Spotting Unicorns at the Recent THINK Conference

It has been interesting to read the responses to THINK conference on The Future of Complementarity I recently spoke at in London, both before and after the event. Some, such as this article, have such extreme misrepresentations and misunderstandings that I was wary of dignifying them with any response. However, pieces like this are, despite several problems and inaccuracies (for instance, the response to the question of women who aren’t mothers was by Hannah, not me), a rather more serious attempt at engagement.

My intention here is not to engage with each of the criticisms raised, not least because so many of them are shadow-boxing with imagined positions and opponents. I would prefer to let people listen to the talks when they are released and judge for themselves.

However, one particular thing has struck me about the responses from various quarters—both positive and negative—which I believe is worthy of comment. That thing is the degree to which the discussion of this topic is driven by labels, in a way that undermines close attention to and engagement with substance.

Natalie Collins begins her article on the conference by describing her bemusement at the apparent belief of some of the conference-goers that, as a feminist, she must believe that men and women are ‘exactly the same’.[1] She suggests that maybe the people surprised by the fact that she didn’t hold such a position ‘haven’t really spent much time with feminists before.’

Actually, it is entirely possibly that they had, but hadn’t been paying close attention. When one thinks in terms of labels, one is primed to notice things that confirm those labels and to miss or discount things that disrupt them. It is easy to think in labels and to be frustrated or confused when people don’t fit tidily into them.

Once one looks behind the label, however, it soon becomes apparent that a term like ‘feminism’ names a large range of different positions, with huge and sometimes volatile differences among them. Merely speaking in terms of ‘feminism’ risks substituting partisan triggers for illuminating discussion. Such labels can often disguise far more than they reveal, even if they are effective at mobilizing people for and against things.

Reading Collins’ own article, it is striking how much of it is driven by labels. Andrew Wilson is introduced as ‘arguably evangelical Christianity’s most well-known complementarian’ (news to him, no doubt!). He supposedly organized the conference to make an ideological move away from US complementarianism. The field of discussion is neatly divided up into complementarians, egalitarians, and feminists, each group generally presented as if it were relatively uniform.

When everything is to be neatly sliced and diced into competing political and theological ideologies, the appearance of features that disrupt a tidy taxonomy is a real problem. For instance, in challenging the systemic devaluation and marginalization of women’s domestic work in current society, Wilson is supposedly ‘swapping out complementarianism for 1980s romantic feminism.’[2] The possibility that a more traditional theological understanding of the complementarity of the sexes might independently advance such critiques, drawing out its own core convictions to logical conclusions, doesn’t seem to be considered.

Umberto Eco, in his book Serendipities, highlights the way that many thinkers have mishandled evidence on the basis of their preconceptions, forcing the evidence into their familiar categories, rather than opening themselves up to discovery that might unsettle them. He writes of Marco Polo:

When Marco traveled to China, he was obviously looking for unicorns. Marco Polo was a merchant, not an intellectual, and moreover, when he started traveling, he was too young to have read many books. But he certainly knew all the legends current in his time about exotic countries, so he was prepared to encounter unicorns, and he looked for them. On his way home, in Java, he saw some animals that resembled unicorns, because they had a single horn on their muzzles, and because an entire tradition had prepared him to see unicorns, he identified these animals as unicorns. But because he was naïve and honest, he could not refrain from telling the truth. And the truth was that the unicorns he saw were very different from those represented by a millennial tradition. They were not white but black. They had pelts like buffalo, and their hooves were as big as elephants’. Their horns, too, were not white but black, their tongues were spiky, and their heads looked like wild boars’. In fact, what Marco Polo saw was the rhinoceros.

We cannot say Marco Polo lied. He told the simple truth, namely, that unicorns were not the gentle beasts people believed them to be. But he was unable to say he had found new and uncommon animals; instinctively, he tried to identify them with a well-known image. Cognitive science would say that he was determined by a cognitive model. He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet. He was a victim of his background books.[3]

We rush to categorize people and things in familiar boxes, rather than attending to the ways in which they might expose the limitations of those boxes and suggest ways of moving beyond them.[4] Rather than closely attending to what people are actually saying, we rush to an accusatory ‘so you’re saying that…’ Yet, they are seldom saying that. This is not the unicorn that you seek.

Within contemporary gender debates, few things cause as many problems as the degree to which things are driven by labels and the politics and emotions that accompany them. These labels prime us to see certain things and to miss much else. They can also prime us to react rather than respond to people and positions, based simply on the labels they bear and the emotions and partisan impulses those excite. We treat certain people as friends and others as opponents based purely upon the label with which they are associated.

For instance, critics such as Natalie Collins and Robin Bunce have tended to engage with the THINK conference in terms of the label ‘complementarianism’. This label refers to a movement that arose in the US in the 1980s, associated with figures such as John Piper and Wayne Grudem. It also seems to refer to a sort of ‘ideal type’ of complementarian Christianity, as represented from a feminist or egalitarian viewpoint, that manifests various distinctive features that are grounded in this ideology.

One of the problems here is that this is a highly parochial framing of a broader set of Christian positions that are hardly exclusive or peculiar to modern independent evangelicals. The possibility that there might exist a wider world of Christian thought about complementarity beyond the intramural debates of a certain subset of American evangelicals isn’t sufficiently considered. One doesn’t have to go to American Baptists to learn about complementarity: much of the most perceptive work on the subject has been written by Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Orthodox, etc., and American Baptists have recognized this and frequently drawn upon them. A recognition of the biblical weight given to the twoness of humanity as male and female and of the differences that arise from this isn’t a sectarian stance, but is held across Christian traditions. For instance, the restriction of pastoral or priestly office to men is not a position of recent vintage or of sectarian origin, but the historic practice of the Church catholic.

It is often held differently now in certain evangelical circles—sometimes more as a sort of biblicist ideology refracted into accompanying rules and ‘roles’ than as a Christian apprehension of natural order and our fitting behaviour within it—which is why complementarianism has become such a movement in recent decades. However, this is a development that I have challenged in various places (see this piece, for instance). Anyone exploring my position in terms of their mental image of the unicorn of ‘complementarianism’ (as an American evangelical anti-feminist movement arising in the 1980s) will find me to be a very confusing and contradictory beast. They will be quite ill-equipped to understand what many of us are actually saying, much as those whose exposure to feminists is limited to the caricatures of them by their opponents or the sort of neoliberal feminism one most typically encounters in the media will struggle to grasp the actual character and variety of feminist movements.

I began my first talk at the THINK conference by requesting that people shelve their questions. This was a surprising request for many attendees, and a frustrating one for not a few. I made it because, when we approach an issue as politically and socially charged and emotionally freighted as that of the sexes, we are all in immense danger of having our familiar categories and associations blind us to anything beyond them. Rather, what we must begin with, I insisted, is attention—attention to Scripture and attention to reality.

While we all bring questions about the sexes to the text of Scripture, Scripture does not offer straightforward answers to those questions. If we fail to loosen our grip on our questions and consider a different way of approaching the scriptural witness, we will either do violence to the text or find ourselves frustrated by it.

For instance, many conservative evangelicals are approaching the Bible with the pressing questions of ‘what are the definitions?’ and ‘what are the rules?’ And Scripture does not do a very satisfying job of answering those questions. Instead of definitions it mostly presents us with a broader apprehension of reality in narrative, symbol, and description; instead of rules, it mostly gives us principles that are engaged with that reality, principles that allow for a variety of forms of expression. Living righteously is more of an art than a science. Egalitarians and feminists, for their part, often have a different set of questions, many of which focus upon the equality of women. However, such questions can be no less ill-suited to attuning us to the actual witness of Scripture, having more to do with the conditions of modern abstract and technological society.

I also requested that people put the arguments to one side as well. Like the questions with which they are generally closely connected, the arguments also prevent us from seeing a great deal. They place immense significance on certain oppositions, while ignoring so much of what surrounds them. Most of the biblical witness on the sexes simply doesn’t register for many people today, because it doesn’t seem to provide much serviceable ammunition for our partisan arguments. Complementarians, egalitarians, and feminists all miss so much of Scripture’s teaching, simply because, forearmed with their own pressing questions and concerns, they aren’t paying close attention to it. As they are too concerned to press it into the service of their cause, they cannot recognize those ways in which Scripture unsettles the lines that we have drawn. When we are so driven to use the biblical witness we are seldom well prepared actually to hear it.

Something similar is true when it comes to broader reality. The clamouring demands of our ideologies and debates make it difficult for people truly to attend to the world in which we live. When exposed to supposed unwelcome evidence we can leap to dismiss it on the basis of our preconceptions or party loyalties, rather than calmly paying closer attention. Indeed, so much of our current cultural debates around gender are characterized by intense efforts not to notice reality. Reproduction is the elephant in the room of contemporary gender theory. For instance, the topic of motherhood ‘comes up in fewer than 3% of papers, journal articles, or textbooks on modern gender theory.’ And such failure to pay close attention to reality is hardly exclusive to the looking glass world of gender theory.

The insistent return to labels and charged terms in ways that forestall understanding and engagement is a problem that dogs discussions of men and women in the Church and beyond. One of my intentions in my talks at the conference was to draw us away from the gravitational pull of our labels[5] and to get us all to reflect more on substance instead.

In the past, I have compared this to unpacking suitcases. Our labels are akin to suitcases that enable us to carry clusters of ideas around from place to place. However, if we never unpack our suitcases, we will judge people purely based upon the appearance of the suitcase they are carrying. When those suitcases are unpacked we are often surprised and shocked to find, for instance, that many people with the same suitcases as us have smuggled contraband in with their luggage, while some people with very different suitcases, people we may have judged purely on that basis, have remarkably similar contents to ours inside them.

When Natalie Collins claims that there was nothing new presented at the conference that she hadn’t heard in more egalitarian circles, part of me wonders how closely she was listening and would like to see her substantiate that claim, as I suspect she is only referring to a very selective set of points. However, there is another part of me that wants to point out that this really is often what happens when put ideological labels to one side and unpack our ‘suitcases’.

In thinking about complementarity, we are doing so within a natural and social reality and in engagement with a biblical witness that we share with others, egalitarians and feminists among them. If one sees complementarian thought principally as a reaction to feminism and egalitarianism, its identity framed by ideological antagonisms, you will be primed to regard it as antithetically related to those movements. Any apparent commonalities will supposedly involve inconsistency, the surreptitious alloying of it with opposing ideologies, or a betrayal or subversion of the movement’s true self. This way of thinking can be characteristic of abstract ideologies. It is also one of the reasons why ideologies can become so divorced from actual reality.

However, if we are thinking about complementarity as a matter of wise and faithful engagement with concrete reality, abstract ideological oppositions no longer frame our discussion in the same manner. We should not be surprised to discover significant common ground and concerns amidst our differences.

This is not to say that the theological differences don’t matter or that they don’t have important practical consequences. They do. However, it really does help to knock those differences down to size. Holding our labels much more lightly, paying much closer attention, and unpacking some of our ‘suitcases’ isn’t a bad place to start.


[1] Admittedly, that would be a remarkably strange position for anyone to hold. It seems much more likely to me that they were claiming that ‘feminism’ holds that men and women are interchangeable for most intents and purposes and that the differences between the sexes are not such that they should make a difference in individuals’ social outcomes. It is also important to recognize that, at a number of points in the article, only one side of a particular conversation is being given.

[2] Collins here refers to Rosemary Radford Ruether’s description of Conservative and Reformist Romanticism as instances of ‘egalitarian anthropologies’ in her book Sexism and God Talk.

[3] Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy. Translated by William Weaver (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998) 70-71.

[4] Interacting with Natalie Collins at the conference itself, I found her to be a very pleasant person (we’ve interacted a lot online in the past, but this was our first time meeting in person). However, I was frustrated by her apparent concern to fit my points into her preconceived framework and the way that prevented her from hearing the ways I rejected that framework. Her article strengthens this impression.

[5] I think it would be fair to say that both Hannah Anderson and Andrew Wilson share this concern.

Posted in Controversies, Ethics, Hermeneutics, Sex and Sexuality, Theological | 2 Comments

Interested in Supporting My Videos?

I have set up a Patreon account, for anyone who would like to support me in producing regular theology videos. I introduce it in this video:

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Video: Understanding the Sign Gifts

Today’s video responds to the following question: “What is your view of the miraculous gifts (like prophecy and the gifts of tongues) in the New Testament period? Did these discontinue with the closing of the Scriptural Canon or, maybe, they took on a new form after this? And how did the Scriptures relate to the work of the prophets in the New Testament?”

If you have any questions you would like for me to answer, please leave them on my Curious Cat account. Watch previous answers to questions here.

Posted in 1 Corinthians, Bible, Christian Experience, Church History, NT, NT Theology, Questions and Answers, The Church, Theological, Video | 2 Comments

Video: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Book of Esther

Today’s video is on the subject of the book of Esther, exploring some of the insights of Rabbi David Fohrman’s superb little book, The Queen You Thought You Knew, which I read over the weekend.

Leave any questions you might have for future Q&A videos over on my Curious Cat account.

Posted in Bible, Esther, My Reading, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Video, What I'm Reading | 2 Comments

Video: What is the Biblical Theological Significance of Melchizedek?

In my latest video I answer this question: ‘Why is Melchizedek so important to the author of Hebrews? What’s the biblical-theological significance of Jesus being a priest after the order of Melchizedek?’

If you have any questions, please leave them on my Curious Cat account.

Posted in Bible, Genesis, Hebrews, NT, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Psalms, Theological, Video | 4 Comments

Asking Questions for Future Video Responses

I’ve spent the past week down south: speaking at the THINK Theology conference, spending a few days at L’Abri in Hampshire, and enjoying a day in London with friends. I will hopefully be returning to a regular schedule, after I’ve cleared a backlog of work, within the next few days.

One thing that I’m looking forward to answering more questions on YouTube. The best place to leave questions for me is over on my Curious Cat account.

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Podcast: Modern Atheism, with Joseph Minich

Mere FidelityIn the latest episode of Mere Fidelity, Derek and I are joined by our friend Joseph Minich to talk about his recent book, Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism, a book which I will be recommending to various people in the future.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

If you would like to support the production of the podcast, you can do so over on Patreon.

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