Gender at the UK Bethel ELA Conference

Today we have a post from Ella Green who is the Charity Officer for an ecumenical charity based in Harrogate. She studied English Literature at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge and is now studying a part-time course at Leeds School of Theology.


European Leaders Advance is a conference with the senior leaders of Bethel Church, Redding, California, that aims to equip churches in Europe. It ran from the 24th-26thJuly this year and has taken place in Harrogate or London every year since 2013.


There has been a lot of hype surrounding Bethel church over the years and so I confess I was both a little nervous and excited about attending the conference. Bethel has been hugely influential upon the worldwide Church and has received praise and criticism for its strongly revival-focused ministry. There was no doubt from the title on the event programme, ‘Heaven invading Europe’, that revival was going to be a key theme of the conference.


The sense of expectation on the first night was palpable, and it wasn’t just on the first night I felt this, but indeed at every session. There were five fairly chunky sessions each day, and that’s not to mention the other endless opportunities for spiritual nourishment. There were ‘vision’ lunches, an ‘Encounter’ space for worship and ministry, a ‘Transforming Arts’ exhibition and plenty of chances for deep conversation with fellow delegates over break-times. It was certainly a spiritually intense few days and left me with a lot of meaty truth and wisdom to chew over!


The line-up of speakers included Bill Johnson, the senior Pastor of Bethel, Eric and Candace Johnson (Son and Daughter-in-law to Bill), Danny and Sheri Silk, and Paul Manwaring. Sue Manwaring, along with Tim and Sue Eldridge (co-hosts of the conference) also played key roles throughout the week. When I saw the names in the programme, I wasn’t sure what to make of the strongly family-orientated structure of the Bethel leadership team. I have to admit that as a single Christian woman, I sometimes struggle to relate to this very couple-focused perspective of ministry. However, the content of the sessions actually provided a refreshingly broad perspective of church and mission, with a strong emphasis on seeking a revival that lasts through the years and across the generations.


It was this focus on successful ‘fathering and mothering’ in God’s kingdom that particularly struck me. Clearly, the leaders of Bethel realise the importance of both fathers and mothers within the church, and yet there was no sense that these roles needed any kind of differentiation. In fact, there was very little explicit teaching on gender at all. Perhaps the closest they got to a discussion of gender roles was in a session led by Candace and Eric Johnson where they talked about co-leadership. They stood either side of the podium and spoke for equal lengths in turn; it was certainly not a case of the man giving the main talk and the woman tagging on at the beginning and end. Interestingly, Candace actually spoke about how she used to face this issue in their church staff meetings. Eric would naturally leap to the role of leading the meeting, jumping between ideas and giving her little space to speak, until the very end of the meeting when he would ask her if she had anything to add, by which point she felt frustrated and had given up on having anything to say at all! Eric was completely oblivious to the effect his behaviour was having upon her until she spoke to him about it, and so they now plan the meetings beforehand to ensure that each of them gets a chance to speak and share their ideas.


Candace also talked about her frustration at being labelled the ‘pastor’s wife’ when she initially joined the Bethel staff team. Whilst she didn’t feel any great need to be constantly praised and acknowledged, she couldn’t help but notice that Eric was often given credit for the work that she had done. I loved the fact that Eric’s response to this was to start referring to himself as the ‘pastor’s husband’ in his conversations with people.


As well as a few joint slots where couples spoke together, each speaker also had their own slot. I found it interesting that both the main female speakers, Candace and Sheri, placed emphasis upon the importance of ‘shining’ in our culture and context. In our self-deprecating British culture, this kind of message is perhaps less commonly heard, but it was empowering to be reminded that God uses us to ‘call out the greatness’ in each other. Candace explained that “we are called to develop our own voice and story….when we shine, we give others permission to do the same.” These women certainly practice what they preach; in a context where they could have easily become stuck as ‘the pastor’s wife’, they have clearly developed their own voices (indeed they have quite literally practiced preaching!) and it gives me hope that they are influencing a new generation of Christian leaders, both female and male.


Bill and Danny particularly focused on the need to successfully grow and equip future leaders. In an exegesis on what might be called a rather ‘niche’ passage in 2 Kings, Bill identified Hezekiah’s lack of concern for the future of his children and grandchildren as a symptom of his distance from God towards the end of his life and a sign of his fall from greatness. Danny followed with a talk later in the week about the importance of giving over responsibility to younger leaders, however risky this might sometimes feel: “Our role is to protect the momentum, not our ministry.” This seems to me to be a vital message, not just in relation to the kind of multi-generational leadership that Danny was speaking about, but also in the context of seeking gender equality in the church.


If we are to be led by the Spirit, in all His power, creativity, and glorious mess (if I’m allowed to call God messy?!), we cannot afford to be protective of our own roles and ministries; to be competitive or self-seeking. I have been convinced again by many of the words spoken at ELA that selfless investment in others is a sure gateway to seeing more of heaven on earth, and that means mature leaders have to be ready to give leadership roles to the younger generation. And yes, I believe that that also means that men need to be secure enough in their own identities as God’s sons to let His daughters step out fully and freely into the gifts they have been given.


Perhaps one of the reasons that Bethel is known by many Christians as a place where God’s kingdom is breaking through onto earth is that this church is creating a culture where people are empowered and released into their giftings. I would say that my time at the ELA conference has given me a wider window through which to see God’s heart for His church, as expressed so beautifully in Acts 2:


In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.


It seems to me that the leaders of Bethel get this. The Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate. We get to see God’s power fully present and active in our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, in both men and women. And that is something that truly excites me.


The image on this post is of Candace Johnson speaking at the conference, courtesy of John Mudie.


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.