Where does our strength come from?

This is a bit of a working draft, I’m still processing my thinking but this is where I’ve got to. I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s views so open to comments and corrections to ensure it’s accurate and clear.


Yesterday the internet went into one of its sporadic meltdowns, a bit like Iain in the bake off kitchen which ended up with his baked Alaska in the bin and him heading home. This time – as with many others – the debate that exploded was over the role of women.

It was a curious affair, Andrew Wilson picked up on comments Alistair Roberts made below an article Hannah Malcom wrote for Threads and reposted an excerpt on the Think Theology blog. The original comments were made a month ago and were part of a long discussion which I had previously missed, as clearly had many others who became inflamed when they were given prominence. Part of the problem is that Alistair Roberts writes very long comments, his longest in response to Hannah ran to just shy of 3000 words, and below Andrew Wilson’s post he wrote another of similar length replying to Steve Holmes which he has reposted on his blog with a couple of additional remarks.

To get my head round what he was saying took quite a lot of time! Last night, before reading anything bar the Think Theology post I had a hunch that Alistair was saying something interesting, but also sure that I disagreed with him, and that despite both of those I didn’t really understand what he was saying. Having read in some detail the various journal article length comments on various posts I’ve come to the conclusion that I do disagree with him, but at the same time he makes a useful point which is danger of getting lost in the wave of criticism he’s received. But also that the level of my disagreement is significant and the strength of his logic lost because of the direction he chooses at the outset. He says many things I am not going to engage with, for example others have picked up on his articulation of feminism. This is what I have summarised his position as, I may have this wrong, and I am undoubtedly overriding some of the nuance he covers in his discussion.

  1. men are stronger than women,
  2. things are better when strong people are present,
  3. strong people inevitably rise to the top of power structures,
  4. exercising power is a key function of leadership
  5. strength is therefore a key feature in the affective exercise of leadership.

Alistair writes in his comment responding to Steve Holmes which I think is the crux of his position:

Just as men have a natural relationship to power that women don’t have, Genesis and the rest of Scripture presents women as possessing a natural relationship to life, communion, and the future that men don’t possess. If the tasks of taming, naming, and exercising dominion over the world (tasks corresponding to the first three days of creation) primarily fall on men’s shoulders, men are to empower women to perform the tasks of filling the world with life and fellowship, a task for which they possess a unique aptitude

As an understanding of why men dominate power structures this is a fair historical and sociological assessment. Coupled with this is a critique of advocates for equality as wanting to undermine the power structures for its own sake without considering whether the outcomes of that shift to equality would benefit those who most need it. Alistair argues that equality, if meant by that raising up and protecting those who are marginalised and disenfranchised, is better served by strong leadership and that is best achieved by not bowing to an overarching concern for equality. He also goes further and suggests that equality is so disputed it is an empty concept. Specifically this means that where women are marginalised they are better off with men in more positions of leadership because those men are better able to protect and to serve. As an extreme but useful example he says an equality which demanded parity of gender representation in the army would leave the country less able to secure its defence.

My initial thought that there was a kernel of interesting and helpful analyse in a wider point I object to centres around this idea of the weight we place upon achieving equality. I do not think that equality is a first order moral imperative – that’s not to say it isn’t important but that our first response shouldn’t be to reach for equality but to strain to love. And love demands things. It demands that we circumscribe our freedom, it means that we put others first, and I think it can mean equality isn’t always the thing we should aim for. That’s why his example of the army, while an extreme one, is helpful, when we advocate for equality we have to be clear what it is we’re in favour of. Sometimes it can be thrown in as a conversation stopper – surely no one in their right mind can be against equality?

As I read through the extensive comments Alistair Roberts made both below Hannah Malcolm’s original Threads piece and in response specifically to Steve Holmes on Think Theology I struggled somewhat to put a finger on exactly what it was I disagreed with, and where I would diverge from his argument, because, cf the above, there is a logic to his end point with which I would not disagree. The problem is not that men and women are different. I am weary of too much gender essentialism but there are characteristics and traits which it is reasonable to note are more prevalent in men than women or vice versa. And the physical strength of men is certainly one of them. Likewise, the historical prioritisation of those capabilities as what qualifies men as the exercisers of power is also hard to disagree with.

Aside from the theological, and this discussion has not been on that turf, my divergence comes with his view that this is what leadership should look like. And that leadership like this makes things better for all. I also think there is a conflation with leadership and power that is unhelpful. Leaders will frequently have to steward power, but power does not define leadership. Would leadership without power and strength as defining features look different – you bet it would. Would leadership without those attributes be weaker? I do not think that needs to be the case. In fact, to suggest so is to give pre-eminence to strength in the very way Alistair (rightly) critiques others for doing so for equality.

When I was doing my masters I wrote an essay on female quotas, and one fascinating aspect was why more women in parliaments was a good thing. For some it was intrinsic (it was just right), for others symbolic (it should set an example), for others it was functional (it should make use of a wider range of skills and gifts). The last actually includes some aspects counter initiative to the caricature of equality which suggests we’re all the same. But it is just that, not a faithful picture of equality.

With female quotas for parliament one aspect important for me is that the ends do not justify the means, I think that a parliament with more women is better because of women should not be disbarred – legally or structurally, but also because of the symbol it sends, and because our politics will be better when furnished with people serving from the vastest range of strengths, skills and backgrounds. But within that, I don’t think we can achieve the laudable ends by building structural imbalances into the system, because I think that can send the wrong symbol to society, and I think functionally it can end up disbarring others. Likewise, would church leadership be different with more women in positions of leadership and authority, of course. But to argue that because authority has been exercised on the basis of certain attributes historically any divergence from that will be lesser is to suggest that those attributes are primary and I do not think they should be.

If I return to my five point summary of Alistair’s position, which once again I acknowledge is limited but hopefully not a misrepresentation, I find the flaw is at point two. Men are stronger (physically) than women, but does their presence make things better. That, of course depends on what your metric for better is. From that point the logic flows, but we need to have a better idea of what we want otherwise we run the risk of working for something with tools not fit for the task, or working for the wrong things.

I worry that, to borrow a term from Os Guinness, we end up trying to do the Lord’s work in the world’s way. Strength is not to be despised, and power is not to be ignored, but the thing that we work for are not those things. The Kingdom may be forcibly advancing, but we sometimes try and force it with our own strength.

Danielle Strickland spoke at Momentum this past weekend on how the peace that we work for, the shalom, is not a passive thing, it is offensive. Yes that it is on the offence, but also that people might take offence. We need to be prepared to stir things up, upset some people, break some taboos and follow in the footsteps of the one whose Kingdom was advancing forcibly but commanded Peter to lay down his sword.

As Nate Pyle puts it in a conversation with Andrew, Alistair and Steve yesterday:

There’s something we miss when we try and take the overturning of the temples and work out what that means for a lamb which lays down with the lion. We miss the fact that the power and authority we have are not ours to own but ours to steward, and we have them because we serve a King.

When we try and understand strength we put it in our own framework and too often that ends up looking like how the world defines and handles power. When we see strength that is built upon sacrifice we see things differently.

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7 thoughts on “Where does our strength come from?

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful interaction, Danny.

    A few brief points in response:

    1. Power is not the goal. The paradigmatic member of the kingdom is the little child. The power that we have is to be used to serve such persons, not for self-exaltation.

    2. You seem to presume that I am making a point about ‘leadership’ or prominent ministry in the Church in general. I am not. There are many different forms of ministry spoken of in Scripture. I am just making a point about one of these forms of ministry in particular: priestly/pastoral ministry. One of the primary reasons for the existence of this ministry is to establish and to guard the boundaries, where power is contested. It enables the Church to stand strong and firm in its struggle with the world and it also empowers the various members of the Church in their particular ministries. Having an exclusively male priesthood is entirely consistent with a church where women exercise a host of prominent ministries in teaching and leadership. In fact, throughout my comments, I have argued for the creation of such a Church (I’ve left several more comments beneath the post on my blog).

    3. Power is a good thing, and the Church is left vulnerable without it. While our value as Christians does not rest upon power, stripped of powerful leaders, the Church is easily marginalized, its members weakened, and the whole rendered vulnerable to attack or compromise. Ignore the importance of power and the sheep are no longer protected from the bandits, thieves, lions, bears, and ravenous wolves that threaten them. We should value the weak and vulnerable sheep, but one of the ways that we do this is by making powerful people shepherds. These shepherds are called to be strong wolf-killers, because they love the sheep.

    4. One of my points is that these dynamics are inescapable and are quite visible in egalitarian circles. Putting things in a rough manner, there are ‘combatant’ and ‘non-combatant’ positions. The priest is a combatant, someone on the front line, protecting the Church and the truth from assault and symbolizing God’s authority within the world in a powerful manner. Non-combatants are persons that need to and are entitled to be protected from assault. The problem is that egalitarians treat women as having both of these statuses in a dangerously contradictory manner. We are told that women should be priests, but the basis for this is situated in our duty to empower them, to protect them from the psychological harm of supposedly being valued less as persons, and to make them feel affirmed and validated. Ordaining them to the priesthood is supposedly a fitting response to women’s sense of vulnerability.

    Whenever there is a debate about equality in the Church, there is a consistent pattern of men rushing to women’s aid, addressing the issues in a manner that implicitly suggests women’s vulnerability. This is the very same dynamic that makes having women as frontline soldiers a real liability. Either we stop protecting women and expect them to stick up for themselves, denying them the privileges of non-combatants, or we should restrict the more combative forms of authority in the Church to men. The hybrid situation that egalitarians seem to create is unhealthy and unworkable.

    • Thank you for your gracious comments, I find myself in partial agreement with you, on power I think we are on the same page, whereas on leadership I differ.

      1. I completely agree.

      3. I’ll take this next as I think it flows from your first point. Power is not something to be despised and I’d agree with you and go further and say that power is a gift from God and he gives us authority to use it. It is our responsibility to use it wisely. Where this gets more interesting is to consider what place is there for power in the eventual complete coming of the kingdom. Power is usually used to resist evil and injustice, to right wrongs. Is power absent from the Kingdom, or only present in God, and if not how is that power exercised, and to what end? I’m not particularly asking this of you, but it occurred to me a couple of months ago and I thought pertinent to this discussion.

      2. And this sort of brings me back to your second point, and I accept you are referring to a narrow form of leadership. Where I think I disagree, and this is probably the nexus of it, is that I don’t think the priestly and pastoral forms of leadership you discuss are primarily about guarding borders, and even if it was I think you place an undue importance on the role of physical strength in being able to achieve this most effectively. Power is contested in church environments and between the church and wider society in many ways and sometimes a strong, borderline aggressive response is called for, I don’t think our pursuit of peace or our walk as a servant requires passively taking in whatever everyone throws at us – I think responding positively and defending redoubtably is often what is needed. I disagree that men are uniquely suited to achieve this.

      4. I think in respect of (2) you’ve created a circle that I can’t argue out of, by defining priestly leadership in such a way that only men can fulfill it, and those who argue otherwise end up arguing that it requires men to enable women to fulfill it therefore nullifying their supposed equality. We are all vulnerable people, and any attempt to use a position of influence or authority to make up for that vulnerability is deeply damaging. We serve out of our vulnerability and not to compensate for it.

      And this moves onto your final point, why men have to come to the aid of egalitarian women. I will speak up in defence of people, male or female. I am confident in their ability to speak up for themselves and articulate clearly and powerfully what they are saying. Does the fact I have written undermine that? Not at all. My decision on whether or not to comment or intervene in a discussion is not based on whether the supposedly injured party is able to speak for themselves.

      One more point on this, we are all dependent on other people and I think that is healthy. I need other people more than I realise, and they need me more than I sometimes want. Yes, that’s a sign of weakness, the weakness we all share, to ignore it is delusion, but to see it allows us to humbly accept our need for others.

      • Thank you for the detailed response, Danny.

        3. I suspect that my definition of power is probably broader than yours. The backbone analogy that I have used at various points in reference to the priesthood—i.e. the priest needs to have a backbone of steel and also acts as the backbone of the community—is not a bad illustration of the sort of thing that I am referring to, although, like any analogy, it can only take us so far and falls apart if pushed too far. A backbone enables us both to stand firm and push against evil and injustice. However, a backbone does much more than this. A backbone also gives a strong and defined form and structure to the body, being the central element of the larger skeletal structure, ensuring that it doesn’t collapse into an amorphous mass. It enables the body to act in a coordinated and robust fashion. It secures the communication between the head and the body. Power isn’t just used ‘against’ things, but provides the firmness, structure, and strength of any organism, the bone and the muscle, enabling it to act as an organism, rather than having weak, detached, and vulnerable parts.

        2. Physical strength has never been the basis of my position, nor even a primary element of the picture that I am advancing. I think that some people may have gotten the wrong end of the stick when I spoke about the connection between priesthood and violence. That point was about the surprising way that priesthood seem to have a particular connection with acts of radical violence and zeal in the Old Testament (with such acts marking people out for leadership and with the connection of military and priestly themes and roles) and the fact that, even in the New Testament, God appears to have a preference for individuals who have previously shown a capacity for radical violence as the primary leaders of his people.

        To be absolutely clear, then, I am not advocating that Christian priests should be physically violent and aggressive individuals, nor that they should have demonstrated a prior capacity and aptitude for such physical violence. However, the skill set of Christian priesthood is closely related to the skill set of military leadership. I have just written a post that should make where I am coming from here clearer. It should also address most of the other points that you raise.

        Thanks again for the stimulating and thoughtful engagement.

  2. I’ve rarely seen or experienced egalitarian men as white knights riding to the defence of women leaders right to lead. In fact I would object to such a defence. I don’t want people to ask me to lead out of pity or to empower me because I’m vulnerable. In fact I would object to being asked to lead from that place. The egalitarian men I know challenge complementarianism because they have benefitted from women’s leadership, because they want the fullness of humanity expressed in the body of Christ. The issue is that some complementarian men won’t even have the conversation with women, so how are we supposed to have articulate anything? I have many more thoughts, but these are all for now….

  3. […] This week my friend Alastair Roberts has been given lots of mentions across Twitter after some of his writings were quoted by Andrew Wilson. If you haven’t heard of Andrew Wilson before, he is one of the UK’s most prominent complementarian leaders.  He is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, a large New Frontiers church.  Two great posts which unpick Alastair’s thoughts and how they have been presented by Andrew Wilson are Hannah Mudge’s “A Post about A Post” and Danny Webster’s “Where Does Our Strength Come From?” […]

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