to see more feminist engagement in pedagogy at all levels, not just in higher education where the most number of studies seem to have been done. We need to socialise girls out of tentativeness in the classroom or lecture theatre.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

It definitely has changed, I think for the better! When I was younger, if I didn’t see satisfactory answers within Christianity for certain issues, I held to a singularly feminist view on them. Possibly as I’ve developed as a theologian, I now don’t feel the need to do that. As a Christian, my commitment will always be to God first, and because of that, I will be committed to the church over secular feminism, and I do think that theology can be of real value to secular feminism. I think my feminist views contain much more nuance and I’m able to see where its methods and ideologies are flawed. Above all, I hope my feminism has changed in a way which makes me much more charitable.

As a young feminist which coincided with being an idealistic undergraduate, I was great at being passionate and headstrong, but was often too quick to respond to being hurt by being angry, and if there is one thing I have learnt as a theologian, it’s that theology done from anger is not the best theology a person can do. And in terms of being a Christian feminist, my emphasis has shifted from being quite selfish and focusing on women in church leadership, whereas now, I hope I follow much better the call to love my neighbour and am far more evangelical about the issues which transcend the church such as violence against women and poor maternal health.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

I grew up going to Soul Survivor which has always had a plethora of great, fearless, and honest women speaking and leading, so they’ve always been an inspiration. I do love women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer for their boldness in their work and how unapologetic they are about being feminists, as well as how honest they are about being imperfect people. I was also so fortunate in my undergrad institution that the female academics in my department were awesome! I learnt so much from them, not just academically, but in how to be an adult woman, a good colleague, and how to combat the voices which tell you to be silent when there’s no need for you to be.

And I will always adore the women in the Bible who sing: Hannah and Mary. They got on with things quietly and faithfully and with far more obedience to God than I have ever or will ever manage. I should also mention Phoebe as she gets pulled up in so many debates on women in church leadership without people (on either side) really stopping to contemplate just how extraordinary she was.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

In the things I’ve been involved in, I don’t feel like I’m wanted as a Christian feminist, and certainly online have encountered abuse for being a Christian and had my feminism summarily dismissed. I can understand secular feminism’s wariness of religious institutions because it’s wary of powerful institutions in general, but no-one and especially no women benefit, if we try to shut people out just because of another identity they may have.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

A mixed bag! Feminism is as misunderstood as Christianity can be. And Christians do love getting their knickers in a twist about things and blocking out ‘dissenting’ voices. Most of the criticism I’ve encountered from within the church has usually been based on negative stereotypes of feminism. Just last week, someone at college actually asked me why I was a feminist and what it meant to me and he was (pleasantly) surprised by my answer, so if only we could just have more conversations where we actually listen to each other. In church, we love our binaries, and the ‘complementarian versus egalitarian’ debate is emblematic of that. We just need a call for calm, nuance, and actually listening to one another.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think my generation has tried to re-brand feminism in a way which has been disrespectful to the earlier feminists who really rocked the boat. And then there’s fashionable feminism. Bluntly, you can wear as many ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ shirts as you like, but if you’re not including sanitary towels in your foodbank donation, or if you’re ignoring homeless people on the streets, or if your first response to a girl who’s been sexually assaulted is ‘what were you wearing?’, or if you think that the ‘home’ in ‘charity begins at home’ doesn’t mean the world, then you may look like a feminist, but you don’t act like one. I’m not a feminist because it’s fashionable; I’m not a feminist because a media-darling celebrity has made it palatable; I’m a feminist because Jesus knew and demonstrated that the inferior treatment of women was unacceptable.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The church needs to be more realistic about the extent of suffering which women face on a quotidian basis from the parish to the world. Personally, I’d also love it if the church could cease with the extrapolation that just because God is King, that makes all girls and women princesses. There are so many extraordinary things God calls us and names us, and yet we think Disney-fied theology is the way forward! I’d also love the church to quit with the terms ‘women vicar’ or ‘women bishop’ unless we’re going to start calling the others ‘man vicar’ and ‘man bishop.’

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Remember the aim: women and men are equal. It’s seeing others as inferior which led to this mess in the first place. The othering and dehumanisation of others is insidious – women as weak, refugees as cockroaches – as soon as you start to think of someone as less than all you’ve done is perpetuated the cycle of human beings being terrible beings.

Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to say!

I’m only starting to appreciate now just how important my church leaders were growing up. The fact that a vicar took a chance on a teenage me and let me preach meant the world, so that when I was later told by others I had no right to speak or lead, I had that confirmation from another person (who I assume was listening to Jesus) to hold onto.

If churches really want to do their bit for gender equality, regardless of where you stand on the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum, look at the young women in your church and invest in them. Because for the ones who are a bit bossy, are a bit feisty, are a bit fed up with the injustices they see in the world, the encouragement you give them as teenagers may just be what gets them through their early twenties.

IMG_0422Hannah Barr is a postgraduate student in Theology at Oxford University, specialising in Christian Ethics.

Twitter: @HannahE27

Christian Feminist Q & A – Dianna Anderson

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Dianna Anderson and I’m in the process of finishing up my Master’s in Women’s Studies at Oxford University. I’m originally from South Dakota in the United States, but have lived in the UK for a year now and have lived here previously.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I “accepted Jesus” at 5 years old, which is really common in evangelical households in the US. I went to youth ministry at a Baptist church and went to Baptist universities for both undergraduate and my first graduate degree. My focus in academic study has circled around Protestant theology, and it’s always been the background radiation of what I do.

Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I began actively using the label back in 2009, when I was in graduate school in Texas. Prior to then, I had many feminist values (combined with a weird relationship to conservative Christianity, which made me stand up for myself in academic aspects but reject feminism in relationships). But I was 23 before I began to use the label comfortably.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I don’t particularly struggle with it, but I struggle a lot with people outside of either Christianity or feminism who tell me I cannot be both. I’m rejected from feminist circles because of my Christianity and rejected from Christian ones because of feminism. It’s a lose-lose situation in a lot of ways, but I believe my positioning as a Christian feminist is a vital perspective for both worlds.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I’ve worked specifically with online campaigns about purity culture and protests of sexual abuse by church leaders. I’ve also been involved in Black and Native Lives Matter protests in my hometown in the US. Here in the UK, I’ve been involved in the It Happens Here movements and discussions, and with the Rhodes Must Fall student movement (on the periphery).

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

A major focus for me is the acceptance and protection of minority sexualities and genders. As a bisexual woman, it’s deeply important to me that LGBTQ+ people are protected and cared for. Our community has a lot of issues to combat with besides marriage equality, and I’m afraid that a lot of white middle class gays have just sat back on their laurels following the victories both in the UK and the US on marriage equality. Don’t get me wrong: marriage equality is great, but it’s a starting point, not an endpoint.

I’m also really passionate about reproductive rights, which is something that people view as being in conflict with my religious beliefs more than any other aspect of my feminism. For me, part of the liberation of Christ is in having fully autonomous control over our bodies, to be fully capable of making decisions for ourselves. There’s a lot of infantilization that’s wrapped up in the battle for reproductive rights, and a lot of that extends from particularly bad religious justification.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

Absolutely. When I started out, I was total ‘White Feminist‘, thinking that progress is sort of a trickle down economics model—once I get my rights, other people’s will fall in line. I’ve come to see just how wrong that is and to believe that if I’m not fighting for justice for all, I’m not doing feminism right. Feminism isn’t the selfish cause a lot of its critics paint it as. It’s fundamentally about caring for your neighbor and their experiences of oppression and working to alleviate their pain, regardless of whether or not it makes your life easier.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

I’ve been reading A LOT of Patricia Hill Collins and Delores Williams for my dissertation, and so those two immediately come to mind. I’m also a huge fan of Warsan Shire (whose work was recently featured in Beyoncé’s LEMONADE). Biblically, Rahab is pretty fantastic—lying to troops like that takes a will of steel.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

Amanda Marcotte once told me I can’t be a feminist because I’m also a person of faith. So on occasion, it does cause hiccups and problems. But I’ve found in a lot of ways, it’s beneficial too—when there’s a feminist issue that comes up that’s related to Christian theology, my knowledge and love of both has made it easier to nuance the conversation, to explain where certain views are coming from, and to refute them from a position as an insider, rather than an atheist telling Christians to drop everything. I’m the last person to say I’m a bridge-builder, but I think my position helps me to cross those party lines a lot more easily.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Do you have a week? It’s been one hell of a battle. Let me put it this way: before I left to come to Oxford for my degree, I visited some very conservative family and they were really excited that I’d been accepted to Oxford until they found out that I was coming here to do Women’s Studies. I practically got whiplash from how quickly they changed the subject.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

There’s a lot of … thoughts that I have about how the feminist movement has become this ‘Approved-By-Celebrities’ strain of thought and the ways it’s been branded and commercialized and slapped on a lunchbox. These thoughts are going to form part of a larger project I’ll be working on soon so you’ll be hearing much more from me on this in the future!

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

Transgender education and understanding of gender identity and gender as separate from biology. I’ve joked before that I wish I could make Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble mandatory reading, but jokes aside, I think there’s a severe lack of understanding of the basic of how current gender theorists understand and discuss gender (which is part of why I pursued a women’s studies degree).

But I also know that education isn’t enough, because you can explain the current theories until you turn blue, but they won’t be effective if people choose not to believe it or if they write it off as academic fluff (which is what happens a lot of the time with the discussion about trans identity in the church in the US). You have to somehow imbue them with empathy for these minority identities, which is very hard to teach. Ultimately, I wish we could have a more Christ-like attitude toward our queer family of faith, and there are lots of great folks working on this and it’s a hard climb, but we’ll get there.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Oh it absolutely could. I think the main thing is that a lot of atheist/secularist feminists, many of whom have a completely understandable reason for being angry at religion, need to develop a respectful attitude toward people who choose to remain part of the church. There’s this lack of recognition that the individual is not the institution itself, and choosing to believe in God doesn’t make me complicit in the bullshit. Indeed, I’m still here because I believe I have a role in calling out the bullshit, and accusing me of perpetuating it simply because I believe doesn’t really help.

93W_dXCZDianna E. Anderson hails from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After teaching English in Japan and working as a radio producer in Chicago, she is finishing her second Master’s – Women’s Studies – at Oxford University.

Her first book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, is out now. The book examines the Christian purity movement from the basis of historical and biblical analysis and offers an alternative, shame-free ethic of healthy sexual behavior and sexuality.


Twitter: @diannaeanderson