Are Women meant to wield society power? (by Katelyn Beaty)

Are Women meant to wield society power? (by Katelyn Beaty) May 5, 2015

ARE WOMEN MEANT TO WIELD SOCIETAL POWER? (A response to “Males and Their Friends,” by Alastair Roberts)

The following is an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Co.Creators: The Christian Call for Women to Work (Howard/Simon&Schuster, summer 2016). Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, where she co-founded Her.meneutics in 2009.

Today when we hear the word patriarchy, we think of something like this definition from sociologist Allan G. Johnson, author of The Gender Knot:

A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. . . . positions of authority—political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, domestic—are generally reserved for men.”[1]

In other words, patriarchy today is a negative term for societies set up, intentionally or otherwise, to socially, politically, and economically benefit men, simply because they are men. The Patriarchy has become one sharp, hashtaggable shorthand for everything wrong with a society that oppresses, ignores, and justifies violence against women.

For some Christians, though, patriarchy is a society that reflects the created order of God, who intended for men to lead not as harsh dictators but as gentle loving fathers and husbands. The word patriarch comes from the Greek pater, meaning “father,” and arkhein, meaning “to rule”—similar to the word paterfamilias, a father or older male who governs an extended family. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are often called the patriarchs of Israel, and today the word is still used for bishops in the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches.

“Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in 2006.[2] In a paper for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Moore notes that the language most Christians use for the Godhead is irreducibly male, as are the recipients of the covenants and promises of Israel. He writes that Scripture’s big picture “trajectory” actually leads to patriarchy. It’s a “loving, sacrificial, protective leadership of human fathers, in the home and in the church (Eph. 3:14–15; Matt. 7:9–11; Heb. 12:5–11),” Moore writes.

While he doesn’t explicitly state it, it’s hard to imagine that Moore wouldn’t extend this vision of “loving, sacrificial, protective leadership” to the rest of society, beyond home and church. If men’s leadership images the Godhead and his work in the world, then a society in which women lead, at least in any significant or systemic way, would seem to contradict the created order.

More recently, writers like Alastair Roberts [featured recently on this blog] point to men’s natural “agency,” generation of power, confidence, and physical strength to argue that God “intended for men to wield the majority of creational and societal power.” Roberts exposits Genesis 1–3 this way:

The man was created before the woman and was created for the immediate purpose of taming and cultivating the world, bringing order to the creation. . . . The task of naming the creation—notice that naming is a task of the first three days—is particularly entrusted to the man. Man is also typically more physiologically and psychologically equipped for and oriented towards this.

By contrast, prior to the Fall the woman seems to be placed under the tutelage of the man. It is the man who is held particularly responsible for upholding the moral boundaries and order of the garden.

In Roberts’s telling, Adam typifies all men, Eve typifies all women, and the Garden typifies the world.

It’s a world in which the life work of Alice Seeley Harris would have seemed strange, unnatural, and even unwomanly.


Harris was born in 1870, at the height of the Victorian Era. The British Empire was enjoying innovation, industry, and prosperity in every sector of society. Queen Victoria was one of the few women who wielded public authority on account of the monarchy, and ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen. India, Australia, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Canada, and Malaya (now Malaysia) were all jewels in the crown of the Empire.

But though this crown sat on the head of a woman, British culture, like ours, rested mostly on the achievements and cultural power of men. Pervasive in the Victorian Era was the notion of “separate spheres”—that women were naturally suited to oversee the private sphere of home and family life, while men were naturally suited to oversee the public sphere of economy activity and civic leadership. To be sure, the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home” can be traced to ancient Greece, traditional Judaism, and historic Christianity. But it became enshrined as moral and spiritual fact in Great Britain by 1850, as it would in the United States in the same century.

Apparently Alice did not feel restricted to the domestic sphere when she married John Hobbis Harris in 1898. Alice had been working at a London post office while training to be a missionary, one of the few professions of the time that allowed women to travel the world. It was the century of foreign Protestant missions, spurred by the Second Great Awakening and trailblazers such as William Carey in India, Hudson Taylor in mainland China, David Livingstone in southern and central Africa. Women, even single women, would join their ranks in unprecedented numbers in this century, bringing with them education and reform to many poor communities.

The year they married, the Harrisessailed to the Belgian Congo, a region in Central Africa then controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium. Since 1885, Leopold had claimed the Congo Free State (CFS) as his personal property, ostensibly to make straight the path for the gospelto take root in its basins and rainforests. Instead, Leopold turned the CFS into a labor camp to exploit the region’s rubber and ivory supplies. It was grueling work that took the lives of an estimated 10 million Congolese.

This is the brutalitythat Alicefound when the Harrises arrived in the Belgian Congo. That brutality would arrive at her mission’s doorstep one day, when a man named Nsala appeared holding a small package. Here is how journalist Judy Pollard Smith imagines it, based on Alice’s records:

I could see that the young man at the front of the group was particularly devastated. His face was twisted in anguish. His friends led him forward by his elbows toward me. . . . The young man sank onto the porch and I thought he may collapse. He was carrying a small bundle bound about in plantain leaves. . . . Their eyes were fixed steadily on me as I unwrapped the parcel. I opened it with greater care than was usual because I was not sure what I was in for, given the way they looked at me with such burden etched on each face. To my own horror out fell two tiny pieces of human anatomy: a tiny child’s foot, a tiny hand.

Nsala had carried the remains of his 5-year-old girl, killed by officers with the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, to the missionaries.

And in response, Alice did something remarkable. She asked Nsala to pose, then took a photograph of him sitting on the veranda, staring down at the severed hand and foot of his child. The year before Alice and John had left for Africa, Kodak had debuted its Bulls-Eye camera, which could process photographs without a darkroom. Alice began using one to document Congolese who had been beaten and maimed by officers, first sending photos back to the magazine of their host agency, the interdenominational Congo Balolo Mission. Within five years, Alice’s photos had circulated beyond the magazine, composing the Harris Lantern Slide Show, which was shown throughout England and eventually the United States. Ordinary citizens who had assumed Leopold’s rule was civilizing and beneficial were faced instead with the irrefutable carnage of colonialism.

After returning to England in 1905, Alice and John joined the Congo Reform Association, formed to draw attention to the plight of Congolese living under Leopold’s rule. One person who was directly and profoundly affected by Alice’s photos was Mark Twain. In 1905, he wrote a satirical first-person essay in the voice of Leopold, who despairs, “The Kodak has been a sole calamity for us. The most powerful enemy indeed . . . the only witness I couldn’t bribe!” Some editions of King Leopold’s Soliloquy include reprints of Alice’s photo of Nsala.

The campaign against Leopold’s rule in the CFS grew to a global hum, and by 1908, control of the Congo had finally fallen to the Belgian government. Alice, of course, worked within a vast network of journalists, explorers, and other missionaries laboring to ensure that Leopold’s violence was on display for the world to see. But the power of her photography is incontrovertible. As one UK journalist notes, “The fact that Leopold lost his unfettered control so soon after Alice’s photos were made widely available to the public in Europe tells its own story.” Today Alice is remembered as one of the first to use photography to campaign for human rights. Within a few decades of Alice’s campaign, Dorothea Lange would capture the exodus of migrant laborers moving to California, challenging the Depression-era agricultural policies.


“We live in the world that culture has made,” writes Andy Crouch in Culture Making. It’s a culture that comes to us indelibly marked by Alice Seeley Harris, whom we remember not only as a woman doing apparently unwomanly things, but chiefly as a woman serving Christ, adding streams of his truth, love, and mercy to the flow of human history. She’s one of the many women whose missionary work became the single greatest factor in determining the rise of democracy in the Congo, South Africa, and China. In one of the most amazing stories Christianity Today magazine has published, journalist Andrea Palpant Dilley surveyed the explosive findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry. Over 10 years, using a complex series of tests made to account for other factors, Woodberry found that

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

To be sure, Harris never had to ask for a flex-time arrangement with her supervisor or find a secluded corner of the office building in order to pump breast milk. She was taking her photos more than 50 years before the United Kingdom passed an Equal Pay Act, following on the heels (heels no higher than an inch, mind you) of the US Equal Pay Act of 1963. She and John would have received financial backing from sponsors back home, enough to cover only the simplest of living expenses. Mentoring, the boardroom’s male-female ratio, and retirement planning—Alice would have known none of the complexities of women working today.

But Alice and her photography get at a deeper, eternal truth about our work. Whether you work full-time or part-time or not at all; whether you are a college student and figuring out what you want to study, or are a stay-at-home mom raising little ones, or an empty nester searching to make the most of your last years, this is a truth for you: God has invited you, his image bearer, to weave your story into the larger story of the world that culture has made. It’s a world that appears, by nearly every worldly account, to be sustained by men but is ultimately sustained by God, who is also bent on redeeming it. And one of the ways he intends to redeem it is to invite his redeemed image bearers to shape and reshape culture through their work. Simply because you bear the image of the Creator, you are made to create; because you bear the image of the Ruler, you are made to rule. When King David marveled that God “crowned [mankind] with glory and honor,” that God “made them rulers over the works of your hands; you have put everything under their feet,” David is talking not only about rulers, or men. He is talking about you.

I’m writing this book because I believe every woman is called to make something of the world—to take the basic elements of time, resources, and community and create something good. It’s there in the first pages of Scripture: God, the ultimate creator, invites Adam and Eve to join him in spending their days fashioning a world where humans and the whole creation flourish. But somewhere between the Garden and today, many Christian women have been alienated from the gift of work. Neither the secular world nor the Christian world has really helped women rediscover it. Books like Lean In encourage women to ask for the pay raise or speak up in meetings, giving (relatively privileged) women some tools to integrate work into the rest of their lives and labor for corporate gender parity. But very rarely is it explained what those tools are for, what we are building with the tools beyond our own, small professional kingdoms.

Meanwhile, the US church has enjoyed a renaissance of reclaiming the goodness of professional work. These conversations are a welcome departure from the sacred-secular divide that has dominated Christian understandings of vocation. But too often, Christian conversations about work are led by men and directed toward men, giving the impression that work is a gift mostly for men. It remains the case that the faith-at-work movement is led mostly by men and therefore assumes a distinctly male life trajectory.

This book, I hope, invites many more women to discover the responsibility and privilege of tending our world. At this point, you have probably surmised that I don’t believe men alone bear the cultural responsibility of tending our world, the one that God is redeeming. This doesn’t mean that differences between men and women aren’t real or aren’t important. It just means that those differences are no hindrance to taking up the imago Dei responsibility to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). I hope this book helps you discover the gift and joy of work.



[1] Johnson, Allan G., The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy (Temple University Press, 1997), p. 5.



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  • GeeJohn

    “The task of naming the creation—notice that naming is a task of the first three days—is particularly entrusted to the man. Man is also typically more physiologically and psychologically equipped for and oriented towards this.” Hmmm…when are these males gonna finish naming all the stars in the universe? Same day they beat their wives at Scrabble, I suppose.

  • In my experience, Alastair seems to have a tendency to do the Blog comment equivalent of lengthy and complex filibustering. Well done for facilitating a careful and detailed response.

    In the piece he wrote there seem to me to be massive hermaneutical assumptions about the natural order based on the sequences within the Genesis Creation narratives. These assumptions seem to me to be far from automatic, and also promote his interpretation of the creation narratives, from before the Old Covenant, above anything later redeemed in the New Covenant order. This is very dubious, whatever your theological preferences.

  • I’m sure Alistair will eventually respond here himself, but I read nothing in his work so far that argues that women are not “meant” to wield societal power, but rather that there are many reasons that power can sometimes be created more easily by men. Some of these reasons are the result of sinful dominance, but some are not. I saw his piece as largely value-neutral, making few claims about what “should” be and focusing primarily on the world as we find it.

    As someone who thinks women ARE meant to wield societal power, I would love to read some interaction with Alistair’s points and see some pushback against them. But this cut-and-paste post seems to talk past the previous post. It’s not a conversation, it’s just two people talking at each other.

  • Phil Miller

    The man was created before the woman and was created for the immediate purpose of taming and cultivating the world, bringing order to the
    creation. . . . The task of naming the creation—notice that naming is a task of the first three days—is particularly entrusted to the man. Man is also typically more physiologically and psychologically equipped for and oriented towards this.

    It seemed odd to me in Robert’s post that he made so much of men having more physical strength than women. Perhaps in very early human societies that made some difference in establishing male dominance, but it seems to be something that grows less and less important over time. Could an average man best a woman in a wrestling match, I suppose (although, I probably still wouldn’t take bets on that), but power in our world is really not attached to physical strength any longer. Do we insist on electing the most physically dominant males to the highest offices? Not really.

    I guess the thing is that when talk of male and female “roles”, if there is even one exception to those roles, it seems to me that speaking in such terms becomes dubious. The exception doesn’t prove the rule in these cases. It actually negates it. It’s like someone saying they designed a plane that’s ready for flight duty, but it just happens to crash 1 time out of 100 flights. No one would call that a well-designed plane. And in my experience the percentage of women who don’t feel comfortable in traditional female roles is much higher than 1%, so saying that women are designed to behave in a certain way when many of them clearly don’t – it’s faulty reasoning.

  • patriciamc

    Fascinating story about Alice Seeley Harris! This whole article brought to mind several thoughts:

    1) If Adam and Eve were truly real people, I don’t think they can represent the entire human race any more than I can.
    2) I’ve noticed some tend to fall back on a man’s greater strength even though physical strength is irrelevant in many if not most areas of society. Greater physical strength is obviously needed in several areas, but not all, so I frequently have to look at this issue and say, “So what?” I think falling back on a man’s greater physical strength is perhaps a sign of desperation.
    3) I think the view that women in general are not intended to be in leadership in society comes from a lack of experience with society overall, a naivety.
    4) What some say is the natural order of things, I say is a sign of sin.
    5) The view that the little women aren’t physically or psychologically built to be in charge is harming the spread of the gospel. Non-believers will note that it’s nonsense and think that all Christians believe this.

  • Robert

    Link to the Nsala pic: . There’s an excellent book out on the Congo under Leopold; ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ by Adam Hochschild.

  • Deborah West

    Yes, Alastair used that tired, worn out, and lame excuse about naming the animals. “Naming” the animals had absolutely NOTHING to do with authority. It was God teaching the human that ‘it was not good to be alone’. Refer to the previous versus and the next versus. ‘naming’ was simply a teaching tool.

    Alastair’s reasoning reminds me of that joke that God created the male first, and then said “I can do better” and created woman! LOL

    Neither one is correct. Neither the male nor the female have any authority OVER the other. Both voluntarily chose to give their authority over their self when they join in marriage.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Thanks for the response, Katelyn.

    I confess that I am very much in two minds about commenting upon this post. Your post doesn’t really address any of the challenges that I presented to your position, and is extensively question-begging. Rather than engaging with the issues that I have raised, you seem to have reasserted your original position more passionately, which makes me wonder whether we are having a conversation here (the title question is one to which I would answer with a strong affirmative, by the way). Also, to the extent that your post is supposed to be a response to my position, it seems unhelpfully to confuse my position with different positions out there, such as Russell Moore’s. The ‘separate spheres’ framework for society that you appear to be attacking is one that I explicitly rejected:

    Just as the man is invested and involved in the process of procreation, so the woman is invested and involved in the task of extending human dominion out into the world. This isn’t a matter of separate and detached spheres, but of differing centres of gravity in vocation, gifting, and blessing (if we must speak of ‘spheres’—terminology that is probably best avoided—they are to be thought of as intensively and extensively intervolved and interdependent).

    In fact, much of your post seems to rest on missing the points that I made within these sentences.

    Alice Seeley Holmes is very far from being a counter-example to anything that I have argued to this point (she actually illustrates some of my claims). There is no need to diminish her great achievements—or those of many, many other women like her—one whit in order to render them congruent with my argument. Many of the concerns that you register in this post are important ones, but they are concerns that I can happily and wholeheartedly share, without modifying a word that I have written to this point.

    As a final note, the ‘separate spheres’ representation of Victorian thought has been helpfully deconstructed by Amy Kaplan, who shows the way in which the imperial narrative of ‘manifest destiny’ was deeply intertwined with one of ‘manifest domesticity,’ within which the force of empire was feminized.

  • Katelyn Beaty


    Thanks for your response and for reading the post. I’ve said what I would like to say on the matter and don’t wish to engage you further in this particular comments section. We could parse out the ways in which the story of Alice Seeley Harris (not Holmes) very much doesn’t support your statement from last week that God intended men to wield the majority of creational and societal power, but I haven’t found this comment thread very fruitful. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to hash out our respective views on creation, gender, and cultural power some day in person.

    All best,

  • C. Quinn-Jones

    ‘Power in the world is really not attached to physical strength any longer’ It depends on how you define ‘power in the world’. For instance, I regard the emergency services as powerful, and especially the Fire Service. Because of my height alone ( 5ft 2″) I am disqualified from such service, as are many women I know. I’m explaining, not complaining – I’m very thankful for the emergency services. I know there are exceptionally tall women and exceptionally short men, but on average men are taller (and physically stronger) than women, and this is a significant gender difference,as Alastair said.

  • Phil Miller

    Well sure, it helps in some fields to be tall, physically strong, or gifted in some other physical way, but it’s hard to say that universally it’s something that necessary for wielding power. Regarding emergency services, I was immediately reminded of two guys I know who are probably shorter than you who were both EMTs (the one is a nurse now) . It doesn’t seem to be something that has held them back.

    I’m not saying that everyone is qualified to do anything they want to do, but for most things these qualifications have nothing to do with gender. Even in many of the areas where we do have limitations because of gender, those are mostly artificial.

  • C. Quinn-Jones

    Thank you for your reply, Phil. I don’t know what EMT’s are, but it sounds as though height restrictions don’t apply in that area of work. However, height restrictions do apply in the military services and because of this, more women than men are excluded from such service. I’m sure you’d agree that the military services are a signeficant aspect of ‘societal power’, especially with the current threat from ISIS. I really do think that Alastair’s point about this overall gender difference is valid.

  • Phil Miller

    Well, the height restriction for all branches of the military is 58 inches, or 4′-10″, for both men and women, as far as I can tell. (I just double-checked this, and it looks like the Navy has a minimum of 51 inches, or 4′-3″). I suspect that it’s probably different for special forces or other things.

    Even in the military, it’s not like soldiers are engaging in hand to hand combat. They are relying on technology that allows them to fight from a distance. The type of strength that is needed is more in the way of endurance and mental toughness. So, no, I still don’t agree that his original point was valid.

  • C. Quinn-Jones

    Yes, it is different for the combat forces and the Royal Marines, where there is a minimum height restriction of 5 ft 5 in. Certainly strength and resilience are needed in these services. The most recent statistics I have found on armed services personnel is dated July 2014, when the percentage of women was 10% or less for all services except for the RAF, where it was 13.9%. I don’t want to speculate on this, but I suspect that it is not entirely down to cultural influences. Re: hand-to-hand-combat, yes, this seems to be restricted to Elite Special Forces. To get back to the fundamental gender difference of childbearing, I noticed during the second Gulf War that it was young Iraqi men who volunteered, and women and children were left to drink water out of puddles after the infrastructure was destroyed. Three young men from our extended family were out there trying to liberate Kuwait, so I watched it as closely as I could. One thing I was thankful for was news that an Iraqi baby was delivered safely in the midst of that horror.
    Thank you again for your reply.

  • C. Quinn-Jones

    Correction: the first Gulf War

  • Katelyn Beaty

    Hi @MicahO:disqus, this is a direct quote from Alastair’s earlier comment:

    [block quote] Do I think that God intended for men to wield the majority of creational and societal power? Yes, I do. Unless we believe in radical physiological and behavioural
    changes after the Fall—rendering men stronger physically, destroying a
    prior reproductive equality by placing the overwhelming burden of the
    process of procreation upon women, and making men more agentically
    oriented than women—men would always have wielded the majority of
    creational and societal power, even if they acted faithfully in using
    this power to support and empower women. While the current social order
    powerfully bears the marks of the Fall (e.g. Genesis 3:16), the Fall is
    not the whole story. [end block quote]

    So based on physiological differences and Roberts’s reading of Genesis 1-3, Alice Seeley Harris and other women who do wield societal power are fine, but their wielding of societal power is, from a creational standpoint, an aberration.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Katelyn, you really seem to be representing my position quite carelessly and uncharitably. A few points of clarification:

    1. Micah is right to observe that my remarks are generally value-neutral. My point is not that women shouldn’t wield societal power but that, apart from extensive changes to women’s physical constitution, their part in reproduction, their preferred forms of socialization, their confidence levels (which seem to have connection to testosterone levels), their levels of agonistic, agentic, obsessive, and risk-taking behaviour, etc., etc., men as a group will almost invariably create and wield more direct societal power than they do. One of the implications of this would be that some sort of patriarchy—interpreted value-neutrally and non-pejoratively as male predominance in the wielding of direct power—is pretty much inevitable in any developed society (as it is through development that the disparities in capacity for power creation will produce gendered power differentials). This, of course, does not for a moment justify the many oppressive and evil forms of patriarchy that have existed, nor need it detract from society’s duty to empower women. It would, however, challenge accounts that tacitly presume that men and women as groups are interchangeable in their tendencies, motivations, and capacities, accounts that tacitly presume that power is overwhelmingly taken from others rather than created, and accounts that treat patriarchy as a sort of self-serving male conspiracy that just happens to have been replicated in a dizzying array of cultures throughout time and space. This would suggest that the sinful reality is less that men possess more power than women, but that they so frequently use this power to oppress and control rather than to empower, support, and serve them.

    2. My points were primarily descriptive points about group tendencies in behaviour. I readily acknowledge numerous exceptions. And I don’t regard these exceptions as aberrations. They may be atypical, but that neither makes them wrong nor contrary to God’s design. At her peak, a woman like Paula Radcliffe could run a marathon faster than 99.999% of men, but there are still thousands of men who have run a marathon faster than her world record. Do I think that God intended for women to run fast? Absolutely! Do I think that it is wonderful when a woman can run a marathon as fast as Paula Radcliffe? Most definitely, and I will cheer her on as loudly as anyone else. Do I think that the fact that the group of the fastest humans on earth is probably always going to be 99%+ male is a sign of injustice, radically contrary to God’s purpose and intention, and a product of the Fall? No.

    On this same front, I think that it would be incredibly naïve to attribute countless other divergences in observable outcomes between men and women to sin, oppression, pathology, or perverse socialization. Differences between typical and extreme men and typical and extreme women are not only found at the physiological level but are also pronounced at the level of personality and wider behaviour (which isn’t just about natural capacity, but also about how particular activities fit in with our wider motivations, interests, and relative priorities, levels of character traits such as obsessiveness, and preference for and access to rougher forms of socialization that push people to play to their strengths). Many of these differences can make quite a profound difference. Attributing differences in outcomes wholly to injustice, oppression, and pathological socialization assumes that there are no natural differences that can account in large measure for these differences. At the very least, I want to force this highly tendentious assumption to the surface of the debate, where it has to be stated and defended, rather than just taken for granted.

    3. As my points were about general differences between and ‘family resemblances’ within groups and were almost all descriptive, they did not involve the sort of universal or prescriptive claims that are susceptible to disproof by specific counterexamples. Even were Harris’ example one that represented an exception to my account (once again, I recognize the existence of many exceptions)—and I am really not sure that it is—it wouldn’t unsettle my claims. Indeed, the fact that your answer to a claim about general differences between men and women depends so heavily upon a single case taken from over a century ago would rather seem greatly to weaken the strength of your argument. For the record, while I don’t believe that Harris is much of an exception to the tendencies that I am observing, I know of many such exceptions in the present day, which is why I am surprised that you chose to reach so far back in history to identify such a dubious counterexample.

    4. It would be quite possible to argue against my points in a number of ways. My points rely upon an account of how power is formed. You could dispute that. You could present evidence to challenge my claim that more masculine tendencies in behaviour and socialization advantage male groups over female groups in the arena of direct power creation. You could argue that any relevant differences between men and women in these areas arise from forms of socialization that is independent of more given natural differences. Even if you granted the existence of these differences, you could argue against the distinctions that I make between power and empowerment, or between direct and indirect power, relating this to a substantiated claim that equality in power is a moral imperative, and presenting a clear case that such equality is both possible and beautiful. You could even grant that some form of patriarchy was once inevitable and non-pathological, but that now we have developed to a point where we can mitigate the exigencies of this developmental law and form a more equal society (an argument that is definitely not without merit). These would all be very difficult arguments to make, of course, and I would have no shortage of obstacles to alert you to along the way, but they would be arguments that I would have to take more seriously, because they would be speaking to my actual position. Unfortunately, your actual argument is none of these.

    5. As for Alice Seeley Harris, I really don’t think that she is a counterexample, although, if my basic point were understood, she would bring a helpful further dimension into the frame. I hinted at this dimension when I wrote:

    The power of women’s groups tends to reside more in their moral authority and effectiveness in getting others to act on their behalf. They can exert considerable social pressure in such a manner, even without direct power. However, although they lack the capacity to create power so effectively, women understandably want to experience power’s benefits, which is why it is important for them to get male groups to include and empower them, or to exercise power on their behalf.

    Harris is a good example of this sort of dynamic. Harris’ impact arose, not from exerting direct power, which she largely lacked, but from using the empowerment of the largely male creations of the camera, the media, and democratic government to petition, mobilize social morality, and put pressure on people with direct power to change the course of their actions. This is a very different sort of ‘power’ from the power exercised by people who exert agency more directly, from the people who found powerful organizations, build governments, invent new technologies, and establish great businesses and enterprises and I think that this should be reflected in our use of different terminology. I regard the latter sort of power as power proper and as more direct and originary power. The former ‘power’ is indirect power, but it is something very real.

    Anthropology has revealed that even in many societies where people have presumed oppressive and hierarchical patriarchy on account of men’s dominance in visible, direct, and coercive power, women can often even exercise the greater directive influence. The key point here is that while men dominate in direct and visible power and the development of dominion, women’s cultural influence and societal leverage typically takes a different form. As Carol Meyers observes,

    Analysis of power tends to focus on institutional forms, thus highlighting visible and often coercive male power. But power can also be less visible and noncoercive, achieved (often by women) through a variety of interpersonal interactions—including affiliation, cooperation, collaboration, negotiation, and inspiration. Small-scale, noncoercive power exerted by women is no less important than male power, especially in terms of the daily functioning of households and their communities. To put it another way, shared power, or “power with” is as important, maybe more important, than “power over.” Forms of female power may look different than forms of male power, but they cannot be discounted. Conventional ideas that see women as passive and powerless in all premodern societies thus misrepresent the reality, namely, that women’s maintenance roles in traditional agrarian societies translate into certain kinds of power that overlap with or complement male power.

    What is important here is that male and female power tend to be different in their mode and that, even though men dominate in their more typical mode of direct and more visible power, looked at another way, women may often enjoy greater influence, albeit through ‘soft power’, moral and social authority and influence, their mobilization of men to act on their behalf, and their more immediate ownership of the domestic and familial realm. These differences are effaced by the flattening out of power in our society and our focus upon direct power and dominion as the only genuine mode of societal leverage. As Chesterton once observed, remarking upon the truth hidden by an excessive focus upon women oppressed by their lack of direct, visible, and institutional power: ‘even if the man is the head of the house, he knows he is the figurehead.’

    It is in this sort of area that, for all of its faults, we could really benefit from learning from the ‘separate spheres’ thinking of the Victorian Era. Perhaps one of the great benefits of such thinking is that it provided a framework within which different modes of power could be recognized, valued, and protected. Although deficient in many respects—let me be clear, I am not advocating a return to operating in terms of separate gendered spheres—it presented the challenge of ‘gender equality’ in a somewhat truer light: not as the complete parity of men and women in the enjoyment of direct power and social dominion, but as the social counterbalancing, mutual support and regard, and equally high valuation and dignity of two ‘families’ of human activity. People could be concerned to ensure that both men and women enjoyed a high degree of societal leverage without being saddled with the unhelpful assumption that it must be the same kind of societal leverage. With the collapse of separate spheres thinking, especially with the influence of the suffragettes and others (here it can be helpful to understand the thinking of the anti-suffragettes, who had the greater support of women at the time, see Helen Andrews and Melanie McDonagh), women increasingly had to assert their equality within a realm that played to men’s strengths. The more domestic, communal, and local societal realms within which they once enjoyed greater leverage were gradually assimilated into the more male logic of the state and economy (which increasingly mobilized an undifferentiated populace for the ends of war and profit), greatly diminished in their influence and autonomy, and made increasingly dependent upon other powers. What many of the women who were separate spheres advocates aspired to and pursued was a realm within which women could enjoy an expansive directive societal influence of their own. This influence could possessed a moral authority to be recognized, honoured, empowered, supported, and not violated by men and which, by remaining distinct from a more male realm, framed itself non-competitively and non-oppositionally with it, while commanding the respect and service of men in support of its own integral autonomy. This vision was flawed in many ways. However, the promise that it held in many respects outstrips that of the alternative that was chosen.

  • No, that doesn’t follow. “The majority of” is not the same thing as “all of.” Besides, why are you writing this now, when Alistair had directly responded (before you wrote this post) that he DOES think women are meant to wield societal power? Exact quote is

    “The title question is one to which I would answer with a strong affirmative, by the way.”

  • Alistair, are you familiar with the concept of the Teal Deer?

  • C. Quinn-Jones

    Hi Katelyn, you have addressed this to Micah, but I hope you won’t mind me replying to you here and encouraging you to have another look at Alastair’s posts with a view to seeing the ways in which he has endorsed some of what you have written. Alastair didn’t describe Alice as an ‘aberration’, by the way 🙂 I think it is inevitable that many of us will have different viewpoints on many issues, and I actually find it interesting to consider and explore different viewpoints, and to learn from them. It seems to me that you want to encourage women who have, for various reasons, felt under-valued, restricted and abused by some men. There are many instances of this and I am as unhappy about it as you seem to be. However, I don’t think this is true of men in general. God has given us differences as men and women. I celebrate and honour these differences, and I know that Alastair does, too. Power takes many forms, and some forms are less visible than others in the world, but they are all fully visible to God.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Haha! Yes, I have heard of it. 🙂

    The length of my comments is not without intention. It is generally not immediately obvious where I am coming from in my position, which is somewhat oblique to the positions with which people are most familiar. It can require considerable patience and suspension of judgment before people ‘get’ the alternative that I am advocating. Writing long comments makes this demand upon the reader a lot more explicit than it would be otherwise and weeds out many of the people who will only engage in a sort of drive-by ideological shooting in comments.

    More importantly, however, when commenting on these questions, I invariably encounter many lazy, hostile, impressionistic, suspicious, impatient, or reactive interpreters. Long comments within which I qualify, clarify, and flesh out my positions have the benefit of discouraging many such persons from engagement. They also expose the failures of many who do engage and give me the material that I need to defend myself. I would still be able to argue that people were not reading me as charitably as they could be if I didn’t spell things out. However, when things have been more carefully and explicitly spelt out, their failures are demonstrable misreadings for which they bear the responsibility and by which their criticisms can be publicly disqualified.

    All of this said, when speaking in friendlier environments, I am much happier to adopt a more reader-friendly approach. In such contexts I will happily throw hostages to fortune, relying upon the patience and charity of my interlocutors to afford me the space and time that frees me from the need to say everything at once.

  • TL;DR approved:

    I do it on purpose. Because my positions are rarely standard arguments (and thus unfamiliar to my readers), it’s often difficult for people to understand I’m not taking the position they think I am. By writing long comments, I make it clear that readers need to consider my positions carefully and respond the same way.

    More importantly, however, long comments discourage hostile interpreters from engaging. In addition, long comments make my case more clearly. If I wrote shorter posts, I could still claim that people were not reading me charitably, but it would be harder to show the ways in which that is true. This way, it is easier to publicly show that they have misunderstood my point.

    If I was being read in a friendlier manner, it would be far easier to write something that people would actually want to read. If I felt I could depend on the goodwill of my readers, I wouldn’t try to say everything at once.

  • Alistair, an observation if that’s OK …

    This comment implies that people who disagree with you in short responses can tend to be lazy, hostile, impressionistic, suspicious, impatient, reactive, failed, uncharitable, and misreading you.
    All negatives.

    Do you ever consider that some people may validly disagree with you, having opinions that are clear and justifiable alternative interpretations from your own, and may communicate in more of a succinct dialogue style?

    Your representation of other opinions here, and your normal length of comments, comes across as overconfident and self justifying, and I think you would do your ability to draw people in and convince them a lot of favours, if you saw blog comments as a discussion over a coffee, rather than a succession of lecturers taking the stage in turn.

    Also, you don’t have to be right. The world won’t end. You may actually learn from others, rather than just unintentionally harrang them into submission or silence. If this was your expressed attitude, your comments would become more easy to read, as opposed to your here overtly admitted certitude.

    I enjoy your voice, but your attitude makes you difficult to engage with a lot of the time.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Jez, thanks for taking the time to respond.

    At the outset, I think that you badly misread my point, which was not about the length of other people’s comments, but about some of the reasons for the length of my own. My point is that that long comments both discourage and forearm me against the bad readers that I often encounter. Perhaps the only clause in my remarks that could be seen as a reference to the length of other people’s comments was the reference to those who engage in ‘drive-by ideological shooting.’ Of course, the point of this description is not length of response but the venting of reactive hostility apart from any sort of commitment to genuine and receptive engagement.

    I am very ready to acknowledge that some people can and do genuinely understand my position and still disagree (the succinct dialogue style was never at issue). I know a number of such persons. However, the responses of most people to my comments—including yours, unfortunately—exhibit a serious failure to read me and represent my positions with much care. This isn’t just about some feeling that people supposedly aren’t taking me seriously or agreeing with my viewpoints enough: these are demonstrable misrepresentations.

    Now, I quite understand that many people find long comments tedious and taxing on their patience and concentration span. They reach a point where they just lapse into skimming instead, waiting for phrases to jump out at them and choosing to go with a rough impression of the person’s position rather than a responsible interpretation. Such people may be wonderful people in person, but I really am not interested in having a conversation with them on these issues as patience, suspension of judgment, close and detailed attention, and considered responses rather than rapid reactions are absolutely necessary here. Without them, we won’t get anywhere. I am very happy to devote much more time and words to these conversations because, in my experience, progress in such debates is typically extremely costly in both. I would prefer to have a few time-expensive and long-winded discussions that make substantial progress than countless rapid partisan skirmishes that get nowhere.

    Having tried to express my positions using a shorter style on many occasions in the past, I can assure you that it is generally—and perhaps initially counterintuitively—a far less efficient route for communicating than longer comments. In debates on less fraught and sensitive issues, where my position is a fairly standard one that will be relatively familiar in outline to all others, or where my position presumes very little in the way of theoretical underpinning or fleshing out, short comments often work quite nicely. However, on such a fraught issue as gender, especially when my position does not tidily align with familiar positions, every statement can multiply questions from people wondering where I am coming from and where my position ends up. Dialoguing in such a context can be like explaining your route through a maze junction by junction, with people unsettled by and on edge about the uncertainty of what route you will take at each point. People will accuse you of wanting to take route X or Z at the junction because they have never noticed route Y. You will repeatedly have to venture some way down dead-ends to retrieve people who have run ahead of your argument, presuming that you are taking that course. It doesn’t take long for people to become incredibly disoriented in such a manner, unable to trace the passage your argument has taken, because you so often had to double back on yourself or pursue them down wrong passages to get them back on track. In such contexts I have found that the best thing to do is to sketch out the general route as a whole at once, rather than in smaller chunks. When I have had success in communication in these particular debates, this has generally been the way.

    Yes, my characterizations of many of the ways that people have responded to me are ‘negative’. I make no apologies for this. I believe that bearing false witness is a serious sin and that there are vicious habits and practices that render us prone to committing this violation of God’s law. And, yes, I believe that Katelyn (among others) has—almost certainly unwittingly through careless reading, rather than intentionally through any malice—demonstrably borne false witness against my position. However, I am still waiting for an acknowledgement or apology, or a retraction of her inaccurate statements. It may not feel ‘collegial’ or ‘sensitive’ for me to make such a charge, and the ‘tone’ may appear to be off, but I believe that representing other positions truthfully and responsibly matters, especially for people who, like Katelyn, play important roles in our wider Christian discourse. This isn’t about my personal feelings—if people represent my position accurately, I am perfectly OK with them saying all sorts of uncomplimentary things about it—but the integrity of our discourse. I am rather disgusted by the fact that so many Christians are more exercised about the supposed ‘tone’ of others than they are when public Christian voices seriously and demonstrably misrepresent others without ever apologizing or retracting their statements. This is just another example of the unreliable impressions and sensitivities of private persons being privileged over the public demands of truth. If we can’t hold public Christian voices to a high standard in these areas we shouldn’t expect our discourse to be marked by truthfulness.

    I also make no apologies for the fact that appealing for truthful representation of my positions may ‘come across’ as ‘self-justifying,’ or that expressing my positions with conviction, firmness, and forcefulness may ‘come across’ as ‘overconfident’. I believe that the positions that I am advancing are worthy of serious engagement, engagement that hasn’t been forthcoming. I make no apologies for believing that my critics are largely mistaken, or that my position, to which I have given much thought, is much closer to the truth than theirs.

    I definitely don’t have to be right and I am quite happy to learn from others. However, this doesn’t mean that I have to treat every viewpoint as if it had equal weight or merit. The confidence that I project is gauged according to the visible strength of the positions that are currently on the field of the debate. While I have many questions about my position as an entirely adequate explanation of these issues, I am highly confident that it exposes deep weaknesses in other popular explanations and that its approach has considerably greater explanatory power. The fact that hardly any serious and direct engagement has been forthcoming, despite many words being written against my position, gives me more reason to be confident in it. If another position were to prove itself able strongly to answer my challenges and provide a fundamental challenge to my own position, that would be both a welcome occasion to test the full mettle of my position and to grow in my understanding. However, I am quite confident that no other party here has yet come close to testing its mettle. Most have just reacted against my supposed conclusion, while failing truly to address the arguments that produced it. Being confident that my position is the strongest of the positions expressed to date and that it will only become stronger through exposure to genuine challenge is rather different from being confident that my position is absolutely right. The first sort of confidence fuels vigorous engagement with opposition, while the second is more likely to encourage withdrawal from the testing crucible of debate.

    I want to suggest a different way of looking at things. Read through this comment thread and the one that preceded it. Look for the people who closely and genuinely engaged with opposing positions to their own and look at the people who just blew off opposing positions as wrong without engagement or careful and accurate representation. Now ask yourself who is really overconfidently dismissive of others on account of their certitude in their position.

    I am quite aware that my mode of engagement is highly off-putting to many people. However, it has always been a matter of concern to me to prioritize engagement with other viewpoints over anything else. This is why the majority of my actual writing occurs in obscure comment threads and private correspondence, even though I have a blog where I could happily monologue before a fairly large and appreciative audience. It is also why, when responding to people, I prefer to give a thorough response to every one of the points that they raise, rather than just taking issue with a few odd details or fudging the engagement by agreeing to disagree.

    There is too much pontificating to the choir online. I want to encourage intense and demanding engagement in its place, making it much harder for people casually to misrepresent others without challenge or to opinionate without being expected to defend their positions. I want our online Christian discourse to become a deeply uncomfortable place for people who fail to exercise due diligence in their representation of others and in their attention to Scripture and scholarship, yet presume to have a leading voice all the same. This approach takes people very seriously, albeit perhaps not in the way that they want to be taken seriously. I suspect that many people want their viewpoints to be affirmed and celebrated by others. They want to be made to feel safe, validated, and celebrated in their opinions and prejudices. However, few really want their expressed viewpoints to be treated with the sort of seriousness that would expect them to stand by and defend the truth of their words, the sort of seriousness that treats their statements as what they purport to be—public truth claims.

    People may balk at 2,000+ word long comments like this one that respond to every detail of their remarks and dislike the scrutiny that this invites, or the sense of responsibility to defend their expressed position in response. Nevertheless, if this sort of engagement either challenges people to take their own words and those of others more seriously—and hence responsibly—in the future or publicly exposes the error or weakness of popular claims and arguments and the irresponsible character of certain popular Christian voices, it will have performed an important public service.

    People who prioritize truth over sensitivities can be profoundly irritating. Socrates once described his intention ‘to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.’ I appreciate that, in many respects, my approach is intensely irritating, perhaps even infuriating for some. I don’t observe either the sorts of social niceties or the polarized partisanship abusiveness that together keep much of our supposed engagement superficial and ensure that people feel unthreatened in their opinionating. I have the audacity to articulate my positions with a force, confidence, and length, yet close attention to opposing positions, which does not meekly admit the equal legitimacy of all viewpoints, but expects other people to defend their opinions’ right to exist in the realm of our wider discourse. I have the gall to express unwelcome challenges to positions in places which should be safe spaces for partisan opinionating without accountability. While scrupulous seeking to avoid being abusive, misrepresenting others, believing the worst of them, or treating them with disrespect (in avoiding all of these things, I seek to speak the truth in love), I refuse to accommodate important debates to the sensitivities that increasingly intrude upon them and prevent us from having crucial conversations. I do not act according to the belief that everyone is equally qualified to have an opinion or to be a voice in Christian public discourse. As such, I am a threatening presence in conversations that are often more concerned with sensitivity, inclusivity, and tone than with accountability, substantial engagement, and truth.

    I do not take pleasure in annoying people or a perverse delight in a sort of nastiness. I am not someone who is simply unable to engage in different ways. Nor am I someone who has everything right himself—far from it! My modes of engagement do leave a number of things to be desired and I am very much learning as I go along (I could be briefer, for instance, but it would be even more costly in time: I can write a 2,000 word response in under an hour, or a 1,000 word response in nearer to two). However, many of the things that most annoy people about my modes of engagement are neither straightforwardly accidental nor mere quirks of personality, but are intentionally adopted strategies to move our conversations further in the direction of rigorous and responsible engagement, high levels of accountability for participants, and illumination and truth.

    I believe that there is a reason why so many people link to comment sections in which I participate: because they involve substantial and illuminating engagement that seldom occurs in the typically infamous territory below the line. This engagement is costly in time and thought for both me and for those who choose to be my interlocutors (I can honestly say that I have many, many other things that I would prefer to be doing right now). However, every time that I do it the many e-mails, Twitter messages, and links I receive remind me that I am not alone in seeing great value in it and in wishing that more people were prepared to invest themselves in it.

  • Not a full reply, just a reply to your opening remarks.

    Here’s the irony.
    When you say …
    … “I think that you badly misread my point, which was not about the length of other people’s comments, but about some of the reasons for the length of my own. My point is that that long comments both discourage and forearm me against the bad readers that I often encounter” …
    … you have hilariously misread my point, in which I am only addressing the length of your responses.

    You then proceed to reply at Utterly Hilarious length!
    I will read it, but I’d ask you to re-read my comment more carefully – unless it was a deliberately off-putting tactic aimed at me, which is what I suspect you might have done here.

    I mean no hostility, quite the reverse. I think that if you learned how to do dialogue in comments feeds, other people would benefit more from your highly thought through and researched interpretations.

    Say ‘Hi’ to AJW from me, he will vouch for my own comments feed failings, which I am slowly trying to learn from and correct.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    … you have hilariously misread my point, in which I am only addressing the length of your responses.

    Is this in fact the case? You write:

    This comment implies that people who disagree with you in short responses can tend to be lazy, hostile, impressionistic, suspicious, impatient, reactive, failed, uncharitable, and misreading you.

    Do you ever consider that some people may validly disagree with you, having opinions that are clear and justifiable alternative interpretations from your own, and may communicate in more of a succinct dialogue style?

    The expression ‘disagree with you in short responses’ could be argued to be somewhat ambiguous, but seems to refer to the shortness of the comments of people who disagree with me, rather than to my own. The location of their disagreement with me isn’t in my short responses, but in theirs. If it were the shortness of my responses that were being referred to, the natural phrasing would be something like ‘the people who disagree with your short responses.’ As my original comment stated that the length of my comments were a response to such responses—designed to forearm me against them—rather than the factor that caused them, it would be even stranger for me to read this expression as something referring to the length of my own comments.

    It was, however, the second expression that made it seem clear that you were speaking about some implicit judgment that I was making about the length of other people’s responses: ‘Do you ever consider that some people may validly disagree with you, having opinions that are clear and justifiable alternative interpretations from your own, and may communicate in more of a succinct dialogue style?’ How exactly can the last clause of this sentence be referring to the length of my comments?

    For these reasons I find it rather surprising that you claim that you were only addressing the length of my responses. Your actual words strongly suggest otherwise. How exactly should I have read these clauses?

    I’ve been commenting on blogs pretty much since blogs were first a thing in the late 90s (I’ve also had my own blog since 2003). During that time, I have given considerable thought to the way that comment feeds typical work (or, sadly, perhaps more typically, don’t work). I have also given thought to my own style of commenting. I am very well aware that it isn’t to everyone’s taste and is positively annoying to some (length complaints are hardly new to me). However, it is adopted with a degree of mindfulness that might surprise some who think it nothing more than a bad habit. Consequently, the suggestion that I might ‘learn’ how to do dialogue in comment feeds strikes me as a little unfair. Relatively little substantial dialogue typically occurs in comment sections for a reason (how many others actually truly engaged with my positions here, rather than speaking past them?). Merely adopting the standard style isn’t going to change anything. Consequently, I purposefully employ an atypical style. And, I might add, the resulting style, while annoying to some, is highly appreciated by many, many others.

    I really don’t believe that you mean any hostility and, I assure you, neither do I. However, while you are entirely welcome to dislike my commenting style as much as you want, as someone who has always done rather a lot of commenting, I have adopted it for a reason. My style is undoubtedly unorthodox, but I am not a novice in need of a Commenting 101 class. More importantly, though, if the health of Christian discourse below the line is truly your concern, long-winded comments and overconfident tone should probably be some way down your list of priorities. Dialogue is more harmed by those whose words misrepresent and speak past others in the conversation than by those who, while writing at great length, engage with others attentively and in considerable depth.

  • Brilliant!
    I’m still not convinced that you aren’t demonstrating the technique that you’re advocating on me! If I reply, you may simply respond again in a Wagnerian scale. If I don’t, you may happily think ‘Job Done!’

    It’s possible that you are either so intelligent that you can no longer understand a simple argument, or you might be being deliberately awkward to tire me into silence.

    I am actually solely addressing the length of your responses, and critiquing them, by highlighting your own phrases which initially justified your long responses and implicitly compared them to other people’s shorter responses. Hence, yes, I do refer to the shorter length of other people’s responses, but only in the context of addressing what you have said about the rationale behind your own, by comparison, longer responses.

    I think that is clear if you read my comments sensibly, rather trying to find a clever twist for an extended come back.

    You justify your method as an attempt to “expose the failures of many who do engage and give me the material that I need to defend myself.”

    So your blog comment approach is designed to achieve 2 goals:
    1: Expose other people’s failures, and
    2: Gather arguments to defend yourself.

    I would put it to you that these are terrible negative goals.

    Would it not be better to try to:
    1: Engage in communal dialogue that connects with people from other perspectives, and
    2: Seek truth and perspectives from other people at least as much as simply defending my own point of view or exposing other people’s failures, weaknesses or error.

    This type of forum is best when it is more about community than competition.

    With all that said, I’d like to pull back to the topic of the blog, rather than just disagree about the method and purpose of comments feeds. I made a comment earlier, which I’d like to reframe as a question, and I’m much more interested in your response to that, than continuing this style of ‘Did’ ‘Didn’t’ tit for tat non-debate.

    In your first piece in this sequence to my mind there seems to me to be massive hermaneutical assumptions about the natural order based on the sequences within the Genesis Creation narratives.

    I don’t think that these assumptions seem are obvious or automatic.

    They seem to me to have the effect of promoting your interpretation of the creation narratives, from before the Old Covenant, above anything later redeemed in the New Covenant order.

    Thus your view of the role of women does not seem to take into consideration the trajectory seen going through the genealogies of Jesus, or the prophetic voice of Mary, or the open dialogue with the Samaritan woman, or the subverting of the place of women (and other underclasses) in the internal dynamics of the early church community in Acts and Paul – despite the culturally pragmatic limitations on the public role of women in the church hierarchy as the church gained traction in its cultural setting.

    Take that trajectory forward, and place it in many C21st Western settings well after women have the vote and (at least theoretical) equality, and the role of women in the redeemed community can now look a lot different from their place in the order of creation and the post-fall curses.

    Is there a danger that too much of your thinking is placed back in a very different ancient cultural context, and that it is unavoidable that there are other valid positions based on the overall flow of revealed scripture?

    Now please can we dialogue about this, not about the length and purpose of comments!?

    (NB: In the context of my comments, the length of this comment is also Hilariously Ironic, I know!)

  • Alastair J Roberts

    I am actually solely addressing the length of your responses, and critiquing them, by highlighting your own phrases which initially justified your long responses and implicitly compared them to other people’s shorter responses. Hence, yes, I do refer to the shorter length of other people’s responses, but only in the context of addressing what you have said about the rationale behind your own, by comparison, longer responses.

    In which case, even though it may have been your focus, you weren’t only addressing the length of my comments, but were operating under the misapprehension that, in explaining the reasons for the length of my own comments, I was making a judgment (implicit or otherwise) upon the length of other people’s. It was only appropriate to get that misunderstanding out of the way at the outset of my comment.

    My blog comment approach is not limited to two goals, although those two goals definitely inform my approach. Such goals needn’t be exclusive of other goals. If you read my comments, you should recognize I engage closely and rigorously with other people’s perspectives. In contrast to many of the other people in these comments, I have closely and attentively interacted with their statements. Now, it might well be the case that the ‘connection’ you are looking for is more a matter of a pleasant interpersonal atmosphere sustained by an easy to-and-fro of remarks. Save in certain unusual cases, I have not found such a connection to be especially conducive to rigorous discussion of such issues. Rather, it tends to restrict discussion to a much less searching level. Frankly, I would far prefer people focused on engaging with my words than on ‘connecting’ with me in such comment discussions. There are plenty of other places where we can connect: I come here to have a challenging exchange of viewpoints.

    As for seeking truth, that is definitely one of the reasons why I am here. However, the locus of the truth that I am seeking is in the engagement itself, not in the viewpoint detached from the engagement. In arguing in such a context, I want to elicit the strength of other viewpoints and to sharpen my own. It is through such an engagement that truth emerges. Detached from such engagement, viewpoints tend to be limited, over-coloured by the affective immediacy of certain subjective concerns. Challenging engagement forces us to look beyond that which is most immediate to our subjective perspective to relate positions within a more universal horizon, within which those things which are closest by from our personal vantage points are not effaced but are seen within their truer proportion. As Hans-Georg Gadamer argues, this is quite different from a conversation that focuses upon empathy or for which the subjective vantage point is always so factored into someone’s statements that they can neither voice nor be subject to the challenge of a greater truth.

    None of this is inconsistent with friendship or community, nor is competition opposed to connection. Far from it: competition is often a primary way in which we connect to the people closest to us (do you never play board games with family or a game of football with friends?). Nor is this a mode of interaction that I reserve for people I don’t connect with. As just one of many such examples, I recently had a 22,000 word long e-mail interaction with a friend in which we argued out some issues, sparring together to sharpen our thinking. We both relished the conversation and gained much from it, because we both respect the other’s insight and, even though we were both pretty certain we wouldn’t see eye to eye on the questions at the end of it, we were right in presuming that considerable rapprochement would be achieved and that both of our positions would emerge from the engagement stronger. However, competition in such instances isn’t primarily about connection. Rather, the purpose is to sharpen arguments together through mutual challenge, to test the mettle of our arguments by subjecting them to the strength of opposing arguments.

    Turning to your other remarks, I am highly wary of ‘trajectory’ arguments. In many cases, the present case included, I believe they are largely just gerrymandering streams of biblical authority to lie conveniently right beneath our feet. Also, if we wanted to, we could often push trajectories in different—but no less arbitrary—directions. For instance, one could observe that many of the cultures surrounding Israel had priestesses, but Israel’s priests were all male. One could also observe that the most prominent women—Miriam and Deborah—in national leadership occur nearer the beginning of Israel’s story, rather than towards the end. The explicit teaching on the subject of women in the NT often pushes in a conservative direction (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11, 14; 1 Timothy 2), against radical impulses in the contexts being addressed. Etc. Of course, such a trajectory argument would be horribly flawed, but my point is that trajectories are not usually as clear-cut as people want them to be.

    The creation narratives matter because we still live in the created order. The creation narratives matter because new creation isn’t an abolition of the old creation but a redemption and glorification of it. More particularly, though, the creation narratives matter because it was God’s intention in creating us male and female that was at stake in the discussion. To what extent are differences to be attributed to the Fall as opposed to the original created order?

    There are a lot of things that can now differ from the created order. Within a few years it is likely that we will be able to produce children with two fathers and no mother or two mothers and no father. Within a few years we may well have developed an artificial womb for exogenesis. Human cloning is well within our reach. We can edit our own genome. We could create animal-human hybrids. The fact that something is now a possibility does not legitimate it and created order is still something that matters.

    More to the point, though, my argument rested upon descriptive claims, which make most of the objections that you are raising here quite tangential to the issue under discussion. This discussion, contrary to many people’s misunderstandings, has never been about whether women can or should exercise power. Nor has it been about the legitimacy of limitations on their public exercise of power. What it has been about is whether—while readily recognizing many exceptional individuals—women as a group are, on account of their natural constitution, preferences and motivations, behavioural and associational tendencies, and role in reproduction, able to produce and exercise power to the same degree as men as a group. In short, this is a debate that is more about what is possible than about what is permissible. I am also arguing that, while things have definitely changed in many respects, exercising the same amount of power as men as a group is still an impossibility for women as a group, even if we give women complete permission. What we are dealing with are natural differences between the sexes and no matter how many glass ceilings we shatter, these differences aren’t going to go away. The complete removal of gendered restrictions will not lead to gender parity, even though their removal may allow many individual women to excel in traditional male realms and pursuits. While it is imperative that we create a society within which women can thrive and reach their full stature, we should not expect this full stature to entail their exercising the same direct power as men within society. Rather, women’s influence and leverage within society tends to be most pronounced in other less direct forms.

    And, taking all of this into account, the New Testament evidence actually weighs very strongly in my favour and perhaps even more worryingly so under your construction. For instance, if it is the case that women were permitted to be apostles, prophets, and church leaders, what becomes striking is just how male-dominated these offices are. Permission obviously does not produce anything resembling parity. If Jesus could just as easily have chosen Judith, Philippa, and Johanna over Judas, Philip, and John, the question of why he chose only men to be members of the Twelve becomes a fairly acute one; in fact, far more so than if maleness was somehow essential to the role, because in such a case men and women wouldn’t be rendered commensurable and placed in implicit competition with each other. In acknowledging difference—both absolute and relative—we create the possibility of learning to recognize, foster, and celebrate the equality of women to men in their created dignity and in the importance and value of their vocations, gifts, and blessings without making such an affirmation contingent upon ensuring an unrealistic parity and equivalence in outcomes in areas of human activity that are more weighted towards male tendencies and capacities, even as we are concerned to ensure that women are not excluded from these areas.

    Anyway, on that note, I will leave this discussion and give you the last word. Blessings!

  • Rounding up my dialogue with Alastair Roberts:

    Thanks for the full and helpful response.

    It was good to get back to the topic, away from just discussing your comment technique, purpose and length.

    On those subjects, personally I still think you’re wrong about needing competition in many situations. This sounds as if you have a need to turn many encounters into an argument you need to win, using considered deliberate strategies and techniques.

    This reads to me as if you are driven to need to prove yourself, rather than seeing encounters as an opportunity to engage with other people and pool different perspectives as we all seek greater understanding from and with each other. I’d question and reflect on that, as it may become a problem. Also, not every question of interpretation has a single correct definitive answer.

    For me, co-operation is better than competition, and dialogue is more productive than pontification – and I say that as someone who can get above himself in comments feeds way too easily, as you can probably tell! (Again, AJW will confirm this!)

    Incidentally, not everyone plays Board Games to win, seeing them more as a context for social interaction than a competition, and some Board Games are now based on the need for co-operation and mutual benefit rather than just being a contest.

    Thanks too for granting me the last word, although I don’t know how you got the right to grant that on someone else’s blog?!

    I really can see your point about gender role trajectories in the Bible, and I think that the case is still a work in progress, which is why this type of dialogue and counter questioning is helpful.

    I would make 4 quick responses.

    1: I would point out that even Jesus can be said to have employed a form of trajectory hermeneutics, by stating “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … “, and that the Biblical attitude to sacrifice is seen by some to go from a revealed instruction intended to limit and define its use compared to neighbouring cultures, to an overt demonstration against child sacrifice in the Isaac narrative, to its regular use in the established nation, to its critique by the prophets (or at least critiquing its misuse) and finally it’s fulfilment by Jesus, rendering it an unnecessary religious ritual for us.

    In other words, trajectories are evident in the Biblical material, and their momentum continues on into our era. This is outlined by Webb in his studies on Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics.

    2: Your argument against the validity of trajectory hermeneutics does not work on all social topics, for example, slavery is not a static topic, and so we have moved beyond the social constructs and norms of the Biblical era in that area. If someone used the logic you have applied here in gender issues into justifying their returning to the use of slaves today, we would all be rightly horrified. This means that we are not fixed in that Biblical context, and the world has changed. If that’s a valid POV on one issue, it means that it could be on other issues too.

    3: In making good observations in countering my comments about the place of women in the NT, I think that you missed one of my more important points that is often overlooked, or I didn’t explain it clearly enough.

    Where Jesus, Paul and the Apostles are addressing positions, appointments, and public roles in the evolution towards and of the Church, they abide by the social norms of their world. They have to do this to pragmatically allow the Church to have sustainable credibility in their social context, so that it can gain traction and become established. If they had not done this, the Church would have found it harder to attract people in, and would have risked dying at birth. Thus they abided by the social expectations of their day in how they established the public face of their new communities, especially regarding gender roles. I’d argue that this could be seen as a position they had to take in that setting, rather than a position that was communicated as universally necessary and true for all time.

    However, inside those communities, as well as in Jesus’s one to one encounters and relationships, they sowed the seeds of subversion, and began to dissolve all social boundaries, especially where they were based on cultural power dynamics and divides – Jew/Gentile, Slave Free, Male/Female, etc.

    That is the trajectory that I believe can continue, which eventually means that even the public role of women in the Church and elsewhere can change, and is changing.

    In other words, I feel that in the NT there is a pragmatic difference between the public roles women could hold, and the radical new social dynamics found internally in the NT Church communities, and this was an incomplete journey, which continues today.

    4: I accept that you are making an anthropological case about how things are, and that for you “this is a debate that is more about what is possible than about what is permissible”, rather than making a case that women must be held in a creation ordinance position of subjugation forever.

    However, I think this might clash with your argument against interpretive trajectories, where you warn against the possibilities potentially being immoral in relational and reproductive ethics.

    You state this the clearest in the section where you say that “the fact that something is now a possibility does not legitimate it.” I think that the same qualification could apply to your argument about possible gender roles. If you state that women historically and in today’s world have not taken the same organizational and leadership roles as men in such quantities, this does not mean that this state of affairs is legitimate. It is just observed.

    Which would mean that a summary of the situation you observe, and your explanation, would be this:

    Observed situation:
    Women as a gender do not hold leadership or organizational roles on the same scale as men, almost universally throughout all eras and cultures.

    Women do not hold leadership or organizational roles on the same scale as men, almost universally throughout all eras and cultures, because they are not suited to do so, which is proved by the fact that women as a gender do not hold leadership or organizational roles on the same scale as men, almost universally throughout all eras and cultures.

    So if I’m reading you right – and I have no doubt whatsoever that if you were to reply, which you have said that you won’t, you would argue that I’m not – it means that you have used a large number of words to create a perfectly circular argument.

    To round this up, when we get down to debating the interpretive logic on these issues, it’s helpful and interesting. I’m sorry if we went too far on the length and technique of your approach, but in the end that helped me to see what, how and why you were saying these things.

    I know you don’t get drawn into every possible dialogue, so I’m grateful you spent time here, with an impertinent non-academic like me. I apologise for moments when my tone got grumpy or snarky. I can be a plonker quite often, so thanks for your immense patience.

    Keep up the good work, even/especially where we differ, and please consider a more dialogical style as I think we’d all benefit, whatever you think that your experiences and conclusions may tell you. However, I would say that trying to engage with you and your rationale and arguments at a greater level of detail has been good, as it gives me a glimpse of how you try to take an argument seriously in its entirety, rather than lapse into sloppy generalizations about someone else’s perspective.

    And thanks to you and all the others on Mere Fidelity – again, I find it extremely helpful to hear perspectives I often disagree with explained in the clearest and fairest possible way, in an accessible and dialogical style.


  • Do prophets have authority?

    When Adam named Eve herself, was he not using a prophetic mode of discourse?