My good friend and member of the Mere Fidelity crew, Andrew Wilson, unwittingly entangled us in a bit of an online controversy earlier today (I have it on good authority that it registered between a brouhaha and an apocalypse on the online argument scale). He formed a post around some of my comments from this discussion thread. The comments of Andrew’s post then blew up, as did my Twitter notifications (thankfully, I am taking a break from Twitter for a month or so).
The original discussion focused upon feminism and ‘equality’, both issues provoking strong opinions and heightened emotions in many different quarters. Hannah Malcolm is a great interlocutor and, despite our significant differences of perspective, we covered a lot of ground in a friendly manner. While people were much less appreciative of my remarks when they were reposted in Andrew’s blog, there was some substantial and worthwhile push-back in the comments, which encouraged me to write some detailed responses to clarify my points. I thought that I would repost them here (although I won’t be making any follow-up comments), because I think that some of you might find the discussion worth engaging with, whether or not you agree with the points that I am arguing.
I originally wrote:
In Scripture, this priestly role is often associated not merely with men, but with ‘alpha’ men. The Church is strengthened as a body when it is led by persons with steel backbones, principles, and nerves, persons that can withstand others in more confrontational situations.
These comments were at the heart of much of the sharpest disagreement with my position. The following is a clarifying statement, which, although it may not lower temperatures, will at least make the meaning of my claim clearer:
A helpful place to start would have been to ask what I mean and don’t mean by ‘alpha male’. It is important to note that: 1. my point was primarily an empirical one from the reading of the Scriptures; 2. while certain alpha male traits may be necessary for priesthood, I never claimed that they were sufficient.
On the empirical point, it might be worth noting the way that the priesthood is characterized as a more ‘violent’ role in Scripture, with those performing it being set apart on account of their nerve and zeal, and ability to value God’s holiness above kin and friend. They are seen as uncompromising guardians of the holiness of God and his people, against all external assault and internal declension. It is worth noticing the people that God sets apart for the role. Levi was associated with violence from the outset. This violence, when employed in God’s service (killing 3,000 of their brethren after the golden calf incident at Sinai in Exodus 32), led to their being set up for a blessing and being set apart as the priestly tribe. Phinehas is another example: he was given a covenant of an everlasting priesthood in Numbers 25 for his zeal for God’s holiness in thrusting a javelin through a copulating Israelite man and Midianite woman.
The same pattern can be seen in many other figures—Moses (whose zeal is seen on many occasions in the Exodus narrative), Samuel (who hacked Agag into pieces before the Lord), Peter, Paul, etc. All of these figures were men of violent zeal, tamed and harnessed for God’s service. They were the ones who established and guarded the boundaries and symbolized the authority of God in the process. Some of their actions may understandably cause us to blanch, but I think that any careful study of such figures will support my claim that the priest is presented as a role favouring the traits of alpha males.
The role of the shepherd (or pastor) in Scripture always involves nurturing. However, absolutely integral to it is uncompromising and forceful zeal in protecting God’s flock. Close attention to the biblical imagery and teaching on the subject should support this: the shepherd is a guardian against violent assault upon God’s flock and needs the qualities of a strong and uncompromising guardian—which tend to be ‘alpha’ male characteristics—to perform his role properly.
The most detailed and substantial response came from my former lecturer, Steve Holmes, who wrote (the following is his complete comment):
Andrew, I’m slightly nervous about commenting on this because it is extracted from context, but since you’ve put it here…
On ‘equality’: as I know Alastair knows, and as I assume you know, feminist theory has subjected the concept of equality to long and searching critique. Some have rejected it; others think it can live on in a chastened form; virtually no-one uses the term in the naive way that is criticised here (well, obviously teenagers do in earnest discussions before they’ve learnt to think do, but…). Even were that not true, Alistair is fairly obviously constructing a series of false oppositions: we don’t have to choose between pursuing equality and pursuing universal health care; we can be committed to both those things – and to universal education, and to all the other stuff that matters too.
On power, two comments. First: the discussion here is again rather naive, constructing power as something that is gained by being assumed – by acting, thinking, relating in certain ways. This is not wholly false, but ignores shaped social structures which are far more decisive. When I walk into a lecture room, or a doctoral examination, the power I have over the student(s) does not come from how I behave or think, but from a set of socially-constructed norms that they and I instinctively conform to. It is of course possible for me to act in such a way that I cede power to a vociferous student, say – behaviour is not utterly irrelevant, particularly in our Western culture which has weakened most socially-constructed power relations considerably in recent years – but even then, the social construction remains – I can silence said vociferous student far more easily than another student can. Constructed power structures like this are of huge and obvious significance in every human culture – and are often unjust (where power is given on the basis of class or caste or ethnicity or …). I count patriarchy as one such constructed and unjust power structure; you or Alastair might disagree, but please don’t do it by pretending constructed power structures don’t exist; that’s just stupid!
Second: all that said, I read some stuff once about ‘God’s power being made perfect in weakness’, which was predicated on the idea that the power of God is most perfectly visible in the cross of Christ; I think that when we discuss church leadership and power we ought to at least glance in those sorts of directions, and critique leadership models that focus on steel backbones and strength in confrontation, but maybe that’s just me…
The following is my answer:
Thanks for the response, Steve.
The following is a very thorough answer to your points, and the only further comment that I will be making on this thread (things are busy for me at the moment and I’m on a break from most Internet related activities). My hope is that, by fleshing out my position at length, people will at least get a better idea of the broader shape of it and not jump to premature conclusions.
As you note, this is a conversation abstracted from its original context, which leaves certain of its points liable to misunderstanding. It actually started with a Twitter discussion with the author, within which the ‘equality’ framing was more central: that is why I focused on the term. The following statement in Hannah’s first response to me makes clearer the sort of position that I was engaging with: ‘I (and many other feminists) wish to argue that [feminism] is not a position meaning anything beyond ‘equality’ for men and women.’ It is within Hannah’s argument—that complementarians can be feminists—that a nominal affirmation of ‘equality’ starts to become central for our definition of feminism.
As you recognize, I am well aware that feminism isn’t all about ‘equality’. In my discussion with Hannah on Twitter, we actually had a very lengthy exchange about the definition of feminism. I argued that saying that complementarians could be feminists, on the basis of their concern for women’s well-being and a vague affirmation of ‘equality’, risked emptying the term ‘feminist’ of meaning. Feminism, I maintained, is a movement with a particular set of histories, forms, thinkers, activists, movements, waves, and schools and identifying as a feminist should involve some sort of alignment with and situation within those, rather than just a bare formal affirmation that could be spun in a host of different ways (@God_loves_women was part of the conversation too and we were both arguing this same position against Hannah from our rather different starting points).
Yes, it is possible to pursue equality and such things as universal health care. However, the more that the vague goal of ‘equality’ comes to shape our activity, the more that I believe we risk substituting the waging of an ideological crusade for the pursuit of much less romantic but far more concrete goods such as those I mentioned. While you can pursue both to some extent, pursuit of ideology can often undermine an attentive and prudential approach to the establishment of justice and the conditions for well-being. An example of the sort of ‘ideological’ approach that I have in mind here would be one that regarded any gender gap in the constitution of business leadership as a sign of continued injustice and sought to eradicate it. The result could be the establishment of policies that push women into full time work, when what many may actually want is more flexible and child-friendly part-time work.
On the power issue, I think that you misrepresent my position. I definitely do not construct power as something that is gained by being assumed. Nor do I deny that power is socially constructed, or present power as a phenomenon arising purely from individual behaviour, as your comment might suggest. Social construction is central to my approach. My approach focuses upon the fact that socially constructed power doesn’t just pop into existence, but arises and is created through certain forms of social relations and activity. And these forms of social relations and activity have always been naturally weighted in men’s favour, playing to their strengths. The fact that men have more immediate power in almost every human society that has ever existed is not an accident, but arises from the fact that the dynamics of power formation are more naturally operative in male groups and individuals.
A few examples of the dynamics that I am referring to here, most of which I already mentioned in my comments quoted above:
- Broader and less intimate networks are more apt for the construction of power structures and more fertile contexts for the flowering of such things as art, culture, and science. These large and wide but shallow networks, alliances, and institutions are far more powerful in the long term. These networks will primarily be forged by people who have the greatest freedom, motivation, capacity, and aptitude for moving beyond existing relational contexts to pioneer new bonds with and interact with strangers. Such people will typically be less tied to and invested within intimate relational contexts than others and will find much of their fulfilment in moving beyond the realm of close relationships.
- Groups with more competitive, combative, and confrontational interactions (without being antagonistic) will naturally tend to produce both power structures and leaders for various reasons. First, they naturally encourage disjunctive effects in groups where people weren’t formerly distinguished. It establishes winners and losers and assigns status to various groups and group members within hierarchies and balances of power. Second, such interactions strengthen their participants. Competition and ritual combat of whatever variety involves mutual discovery, honing, and testing of strengths in a way that non-combative contexts don’t. It also provides a good context for rigorously testing and strengthening ideas. Third, these interactions train people to engage in self-directed and confident action, relying less upon external affirmation. They teach us our own strengths and weaknesses, making us more capable of assured independent action. This is the sort of context that makes leaders in human thought and action, people who are able to fight their own corner and forge new paths. Most people fail to recognize just how crucial agentic qualities are. They mark the difference between the exceptional intelligent person and the genius, the person who can perform a task presented to them better than anyone else and the person who can reframe the activity completely, the adept and the pioneering innovator. Groups with rougher and more competitive or challenging interactions will always be better at producing leaders, innovators, and pioneers than more inclusive, affirming, non-competitive, communal oriented, egalitarian contexts, where disjunctive effects are viewed with unease and there is a greater homeostatic impulse (and conformity to the expectations of the group is highly privileged).
- The risk-takers within society, the ones who are less protected, and the ones society takes its risks upon will tend to gain the most power because they experience the most exaggerated disjunctive effects. Although such persons will suffer big losses, they also are the ones that reap the big rewards.
- Power is closely related to the capacity to maintain the integrity and self-direction of a community against all internal or external challenge and assault, to establish the sort of ‘dominance’ that isn’t oppressive (apart from its injustice, oppressive dominance is typically revolted against), but which prevents anarchy, rebellion, or external assault. The powerful leader or ruling group is like the immune system and backbone of their community, able to assert power where it is contested. This will take many different forms, depending upon the person, community, or mode of power. Occasionally it will involve the use or threat of violence, but much of the time it will not. It requires nerve, will, backbone, and considerable strength. This is a rather different sort of thing from a ‘power’ that is exercised merely through communal consensus. The sort of power that can’t assert itself when contested or represent a direct challenge to external powers is typically a second hand or nominal power. There is a difference between being empowered and being powerful. In the first case, the power isn’t really ours: we are just managing the power of another party.
- Power is best formed in large groups that are externally oriented, towards shared tasks, objects, or struggles, rather than focused upon the relations that exist between persons within them. Hierarchically organized, externally focused groups, where power is more centralized, where networks are broad, and members are more anonymous and interchangeable are able to pursue vast yet coordinated projects, the sorts of projects that establish civilizations, their culture and their infrastructure.
My claim is that, given these dynamics of the social construction of power relations, the human race is pre-wired for male dominance in power. For a host of reasons, from the form of our bodies, to our relative physical strength, to our biochemistry, to our different parts in the process of reproduction, to different preferred modes of sociality between the sexes, the dynamics of power creation play in favour of men as a group. In light of the more characteristic modes of male interactions, identities, bodies, group formation, strengths, and role in reproduction, it should not surprise us that the broader power structures, institutions, and infrastructure of almost every human civilization were primarily forged by men and continue to be dominated by them.
Although there are some universal differences between men and women, all of the claims above can comfortably rest upon general differences in tendencies, preferences, and capacities, without the need for any universal claims. Such general differences are also reinforced by socialization with our own sex, which will often tend to accentuate more distinct traits. It is also important to remember that many of the most important differences are established by the extremes. For instance, while there may be considerable overlap in strength between the sexes in physical strength, 99% of the strongest 10% of society is probably male and it is this 10% that has the biggest effect.
I think that too many feminists and egalitarians speak as if power were some naturally occurring substance that men have unjustly monopolized. Constructed power structures arose from—and continue to gain their strength from—more basic modes of human social relation. There is a sort of mystification that results when we forget this root and act as if the power structure were just created by some arbitrary fiat or could be recreated by it. Further, power structures are often spoken of as if they had existence quite independent of the behaviour of those within them, as if power won’t start to wither if it isn’t backed up by a certain form of behaviour.
My purpose here is most definitely not to justify all such power structures or to dismiss the claim that they have widely oppressed women—they definitely have—but to point out that, save for some complete reconfiguration of human nature, we will have to live with some form of them and that the removal of male dominance is a pipe dream. At base, power and authority will always be dominated by men. Men can and should empower women, but we shouldn’t be blind to the dynamics of power. Equality in power is not a healthy goal. Where it exists, it will tend to be achieved in one of three ways: 1. Men abdicating or opting out of a particular institution (which usually tends to involve the relocation of power and the institution’s relative loss of power); 2. The dismantling of power, which leaves all of us weakened and vulnerable; 3. The disempowering of men through the intervention of some external power (such as the state), upon which we all become more dependent.
I believe that the biblical pattern, from Genesis 2 onwards, is that the task of establishing and guarding the foundations is particularly entrusted to men and is something that they are apt for in a way that women aren’t. This isn’t just a matter of women not having ‘permission’. Male dominance in power is always going to be a fact on some level: the question is whether we are going to exercise this power in a manner that edifies, empowers, and supports women, or whether we are going to use it for self-serving ends. Adam is created as the priest and guardian of the Garden, given the task to guard and serve (the same terms are used of the Levites’ priestly and temple ministry) and given the law of the tree to uphold (Eve doesn’t receive this law firsthand, which is why it is always spoken of as something given to Adam in particular, why she could be deceived, and why Adam is responsible for the Fall). As the priestly guardian, Adam was to act for the well-being of Eve and protect her and the garden from attack, to use his power in service. However, the dignity of Eve (which was no less than Adam’s), was never found in being the same sort of priestly guardian as Adam, but, through living out her own vocation, to work with Adam in their common task.
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.
On the ground of this pattern and other biblical teaching, priestly or pastoral ministry, which symbolizes the authority of God/Christ to and for the Church, is male. ‘Fatherly’ authority is also apt to symbolize the material hiatus between God and his creation in a way that ‘motherly’ authority is not—the sexes are distinguished in these most characteristic modes of relation, forms of relation written into the very forms of our bodies. The point of male authority and power is to uphold the authority of God in contests where it is contested and challenged and to serve and empower others (which will not be achieved by abdicating it).
Although we should have male priesthood in the Church, the fact that the task of guarding and upholding the deposit of the faith and the community of the saints primarily falls to men doesn’t mean that women are ruled out of Church ministry, of which there are many forms. While the principal pastoral ministry for the whole church is to be exercised by men, women should assist them by performing most of the direct pastoral ministry for women within the church. Gifted women have much to teach everyone in the Church and, just as there are prophetesses in Old and New Testaments, we need to recognize and learn from the wisdom and teaching of such women in the Church. None of this replaces the ministry of priestly guardians.
Evangelicalism, because it has tended to emphasize the modes of Christian leadership that more closely correspond to the prophetic and to abandon the more priestly forms, tends to push women’s ministry to the margins or to admit women to all forms of leadership without distinction. Once we recognize the distinct character of priestly ministry, I believe that it should be clearer that a male-only priesthood can quite easily coexist with many women in other forms of prominent ministries—indeed, it must do so, as one of its primary purposes is to empower the broader ministries of the Church. We must form a Church that empowers and values women in their ministries, but this shouldn’t involve ignoring natural dynamics of the sexes, or putting to one side the biblical teaching on male-only priesthood.
Finally, the claim that God’s power is ‘most perfectly visible in the cross of Christ’ needs to be handled carefully, because this isn’t quite what Paul says. Paul’s actual claim is that Chris ‘was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by the power of God’ (2 Corinthians 13:4). The ‘weakness’ is associated with the crucifixion, the ‘power’ with his resurrection by God. The power of God is accomplished—‘made perfect’—through the cross and human weakness, but made perfectly visible in the resurrection. The power of God is most perfectly visible in the risen Crucified One, who puts all enemies under his feet.
And this is a point that Paul develops in the actual context, bringing out the theme of confrontation in Church leadership in particular. The entire extended portion of 2 Corinthians is about the grounds and nature of Paul’s apostolic authority, playing with the paradox of power and weakness, and posing the same sort of challenge as 1 Corinthians 4:21: ‘shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?’ Paul has written challenging and powerful letters, but doesn’t seem to exercise the authority that they suggest in his person. However, he warns that the bite that goes with his bark will be seen at his next coming.
In 2 Corinthians 13:4, Paul makes clear that, although he is weak in Christ, he also proleptically participates in the power of God towards the Corinthians and, if they do not repent at his warning, he ‘will not spare’. He will have to use his apostolic authority, grounded in his participation in the resurrection power of God, in a destructive manner, which is precisely what he doesn’t want to do with the authority that was given for their edification. Paul’s presentation of his apostolic authority and ministry in 10:1-6 is of a warrior (and in 11:2-3 as someone charged with guarding a prospective bride—comparing the church’s position relative to him to that of Eve), given the task of forcefully pacifying all opposition, punishing any disobedience that remains, once the Corinthians have displayed the obedience that he is calling for.
In summation, the larger portrait of Church leadership here, presented in the very terms of the objection that you raise, rather underlines my point.
Wherever we end up, I believe that this is an important conversation to have. While I am not taking this discussion any further, I would love to read your thoughts in the comments.