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.
- men are stronger than women,
- things are better when strong people are present,
- strong people inevitably rise to the top of power structures,
- exercising power is a key function of leadership
- 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:
— Nate Pyle (@NatePyle79) August 28, 2014
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.