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.
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Someone asked the follow-up question of how my point about violent priesthood fits with the biblical teaching of the slain lamb. The following is my response:
The slain lamb motif fits with the violent priest motif in various ways.
The first point to notice is that not every motif should be presumed to bear the entire weight of the biblical witness on a particular matter. For instance, most models of the atonement will leave parts of the biblical witness unaccounted for. Consequently, the expectation that the violent priest motif should be seen within the slain lamb motif is not necessarily a fair one. Sometimes biblical motifs just exist side by side and we must maintain both.
Second, however, the slain lamb motif is held together with the violent priest motif more directly through the broader typological framework to which they both belong. The slain lamb is, among other things, a deployment of Passover imagery. The slain lamb was directly related to the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn by the divine Angel of destruction. The redemption of the Israelites through the sacrifice of the lamb and the slaying of the children of their enemies are presented as two sides of the same event. In Christ, these two elements of the same picture come into even clearer convergence.
The Passover sacrifice also served to establish a sort of provisional priesthood. The Passover lamb redeemed the Israelite firstborn sons (and Israel itself as God’s firstborn son—Exodus 4:22-23), making them God’s particular possession (Numbers 3:13). These firstborn were later replaced by the Levites (Numbers 3:12), who were God’s particular possession of the people, the guardians of God’s right and the people’s holiness, and the symbols and enforcers of his authority among them.
Third, the most extensive portrayal of the slain lamb theme in the New Testament is found in the Johannine literature, where Passover imagery is prominent and where the cross is presented as a sort of military victory. The slain lamb is presented as a conquering victor. This comes into clearest focus in the book of Revelation, where themes of violent priesthood are found, but also themes of the violent Lamb. The Lamb’s sacrifice is presented in terms of conflict and the Lamb is a terrifying figure.
The Lamb’s death is the means of redeeming an army of persons that will one day reign on the earth and initiating the apocalyptic judgment of God. It is the Lamb who can open the scroll and it is the Lamb who establishes the new conquering people:
The Lamb of Revelation is a figure of wrath and judgment that casts dread into the stoutest heart, the one who prosecutes God’s sentence upon his enemies and destroys them:
The Lamb is the one who ‘shepherds’ his people through the great tribulation (7:14-17), another startling stretching of imagery to near breaking point. The blood of the Lamb is the means by which the great battle of the heavens is won:
The Lamb is the one who presides over the utter destruction of his enemies:
As the great winepress of the wrath of God is trodden out, it is the song of the Moses and the song of the Lamb that is sung (Revelation 15:3). This is the song that was sung after the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, now associated with the Lamb’s crushing of the wicked. The Lamb is also directly spoken of as a conquering warrior:
Taking this larger portrait of the slain Lamb into account, I believe that my point is strengthened. If the very imagery that would seem absolutely to preclude such themes (what creature is more weak, vulnerable, and non-violent than a lamb?) is stretched to near breaking point in order to become the bearer of those themes, it would suggest that those themes are of fairly crucial importance.
Appreciate this Alastair. In my own processing of this question (which is admittedly less nuanced & less developed than yours), I kept getting stuck at the question of power that arises from something as rudimentary as male/female biology. A woman will never be as physically powerful as a man; additionally, a woman’s reproductive capacity makes her even more vulnerable through the process of conceiving, birthing, & nurturing new human life. So there must be a way to understand the equal value and worth of male/female contributions w/out relying on “power” to define it.
What I do worry about, however, is the widespread failure to acknowledge the value of things that are not “powerful.” In our fallen state, we are a people prone to violence–might makes right–and so it is easy to continue to pursue “power” as an end itself. (Again, it is ironic that so many of these discussions revert to both men and women grasping for power–neither is willing to give it up.) So that even something as basic as marketplace dynamics tend to reward the accumulation of power. When women embrace more fluid work in order to care for family, they do end up suffering for it, sacrificing money, value, and respect from the power structures.
Point: Because we don’t understand the proper role and use of power, we also can’t understand the value of those things that are less powerful.
Thanks, Hannah. Your point is absolutely crucial: power has never been the biblical criterion of worth (especially as God has a preference for using the weak things of the world to humble the mighty and the archetypal member of the kingdom is a little child). Also, power in Scripture is always given for the sake of service. What power we possess has been given to us to enable us to empower others and protect the vulnerable. Having our hands directly on the reins of power would matter much less to us if we all lived in terms of this. In a society that took this seriously, we would also appreciate the value of truly powerful persons, who are able to protect us in ways that others could not.
Power in a faithful pastor’s hands is not power withheld from us, but power exercised for us—empowering power. One of the main reasons why I decided many years ago not to seek to become a pastor was because I believed (as I still believe) that both I and others would be more empowered in a situation where naturally gifted persons exercised pastoral leadership with our best interests in mind than we would all be in a situation where I exercised it myself. There are many ways to serve and find a place in the life of the Church and society that don’t involve positions of more direct power, not least in counselling those who do exercise such power.
Unfortunately, our discourses about inequality have tended to be narrowly framed around wealth and direct political power. It seems to be the only vocabulary that we understand sometimes. What we lose sight of is the deeper problem of the inequality of dignity. Where that equality exists—where we know that society and its members value and are invested in each one of us—the other sorts of inequalities aren’t felt so keenly and will also be held in check in various ways.
Pursuing equality in terms of power is a flawed and doomed enterprise. However, none of this should entail an abandonment of the quest for justice and the creation of a society within which all persons—male and female, persons of all classes and races, etc.—can rise to their full height in communion, just a reshaping and more careful directing of it. We clearly don’t live in such a society (or Church) right now, so, while we may reject certain proposed paths of justice, it must always be in order to pursue others, not in order to resign ourselves to the status quo.
I want to, respectfully, push back a bit here. Women have vastly more power, in both pre-modern and modern societies, than they are given credit for. However, their sources of power are quite different from those of men. One of the complaints against feminism by the average man is that it gives women access to traditionally male sources of power while leaving untouched traditionally female sources of power, leaving the average man at a double disadvantage.
One cannot help but notice that the ranks of self-identified feminists are swollen with the ranks of those with no ability or inclination to take advantage of traditional female sources of power: lesbians, the unattractive, the utterly irresponsible.
BTW, this is not to deny that women have certain particular vulnerabilities, many of which have been enumerated here. But then so do men.
There are indeed many forms of female power and authority, for those who know where to look. These will typically place constraints upon men’s actions within society, and often direct them. The power in question is typically more a soft power. For instance, a consistent theme in the Old Testament is that men’s hearts are particularly exposed to women. This is why we must pursue Lady Wisdom, rather than the foolish woman.
Queens are often seen as the powers behind the thrones, using their immense soft power to sway the course of nations (women are associated with Wisdom for a reason). Jezebel and Herodias are two paralleled examples here, both of whom are married to a weak king and drive him to persecute the Lord’s prophet. On the other hand, Esther uses her soft power to become the saviour of her people.
Feminism uses plenty of soft power. Anyone who pays attention to the sorts of campaigns that feminists tend to get involved in will notice that the overwhelming majority of them seem to involve pushing for some other party to do something on their behalf. The soft power exerted in such instances depends greatly upon a sort of moral authority that women exert as the particular representatives of communal values and on account of their privileged right to protection. Problems arise, of course, when they want to have it both ways, to enjoy direct power, while retaining privileged entitlement to protection, when they want to represent the moral authority of communal norms yet act in a more typically male autonomous manner.
“One cannot help but notice that the ranks of self-identified feminists are swollen with the ranks of those with no ability or inclination to take advantage of traditional female sources of power: lesbians, the unattractive, the utterly irresponsible.”
This is an outdated caricature. Could you name some of these people? I have many non-Christian friends who are self-identified feminists and all of them are attractive, personable women and many are in stable relationships. [Calling feminists ‘unattractive’ is one of the oldest tricks in the book: a woman is deemed ‘unattractive’ (supposedly) and therefore can’t ‘get’ a man, so she turns to feminism! Nope, that really is not how it works.]
I welcome the strength of godly men and I think that motherhood is tremendously empowering and important, and a vital source of traditional female strength. (I’m not a mother myself, but as an adoptee I have very strong opinions on the importance of parenthood.)
I’m also a Lay Reader in the Church of England and whenever I preach, I am exercising a certain ‘authority’ over other women and men, no way of softening that reality just to please complementarians. That’s what I’m doing – under the ‘headship’ of my vicar, of course, but a teaching ministry is a teaching ministry. (I have no desire to be ordained and I regard my ministry as an immense privilege and certainly something that helps to keep me humble.) It bothers me not a jot if many women choose the traditional forms of female power and are happy to be stay-at-home mums. All power to them. All I ask is that women in other spheres of power previously denied to women are granted the same respect that their brothers in Christ are, and are not looked at askance as trying to ‘usurp’ men (not true of the vast majority of women, it might of course be true of some!) I’m not widely read in feminism, far from it, but I have often pondered the nature of ‘power’ and the different ways in which men and women lead. Of course Christian leadership must primarily be about servanthood, serving God and His people.
Thanks for the comment, Philippa. The point about feminists isn’t one that I have made (or would make), so I will leave that to The Man Who Was to defend, if he wants to.
One of the problems in the current debate, as I see it and have argued, is the extreme vagueness of our terms, and the way in which the over-extension of certain terms has caused us to miss certain crucial distinctions.
‘Leadership’ is one such term. The following are some comments that I have written on the point before:
Defined in this vague way, women most definitely should exercise forms of ‘leadership’ and ‘authority’ in the Church. We would all be losing out if they didn’t.
A similar slippage has occurred with the terms ‘authority’ and ‘power’. This is one of the reasons why I have made the point about the difference between being ’empowered’ and being ‘powerful’, for instance. The first is the sort of power that is granted to you by some other party and backed up by them. The second is the sort of power that you should be able to back up yourself. This is the sort of power and authority that can assert itself where it is contested.
I have also done lay preaching. However, I do not have authority—in the more precise sense—in the Church. I may be given a hearing. I may be empowered in various ways. I may have considerable influence. I may guide and instruct others. I may even have the capacity to exert a decisive impact upon the minds and actions of pastors through my words and counsel. None of these things are ‘authority’ in the more proper sense of which I am speaking here, though.
My focus has been upon the role of the priest throughout. I have argued that the priest is called to exercise this very particular and more basic sort of authority, to be the sort of person who can secure and establish power and authority in contexts of confrontation and contention. As this is established, the priest can ’empower’ all sorts of others—women among them—to exercise positions of teaching, guidance, influence, counsel, and management in the life of the Church. And that could include things such as female lay readers. It is imperative that we don’t blur the distinction between priestly ministry and these others, though. They are qualitatively different.
Thanks again for the comment.
1. Stereotypes are usually quite accurate, and, in fact, there is an extensive literature on just how accurate they are. I will maintain without apology that these particular stereotypes about self-identified feminists are still accurate, on average.
2. Exceptions simply don’t defeat statistical tendencies.
I’ll add that feminists tend to have masculine physical features as well. And here’s the brand spanking new study on that one. Enjoy!
Your comment about powerful and less powerful things is just spot on. Everybody wants to be leaders, everybody wants to be powerful..wonder where they will get their followers? It is just the same old sin of pride in a different form.
But i think there may be an even more fundamental dynamic going on here. You write, “So there must be a way to understand the equal value and worth of male/female contributions w/out relying on “power” to define it.”
I want to pushback that there must be a way to understand the value and worth of a person without relying on his or her contributions at all, powerful or less powerful.
If we search for our value in the contributions that we make, be it power or non power based, we are pursuing ultimately the same goal… satisfying our own egos. Actually non power based contributions are more prone to this tendency… along with whatever contributions that we are making we are also taking the moral and intellectual high ground. “I must be really awesome if i can do all those things and still be moral in the way it is carried out. My way is not just based on hard power”. Our ego gets its fill and we are satisfied.
This is why I think we take serious note of what Alastaier points out, ‘the archetypal member of the kingdom is a little child ‘ A new born or an unborn child has no ability to contribute anything, with more or less power. Similar is the case with the elderly alzheimer’s patient, the man on death row, the pedophile, the person with suicidal depression, the mentally retarded adult. But we believe that all of them have intrinsic value which cannot be erased. That I believe can only grounded on God’s love for each of us which is true irrespective of our present state or our capabilities. God loves us just the way we are. But his love wants to make us into what we should be. That is the very nature of true love.
Inability to grasp this point is at the heart of all the problems of identity including feminism. My ego wants my value to based on my capabilities, not on some free love from God. This is why language of duty doesn’t cut much ice with modern people. If you have a role in society which is laid out for you, you get no extra credit for carrying that out .That is just your duty . This is argument is especially significant if your role in society is considered ‘powerful’. That power is not for your personal aggrandizement but to serve others. You are just a steward who will be held accountable for your gifts and abilities. So there is no need for everyone to go into a mad scramble to become a ‘leader’ There is nothing inherently superior in being more powerful or more intelligent. As the spiderman movie says “With great power comes great responsibility”
The issue is that it is always the men with power who are telling women they can’t have power that try to sweeten the pill by saying that power does not indicate value.
Just set people free! Allow them all to use their God given gifts and respond to God’s call on their lives. If God calls them to positions of with power then God will hold them accountable.
Alastair, I am just flabbergasted at your reading of Scripture and you’re understanding of the sociology of power and your association of violence with priesthood and therefore of contemporary church leadership. Not only do you seem to be asserting male only leadership but even only alpha male leadership and your long rambling answers seem to reflect an overt attempt to dominate the conversation as almost a way of asserting that dominance on your readership. Thank God Jesus spoke in chreia – thank God for his willingness to be silent in the face of accusation, thank God for his stooping to draw in the sand, thank God for his weeping over Jerusalem. Thank God Jesus is not the alpha male you portray in this rather one side reading of Scripture.
Thanks for the comment, Peter.
At the outset, I stand by everything that I have said to this point. If I write at length, it is only to cover my back in conversations where I consistently see people jumping to uncharitable and hostile conclusions in a reactive manner. It is always helpful to be able to point out that I have pre-empted objections and that much of the dispute arises from careless reading and a failure of basic Christian charity in judgment and discourse, rather than from numerous hostages that I have thrown to fortune.
Besides, practically every day, I received e-mails thanking me for making thorough and detailed comments. Within the past month and a half, Andrew has devoted two posts to my comments, Derek Rishmawy has devoted another. The Gospel Coalition made a post out of one of my comments and asked me to convert another comment into a further post. Christ and Pop Culture has a post of mine coming out in the next couple of days, which is yet another converted comment. From when I first started blogging almost eleven years ago until the present, my commitment has always been to take the conversation that occurs in the comments extremely seriously and to devote the same thoroughness and care to my responses as I give to my posts. This means that they are lengthy, but they are also carefully considered. I try to treat my interlocutors and their positions with respect, both in my language and in handling their positions as worthy of close, attentive, and detailed engagement. Frankly, I think that such sorts of comments are far more worthwhile than the kind of brief and hostile passing broadsides that often tend to fill comments threads. And it appears that many other people agree with me.
Yes, the reading that I have presented in this conversation is one-sided. This is because, even though I write at length, I can’t say everything, but can only address the part of the picture that is ignored or under dispute. The figure of the priest is associated with violence in Scripture, as is the shepherd. However, the shepherd is also the one who seeks the lost sheep, tenderly cradles the lambs in his bosom, and provides verdant pasturage by gentle waters.
Your picture is even more one-sided, because, not only does it only present one side of the story, it denies the reality of the other. The Christ who weeps over Jerusalem is also the Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70. The Christ who stands silent before his accusers is also the Christ who stops every mouth as the judge of the world. The Christ who performs a symbolic test of jealousy upon the woman caught in adultery and does not condemn her is also the Christ who performs the most dreadful judgment upon the adulterous Babylon. The Christ who hangs powerless on the cross is also the powerful Christ of the resurrection and ascension who rules with a rod of iron until all enemies are put under his feet and who treads out their blood in the winepress of God’s wrath. We need to hold these two parts of the picture together.
My argument isn’t for male only leadership in the Church, but for a male only priesthood/pastorate (if people tend to hear me saying this, it is mostly because they already think that they know my position). It is this particular mode of leadership that is restricted to males, not leadership in general. ‘Leadership’ is an unhelpfully vague term as it functions in these conversations, functioning more as a shibboleth than as a clarifying term. Indeed, one of the purposes of pastoral ministry is to empower the broader ministries of the Church, which will include those of women. I believe that evangelicalism in its more complementarian varieties has marginalized the ministry of women in various ways and for various reasons and that we must address this situation as a matter of urgency. However, I believe that women in priesthood isn’t the solution, and that it is both contrary to Scripture, reason, and the best interests of the Church. The real solution involves clarifying and focusing the exact nature of priestly ministry, broadening our notions of the different sort of ministries that exist in the Church beyond it (instead of homogenizing every prominent form of ministry under the single term ‘leadership’), and supporting and encouraging women exercising prominent forms of leadership, teaching, service, and authority in the life of the Church.
Thanks again for the comment.
As a feminist Biblical scholar your post has obviously been causing me much concern.
However, today as a Revelation scholar comments you have been making me are causing even more concern. I am now having to respond to as I am upset and horrified that someone studying a PhD at a UK university could possibly have written the following:
“The Christ who weeps over Jerusalem is also the Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70. The Christ who stands silent before his accusers is also the Christ who stops every mouth as the judge of the world. The Christ who performs a symbolic test of jealousy upon the woman caught in adultery and does not condemn her is also the Christ who performs the most dreadful judgment upon the adulterous Babylon.”
Please do not carry out random analysis on the book of Revelation without actually delving into the issues surrounding it and studying it seriously. You surely know that each text needs to be read carefully and in light of academic study and if not the results of such practise being ignored is evidenced in: ‘Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70.’
In Revelation scholarship decades has been spent demonstrating that Jerusalem is not the target of the wrath of the Lamb and dispelling arguments put forth that it was by over zealous Christians who had lost sight of the Jewish nature of the text. A brief reading of any of the books on Revelation on your library shelves will tell you that the text of Revelation is written by a Jew for Jews. Only 3-4 scholars in the whole academy argue that Babylon represents Jerusalem, and they appear in publications as a fleeting footnote and even then do not go as far as you do in your comment above, focusing on the priesthood. The majority opinion is that Babylon represents Rome/and or city with world power. Refer to the commentary by Ian Boxall, or David Aune, or even Conservative Gregory Beale and you will find excellent analysis of this issue and also, discussions of the dangers of believing that Jerusalem was destroyed in some sort of divine wrath. Readings which go down this route can incite all sorts of ideas which the academy is careful to try and dispel.
The academy has worked to undo Jerusalem and violence against women readings of Revelation through proper, contextual textual analysis. Revelation is not something to grab when you want to justify a point regarding wrath, violence or destruction. As a member of the British academic system you owe it to yourself to present arguments which are backed by understanding of the current state of Revelation studies and the heavy weight people who study it sit under due to the terrible way it has been interpreted in the past.
I realise that you’re probably not having the best day based on the other posts, but I simply cannot let such a comment go unchecked. Please think through the ramifications of your arguments, which are manifold..
P.s Also, to correct your terminology: Babylon is not accused of adultery, but fornication, which is a different Greek word and different Graeco-Roman concept.
Thank you for your comment.
It is unfortunate that you find my position upsetting. However, I am surprised that you seem just to assume that I haven’t studied the book and the secondary literature. For instance, of the books that you mention, I’ve used Aune’s commentary extensively before and I have read Beale’s from cover to cover (I’ve also read much of his John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation).
I am sure that I don’t have to remind you—or maybe I do?—that exegesis isn’t decided by popular vote reinforced by peer pressure in the academy (or, at least, it shouldn’t be), but by the presentation, weighing, and testing of arguments by competent and informed scholars. I am well aware that my reading isn’t the majority one. I also happily recognize that most people can and will disagree with me on this point. However, being well acquainted with the majority opinion among scholars on this particular exegetical question (1 Peter 5:13 too), I happen to think that it presents a weak case for itself. It is more often asserted with scant support than argued for in close detail. In fact, a number, as you do, refer primarily to the general scholarly consensus as support, as if that were sufficient to settle anything. The Jerusalem case, although it may have problems, is a much stronger one, I believe.
N.T. Wright—hardly an obscure figure in NT scholarship—expresses my view on this matter well, also illustrating the point that the same essential point is made in the gospels (even if we didn’t read Babylon as Jerusalem in Revelation, the substance of the position could still be maintained from the gospels). He writes in Jesus and the Victory of God, 358:
He continues, in a footnote:
Indeed, Revelation is a book written by a Jew for Jews. It is a profoundly Jewish book. So, like the Old Testament prophets—other books written by Jews for Jews—why exactly should it surprise us to find Jerusalem compared to a harlot when this is such a consistent theme in the prophets (cf. Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; 3:1-8; Ezekiel 6:9; 16; 23; Hosea)? How often do we find cities outside of Israel referred to as harlots by comparison? Why should it surprise us to find Jerusalem compared to one of the paradigmatic pagan cities, when this is exactly what the prophets do (Isaiah 1:7-10; 3:8-9; Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16)? Why should it surprise us that a Jewish writer is proclaiming catastrophic divine judgment upon Jerusalem and its rulers, when the prophetic tradition within which the author of Revelation is situated is full of such prophecies? Why should it surprise us that Revelation would talk about divine judgment upon Jerusalem, when we find the same thing at various other points in the New Testament, not least in the teaching of Jesus?
The word is indeed fornication. However, since Babylon the Great is Jerusalem, the fornication is adulterous (just as the fornication of God’s people in Ezekiel 16 and 23). Adultery and fornication are spoken of in combination with each other on various occasions in Scripture, not least in Revelation itself (cf. Jeremiah 13:27; Revelation 2:21-22). Besides, if I hold that the Babylon in Revelation is Jerusalem, why should my claim about adultery rest upon the specific term used? As many readers of Revelation have recognized over the centuries, the Whore is a false Bride, not just an unconnected woman.
This personified and unified ‘academy’—the sniffy scholar’s version of the ‘editorial we’?—of which you speak in such an assured manner might do better if it spent more time developing strong arguments, rather than invoking a false consensus to exert peer pressure against uncomfortable conclusions. It might also benefit from not trying to expunge its scholarly critics’ existence from the record like some Soviet censor charged with maintaining the appearance of the unity of the Party.
One of most worrying aspects of your response to “Very Worried” is that you now admit that what you presented as the obvious truth that we should all accept from you is in fact a fringe view by saying “I am well aware that my reading isn’t the majority one.”
Yet until then you have never admitted that it is possible to hold different views to your own. You have simply declared “This is how it must be understood”. This is huge and dangerous arrogance that you think you can present your views as the only way, not even admitting the possibility of other understandings of scripture (that it turns out are the majority understanding).
You mention NT Wright as a distinguished theologian who holds views that are a minority. I have read a fair bit of his work, including his rebuttal of John Piper on Justification and his style and academic honesty are very different to yours. There is no pretence that everyone agrees with him and huge grace shown to those who don’t. He does not simply claim the authority to rewrite Christianity that you do.
For clarity, the ‘reading’ that I was referring to was the reading of Babylon in Revelation as Jerusalem. That is quite tangential to the wider discussion.
Male-only priesthood happens to be the majority position in Christian churches and history.
Violent Male Priesthood is not the majority position and that you justified by your fringe reading of Revelation.
Dave, you have still to demonstrate that you actually understand my position. It would help if you did that before you criticized it. Thank you for taking the time to comment, but I think that it would be better spent re-reading more closely.
Alastair, actually if you feel that your views are compatible with orthodox Christian faith then the fact that a number of people have not understood them that way puts the onus on you. The way you dismissed an Evangelical scholar such as Pete Philips demonstrates that this is not an issue for me to resolve by rereading but for you to rethink
a) why your views are getting so much push back and
b) why so many people have problems with what you are writing but either don’t comment or only comment once (a glance at your twitter mentions will show lots of people who are not commenting here because of this kind of attitude)
c) why you are attracting outright misogynist comments to support you and why you have not spoken against them. That is also very revealing of your views.
So why do I keep responding despite your attempts to blame my understanding for your bad theology?
Firstly I am very stubborn! Secondly I have been challenging bad theology on gender for years. I am used to aggressive alpha males claiming that their theology that excludes women is the only understanding. You are not the first simply the most aggressive this week.
I’m hoping you can be mature enough to rethink how you are responding and what you are responding to and then think about how you might (succinctly) present your views to address the various concerns. May God bless you in those endeavours.
Alastair: Wright is not a Revelation scholar and has not carried out serious work on Revelation (Revelation for Everyone does not count). You also cited from his book on the historical Jesus. Of course he maybe correct (I doubt it but he might) but I am not convinced that this fulfils your criterion of “testing of arguments by competent and informed scholars”. Plus I’m unaware of proper evidence of you seriously engaging a wide range of Revelation scholarship. Maybe you have but I’d need evidence.
But my question: what is a “profoundly Jewish” reading? With what less/more Jewish profundity can it be compared? Is it code for “my favourite reading of the text and if labelled Jewish it must be right”?
Alastair, thanks for this. I’ve responded (fairly briefly; I have a funeral to plan…) over at Think Theology.
Thanks, Steve. I will respond here, if that is OK.
I am quite happy to admit the usefulness of some definitions of equality (I used one such definition—equality in the dignity accorded to persons—above in my comment in response to Hannah). However, as it functions in these conversations, ‘equality’ is seldom nailed down. It typically functions as an emotive shibboleth and as a vehicle to smuggle assumptions and conclusions into the conversation. To borrow an expression from Wittgenstein, we need to send the term for cleaning. I wrote a post three years back—in response to one of your posts, actually—in which I discussed some of my concerns about the way that terminology functions in these conversations.
I don’t deny that, as we encounter them, power structures usually have a clear givenness to their character. However, the shape of our power structures isn’t entirely accidental, as they developed within the constraints of our natures and modes of socialization (they weren’t always ‘given’: at some point human modes of acting and relating preceded and gave rise to them). They can also only exhibit so much plasticity. Attempts fundamentally to overhaul their shape will tend to founder on the rocks of reality. Without certain modes of acting and relating, they will fray or unravel.
The question that I sought to underline in my earlier response to you is: is it possible to have a developed human society, without men tending to hold the greatest power? Talking about patriarchy merely as a ‘given’ structure fails to address the question of what exactly ‘gave’ us this structure in the first place, whether the ‘gift’ can really be refused, or whether it is a pre-wired given of human nature. [I also believe that it is a ‘gift’ of divine order, established before the Fall. The Fall perverts male dominance in power into an ugly and oppressive form, rather than one in which power is used in service and empowerment of others weaker than oneself.] I believe that, for the reasons that I put forward, a fundamental male dominance in power will always reassert itself (something such as racism is much more amenable to change). Unless, for instance, we pumped women full of testosterone, bulked up their bodies, developed ectogenesis, motivated them to be more thing- and process-oriented, less interested in intimate groups, and more inclined to rougher interactions—or we emasculated men—the fundamental dynamic isn’t going to change.
None of the dynamics that I identified in my comments are pathological or negative in and of themselves, so we can’t subject the fundamental impulse to moral strictures, only certain of the oppressive forms that can result from it. I am concerned that we do just this, but we shouldn’t pretend that the dynamics don’t exist in the first place. Starting on an equal level, male groups will always tend to create power and power structures far more rapidly and effectively than female groups, leading to an imbalance that constantly reasserts itself.
And the dynamics don’t disappear when people start calling themselves egalitarians. My point isn’t that women as a group aren’t permitted to exercise power in the same way as men do in society, but that they don’t and they can’t. Every time I witness or participate in a conversation like this, for instance, I see the same pattern: several male egalitarians/feminists rushing to the defense of women who supposedly feel vulnerable and attacked. There is a lot of bitterness and claims of the need to affirm and validate women, etc. The problem is that, by their words and actions, such egalitarians merely reinforce the pattern that women are more vulnerable than men and need male protection and champions to fight for them. We are expected—rightly, I believe—to be gentler in our interactions with women in dispute and to shield them from the fierceness of direct combat. However, one of the tasks of pastoral leadership is to operate on the front line, establishing and enforcing divine authority in contexts where it is contested. The fact that egalitarians instinctively recognize that the women that they champion for such positions need to be protected and shielded from the most direct forms of contention and challenge is a good indication that what they are advocating will result in the abdication of key duties of pastoral ministry. Also, the bitterness, extreme antagonism, and reactivity of these debates have a lot to do with the more general problematic dynamics of treating women as frontline combatants.
An approach that recognizes the reality that men will always be the ones with the most immediate power in society can replace the ‘egalitarian’ approach with one that makes strong men the guardians of the Church and the ones who uphold its authority in the face of the world. However, as they do this, they can create a much safer place for the flowering of women’s gifts and ministries within the Church and can empower such ministries by their own. All of this can be achieved without weakening the Church and encouraging the messy situation of women as frontline combatants in order to establish a more absolute equality.
On the power and weakness point, the gospel isn’t and never was about a glorification of power. The danger is always that we should see power as the guarantee of worth, much as our society does. Men are naturally more powerful, but this doesn’t make them better. Weakness is at the centre of the gospel. The paradigmatic person in the kingdom is the little child. What power exists exists to serve the weak, not to glorify the strong, who are the servants of all in the kingdom.
You write: “And the dynamics don’t disappear when people start calling themselves egalitarians. My point isn’t that women as a group aren’t permitted to exercise power in the same way as men do in society, but that they don’t and they can’t.”
One has to assume that you are writing this from a position of total ignorance.
I am a Methodist Minister. I am entirely used to working with women in positions of authority, leadership and power.
It was true in my previous career in IT where I worked for a number of women as direct managers and as senior managers/directors.
Before I started training for ministry the most effective minister we had when I was a Church Steward was a woman. Before training I was evaluated by teams which included women who had complete “power” over whether I was selected. My training was overseen by women, One of them was the late Rev’d Dr Angela Shier-Jones and the idea that she didn’t know how to exercise power is totally laughable (ask anyone who had the privilege of knowing her).
In my first appointment the Chair of the Methodist District was Rev’d Alison Tomlin who later served as President of the Methodist Conference. Again, the idea that she was unable to exercise power in these roles is ludicrous, as a probationer minister you are very aware of the power the District Chair has!
In my current Circuit my Superintendent Minister is the Rev’d Rachel Parkinson who completely turned around a dying Circuit in the two years before I arrived through her strong leadership.
Our ex President is Rev’d Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District. I know Ruth from when she led my pre-ordination retreat and again she destroys your arguments.
I could go on, in fact years ago I wrote about the strong leaders I know who happen to be women and the powerful impact they have had on me. The list was much longer than this and included many lay women.
People exercise power in different ways, all the people I have mentioned exercise(d) power in different ways but to assume that makes them weak would be a grave mistake.
One of the other women whose leadership I have often written about and who also makes your theories look quaint and irrelevant is my wife. Again I have written about her leadership and strength before. One classic example is when as co-owner and Company Secretary of our business she took the role of Managing Director when I was ill with depression while caring for my terminally ill Dad. I was completely unable to make decisions or face anyone so she got on with it and did so with no support.
To anyone with experience of women in leadership your arguments look very foolish and petty.
Dave, thanks for the comment.
Your comment quite misses the fact that I am talking about a more direct and fundamental form of power. The result is that you talk completely past my position.
As I have discussed it, power and authority have a more foundational force. I am talking about the roots of power, where power originally comes from, and how it is first created. I draw a clear distinction between being ‘powerful’ and being ’empowered’ in this respect. The empowered person primarily receives their power from some other party. The powerful person establishes the roots of power and power structures in society. They are the ones that power comes from. My argument has never been that men have a greater capacity as ’empowered’ persons, but that they are the ones who primarily create and establish power and power structures in the first place.
And ‘powerful’ people are the people that are needed when it comes to guarding power structures in contexts where power is contested. Putting ’empowered’ persons in such positions weakens us all.
If you read my comments closely, you will see that I argue on several occasions that we should empower women and put them in various leading positions. However, priestly leadership is a distinct kind of leadership that demands the characteristics of powerful persons (the argument against women in the priesthood doesn’t rest primarily upon this point, but this is a supporting rationale).
I, too, have known many gifted women who are far more capable than I or most men in the management and running of certain institutions, who are gifted teachers and wise guides. However, the role of priesthood requires more than this. It involves a very particular mode of exercising power.
You try so hard to be one of those slippery people. I responded very specifically to one of your points so you change your argument and claim that I “talk completely past my position.”
You were justifying your claims that women cannot be “proper” powerful leaders with your bogus claims about egalitarians and women exercising power. Yet there are many, many specific examples of women who are leading and exercising very appropriate power without any reference to your invented derogatory term of being “empowered”.
You are bonkers if you think you are going to find anyone who knew Rev’d Dr Angela Shier-Jones and can accept your put down of her as an “empowered” person. I have never met such a fierce, confident, powerful, transforming leader. She took on roles and turned structures upside down, she was absolutely brilliant to have on your side fighting for you and completely terrifying if in ordination training you didn’t take seriously being under the discipline of the Methodist Conference. When the Church appointed her as a tutor and she discovered what was happening she shook the whole system up and became Director of Free Church Studies because she recognised what was not working and was able to take the lead in the way that nobody else dared.
You are building a castle on penises and it looks just like a castle built on sand and will last just as long.
Dave, thanks for the comment.
If I appear slippery, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that you have consistently jumped to mistaken conclusions about the nature of my position. I haven’t changed my position at any point and stand by all of my statements in this discussion so far. If you were more concerned to understand than to accuse, we might actually get somewhere. As it is, you are still failing to engage with my position.
Besides anything else, my claim has never been that no woman can ever originate power or establish it in contested contexts. Nor, for that matter, have I claimed that this is the primary basis for a male-only priesthood. It isn’t. However, it does provide very good prudential support for it.
Throughout, my claim has been a general one about the character of power, arguing that given the character of the dynamics that produce power structures and powerful persons, power will always be fundamental male at its roots. Yes, there are exceptional women who may also exercise such power on occasions. However, they are exceptions and in no way undermine the general rule, which has been my focus throughout.
Frankly, if you want this conversation to get anywhere, you will need to show a better understanding of the position that you are arguing against. At this point, I am tempted to rule out further engagement before you demonstrate that you can give a fair and accurate representation of the position that I hold in your own words, one to which I would be happy to put my name.
“However, the role of priesthood requires more than this. It involves a very particular mode of exercising power.”
a) You have not demonstrated any convincing argument of this.
b) You have promoted an idea of violent priesthood that is entirely at odds with the incarnation, teaching, example, death and resurrection of Jesus. Your selective quoting from Revelation around the imagery of the Lamb is wholly unhelpful and (in a way very reminiscent of Mark Driscoll) it completely fails to recognise the significance of a Lamb who allowed himself to be the sacrifice, who submitted to violence and did not respond with violence and to the way we are washed white in his blood. We have no need of violence (which is handy as to be violent is in complete contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount) because the Lamb is victorious through sacrifice.
c) You have totally ignored the critical call of the Holy Spirit to priesthood which has been demonstrably visible in the way the Holy Spirit has blessed so many women who have responded to the call to priesthood.
Dave, until you can present, in your own words, a detailed and fair representation of my position, I see nothing to be gained from further discussion with you. Sorry.
“Dave, until you can present, in your own words, a detailed and fair representation of my position, I see nothing to be gained from further discussion with you. Sorry.”
Goodbye. I have no intention of allowing you to control my responses in anyway.
This isn’t the first time someone didn’t even bother to understand a position before arguing against it. Ah, the internet.
Ah yes. An Alpha Male on the internet who always knows that disagreement is because someone else is to stupid to understand.
Everything is always a problem with the person who disagrees with you.
Seen you before!
Thought provoking as always, Alastair. Thank you.
I know you’re trying to avoid continuing the conversation in the comments, but I’m wondering how a woman’s union/identity with the male and priestly Christ does or doesn’t affect her calling as a woman. Not sure exactly what I’m asking. I’m sure the answer would be clear in the question, if I could sort the question out.
Anyway, thanks again, brother!
Thanks for the comment, Phil.
I am wary of individualizing and atomizing the priesthood of Christians, the image of God, and our participation in Christ. The priesthood of all believers is not principally to be thought of as the priesthood of a set of individuals who are all priests in exactly the same way, but the priesthood of the entire body of the Church in Christ that we are all full members and partakers within (the failure to recognize this sort of distinction lies behind many misunderstandings of texts such as Galatians 3:28). There are individual dimensions to this, of course. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit as individuals and thus have a priestly ministry with respect to our own lives, apart from anything else. Each one of us receives a baptism that is patterned after the rite of priestly initiation (Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs is the book to read on this, of course).
However, in the broader life of the Church we are all full yet differentiated members of a larger ministering body, having our part in all of its actions and blessings. Many bodies are offered, but only one sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1). Each individual’s spiritual gift is a ‘re-presentation’ of the one Gift of the Spirit that was given to the whole Church at Pentecost. The gifts are given to all of the body, for the edification of each member. However, the gifts are not given through each member of the body in precisely the same fashion. The priestly leaders of the Church minister something that is given for the edification of the Church as a whole. The authority that they exercise was given for all of us, although it is given through and exercised on our behalf through them.
Men and women are differentiated members, though all full and equal partakers of the life of the body. We should also make clear that it isn’t just a case of women being differentiated from men. Men are one specific mode of humanity, not the norm and criteria against which women must be measured. We should also be asking the question of how men’s calling is affected by the fact that Christ is the male High Priest: is there any part left for us to play?
The fundamental calling is always a common calling, within which we play differentiated parts. It is primarily men and women together, as servants of and ministers to each other, that represent the image of God in the world and share in the priestly status and privilege of Christ as his people. Women play an indispensable part in the representation of God’s rule in creation, one which, in many respects, corresponds more closely to the work of the Spirit in the divine economy.
Thank you for the response, Alastair.
I’ve thought of priestly function as ‘butling’ in God’s house- especially in terms of bringing others into an ’audience’ with the master. Looks like the emphasis on the guarding aspect hasn’t figured into my thinking as it ought to.
My concern is pastoral. I have six children- five of them girls. I’ve taught them to think of their calling as King (my son), Queens (my daughters) and Priests (Sons and Daughters) of Creation. In your opinion, what ought I have taught them differently; or perhaps with more nuance?
Is the priesthood into which my daughters were initiated at their baptism a more metaphorical priestly service than that of their brother? I know that’s not right in that they were all baptized into Christ, but I’m not sure exactly how to put it.
Our primary priesthood is a participation in Christ’s very real and actual priesthood. Rather than thinking principally in terms of ‘I am a priest; you are a priest; he is a priest; she is a priest’, I believe that we should think in terms of ‘we are a priesthood’. We all minister in our particular ways and this priesthood is something that we exercise together.
Certain functions, ministries, or symbolic identities relate to one or the other sex in particular, but the most important thing is always what we are together. Within a household, the guarding function will primarily fall upon the shoulders of the man. This isn’t, as it is often mischaracterized, primarily about having the ‘deciding vote’ or something like that. Rather, it is about the fact that the father has a particular capacity and duty to function as the backbone of the family, to establish the values of the family by his life and character, and to enforce these standards and reinforce them and the family against external challenge. This is the more particular form of priestly ministry.
The other members of the family participate and support this priestly function, while realizing their own sorts of functions. The family isn’t a static and top down hierarchy, but a society with various distinct functions and identities, each of which could rightly be viewed as the purpose of all others. For instance, while the father may typically be the backbone of the family, the actual heart of the life of the family is more particularly associated with the wife. It is in her body that all of the bonds of the family were and are forged. Everyone ultimately relates through her. She establishes and symbolizes the loving communion of the home in a way that the man can’t, by virtue of the type of human that he is. Her calling could rightly be seen as the purpose for which the man exercises his.
‘…each of which could rightly be viewed as the purpose of all others’
That was helpful. Thank you.
It ties into your comment about ‘man’ not being the standard of humanity against which ‘woman’ are measured. I think I may have unwittingly interpreted the Adam before Eve story with that as a consequence..
I can’t help but notice that many of your critics don’t want feminism to be equated with equality of results, and seem to be retreating to the position that all that is required of feminism is equality of opportunity.
The problem is that equality of opportunity is an empty concept too. First, of all, if through different individual choices, based on individual interests and abilities, one sex or the other tends to dominate within a particular group, informal networking will be much easier for the numerically dominant group. This is perfectly innocent as people tend to bond with people who are more like them. So, without the slightest discriminatory intent or policy on anyone’s behalf, one sex (usually male) will inevitably have a substantial advantage over the other in that group. Furthermore, as Jim Kalb notes, equality of opportunity is notoriously hard to demonstrate, so whenever there is a failure to achieve equality of results someone will make the accusation of bias. Thus, equality of opportunity tends to inevitably slide towards equality of results, which is a far more measurable goal.
More generally, this is part of what I call the classical liberal two step: if a particular left liberal position starts to come off as preposterous, there is an immediate retreat to a classical/right wing liberal position, such as, for example, equality of opportunity. The mere possibility that someone might approach the problem from a completely different perspective is not even considered.
Equality of opportunity suffers from its demand for of a sort of fundamental ambivalence with regard to gender in all sorts of areas of life. As you point out, it is far from clear what are the preconditions for satisfying it (would it demand affirmative action to favour those who play against more typical gendered preferences, for instance?) and how exactly we are to determine when it has been satisfied (all too often, as you observe, equality of results is taken as proof, because the notion of differing aptitudes is ruled out a priori). Prior practice drives deep ruts and for various, often entirely innocent, reasons, places considerable constraints upon future action.
Keep in mind too what Bruce Charlton says in the article I linked to in your Open Thread. The moral impulse towards equality really can’t be satisfied until there is perfect equality of results. The feminists who say that all they want is equality of opportunity are not really in control of what happens.
I am a regular reader from India who generally appreciate your thoughts.
Regarding the concept of equality, it may be that people nurtured in a individualistic western environment finds any discussion questioning the sanctity of equality similar to supporting slavery, racism or gladiatorial combat. So I think you can be little more accommodating of them by clarifying the matter in your blog posts. It is not as if you do not believe in equality…You do believe in the equality of value and equality of dignity. You deny (and I agree) only the equality of power.
May be clarifying and promoting this aspect may avoid the sudden backlash when people not used to your thoughts come across your posts. It may help them to read the article with less bias and without feeling the instant moral outrage which numbs thinking skills.
No body really wants absolute equality… that would mean equality of physical appearance, colour, strength etc which are obviously not desirable. The only discussion is whether equality of power belongs to this undesirable group. A topic worthy of discussion to which you make valuable contributions.
A request…. What books would you recommend for further understanding the sociological basis of power and gender relations that you are describing? Or is it your own?
Thanks for the comment, Jacob.
While I have picked up thoughts from others along the way, the bulk of the position that I have outlined here is my own. There is not a single book that I feel comfortable aligning my position with. However, you could do worse than to start with something like Roy Baumeister’s Is There Anything Good About Men?, despite its various problems.
Much of the difficulty with ‘equality’ language arose from the fact that the conversion was abstracted from its original context (between me and Hannah), within which the term played a clearer role, despite being vague with regard to its content.
Equality is such a shibboleth that the sort of challenge that I want to present to it will provoke outrage, however I frame it. My position is that we would be better off suspending the term and having the debate using less absolute yet vague language.
Thanks for the recommendation.
If this is your own position then I do hope you are planning in terms of publishing a book down the line 🙂
That is something that I really do not intend to do! 🙂
I might post a very lengthy and thorough piece I have written on gender in Genesis 1-3 at some point, though (30,000 words and counting…).
I am sure your book “Priesthood for Cavemen” will be a bestseller.
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You may or may not rethink some of your positions on female authority/power after experiencing female drill sergeants, which is a fearsome thing to behold 🙂
Lol! As I’ve said at various points, I am very happy to recognize exceptions. All I ask is that others recognize general rules. 🙂
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Thankyou for your insightful post about putting women in their rightful, divinely ordained, place. Would you describe yourself as a hard or soft complementarian? And who is the harder complementarian: you or Elder Andrew?
Thanks for commenting. Sadly, the way that you frame your question, coupled with the character your satirical representation of our positions elsewhere, all evidence the fact that you really do not have much of an idea of where we are coming from.
Thanks for responding. In that case, and with a heavy heart, can I ask another question: do you think it is acceptable for women to drop bombs when attacking another country? Or should only men do it?
Thanks for the comment, Randy. You have given me no reason to believe that you are interested in serious and receptive discussion and—having read your posts—a considerable amount of reason not to. I have no interest in being trolled and I am sure that you have better things to do with your day than to spend it in trolling.
It is a serious question because you mentioned the role of women in the military and protection. Given that so much of military action is what it is today, it would be interesting to know whether you think women should be allowed to drop bombs on countries. Or should only men kill? You can avoid the question if you like, or make comments about trolling (the same could be said of your post, of course) but it remains a serious question.
It is very much tangential to the current discussion and will take us off track. There are occasions when it is appropriate for women to kill. However, I do not believe that a civilized nation puts women on the front line of its military.
Is it ok for women to kill from planes or control centres? And are Israel, American and Britain uncivilized nations, by your logic?
Sorry, Randy, we aren’t taking this further here.
Even though I have thought a lot about the problem of gender relations I have not had the opportunity or time to read the primary feminist literature. . So please correct me if I am wrong …
As far as I can see the feminist movement would never have got of the ground if not for the development of reliable contraceptive technology in the recent past. That is i the most crucial point in this whole matter. If you have child after child to take care of there is no real possibility of women taking up leadership positions in the society as a widespread phenomenon. I think that is a point feminists should acknowledge before protesting about patriarchy. The way I see it, there is no real option.. patriarchy was the only game in town. I expect that, just like today, there were lots of people who misused the power they had to make the lives of women hell. But I hardly think that was the norm… men all over the world irrespective of level of education , culture or religion, tend to love and protect their wives. Protecting your woman is the oldest of male desires.(To be honest i do not know the historical accuracy of this assertion, but I don’t think society as a whole can survive if there is fundamental ill feeling of one sex to the other. At the very least it is true now all over the world, even in the land of Osama bin Laden and ISIS)
This definitely was not about sharing/equality of power. The hard power was clearly with the males. They used that to make an environment in which it is safe for the women and children to thrive and go about with the more important things in life…family, religion and all the other routine components of our lives. My over arching point is that there was never any possibility that women could even think of being part of the power holding group as they(nor the males) had no control over when the next child was coming. That was just how life was in those days. So it is just unfair of the present day feminists to argue that patriarchy was some sort of conspiracy on the part of the males to keep the women down.
I agree with your comment that the only way women can become equal to males is by bulking up with testosterone and muscles and changing their fundamental structure. I think mass contraception was the first step on that way.
I don’t think society as a whole can survive if there is fundamental ill feeling of one sex to the other.
An very important point. Notwithstanding the many real (and appalling) instances going the other way, the individual attitudes of men and the orientation of male dominated institutions throughout the existence of mankind have been overwhelmingly positive towards woman.
My over arching point is that there was never any possibility that women could even think of being part of the power holding group as they(nor the males) had no control over when the next child was coming.
However, if this has been the default throughout the existence of humanity, this would imply that women would never have been left simply defenseless against male exploitation, whether you take the source of those defenses to be God, natural selection or both. If we take the natural selection tack, I would note that any woman who could simply be taken advantage of would not likely have left many descendants. The denial of real female power has to stop.
I am not too sure what you meant in the second paragraph. I am just saying that men, in general, were not bend upon exploiting women. Given the conditions in premodern times, the way society developed was just the only way it could have developed.
And I am not denying female soft power. That, i think, is obviously true. I go out of my way to keep my wife happy. 🙂 But I think feminists are worried about the hard part.
I assumed that the Thursday bit was there in your online name.
Hello Jacob, the second paragraph was not intended as a contradiction of what you said, but as a logical extension of it.
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I am returning to my break from commenting on the Internet now. Hopefully, I have left enough responses that anyone who is interested in understanding my position should be able to do so with just a little digging around.
(I’ve left further comments here and here. Also, if you haven’t seen it already, take a look at my follow-up post: Why a Masculine Priesthood is Essential.)
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A bit late to the party, but hey!
Thank you for your interesting and provocative thoughts in the subject. I appreciate a lot of what you say, but I think you could have taken more care to deal with certain issues and head off various objections,
I broadly agree with you about basic givenness of power/authority structures. It’s important in a culture that tends to see all exercise of power and authority as oppressive to push back that God created them for good, and however distorted they may be by sin, our aim is to redeem them rather than abolish them. But I think you fail to adequately address the issue of sin distorts our relationship to power. You briefly qualify your point by saying you intention is not to justify all power structures, but the effects of the Fall on them does not seem to be consistently worked through in your ideas as presented here.
A helpful counterbalance would be how equality, while not being an ultimate value, is a very important principle in restraining and ameliorating our sinful abuse of power. As C S Lewis put it in one of his essays, equality is “medicine, not food”. Although we should aspire to the godly use of power structures, we need to be careful not to have an overrealised eschatology. The Kingdom of God is a monarchy, but in the interim, democracy offers us probably the best protection against sinful distortions of power – not because we’re equally deserving of a say, but because we’re all liable to abuse power if given it without robust checks and balances. Insisting on “equality” in the modern sense won’t solve all our problems; only hearts transformed by the Gospel of grace into the likeness of Christ will do that. But equality limits the damage.
I think what you’re arguing here goes beyond standard complementarian claims, which are that the “submission” taught in the Bible is specifically that of a wife to her husband specifically, not women to men generally. Similarly, most complementarians (at least here in the UK) would argue that the restriction of church eldership to men can’t be generalised to women’s roles in society generally. But you’re seeking to establish a much broader principle based on creational principles, one which could be used to restrict women’s roles in general in the public sphere, not just in the semi-private (in our culture) spheres of family and church. I’m sympathetic to your arguments that we need to be attentive to the generalised differences in men and women, masculinity and femininity, and that standard contemporary accounts of equality minimise these in ways that are counter to our wellbeing as men and women. But I think you need to more thoroughly address the potential for abusing the idea of natural differences, and to shut off and distance yourself from those possible implications, or you will get an extremely vigorous pushback from all sorts of quarters, as you’ve seen! And it’s all very well discussing this as a semi-academic exercise, but these are live practical issues and so you need to be very aware of the social context and issues that these questions relate to.
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