‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 1

I have read several books since starting my book reviewing experiment, but this is the first review that I will be posting.

Indeed, to my knowledge this is my first ever experiment with audio on this blog. I am not accustomed to being recorded, so please excuse the occasionally stiltedness. Within this podcast I have a conversation about the first three chapters of Rachel Held Evans’s recent book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I would love to hear your thoughts!

And next one will be shorter: I promise!

Listen here!

Listen to the other parts of the review here: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Audio, Bible, Controversies, Culture, Guest Post, My Reading, Reviews, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

69 Responses to ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 1

  1. bethyada says:

    File too big. Lower quality is adequate for podcasts, and most voice. 30 minutes should be under 5 MB, yours is over 40 MB

    • Thanks for bringing this to my attention! I have uploaded a new version of the file, as small as I seem to be able to get it. It is about the right size that you describe relative to its length.

  2. ali1 says:

    Downloaded it. Listened to it. Some very good points as you work through the book. I especially liked the insights about how gender roles were situated in a far different social context than today. I would love to find out more about that. Also appreciated the way you illustrated OT laws functioned in the social context of that day.
    Rooting gender in a context of a family-based society both enlightens the discussion and presents a fresh challenge, i.e. how do you apply those roles to today? In what ways should we work towards building a family structured social framework through which to live and in what ways is today’s Western individualism faithful to Biblical teaching? How do you gain the benefits of tradition without losing the benefits of the present and vice versa?
    Thanks to both of you.

    • Thanks, ali! Having done the podcast review, I realized that I really felt frustrated that I couldn’t properly address the claims about biblical teaching that Rachel makes, without flying off on lots of tangents and losing the thrust of the review. For this reason, I have decided to write an extensive series of posts that get into the biblical claims made by Rachel’s position. I have already written over 6,000 words and hope to write at least another 5,000 words after finishing work this evening.

      I think that the questions that you ask are precisely the sorts of questions that we need to be asking. I won’t pretend to have settled answers to any of them, but I believe that we some clear principles to guide us in our inquiry, some of which should emerge in my coming posts. I also believe that what we are looking for ultimately is a faithful and liberating improvisation of biblical principles. As it is an improvisation, there is not just one ‘right answer’, but various forms of faithful practice in various contexts.

    • Just an update on the piece that I was writing. I have written a draft of 20,000 words on the role of Genesis 1-3, and also some further stuff on other passages, but haven’t decided yet what if anything to do with them. They are probably too long to post here. If you are interested in reading the Genesis 1-3 piece, though, I could send it to you.

  3. Sergius Martin-George says:

    I ‘d love to get a copy as well, Alistair.

  4. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    I wouldn’t mind one either.

  5. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I thought the most disturbing quote in Evans’ book was the following:

    “It is not our roles that define us, but our character.”

    There is, it seems to me, a radical individualism at the heart of her work, that sits ill with Christianity.

    • Thursday says:

      This individualism comes out in other areas as well. For example, as best I can tell, she does seem to view marriage as a contract to be negotiated between the two parties for the mutual benefit of both. Whether such a thin view of marriage is such a good idea, I’ll leave off comment for now.

      I am reminded of Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that the supposed communalism of the left masks a deep individualism.

      • There are definitely issues in this area. It seems to me that she fails fully to appreciate the degree to which the supposedly Christian ideal of the egalitarian ‘roleless’ marriage is shaped by a very unusual historical situation, a particular set of economic and social realities, and a set of prevailing ideological prejudices.

        I suspect that her view of marriage may be quite a bit thicker than you suggest, but there definitely seems to be an incipient individualism at work in much of her thought.

  6. Thursday says:

    Another thing I have found rather distasteful in her work, not just in the book, but on her blog, is her reduction of all questions, particularly those dealing with sex roles, to a rather crude Who? Whom? framework. James Kalb captures this mindset rather well:

    “Liberals look at social order as something constructed to advance someone’s purposes, so if you reject liberalism, which is the view that social order should be constructed to advance the purposes of everyone equally, it seems that the point must be to get your own way and ride roughshod over everyone. That’s a sensible line of thought if you’re a social constructivist and you think the basic political issue is whose interests get advanced. Not everyone thinks that way. Someone might think that society can’t be constructed, or that the basic question is not who gets what he wants but what’s good and bad and what the public interest is.”


    • Yes, her near conspiracy theories about ‘patriarchy’ really may be a case in point here. The assumption that so much boils down to men as a group oppressing and suppressing women as a group is a grossly simplistic and jaundiced way of looking at a reality that is much more complex.

    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      It’s just an aside, but it seems to me that the problem with Social Constructivism isn’t so much that it’s social, or even that it’s constructivist–though metaphors of articulation may be better than construction–but that it doesn’t draw the boundaries of society out far enough. At its best, Social Constructivism merely repeats stuff from Bonhoeffer, Hamann and Rosenstock-Huessy, and Jenson–except it forgets that God the Father has spoken to us, and that indeed, all things are spoken in that one Word.

      • Yes, that is important. Culture – the symbolic dimension of humanity’s life – is depicted as primordial in Scripture and initially created by God, not just a later human function performed on some uncultured and meaningless ‘stuff’ that God formed at the beginning.

  7. Thursday says:

    On a purely worldly level there appear to be a lot of problems with feminism too, so much so that it is questionable whether the church ought to move more in this direction. Here are some thoughts:

    1. Failing to adopt feminism doesn’t seem to be what has driven anyone away from the church.

    Many, if not most, women, actually, seem to outright prefer (benevolent, unresentful) sexist men. (There’s been a study. I’m not kidding.) They don’t want to be controlled or told they are stupid, but mostly they view traditional sex roles in a positive light, at least in practice. Second, churches that do adopt feminist stances don’t seem to be any more effective at retaining members. (This alone would seem to falsify Evans thesis.) Third, Evans appears not to notice how the church has been totally abandoned by working class men. It is at least plausible that this is because the church has failed to offer any specifically masculine role for them to fulfil. Does anyone think that preaching sensitive egalitarianism is going to bring them back? For all his crudeness and stupidity, someone like Mark Driscoll at least recognizes this.

    2. Feminism has been a disaster for the working class and poor.

    Working class men have been given no role to fulfil. When women don’t need a man to provide for them, he essentially becomes little more than a sex toy. Most young women may on some level prefer to get into a traditional marrage with one man, but if you don’t absolutely need a man to bring home the bacon for you, why not take a chance on the slightly unreliable, but hawwwwt young guy you’re really attracted to instead of the rather boring fellow you probably should actually be with. Hence the truly chaotic sexual and family lives of the working class so thoroughly documented by people like Charles Murray. Coldly rational university graduates may take the long view that their consumption and lifestyle options are greatly enhanced by staying with one person, but such considerations don’t seem to hold much water among ordinary folks.

    3. It is by no means certain that even moderate feminism has much of a long term future.

    Why should the church attach itself to a movement that can’t even reproduce itself. From our perspective in an advanced liberal society, current social Western social attitudes towards sex and marriage seem utterly inevitable. But this is something of an illusion. The future of the church, a well the world at large, would seems to belong to women (and men) who make early childbearing a priority, and like it. That seems to mean traditional sex roles. Why, in the absence of overwhemingly compelling arguments, should we counsel the church to hitch its wagon to such an obviously dying horse? Success is not a criteria for truth, but the actual existence of human beings would seem to be necessary before you can even talk about any other goods.

    4. Feminism has had a hard time finding an appreciable increase in female happiness based on more egalitarian social arrangements. So what’s the point?

    One of my favourite quotes:

    “Ehrenreich eagerly quotes Stevenson and Wolfers assurance that feminism was not the cause of declining female happiness. But this still leaves two elephants in the room. First, women were reasonably happy before feminism came along. Second, feminism failed to make women any happier than they were before. If I were a feminist, both facts would make me pretty miserable.”



    Thus a lot of Ms. Evans’ blog is devoted to defending completely unteneble hypotheses like that there is not a massive difference between the demographic cratering of liberal churches and slight decline among conservative denominations*, or that patriarchal Christians are more likely to be abusive.

    *In fact, it may be even worse than this. Data from England suggests that even moderate evangelical churches are on the decline and it is only the really conservative churches that are holding steady. Moderate Southern Baptist organizations, formed after the fundamentalist take over, are also having a hard time, laying off people. Conversely, in the liberal denominations, it is often conservative congregations that are propping up the numbers. In some previously liberal denominations, conservatives may actually end up taking over again simply through liberal attrition.

    • I think that there are a number of questionable assumptions at work in her work. For instance, the common subtle (and often not so subtle) association of complementarianism with abuse belies the fact that such contexts seem to have a lower incidence of abuse than other contexts. Again, as you mention, the suggestion that women as primary Church leaders is the solution to falling numbers really doesn’t seem to produce the promised results in reality. The effect of much feminism in society has also seemed to serve the interests of privileged and educated white women a lot better than the needs of less fortunate members.

      That said, I think that feminism (and Rachel Held Evans) puts its finger on many real problems and, although it may not provide workable solutions, we should not dismiss it without a better alternative.

    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      As The Man Who Wrote Thursday remarked somewhere, the revolutionaries are generally right about the problem, and wrong about the solution.

      • True, although sometimes if you start in terms of a fairly rigid ideology, you will perceive problems where none exist. For instance, the lack of gender equality in the home and all areas of public life is only really an acute problem for those with particular dogmatic ideologies on the subject of gender. In such cases the solution is to stop asking the wrong questions.

    • Just one point here. Although women may appreciate much about benevolent sexism, and prefer it when compared to an alternative that treats all parties in an undifferentiated manner, I don’t believe that we should give benevolent sexism a free pass on this account. While I don’t believe that men and women should be treated in the same way in all areas, benevolent sexism can often lead to the marginalization, infantilization, patronization, or limitation of women. Although equality is not the ideal, we do want to treat all parties equitably and it seems to me that benevolent sexism and its attendant attitudes are often an obstacle to this.

      So, let’s not throw out chivalry and a gentlemanly respect, recognition, and support for women’s areas of weakness, but let’s provide gentlemanly respect, recognition, and support for the areas of their strength too, because this is no less essential to what it means to honour another person.

      • acapulco fish says:

        So, let’s not throw out chivalry and a gentlemanly respect, recognition, and support for women’s areas of weakness, but let’s provide gentlemanly respect, recognition, and support for the areas of their strength too, because this is no less essential to what it means to honour another person.

        That seems a bit like giving them a cake because they ate theirs. How about some reciprocity from these females? Don’t we infantilize women when we just assume that expecting anything even graciousness is too much to ask? How about some respect for men and all they have done for women in our western culture where we can afford (thanks to the industry of men) to entertain such notions? Do we think so little of women that we don’t even acknowledge their capacity for moral agency? So, if men are going to be chivalrous etc, can we expect at least some decorum from women? Or is even modesty to great a task for modern women? Literally it seems nothing is too much to ask of men, but anything whatever is too much to ask of women, as though men are solely responsible for everything. This is itself infantilizing.

        because this is no less essential to what it means to honour another person.

        This phrase in particular jumps out at me.

        So, what is the reciprocal action we should expect of women towards men because it “is no less essential to what it means to honour another person.”

      • Thanks for the comment, acapulco fish.

        If we truly respect other people as persons and ourselves as moral agents we will be able to take the initiative in such situations. If we are only able to be gracious and moral people when people are being gracious and moral to us, it seems to me that we must be lacking in strength of character and self-definition. Doing the right thing and acting as people of character shouldn’t be contingent on how other people treat us.

        I can’t speak to your experience, and am truly sorry that this is the impression that it has given you. However, my experience has been quite different on this front. The women in my life are generally people of integrity, self-sacrifice, and moral courage. They respect and don’t use the men in their lives, speaking of and acting towards them with dignity and gratitude. While your personal experience may be otherwise, I am saddened to see you generalize in a manner that impinges upon the honour in which I would like to see these women held.

        I know that there are women out there who dishonour men and portray them in the worst possible light. However, in my experience, many of these women are merely generalizing from and reacting to their painful personal experience or witnessing of men mistreating or dishonouring women. In such situations, I hope that I would act in a way that confounds their jaundiced prejudices, taking the initiative and treating them with love and honour, irrespective of the way that they treat me. My experience is that continually and patiently taking the initiative in such a manner is the best way to change the minds and hearts of people who disrespect us.

        Ultimately, I am answerable only for the way that I behave, not the way that my neighbour acts. For this reason, the way that women reciprocate or not is not really my business. My moral duty to treat them with honour stands regardless. Why should I allow a few ungracious women to prevent me from being a gracious man?

      • acapulco fish says:

        I just want to be sure I understand what you are saying. Basically, you set high expectations for men and literally none for women. Is that correct? Because you sound like you are exhorting men to proper behavior but not exhorting women to the same. If there is some proper general admonition you would give women in regards to the way they deal with men, what is it? You volunteered that men “not throw out chivalry and a gentlemanly respect, recognition, and support for women’s areas of weakness, but let’s provide gentlemanly respect, recognition, and support for the areas of their strength too, because this is no less essential to what it means to honour another person.” Okay, but in fairness, then, how should women behave towards men?

        I find this statement rather surprising:

        I know that there are women out there who dishonour men and portray them in the worst possible light. However, in my experience, many of these women are merely generalizing from and reacting to their painful personal experience or witnessing of men mistreating or dishonouring women.

        I find just the opposite. Women who have been treated well by men are the ones who portray men in the worst possible light. It is privileged women who complain the most, not the abused. You seem generally honest. If you were to investigate this a little more you would find that a broader empirical view shows that privilege rather than abuse leads women to demand ever more from men.

      • Thanks for the follow-up comment, acapulco fish!

        Women are called to love, honour, and respect men, just as men are called to love, honour, and respect women. My point was not that there are no expectations for women, but that I am not the one to whom women are accountable in this matter. I could alert women to their duty, but that doesn’t make them answerable to me. More importantly, my point was that my moral duty in this area is not conditional or contingent upon anyone else performing their moral duty towards me.

        This comes down to the question that guides our behaviour in this area. My argument is that this question should not be ‘what does my neighbour deserve from me?’ but ‘what sort of person ought I to be?’. Following this question, I believe that I should be the sort of person who rises above responding in kind and instead treats those I come in contact with in a gracious manner, irrespective of how they choose to treat me. If we operate in terms of what our neighbour deserves from us, we risk courting bitterness, meanness of spirit, and can be prevented from becoming the sort of people that we could be, if only we had refused to allow the ingratitude or cruelty of our neighbour to dictate the way that we behaved. That is my underlying concern here.

        You have expressed the difficulty you find with acting in the gracious manner that I suggested to women who don’t treat men with any respect or grace. That difficulty is quite understandable, and I can definitely relate to it. However, I imagine that there are many women who are in exactly the same position with regard to men. The problem is that such a standoff between two parties, with neither party respecting the other, because the other has not acted in a manner that seems to deserve it, can only change when one party takes the initiative and treats the other party in a way that they haven’t deserved. This is what ‘grace’ is.

        Grace is the only real thing that can positively change mindsets, heal broken relationships and allow our identities to flourish. As human beings we develop and grow as persons in response to other people loving us before we had done anything to deserve it. In showing grace to our neighbour, even to those who will spit back in our face (and we have all experienced this at various points in our lives, sometimes quite literally), we give our neighbour space to change and grow and an example to follow.

        While such women are definitely far from typical within my personal experience, I think that you raise an important issue at the end. There are people who act in an entitled manner and will take advantage of us. They can act as if, by some natural right, they deserve and have a claim to everything that we do for them. I think that the approach of grace remains the right one in such instances. Let me explain why. Hopefully in the process it will become clearer what I am and am not advocating.

        Both our treating people only as well as they deserve and other people acting towards us with a sense of entitlement operate according to a logic of merit. In both cases a sort of slavery can result. In the first example, the other person becomes our slave, continually having to earn our good treatment. In the second example, we are made the slaves of the person. Acting with genuine grace can break this logic on both sides. In the first case we set the other party free from the force of our demands and expectations and give them the chance to respond freely to us.

        In the second case we refuse to act in a way that gives the other party any claims over our behaviour. Grace acts in a way that makes clear that you are not acting in response to the other person’s sense of entitlement. Grace takes the initiative from parties who like to believe that they set the terms of the interaction. By taking the initiative, grace refuses to consent to victimhood.

        Jesus gives some good examples of this in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. If a Roman soldier, for instance, asked one of Jesus’ disciples to carry his bag for one mile, the disciple would go two miles with him. By such an action the disciple ceases to be a victim and takes the initiative in a way that puts the unreasonable or abusive person in his debt. The power of this counterintuitive approach has been demonstrated many times over history, most notably through various forms of peaceful protest against violent regimes. It shames abusers, exposes bullies, and wins over enemies.

        Central to the Christian message is the belief that God took this route of grace with us, overcoming our hatred and hostility, not by giving us the retribution that we deserved, but by giving us the greatest gift of all, treating us with love and goodness, even when we were his enemies. In turn this message frees us to take the initiative of grace with others.

        So, in response to a spoilt and entitled privileged person, who is taking advantage of someone else, I believe that grace has a way of exposing and changing the situation. Grace refuses to let that person set the terms of the situation. It doesn’t do this by playing the retribution game or by giving a different account of what the person is entitled to, but rather throws out the logic of merit completely. To act graciously to someone is to act in a way that makes clear that what they deserve has absolutely nothing to do with the way that you are treating them and, in this way, implicitly shames any continuing sense of entitlement.

        By refusing to adopt the position of the victim, acting in a gracious manner also frees us from having our sense of self and agency enslaved to anyone else. Even when people try to enslave us or take advantage of us, we can hold onto our freedom of agency and initiative by acting in a way that goes beyond any demands, putting them in our debt (until they break through to the realization that the logic of debt no longer applies), rather than acknowledging their claim that we are in theirs.

        The message of grace can take some time to get through to people, which is why patience is needed. I have certainly been in situations where I have had to respond to many acts of cruelty with kindness or demand with abundant gift before the other party changed (and the other party doesn’t always change). However, this is made easier because I am no longer enslaved to or the victim of the other person when I am acting this way. Mistreating me also becomes harder for the other person because such things as their lack of entitlement, my innocence, their shameful behaviour, and my freedom from them start to become clearer to them. By refusing to treat them according to what they deserve, I refuse to let bitterness towards them poison me and they lose their control over me. Acting in this gracious manner enables us to enjoy the freedom of personal growth beyond the restrictions that the demanding and unreasonable actions of other persons would otherwise place upon us.

        Grace isn’t just the response to such unjust situations, of course. Grace is a form of love that takes the initiative in all situations. Grace is the love that parents have for their children before their children have down anything to merit that love. Grace is, for instance, the covenant promise to live in committed love with another person until parted by death, without taking the ‘if you love me, I’ll love you’ form of the contract. Grace is the ability to live and love without being anyone’s debtor, or putting anyone in your debt, which is why I am arguing that it is the approach that we should follow in such cases.

      • acapulco fish says:

        The problem is that such a standoff between two parties, with neither party respecting the other, because the other has not acted in a manner that seems to deserve it, can only change when one party takes the initiative and treats the other party in a way that they haven’t deserved. This is what ‘grace’ is.

        Grace is the only real thing that can positively change mindsets, heal broken relationships and allow our identities to flourish. As human beings we develop and grow as persons in response to other people loving us before we had done anything to deserve it. In showing grace to our neighbour, even to those who will spit back in our face (and we have all experienced this at various points in our lives, sometimes quite literally), we give our neighbour space to change and grow and an example to follow.

        You know, I was just reading your post on triggers where you explain how those who complain or take offense are actually the ones who get better treatment. Also, you noted there that when people treat the offended with grace, the offended demand more. So, no grace mercy and love to not elicit better behavior from the aggrieved. Anyway not according to your post on triggers. A woman who treats an abusive husband with grace and respect does not get better treatment from him. However, a complaining and demanding woman does get better treatment.

      • Yes, that is important question and a seeming contradiction. Hopefully, I will be able to make clear exactly how I see these pieces fitting together.

        Most importantly, I sharply distinguish grace from empathy. They are very different things. This is perhaps the crucial movement and one that most people fail to make. Empathy is reactive. It allows the other party to set the terms of the interactions. It allows itself to be held emotionally hostage by the other party, by their unreasonable demands, and by crocodile tears.

        Empathy isn’t the only reactive form of engaging with people. Straightforward antagonism, characterized by reacting in kind or treating people according to their deserts, is another form that this can take. In both of these reactive forms, we allow the other party to set the terms of engagement: one approach capitulates to the other party, while the other hits back in the same way as it has been hit.

        What I am arguing for is a non-reactive response and I believe that grace is such a response. Grace is the strongest response of all because it doesn’t just capitulate as empathy does, nor does it engage in kneejerk counterattack as vengeance, antagonism, retaliation, or treating people according to their deserts does. Grace differentiates itself from the other party and rejects the terms that the other party sets for the engagement (see these posts for a fuller discussion of what I mean by self-differentiation). Grace then responds on its own terms. It can be one of the hardest things to do to avoid treating people in a way dictated by them or by the way that they have treated us, which is why grace is the strong response.

        Grace is not – I cannot stress this enough – just about giving in to people. Grace acts on its own terms, terms not set by the other party. Grace doesn’t sacrifice the truth to those who would try to twist its arm, emotionally manipulate, or blackmail it, and doesn’t respond in kind to abuse or retaliate. So, in a situation where one is being treated completely unreasonably and where people are taking advantage of or abusing you, one responds in a way that denies the other party the right to or the perception that they set the terms of your behaviour.

        Grace isn’t about getting its own way, but is committed to the best for all parties. Grace doesn’t focus on what it deserves, which can produce anger, bitterness, or resentment. It takes its bearings from the fact that we are all the beneficiaries of undeserved favour from others – and ultimately from God’s hand – and seeks to extend that to others.

        In situations of conflict, this means that when someone is complaining or making unreasonable demands we don’t just respond as they act towards us – by fighting to get what we deserve – but rather commit ourselves to acting in love, whether or not the other party deserves it. This acting in love and grace doesn’t mean that we deny the truth. So, for instance, when someone responds to the truth that we have declared with outrage, we don’t stop declaring the truth. However, we declare the truth firmly, lovingly, and graciously, without adopting the antagonistic posture that others adopt towards us. We don’t allow ourselves to be swayed by emotional manipulation, but nor do we allow ourselves to be swayed by the move to emotional antagonism. The other party’s hostile tone will not be reflected back to them.

        Many people hate this as gracious, non-antagonistic, and calm responses to angry and heated words or hostile actions tend to leave the angry party looking unreasonable and ridiculous, even to themselves. Reactive people will look to us to justify their actions and the more that we respond to their abuse in a self-defined and gracious way, the more guilty and unjustified they can feel (which is why the gracious person can often be especially hated: the fact that we are not that hated is quite possibly a sign that we are not gracious enough).

        Treating offended people with empathy, by contrast, just capitulates to them and lets them set the terms. And as soon as you let the other party set the terms, they will become ever more persistent in doing so. If you respond with hostility, they will become more hostile in return. If you respond by giving in with empathy, they will just demand more ground. Grace’s form of action is clearly calculated to deny the legitimacy of such unreasonable demands.

        When the abused wife responds with grace, she doesn’t respect her husband because her husband demands it of her, but responds in a way that makes clear that she has determined to respect her husband despite her husband demanding it of her. The gracious response in such a case typically shows respect where it is not expected or demanded, making clear that the wife is not giving into the demands under duress but acting freely in terms of her own integrity. She does not acknowledge the justice of the demands at all – they are completely unjust – but exposes their injustice through her free action despite them. It is this sort of action, not the sort of capitulation that justifies unreasonable demands, that makes the crucial difference.

        Jesus is my example in this area. Jesus stood for things and didn’t give in to either false empathy or to hostility. He was quite prepared to offend and outrage people with the truth, but he declared the truth in a gracious way, not characterized by personal animus or fighting to get his way. No matter what was thrown at him, he didn’t respond in kind or give in to those who would get him to compromise his message. When others abused him, he acted in a manner that neither fought to get his way nor gave his enemies to set the terms of the interaction. Although Jesus was mistreated, he did not allow himself to become a victim, as even on the cross he was taking the initiative of acting in grace, praying for forgiveness for the people who abused him. There is a very good reason why this form of action has proved so powerful to change the world and why it has, counterintuitively, empowered many people who would otherwise be taken advantage of.

      • acapulco fish says:

        Jesus is my example in this area. Jesus stood for things and didn’t give in to either false empathy or to hostility. He was quite prepared to offend and outrage people with the truth, but he declared the truth in a gracious way, not characterized by personal animus or fighting to get his way.

        Okay, so Jesus and the (adulterous) woman at the well, and Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Each time, he held the women accountable for their bad behaviors. So, I agree we should follow that example and confidently confront the bad behavior of women. Also, Jesus called them to repentance. So, yes with repentance there is grace. But let’s not overlook that Jesus called them on the bad behavior. He did not validate their behavior. He did not overlook or ignore it as though it were of no consequence. He spoke directly to the bad behavior.

        Now, you speak to men’s behavior and how they should treat women and suggest Jesus’ example. Okay, the example I see him setting is calling them out for their sins. That is his example. Women should be ashamed of their behavior. When they fully embrace that shame, then, yes grace is appropriate. I agree that we should not empathize with women’s bad behavior.

      • Thanks for the response, acapulco fish.

        I hope that you will understand if this is my last comment on this thread. I have rather a lot of things to get done over the next few days, so my time for commenting will be limited. Thank you for taking the time to dialogue and for your charity and patience with me in doing so.

        You bring up the examples of the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery. These are definitely worth discussing. As you rightly observe: “He did not validate their behavior. He did not overlook or ignore it as though it were of no consequence.” Jesus’ gracious approach was not indulgence of sin, or a pretence that sin wasn’t sin. The women that he engaged with would not have been left with the impression that he justified their actions.

        However, it is worth noticing what Jesus doesn’t do: he doesn’t condemn the women. Jesus says this quite explicitly to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:10). He tells her not to sin any more, but he does not push for her to get the punishment that she supposedly deserves. Jesus doesn’t shame the women either. In fact the woman at the well leaves excited and changed by her encounter, not shamed.

        The approach of grace doesn’t push to give people the condemnation and shame that they merit, to make sure that they get what is coming to them, or ensure that they are treated according to their deserts. By his approach to both of these women, Jesus clearly revealed their sin, but not in order to condemn, crush them, or ensure that they were justly punished.

        Grace forgives and doesn’t condemn. However, implicit or generally explicit in forgiveness is a declaration of sin: one can only forgive someone if they have done something that needs forgiveness. Treating people with both genuine grace and forgiveness reveals that people have sinned and also that they could not go on if they were treated in the way that they deserved. Grace does not rub this fact in people’s faces, but it makes it plain in a non-aggressive and non-hostile but clear manner.

        Genuine free forgiveness cannot just be demanded by the person needing forgiveness. It is given willingly by the one forgiving. To be at the receiving end of forgiveness is implicitly to concur with the judgment that your actions were wrong and deserving of treatment that you have been spared. Once again I stress: grace is not about getting its own way over the other party, and so doesn’t rub people’s faces in their sin. To be at the receiving end of something that is obviously grace is implicitly to concur with the statement ‘I don’t deserve this favourable treatment: I am not being treated according to my merit.’

        This is why acting with free grace and forgiveness towards people can be so liberating and transformative for all parties. When we act with grace towards people, we act in a way that, rather than take advantage of the situation to get the upper hand over them and to make them grovel, offers that hand to them to lift them up, refusing to secure our rights against theirs.

        This will have to be my last comment in this discussion, so I will leave you to have the final word. Once again, thank you for taking the time to interact!

    • C says:

      1. It has driven plenty of abused women away from the church; these women are frequently abused within patriarchal, hierarchical, or complementarian churches (I’m not familiar with evidence, pace Alastair, that abuse is LESS prevalent in complementarian churches than in other contexts. I do agree that benevolent sexism can have negative consequences. So can institutionalized hierarchy based on concepts of innate difference, even in the “soft comp” form).
      2. Feminists are not generally found in the working class or among the poor, but among the educated, middle class, or wealthy. Gender roles among the working class and poor remain quite traditional, in my personal experience. Which is one reason working class women have children so much younger, in or out of wedlock. That stable marriages are most often found not among them, but among the wealthy/university educated “feminist” (I don’t know what your particular definition of the term feminist is in any case; you seem to consider it shorthand for any woman who works outside the home) segments of the population remains unaddressed by you. Working class men have suffered because the manufacturing jobs that defined their livelihood have disappeared. These jobs have not disappeared because of some phantom “feminism” but because of worldwide economic shifts. The crisis needs badly to be addressed, but not necessarily by telling women to stay home. Many of them might prefer to, but even if married, there are no available jobs for their husbands; certainly not jobs that could support a non-working wife and children as well (in the US, where I live, the number of jobs that pay a living wage is shrinking dramatically in favor of part-time, service, minimum-wage jobs lacking healthcare….etc). In this setting, marriage is a benefit not because the woman gets to stay home but because it means a double income. And women are unlikely to get anything resembling paid maternal leave, much less able to stop working entirely. Sadly, time for children is likely to remain scarce unless better jobs can be generated.
      3. Not necessarily; the wealthier/growing countries of the world (including China) are adopting models of increased gender equality. If the vast numbers of children you imagine being produced continue to be poor, uneducated, or disenfranchised, they will in no sense have much influence over the future.
      4. Women were also encouraged and instructed to say they were happy, and make themselves happy (strange to be told to make yourself happy!) whether they were or not. In some contexts (like the one in which I grew up), they still are. I for one consider such surveys meaningless.

      What worries me most, Thursday, is that you seem to be concerned with nothing but advertising and numbers; to me, you are the one obsessed with catering to present contexts and fads, rather than eternal principles of justice or truth. Nowhere do you mention Biblical principles, love, sacrifice, faith, or any reason for your comments except attracting numbers. I would rather have a smaller, Christ-focused churches than gain masses of professed converts (and possibly short-lived ones; in my urban area, these new large church plants with very strict gender roles/power dynamics are also overwhelmingly made up of extremely young people- but who knows, maybe they’ll last) by trying to appeal to whatever ideas of femininity or masculinity our personal vanity encourages us to entertain at the moment (most of them not actually Biblically founded at all). Or to brute strength in numbers (bred or converted, by hook or by crook….).

      • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, C.

        In response to your points.

        1. Research suggests no connection between complementarianism and domestic abuse. One egalitarian writer (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen) observes: “[C]onservative Protestant husbands and fathers (including those who espouse, among other things, a traditionalist ideology of gender relations) are—provided they attend church regularly—the group that is actually least likely to commit domestic violence.” Following his research on the subject, the academic sociologist W. Bradley Wilcox writes:

        McQuillan and Ferree—and countless other academics—need to cast aside their prejudices about religious conservatives and evangelicals in particular. Compared to the average American family man, evangelical Protestant men who are married with children and attend church regularly spend more time with their children and their spouses. They also are more affectionate with their children and their spouses. They also have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any group in the United States.

        Journalists such as Steve and Cokie Roberts and Christian feminists such as James and Phyllis Alsdurf have argued that patriarchal religion leads to domestic violence. My findings directly contradict their claims.

        The problem here is that the opponents of complementarianism focus almost entirely upon the idea of women’s submission and what they presume that that must lead to, that they fail to give a similar amount of attention to complementarianism’s teaching about the roles of men, teaching which practically any male raised in a complementarian setting will be very deeply aware of and familiar with. The teaching that men should love, serve, sacrifice for, and glorify their wives in the way that Christ loves, sacrificed himself for, and glorifies the Church can powerfully shape the way that ‘submission’ functions on the ground. Complementarianism isn’t just the ‘traditional’ idea that men should set the terms and women should just obey.

        In particular, what it serves to encourage is a strong sense of male responsibility in the home, a sense of the importance of being supportive and present for and to your wife and children, the need for non-selfish and non-domineering servant leadership, and for using one’s authority to empower others, rather than exert power over them.

        The complementarian imperative of committed, loving, self-sacrificing, empowering, and responsible male involvement is easily forgotten by egalitarians with an axe to grind, who, in pointing out complementarianism’s genuine problems (and some things that are only problems when you abstract them from the larger complementarian framework), are far less attentive to its counterbalancing strengths. The fact that women and men have different roles and different relationships to authority structures in complementarian systems does not necessarily mean that in theory or in practice either is valued over the other, even though many egalitarians assume that they must be, on account of their theories of gender equality.

        A number of egalitarians accuse many committed complementarians of really being egalitarians masquerading under the name of complementarianism. What they fail to consider is that complementarianism, while not advocating gender equality, focuses heavily on the need for counterbalancing roles and service of each other: it really isn’t about men subjugating women (I could also turn the critique around and point out that, far from treating men and women equally, there is a considerable amount of benevolent sexism at play in egalitarianism). When there is an abusive dominance of one sex over the other, complementarians are also appalled. Crazy statements from people like Mark Driscoll may receive a lot of press among egalitarians because they play to egalitarian stereotypes of complementarians, but most complementarians practice it in a very different sort of way and don’t have much time for the rantings of Driscoll and his ilk on the matter.

        Egalitarianism, while strong on the biblical point of men and women having equal value as distinct persons in God’s image, does not typically place the same degree of stress that complementarianism places upon mutual service in a one flesh union. I suspect that this has something to do with the fact that egalitarianism’s fundamental unit of analysis tends to be the individual (a position with more cultural traction in the present day), while complementarianism’s tends to be the family unit.

        Both of these approaches have a measure of truth and merit to them, provided that they are not taken to extremes. Also – and rather importantly – they are not straightforwardly mutually exclusive perspectives, although they can easily misunderstand each other. For instance, complementarianism’s thinking about marriage works more in terms of ‘ours’ – with each party sharing in and working towards the achievement of the common goal of a life together. Egalitarianism’s thinking tends to work more in terms of ‘yours’ and ‘mine’, ensuring that all parties receive their due. If complementarianism is at risk of losing sight of the recognition and agency that distinct parties in the union are due – subordinating the individuals to the union – egalitarianism is at risk of losing sight of a union transcending the ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ of cooperating and mutually supporting individuals – subordinating the union to the individuals. It risks neglecting the manner in which marriage involves laying aside the ‘mine’ in self-sacrifice for the other, something which complementarianism seeks to stress for both man and woman.

        In short, what we need is more sensitive and attentive assessment of each approach, one that moves beyond the unrealistic stereotypes of complementarians as patriarchal oppressors of women, or egalitarians as unreasonable feminists, purely driven by the spirit of the age. Also, rather than playing one approach off against each other, perhaps their proponents could stand to learn something from each other.

        Benevolent sexism can have negative consequences, but its consequences are not entirely negative and its removal does not necessarily leave women better off. While many of its forms should be challenged, what we need is not the utter removal of such forms of behaviour, but rather more care and sensitivity about their application, more recognition of the potential dangers, and more support for the strengths of women.

        2. I think that Thursday’s comments are not without a point (although I wouldn’t agree with a number of his claims). While you are right that the poor generally aren’t feminists (for the record, I use the word ‘feminism’ to refer to commitment to the ideology and agenda of second and third wave feminism), feminism has definitely affected them. The poor are the marginal cases and any significant change in social values will make its effects known on the margins first.

        Feminism has championed a change in society’s values and institutions. One of the main drives has been to champion women’s autonomy in the determination of their sexuality, bodies, relationships, and careers. This drive has been strongly advanced in all forms of media and through legislation and social provision that seeks to secure a greater degree of autonomy for women in all of these areas. Stigmas that would undermine this – against premarital sex, unmarried mothers, women having abortions, ‘career women’, etc. – have all been steadily uprooted.

        Following these developments, men and women are less socially dependent upon each other, beyond the desire for sexual relations and companionship. Marriage is now an increasingly bourgeois practice, with the family more a site of sentimental bonds and shared consumption, rather than the site of production and mutual dependence that it was once characterized as. This new model of marriage, focused as it is upon consumption (entered into by ever more extravagant and expensive weddings) isn’t so attainable for the poor.

        However, the social attack on the values of marriage, while serving the ends of many educated and privileged upper and middle class women rather well (they can afford to enter into consumerist companionate marriages), hasn’t proved so beneficial for the working and underclasses. The social policies (more direct provision for women outside of marriage, easier divorce, support for abortion and other things separating sex from procreation, encouraging women to enter the workforce, etc.) and new social norms (promiscuous sexual behaviour for both sexes outside of marriage, no stigma on having sex or children outside of marriage, a celebration of women who succeed without men, etc.) arising from the quest for female autonomy has led to the virtual extinction of the institution of marriage among the poor, along with increased dependence upon government provision, in the place of dependence on husbands and the wider community.

        3. A rejection of feminism does not necessarily mean poverty, a lack of education, or disenfranchising of women. Anglo-American feminism may have a particular dominant vision of what it means for society to value and empower women. However, there are other visions that aim to achieve that same end in a rather different form.

        4. Surely there should come a point when we move beyond rationalizations appealing to false consciousness, internalization of the oppressor, wishful thinking, or the absence of a hopeful horizon against which the present reality dulls. At some point we need to ask why, with so much progress made towards the achievement of its goals and so much propaganda of its own, feminism has failed to make women feel happier. We should expand our frame of reference beyond the changes that privileged and educated feminist women in the upper and middle classes have made to advance their ends and study the wider social effects of these changes. How does a commitment to feminist ends shape the lot of women more generally?

        The feminist movement has not merely given women the choice to participate in the workforce, but has moved towards a world where full time female work outside of the home is the expected norm, a necessity rather than a matter of flexibility and free choice. The expectation that women be equally represented at all levels of public life has led to pressure pushing women outside of the home, the subjection of women to the pressures of careerism, and the increased stigmatization and social isolation of those who do not adopt this route. However, most women still find a considerable amount of their gendered identity from child-bearing and motherhood. Rather than increasing women’s freedom in this area, feminism has in many ways led to an increased pressure upon them and tension as they are pulled in different directions. Hence the interminable discussions about women ‘having it all’.

        The feminist movement sought to free women in the practice of their sexuality, separating sex from procreation and the stigma of non-marital sex. The problem is that this separation and the removal of the stigma of sex and pregnancy outside of marriage didn’t just produce a situation where women were free to have sex outside of marriage, but one in which they were expected to. People are now arguing that casual hook-ups are a good thing because they enable women to pursue their career goals. What is forgotten is that such cultural shifts involve expectations that push many women away from the things that matter most to them and make the things that they most prize increasingly unattainable.

        Making divorce easier and creating and celebrating a form of marriage where the autonomy of each party was maintained as much as possible weakened marriage considerably and made it much less secure of an institution. As sex is now much more easily available outside of marriage and the interests of men much less protected within marriage, marriageable men who are prepared to for lifelong exclusive commitment are much thinner on the ground, which leaves many women much more vulnerable and less socially protected in fragile relationships, or raising children alone.

        In pushing for women’s autonomy, the bonds between men and women have been weakened. Men’s duty of care, service, and protection towards women (the benevolent sexism that many decry) has been whittled away. As men and women become autonomous in relationship to each other, no longer dependent upon, responsible to, and owing a debt of service to each other, substantial and personalizing relationships of care between the sexes (treating each other in terms of the duties and relations of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives) are lost and are gradually replaced with objectifying and depersonalizing relationships, as men start to treat women merely as sex objects and both of the sexes starts to assume an exploitative relationship to the other.

        In sum, feminism is far from a win for most women and we should be more prepared to pay attention to the evidence that many women are dissatisfied with its results and that the ideology and methods of feminism have often been counterproductive. This would certainly be preferable to explaining away all contrary evidence and pushing on even more uncompromisingly with a programme and ideology that may be fundamentally misguided.

        As for Thursday’s comments about numbers, one thing that I think that we ought to be attentive to is the way that men relate to the Church. As churches have pursued most feminist or egalitarian goals there has been an increasing alienation of men from churches. For all of their talk about the equality of men and women, churches driven by egalitarian and feminist values don’t have a great track record of achieving anything like gender parity in their congregations, which often tend to be dominated by women, nor do they seem to be very good at attracting men. The rise of women priests and more feminized leadership in places such as the Church of England has coincided with a rapidly falling ratio of men to women in the church.

        The churches that prove most effective at attracting men and keeping them involved and active tend to hold more complementarian ideologies, emphasizing male leadership, more of an accent on typically male virtues, and the like. In short, if your ‘egalitarianism’ is generally unable to attract, engage, involve, and keep men and women equally, there is a pretty good chance that you are doing something wrong.

        While I am not an Orthodox – with a capital O – Christian, this is an interesting piece explaining why so many men are attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy. As a man, many of the points raised within it resonate strongly with me. I read the Bible and it speaks to me very powerfully as a man. However, I go into most churches and the model of spirituality is deeply feminized. References to themes often considered more masculine (conflict, warfare, judgment, punishment, sovereignty, hierarchy, rule, condemnation, law, authority, struggle, discipline, discipleship, trial, sacrifice, etc., etc.) are studiously avoided, even though they are present throughout the biblical text. The image of God is redrawn to downplay these themes. The idea of God or the Church’s leadership informed by biblical images of the husband, father (in the more biblical sense of that word), master, warrior, lord, sovereign, king, judge, shepherd, watchman, and law-giver is resisted for a less biblical but more feminized portrait. In my experience, one does not have to look far in egalitarian or feminism-influenced contexts to find resistance to these biblical themes, themes that speak fairly directly to men. If we are going to be speaking about being biblical, it seems to me that this should be a crucial part of the conversation.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      I thought I’d add where I got the data on which churches from England are doing well and which are not:

      Moderate evangelical churches, or as they are labelled in the article, Open/Traditional Evangelicals, are in clear decline. Not as much as liberal churches, but still in definite decline. In fairness, the Emergents are up, though they are still very small, so it is tough to tell what will happen eventually. The survey also doesn’t take much of a look at Emergent theology, which can be very diverse, from very conservative to very liberal. Pentecostal churches are way up, but mostly due to immigration.

      Don’t know how well these numbers would translate to North America. My best guess is that moderate Evangelical churches are probably losing ground at a faster rate than more conservative churches there too.

  8. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

  9. Alastair, a quick note: Thanks for the document on Gen 1 you sent. I am unable to reply from the email you sent it to, and so replied via our yahoo account.

  10. Thursday says:

    Data on abuse among more patriarchal families is in this book:

    I am interested to hear what Alasdair disagrees with in my comments.

    • Thursday says:

      I too have to wonder if, pragmatically, a society with an official egalitarian ethos doesn’t infantilize women even more than alternatives. Young women still receive a good amount of the protection and pampering they used to receive in more traditional times, yet are also on the receiving end of a lot of “You go girl!” type rhetoric too. The combination seems to me a recipe for utterly delusional thinking.

      • Thursday says:

        Of course a woman with a good head on her shoulders and a good family will often defy the tendencies of the age, whatever they are.

  11. Thursday says:

    Working class men have suffered because the manufacturing jobs that defined their livelihood have disappeared.

    This is a common claim, but one that cannot account for the whole problem. As Charles Murray documents, the worrying trends for men started when working class wages for men in manufacturing were going up throughout the 1960s. The loss of manufacturing jobs certainly puts men at a disadvantage compared to women in a service economy, in that men tend to like service jobs less than women, but while wages have stagnated for working class men they haven’t gone down either. But even that may be overstating things: in many places tradesmen are in extremely short supply and nothing that has been done seems to induce men to take those jobs. They’re both masculine and well paying, so they would seem ideal for working class guys.

    But the main point is that working class women need men less economically. They can work outside the home or collect govenment benefits. That means working class men are at a distinct disadvantage.

    • I think that this works both ways. Whether it is men’s provision, sexual relations with women, or an assured lifelong bond with your children, many of the chief goods that would encourage mutual dependence and lifelong commitment between the sexes have been devalued or weakened in a way that leads to marriage becoming less rational an option for many at the margins of society for all but those who are committed to it for strong religious or cultural reasons.

      As this changes, marriage loses cultural traction and becomes a mere choice rather than a cultural norm. Once this cultural tipping point is passed, things rapidly change to the point where marriage is increasingly rare.

      Also important here is the fact that scripts of masculinity and femininity used to have marriage at their heart. When providing for and being present and committed to one’s wife and children no longer provides a viable or honoured means for proving masculinity for many, we should not be surprised to a migration of men from the institution and a rise in contrary practices, such as male promiscuity, which serve as other means of proving masculinity. Likewise, when single mothers become the great examples within communities, for their resilience, versatility, strength, and ability to achieve what they do without men, women will start to place much less value upon male commitment.

      Taken together such forces lead to the virtual extinction of marriage among many poorer urban communities in Britain and the US and the demise of the institution in many more sexually liberal nations with an extremely generous welfare state.

  12. Thursday says:

    I do agree with you to an extent. However, when it comes to sex there is an asymmetry in power between women as a whole and men as a whole. To a large extent women are the choosier of the two sexes, so they are the ones who largely dictate the terms on which sex takes place. If women really wanted men to be responsible fathers, they would have to be responsible fathers. Only the more, often the much more attractive men have the ability to turn the tables, become the choosers themselves, and actually put the male fantasy of promiscuity into practice. So, men in situations like we have now tend to turn into either players or dropouts. Don’t get me wrong, the players often wreak havoc, and many of the dropouts doubtless wish they could be players, but it is a bit unfair to suggest that the current situation is a sexual paradise which men in general are enjoying (if you were suggesting that) large amounts of sex. But I agree that for many of the more attractive men, living an irresponsible, promiscuous life for as long as possible seems to them the ultimate expression of the good.

    • Thanks for the comment, Thursday. As I just also said to acapulco fish in responding to his comment, this will have to be my last interaction here for the time being, as I have rather a lot on my plate at the moment.

      I wasn’t suggesting that most men are enjoying a lot of sex. Women may still be the ones setting the higher price for sex, but they cannot command the price that they once did. This means that, while sex still commands a high price in the context of non-committed relationships, given its wider availability outside of marriage, it no longer provides the inducement to lifelong commitment that it once did, when marriage had something more resembling an official monopoly on it. The influence upon men and their commitment levels that women wield through sex is thus considerably weakened.

  13. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 3 | Alastair's Adversaria

  14. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    There is always a danger in bringing up rationalist or utilitarian arguments against liberalism, whether theological or otherwise. People can start to think that those are the main reasons to be against liberalism, when in fact they are merely there to provoke reflection that liberalism of either kind doesn’t usually make sense even on its own terms. Thus my use of arguments using numbers is not really intended to suggest that they are what should be the most determinative.

    Theological liberals have frequently argued that adopting their reforms is necessary in order to retain numbers, that they are necessary for the church to remain relevant to people. This argument appears to be false, as adopting liberal reforms does not help retain numbers, and dramatically fewer and fewer people seem to find liberal churches relevant to their lives. Liberals in the church have also argued that their reforms, or support for left wing causes outside the church, have been necessary in order to make people more happy. But that too appears not to be the case.

    If liberals had argued from the beginning that one should deliberately downsize the church in order to make it spiritually purer, then that could be respected. But their reforms were never put forward that way. Instead, it was only after catastrophic decline had set in that the smaller, purer church idea seems to have been hauled in as a rationalization.

    So, I agree that there is a danger from arguing from purely this worldly premises. But it is nonetheless important to note how the worldly arguments of theological liberals seem to have been completely false.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      This is not to suggest that liberals in the church were motivated primarily by numbers either. They thought they were doing the right thing.

  15. Caned Crusader says:

    Alastair, I realize I’m quite late to the discussion here. I’m a lurker on your blog who finds your thoughts, particularly on this topic, extremely stiulating. i would be interested in getting a copy of the document on Genesis 1 if possible and possibly talking about that through email if you have the time (and as a student myself, I completely understand if you don’t.)

  16. Pingback: A Look Back at 2012 on Alastair’s Adversaria | Alastair's Adversaria

  17. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 4 | Alastair's Adversaria

  18. Pingback: ‘Year of Biblical Womanhood’ Review – Part 5 | Alastair's Adversaria

  19. Shoshana says:

    I am really interested to know your thoughts but can’t play audio on my very limited internet connection.

  20. Sherlock says:

    Maybe you will like haleyshalo. Her blog covers a lot of the feminization of the church.

  21. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2012-2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

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