Editor’s note: In the first of several conversations sponsored by CBE and our 2021 conference partners in the UK, CBE president Mimi Haddad asked three keynote speakers to consider the spiritual and social consequences of theological patriarchy: What is at stake, globally, when we talk about the power differential between men and women? How is this conversation woven into what God is doing in the world?
The following blog post was adapted from a recording of this conversation over Zoom.
The Keynote Speakers:
Andrew Bartlett QC is an international arbitrator and author of Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts.
Steve Holmes is a Baptist minister and serves as principal of St Mary's College and Head of the School of Divinity, University of St. Andrews.
Lucy Peppiatt is principal of Westminster Theological Centre and author of Rediscovering Scripture's Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts.
Mimi: What are your thoughts about both the spiritual and social consequences hanging on this debate over theological patriarchy?
Andrew: People on both sides of the debate say that the Bible teaches that men and women are equal. But if a man believes that God gives men authority over women, it's very difficult in practice for him to regard women as equals. So the teaching about one-way male authority has a practical tendency to produce unsatisfactory attitudes toward women.
There was a young African woman who wrote to me about the impact of my book on her life. She'd had some experience of churches where women's leadership was not allowed and yet she was leading Christian work at her university in Europe. She was in turmoil over whether she was doing the right thing. Was she obeying God or not? This was the biggest question in her life at the time, but she realized there were deeper issues to do with her understanding what a man is and what a woman is. She'd been brought up by her mother and was afraid of her father, so I think the idea that men are uniquely authoritative certainly has social consequences. This young woman said she found that understanding God's design for the cooperation and equality and mutual respect of men and women was a healing experience for her.
Steve: I moved from an unthinking assumption that this is okay to a realization of just how profoundly damaging ingrained patriarchy can be and just how much there is a need to work against it. Fifteen or twenty years ago I assumed this wasn't a problem in the churches I knew because they all said they’d ordain a woman in theory, but I wasn't seeing the barriers that need to be exposed and named and broken down.
I want to answer this question by saying that at a micro level it varies. The social and spiritual consequences can be relatively minor or utterly devastating, depending on how someone lives out these beliefs. But at a macro level we need to recognize that even if we've got our thinking right on this issue, there are structures we're a part of that persist in being discriminatory and we have to be active in addressing them.
Lucy: I don't think there's any aspect of life [theological patriarchy] doesn't touch—the disordered relationship between men and women will affect absolutely everything. Before I made a Christian commitment, I was a feminist—I believed in the damage of patriarchy and what it did to women. But I didn't encounter the huge effect of it in the church that I joined. When I realized the extent of it in the church I was horrified because it was done in the name of Jesus.
What I found deeply disturbing was the way the Bible and the nature of God had been distorted in order to send a message to women and men and boys and girls about their places in the world, their relationship to God, their relationship to one another, what they could be called to do, and so it goes through everything. It's everything to do with who you think you are, who you marry, how you go about parenting, what you'll do as a job, what you do for hobbies. There's nothing it doesn't touch.
To think that I was totally equal to a man and then to come into a church where people were taught from the cradle that their position was this, their position in the family, their position before God, their position in the world. And here are the texts to back it up, here's the scripture and here's the voice of authority who stands in the place of God, who's affirming this oppression over your life. It’s terrible and it needs to be set right.
Mimi: What do you think is ultimately at stake when we talk about the power differential between men and women? From your vantage point as you see the church working around the world, what is God doing through each of us as we lend our strength to this conversation?
Lucy: There are two books that I think are very important. Elaine Storkey’s book Scars Across Humanity is very important in this conversation in terms of a global perspective of the plight of women. Inequality between men and women is not an academic question; it's affecting women and girls around the world every day in a negative way. This book is full of global data that is important. The other important book in terms of data is Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. It's a different perspective on what it’s like to be a woman in the world.
I was interested that Andrew had an email from an African woman. It would be great to widen this conversation to other nations and to hear also from them, to have their voices in the mix and hear how it's playing out in different places. I think globally there's a lot of opportunity for like-minded people to come together, for voices that aren't normally heard.
Andrew: One of the driving factors for me when I wrote my book was a concern about the polarization of Christians into two camps labeled complementarian and egalitarian, which is particularly strong in the US. So one of my objectives in writing was to encourage the kind of respectful conversations that can bring people closer together.
In my last chapter I emphasize God's desire that there be unity among believers and draw out some wider themes about Christian living. How this whole ongoing discussion is conducted is, I think, a test of the genuineness of our life in Christ. Most Christian leaders who teach male authority as a biblical ideal aren't doing so out of any bad motive. They're good and well-intentioned people who are teaching it because they sincerely believe this is what scripture says. They've absorbed a misunderstanding which has been widely shared through much of church history. I don't think we should stand in judgment on them. Paul's instruction in Romans chapter 15 is to receive them as brothers despite our sharp disagreements, as Christ received us despite all our shortcomings and misunderstandings.
Steve: I've seen the stats on how many women lost their lives to abusive partners during lockdown and it's happening in my town. When we talk about why we are having these conversations, that's where we should start. We don't want to see women killed. We don't want to see girls mutilated. We don't want to see female babies selectively aborted. That's a kind of baseline for me.
If we ask what is God doing, I see two or three things, at least in Protestant churches. It is fairly safe to say that over the last three decades or so, the exegetical arguments are increasingly being won. What one sees if one examines the complementarian positions that are advanced aggressively by certain groups is that the basis keeps shifting. They tried to argue on this point and lost, and then on that point and lost, and then another. I don't know how long they can keep playing that game but I think we can stay with some confidence that the exegetical arguments are being won.
The second thing is that generally the majority of world churches are far more relaxed on this issue. They recognize gifting and God's calling and they need the leaders that God has given them. They see the damage patriarchy is doing. At the 2015 Lausanne conference on worldwide evangelicalism, an attempt was made to steer the statement on gender relations in a certain direction. The majority of delegates said we're not going there, that's just not what we do.
The third thing I see is we are starting to recover the hidden, forgotten stories of really significant and powerful female leaders who enjoyed the support and patronage major figures in church history. Like Marie Dentière—[John] Calvin tried to shut her up but eventually dedicated a book to her. Or the women who John Wesley commissioned to preach, and so on. I think we are starting to realize the history, that when you go back and listen to what was happening on the ground, it was nowhere near as monocultural as many of us have been told.
Andrew: When I was researching my book, even in the completely secular sphere uninfluenced by Christianity, there are more women leaders than I ever thought. Once you start looking there are so many exceptions that you think, is there a rule?
Mimi: It reminds me of George Orwell's comment that to control the future you have to control the past. I was in Egypt working with Islamic feminists and reading a paper on Christian feminism, our challenges and successes. A leading Islamic feminist read her paper and literally covered the same points I did, key of which was a silencing of women leaders from the past.
Do you have any closing comments?
Steve: I just want to say thank you Mimi for all you and CBE do in this space. I think you've led the way in so many ways and provided wonderful resources that we all draw on.
Lucy: I have been really touched by seeing men and women working together and I am really grateful for men like you guys and other men who make time and space. I remember someone talking to me about how he changed his mind about women in eldership and he used the expression “sliding over.” I know that what it takes for women to take up a position is for men to “slide over” and just make space. So I’m really grateful for the men who do that.