Future of Complementarity Conference

Complementarity: solving the evangelical feminist cube?

We’re really pleased to have another post about Think Theology’s “Future of Complementarity” conference.  Today’s post is from Eleanor Toye Scott; a feminist, Anglican, and full-time mother of three boys. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and a master’s degree and PhD in psychology. She also recently trained as a Godly Play practitioner.  You can find her on Twitter HERE.  We’ve published a number of blogs about the Think Theology conference, you can read them all HERE


It’s an exciting and somewhat scary time to be a feminist. Ireland’s recent historic referendum result in favour of reforming their constitution to allow abortion in some circumstances was surprisingly decisive. On the other hand, the UK Government’s proposal to allow people to change their gender by self-declaration, which is being welcomed as overdue in some quarters, is fiercely contested by others, many of them feminists. Long-established norms are collapsing and being renegotiated very rapidly, and there is much upheaval and acrimony in the online and offline debates.


For attendees at THINK 2018, an evangelical conference exploring sex, gender and “complementarity”, these raw public debates may have seemed a long way from their apparently much more conservative and sedate discussions of how sex and gender fit into God’s purposes for human beings and Creation. But the winds of change were blowing here too. In the first of three sermons, Hannah Anderson, one of the speakers, gave a carefully crafted and in many ways impressive talk, in which she argued from a complementariantheological position for “complementarity”, which turned out to mean essentially the equality of the sexes.


Not long ago, such a talk would have been unthinkable in evangelical circles. “Biblically sound teaching” was held to lead inevitably to the view that women’s abilities and position in society were ordained by God to be more limited in scope than those of men. So to begin from the same starting point, verses from the Creation story in Genesis, and then argue for the equality of men and women, and the necessity of allowing women the same access to power and responsibility as men, was a very interesting move by Anderson.


Of course, there have been Christian feminists arguing for the equality of the sexes for many years, so this on its own was not novel. The point was that Anderson was arguing specifically from within a complementarian perspective, which has been pushing back against egalitarian feminism for more than a generation. And her audience was clearly internal. Right from the start she highlighted her own conservative background. She was at great pains to avoid saying anything that might alienate an audience who might be male and have more conservative views than herself. She took trouble to highlight areas where her views were completely within the conservative evangelical mainstream – but then she gently pushed her audience to think a little differently about the relationships between men and women, and to make space for her quietly egalitarian agenda. (This is, of course, the only persuasive strategy that is likely to be accepted as appropriately feminine from a woman within a male-dominated complementarian sub-culture.)


The verses on which Anderson hung her argument were Genesis 1:26-28:


’26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”’


The use of these verses as a foundation for thinking about sex and gender is traditional in evangelical teaching, and they have often been used as a justification for conservative models of male-female relationships, marriage, the family and society. In the more recent past, they have grounded the complementarian view of gender, which conceded to evangelical feminists that men and women are equal in the sight of God as human beings, but stated that men and women have different abilities and appropriate “roles” – the punchline being that women were, in spite of their “equality”, not suited to taking on leadership positions in the church.


So Anderson signalled here, and throughout her talk, that she belonged squarely within an evangelical theological tradition that has historically been concerned to maintain male authority in the church. At the same time, however, as Robin Bunce has pointed out to me, while complementarians have traditionally referenced Genesis 1, they have typically focused much more strongly on Genesis 2 (in which Eve is created second, out of Adam’s side, to fulfill his need for a companion) and Genesis 3 (“your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” etc.). Egalitarians have, for obvious reasons, tended to focus much more on Genesis 1, and it’s telling that Anderson has chosen to do the same.


She argued from the passage that our understanding of gender is something that emerges initially from biological sex – but also from the way sex is understood and managed within society. Critically, in Anderson’s vision, the differences between men and women are relatively subtle, and their work is much more cooperative than in the traditional model of women as baby-and-homemakers, and men as go-getting subduers of the earth. Men and women are not on separate tracks, nor operating in separate spheres. Rather, women and men each exercise their femaleness and maleness respectively in both the home and the marketplace. Anderson calls this “complementarity”; but while her rhetoric perhaps emphasised male and female difference to a marginally greater extent, I found it difficult in practice to distinguish her views on the proper relationship between the sexes from those of an egalitarian feminist.


The second plank of Anderson’s argument was a metaphor for the problems of gender and society, and how we should go about solving them: the Rubik’s cube. The cube itself, in this metaphor, is society or culture. Gender is one of the colours of the cube, with the other colours presumably representing other social factors. We are presented with a society that is “all mixed up”, like a disordered Rubik’s cube, and we have the task of trying to solve it. And if we try to solve one face first, i.e. gender, we also have to consider the other issues at the same time, so that we get the right colours around the edge of the face we have solved, ready to move onto solving the other faces – otherwise we haven’t really solved the first face and have wasted our time.


Anderson also pointed out that there are many millions of possible ways for the Rubik’s cube to be “all mixed up”, but there is nonetheless one method for solving it which works every time. So, in the metaphor, there are millions of different ways in which society and culture can manifest themselves – but God has a formula for sorting out the ways in which they have gone wrong, which works every time, regardless of the starting point. That formula is, naturally, to be found in Scripture – and we’re back to Genesis 1.26-28, which instructs us on how to resolve our sex and gender issues, whatever they may be. “We must compare our culture to God’s vision for male and female complementarity as a baseline, a plumb-line for evaluating our common culture…so we have to find the formula, find what’s ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and what’s fallen, solve the Rubik’s cube.”


The final and most important theme in Anderson’s talk was justice – justice for women as a necessary component of justice in society as a whole. This was where her argument was strongest, because this was the case she wanted to make. Genesis 1:26-28 and the Rubik’s cube metaphor were the support structures, designed to demonstrate her commitment to evangelical principles, but a plea for justice was at the heart of what she had to say.


On this theme, Anderson made some fascinating arguments. On the one hand she rejected out of hand Second Wave feminism and pro-choice views on abortion without discussion, on the understanding that her audience would agree these were outside the pale of Christian morality. On the other hand, she argued that it was necessary to look at the cultural environment in which these views emerged – an environment dominated by what she called “the marketplace” and “radical individualism”, affecting the attitudes of both men and women. In that environment, when a woman says “I want an abortion because it’s my body”, she is expressing a radically individualistic view, which Anderson regards as antithetical to Christian morality – but which, she argues, is not really different from the attitude of a man who helped conceive a child, but accepts no responsibility, because his body isn’t the one that gets pregnant.


Anderson here fully endorsed the standard evangelical anti-abortion view – but at the same time, subtly changed the focus from criticisms of the individual attitudes and behaviour of women, to the attitudes and behaviour of (a) men as well as women, and (b) society as well as the individual. It’s all very well, she argued, to criticise the decisions of individual women – but when we fail to understand the social context that gave rise to those decisions, we end up adopting individualism in our politics and our churches, and never asking the deeper questions about what’s going on in society and how we can help solve the problems society presents.


Later, she made a much less convincing argument, which appeared to fly in the face of these nuanced points. She said that in her work with women in local churches, she had observed that because they were excluded from leadership roles in the church, they were also held to a lower moral standard than men, and were, in her words, “getting away with all sorts of stuff”. She never gave examples of the “stuff” women were getting away with. The idea that women’s behaviour was not being sufficiently closely monitored was also in stark contrast to her earlier argument that individual women’s behaviour should not be highlighted without reference to men’s behaviour or the wider social context. But what better way to convince a doubtful conservative than to suggest that under the status quo, women are not being held sufficiently personally responsible for their behaviour?


She went on to talk about women’s work, and the need for both women and men to take on the responsibilities and privileges that go with work. She brought up women’s vulnerability, citing 1 Peter 3:7:


“Live with your wife in an understanding way, showing honour to the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life.”


She also talked about the need to honour all of women’s work, not just the kinds of work which are typically associated with male success, but also reproductive and domestic work. Significantly, all of these points would be uncontroversial to an evangelical audience, but also would be a good fit with the agenda of most egalitarian feminists, including many non-Christian feminists.


Finally, she spoke of the church’s role in offering hope to the world, the ways she feels the church has failed, and the opportunity she sees in the current zeitgeist. She describes the church as having put up a wall in the past to “hold back the flood” of cultural change and hold to traditional values. The church had been focused on telling people what was right and what they needed to do, but not on sharing the good news. Now, with the #MeToo movement, she felt that the apparent freedom offered to women by the sexual revolution has been exposed as a sham, and this has given the church an opportunity to offer a more genuinely liberating alternative, focusing on justice, forgiveness and redemption. “This is a moment for the church to give the good news that God made us male and female in his image and he will redeem that image.”


So what can we make of all this? I have very mixed feelings. It’s encouraging to hear an evangelical woman arguing for women’s equal humanity, ability and responsibility in the world, society and the church. She’s clearly a smart woman and she’s on a reforming mission.


At the same time, though, I found the whole talk extraordinarily frustrating. I understand enough about politics to know that you have to respect the beliefs of your base and know how to pick your battles. But it’s very difficult to swallow such an intelligent speaker adopting wholesale such a deeply flawed approach to the Bible.  Her Rubik’s cube metaphor is clever, neat and memorable. It follows in the Wayne Grudem tradition of systematic theology – Scripture is reduced to a system or formula, a set of self-consistent doctrinal statements, which we can apply to any and every problem we see in the world, the church or our personal lives, and derive the correct solution. Unfortunately, this is a simplistic and wholly inadequate understanding of the Bible and its role in our lives.


Life is open-ended, messy, good, evil and morally ambiguous, full of paradoxes, mystery and much to wonder about. The contents of the Bible reflect that diversity, moral difficulty and mystery. The Bible is not, as is frequently claimed, a manual for life, because it is not a manual. Manuals didn’t exist when it was written. Nor is it a set of provable theorems. It is a library including myths, legends, history, fables, poetry, philosophy, proverbs, parables and prophecy. Many of its stories are shockingly violent and morally upsetting, while others are beautiful, inspiring and encouraging. Some, somehow, even manage to be all those things at once. Even Jesus’s parables, which might be candidates for riddles with neat logical solutions, offer us mystery and paradox at least as often as they offer us clear moral lessons.


None of this should need saying to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the contents of the Bible. If the evangelical church is serious in its commitment to Biblical study and living, it is simply not good enough to pick out a couple of verses from Genesis and then extrapolate from them to draw conclusions about modern life in our industrial globalised society. Even Anderson’s choice of Genesis 1:26-28, rather than other less sympathetic verses in Genesis 2 and 3, demonstrates the way this approach allows two verses to be taken out of context and used to develop an entire theological worldview. While Anderson believes the Bible is a historical record, she also seems to be largely unaware of what it says about human society and sexual morality. For instance, at one point she set up a contrast between modern society, which she claimed had entirely lost sight of the need to regulate sexual relationships, and the monogamous “No, no, no, no, no, ONE yes!” of Biblical sexual morality. But a fairly cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals that heterosexual monogamous sexual relationships were not the only ones that took place, even in Genesis. Two of the patriarchs themselves, Abraham and Jacob, each had children by more than one woman, and those are tame examples. Reading further on in Genesis, we learn in chapter 38 of the extraordinary story of Jacob’s son Judah, his three sons Er, Onan and Shelah, and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Look it up if you are interested, but suffice it to say that Tamar daringly and successfully exposes Judah’s sexual double standards. While the story justifies Tamar’s controversial actions, it is clear that the society she lived in was run by and in the interests of men, and that she had to risk her life to get justice. If Anderson is serious about justice for women now, she must recognise how severely the odds have been stacked against us, not only recently, but throughout the whole of human history, including in the stories of the Bible itself.


There’s also an assumption in the way Anderson fleshes out her “Rubik’s cube” derivation of sexual justice from Genesis 1:26-28, that what we are looking for is a model for human relationships that is self-evidently “natural” and “normal”. In spite of her awareness of her own cultural background, she doesn’t recognise that “natural” and “normal” are usually simply ways that people describe what is habitual or comfortable for them personally, based on their own experiences. To honour everyone’s humanity equally, we have to be willing to study human societies globally and look at the full range of human conditions and experiences. We have to be willing, in fact, to study history, literature, art, natural science and social science, rather than simply adopting a particular model of “natural, normal relationships”, even one apparently inspired by Genesis 1.26-28. And of course, for conservative evangelicals, this is deeply problematic, since science in particular is regarded as suspect except when it happens to confirm certain rather literal interpretations of parts of the Bible.


Maybe this lack of trust in non-Biblical knowledge, and the secular world more generally, goes some way to explaining why Anderson was at times so casually wrong in her characterisations of the world outside the church. She did not seem to have given any serious thought to how sexual morality functions outside of the church, instead making the lazy and evidently false assumption that the non-Christian world is absolutely sexually amoral and depraved. Then there was the mind-blowing notion in her finale that the sexual abuse of women originated in the 1960s with the sexual revolution, which betrays an extraordinary ignorance of history. I wonder whether Anderson is aware of the fact that many slave women in the United States were routinely raped and abused by their owners. For instance, Thomas Jefferson is now widely known to have had children by one of his slaves, who by definition was in no position to consent to their relationship. Anderson’s idea that the church can now present itself as a beacon of light, hope and redemption to those recovering from sexual abuse is naturally appealing to Christians; but completely ignores the recent revelations of the way churches have been complicit in exactly this type of abuse. More recognition of hard facts, followed by public repentance and self-examination, and a massive re-orientation of power within the churches, will be required before the Christian church as a whole will look credible to outsiders as a place of safety and recovery. Anderson’s attempt to make women’s equality acceptable within a complementarian theological perspective is not sufficient, because that perspective itself requires a complete overhaul.


There are huge problems with Anderson’s entire approach, because of the fact that she is embedded in this particular tradition. From a rhetorical point of view, her talk is masterful, because it accepts so much of the theological baggage of the people she aims to persuade – but unfortunately, if you unpack that baggage, it does not really support the work she is asking it to do. In the end, Anderson’s failure to challenge the intellectually limited basis of evangelical theology, and her lack of awareness of the world beyond the evangelical church, limits the scope of what she can achieve in practice. Maybe this is all that is politically possible within the complementarian church at this time, and maybe, nonetheless, for now, it is progress and worth having. But those arguing for “complementarity” will only be part of a truly progressive feminism when they find a way to recognise and challenge the limitations of a model of society based on Genesis 1.26-28 and an analogy with a Rubik’s cube.








The Future of Complementarity: Families not Corporations?

We have another post today from philosopher Robin Bunce about the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology.  Today we get some insight into Andrew Wilson’s views.  Andrew runs Think Theology and is a New Frontiers pastor.  Robin is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts we’ve published about the conference can be found HERE


On the last day of THINK 2018 Andrew Wilson made a bold statement. Speaking of ‘application’, of what the church could look like, he said, ‘the future of complementarity involves seeing the church as a family and as a household, rather than a corporation.’ He acknowledged that ‘the framework we’ve imbibed from the culture is much more a corporate one, not only in the church but actually even in the family, in the way we make decisions in our everyday lives.’ I agree wholeheartedly with Wilson that for years many complementarian churches and families have functioned like corporations. But I think he’s wrong about the cause. Wilson attributes the corporate character of complementarian churches to the influence of contemporary culture. In reality, corporatism is a necessary consequence of complementarian theology.


Greg Haslam’s book Moving in the Prophetic: A Biblical Guide to Effective Prophetic Ministrycontains an excellent example of corporatist complementarian theology. It’s also typical of complementarian theology in the period between 1994 to 2016, in the period where Wayne Grudem’s heterodox doctrine of the Trinity was allied to a gender theology of equal personhood but different roles. Moreover, its indicative of how the leaders of Newfrontiers, at least the leaders who tried to articulate their views on gender coherently, understood their theology. Indeed, Haslam was highly regarded within Newfrontiers as an authority on theology, as a person who thought rigorously, and argued coherently – and rightly so. At the time the book was published, Haslam was no longer part of Newfrontiers. Nonetheless, the bulk of the book was written whilst Haslam was an Elder in a Newfrontiers church, and after leaving the movement in 2007 he remained on excellent terms with Newfrontiers’ leadership. What is more, the book was dedicated to Terry Virgo, Newfrontiers’ founder, and Virgo reciprocated with a glowing review of Haslam’s book.


Haslam’s book concerns prophetic ministry. His chapter on women and men is crucial, as it explains the best way in which to allow God’s prophetic power to flow through the church and the home. Haslam argues that the submission of women to male ‘headship’ is essential to this process. God’s power, Haslam argues, flows in a linear and downward direction, through a hierarchical structure in which there are clearly defined roles. If the hierarchy is disordered, or if people do not conform to their gendered roles, God’s power is impeded. In fact, Haslam claims that failures of submission and ‘headship’ are ‘invitations for demons to infiltrate’ families, the church and the world.


According to Haslam, the hierarchy starts in the Godhead, where Jesus submits eternally to the Father. The Spirit, in turn, submits eternally to the Son. This hierarchical relationship in the Godhead is mirrored in the submission of women to men in the church, and in the home. Together, men and women have authority over non-human animals. The fall, Haslam argues, came about because this divine structure was subverted. He writes,

‘[t]his was a divinely planned and created order implying hierarchy, and designed to safeguard God’s perfect paradise from the encroachment of uncleanness . . . as long as God’s arrangements and personal authority were respected by Adam and Eve. If this authority structure – God, the man, then the woman, – was respected and observed in their joint task of dominion over the animals (including the serpent) and the rest of the created order in God’s world, then the evils that have invaded our planet . . . would never have been allowed to enter.’

So, Haslam understands the family, which he says is the model for the church, as a God given structure, in which authority is exercised according to a hierarchy implied by gendered roles. Crucially, this emphasis on hierarchy and rigidly defined roles sounds much more like a corporation than a family. Haslam does acknowledge the equal value and dignity of women and men, but this never deflects him from his central claim that ‘[i]n the home, as in the church, there is a God-ordained authority structure . . .’


Haslam’s description of female and male roles is corporate in the extreme. He describes the role given to Adam thus: ‘initiator, chief executive officer, director, inspirer and visionary.’ So, for Haslam, in a complementarian family the husband should be CEO. Clearly, for Haslam, the family is a corporate hierarchy. Haslam acknowledges that women can exercise authority of all kinds, when correctly authorised by their husband or Elder. Nonetheless, he warns ‘[w]herever divinely ordained authority structures are denied or overturned, the emasculation of men and the unseemly domination of women over men is the result… Witchcraft, control, intimidation and manipulation begin to distort male/female encounters, creating ugly caricatures of God’s beautiful initial design…’ For Haslam, a truly equal partnership between women and men is unthinkable. He argues that hierarchy is unavoidable. Consequently, we must choose between men exercising Godly ‘headship’, or female domination, which opens the door to demons.


With the rigour for which he is justly celebrated, Haslam’s argument shows that a theology which starts from gendered roles, necessarily leads to a conception of family and church which is hierarchical and rigidly structured. In fact, Haslam’s description of church and family is more corporate, and less flexible than any of the formal structures that I’ve ever worked within. To take one example, I have never come across a corporation that suggests that failure to work within its structures opens the door to demonic activity. Yet, for Haslam when a person disregards authority, this ‘becomes a landing strip for the demonic to gain a foothold in his or her life.’ The metaphor is mixed, but the message is clear.


Wilson is right, complementarian churches and families often tend to work like corporations. But this is no accident, nor the result of the prevailing culture. Corporate culture is a direct result of the hierarchy implied in the gendered roles central to complementarian theology, a theology that presents Adam as CEO and Eve as his subordinate. If complementarity is to escape the trap of corporate church and family life its advocates will have to be honest about the theological roots of the church culture they rightly reject.

The Future of Complementarity: The Significance of the Orchestra


IMG_7550Philosopher Robin Bunce is back this week with another post on the Future of Complementarity conference run by Think Theology.  This post focusses on Livy Gibbs‘ talk.  Livy is a New Frontiers church planter and pastor.  For those who are new to Robin’s posts or the conference, Robin is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman.  The other posts he’s written about the conference can be found HERE.  We’re really grateful for all the work he is doing unpicking the ideas from the conference!


If I’ve learned one thing from attending complementarian churches, it’s that car metaphors abound. Maybe it’s just the sermons I’ve heard, but the car was the go-to metaphor, whatever the theological issue. Baptism: its not a car-wash, it’s like having a new engine. Church: it’s not just a pitstop, it’s like a spiritual MOT. Who’s in the driving seat of your life? This Church needs a gear change! We need the Word and the Spirit, just like a car needs petrol in the tank and air in the tyres. Discipleship: it’s like learning to drive. And it wasn’t just the preaching. One Sunday the meeting ended with an impassioned prayer, ‘take the hand-break off Lord!’ After a while I began to wonder how first century Christians managed to think about God at all without the car. Perhaps it’s a sign that complementarity really is something new that Livy Gibbs ditched the car and talked in terms of the orchestra.


Gibbs played a crucial role in the conference, as the first speaker to really get to grips with the ‘beautiful difference’ between men and women, a notion central to the concept of complementarity. Like Jen Wilkin, Gibbs acknowledged her struggles with complementarianism. In terms of her marriage, she reflected that growing up ‘I understood that I was different by design to my brother, different to my Dad, and in my friendship with guys, I had different ways of thinking.’ Yet, when she got engaged and started grappling with issues of ‘headship’ and submission, she says, ‘I guess I felt like, I’m not inferior, but the differences I’m experiencing between male and female are not feeling comfortable to me anymore.’ She describes being committed to complementarian teaching, ‘but in reality, I couldn’t probably actually say that we were beautifully different – different, yes – but there was a lack of harmony.’ The ‘battle of the sexes’, that Gibbs says she experienced at home was also a feature of church life, where she saw ‘the struggle of women feeling put down, and side-lined, and like the doors had been shut to them.’ This struggle led her to ask, ‘why do I feel like when I explore ambitions for my future calling of God, that doors are closing on me?’


Breakthrough came, Gibbs recalls, when she ‘had a new metaphor to understand male and female, and it wasn’t a battle – a tug of war – it was more like an orchestra.’ For Gibbs, the orchestra metaphor helped because it described essential difference andharmony, lots of different people playing the same piece, all led by the same conductor.


Gibbs likens women to the string section, and men to the brass. Crucially, these instruments are made of different materials, and they make sounds in different ways. Yet they both make music. Within that, some women are like violins, some like double basses; some men are like trumpets, others like tubas. For a while, Gibbs says, she was encouraged to use her gifts in ‘women’s ministry.’ This she likened to playing in a string quartet. However, she wanted to play with the full orchestra.


Gibbs’ metaphor is extremely important, but before I consider its significance I want to highlight a few problems. First, the orchestra metaphor did nothing to clarify the nature of the ‘beautiful difference’ between women and men. Indeed, while Gibbs could give a detailed account of the differences between string instruments and brass instruments, she did nothing to elucidate the nature of sexual difference.


Second, the metaphor doesn’t really justify male headship, as brass and strings do not have a ‘headship’/submission relationship within the orchestra. Rather, the orchestra is a great picture of complementary difference and harmony withoutthe ‘headship’ of one section over another.


In addition, Gibbs’ metaphor has the potential to be much more radical than she intends. For example, the orchestra, as Gibbs acknowledged, has not two but foursections. If women are the strings and men are the brass, who are the woodwind and the percussion? Inadvertently, Gibbs has come up with an excellent metaphor to support a harmonious genderqueer church. Equally, Gibbs acknowledged that there are complementary differences within the sections of the orchestra, as well as between them: that a violin and a double bass, for example, are different and capable of beautiful harmonies. Again, unintentionally Gibbs has come up with a great bit of analogical reasoning to advocate for same-sex marriage.


No metaphor is perfect, but these issues raise an important question: why use the orchestra as a metaphor, rather than exploring a metaphor from the Bible to describe the relationship between men and women in the church? The simple answer is that the Bible doesn’t have a metaphor of this kind. The Bible does have a metaphor for diversity and harmony: 1 Corinthians 12 says, ‘a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though we are many.’ Crucially Paul’s metaphor is not gendered.


There are problems with Gibbs’ metaphor – even before I mention the Stroh violin and the Stroh cello, which is a metaphor waiting to happen – but not a metaphor that will sit well with complementarity I fear! But to focus on the problems is to miss a bigger point: Gibbs’ metaphor is significant because it shows that there are resources within complementarianism which can be mobilised by sincere believers to champion ambitious women – and Gibbs made no apologies for being an ambitious woman. Gibbs has found a way to convince complementarians that women should play a key role in preaching and leadership – in a way which is consistent with their sincerely held views of gender. The great Caribbean intellectual CLR James argues that within any social system and any intellectual position, however reactionary, there is a ‘progressive moment’, a key which can unlock progressive change. Whatever else complementarianism is, it’s the belief that women and men are equal in value and dignity. The problem is, that this has rarely been realised in practice. Gibbs has found a way within complementarianism to begin to make theory a reality. For all its problems, that’s why her metaphor is significant.

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.