Introduction: Hannah Malcolm

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I have a B.A. in Theology from the University of Cambridge and am currently studying towards an M.A.R. in ‘World Christianities’ at Yale Divinity School. Follow me on twitter at @hannahmmalcolm, and read my other musings at youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com. I talk too much.

I was born in London to evangelical Christian parents, who met at medical school and both came from Christian families. They were both ‘working’ parents, though their decision to have five children meant that my mother stopped working for a few years/went part-time. Both parents ‘led’ at home, and I never had the impression that either was making ‘final’ decisions (and if someone was, most days it was my mother, who is terrifyingly organized and efficient).

I promise this won’t be my entire life story. We’ll skip some bits.

In my teens, as a reaction against a secular school environment and a desire to explore what it would mean to fully express my faith, I began writing and blogging about being a Christian woman. At the time I called myself ‘complementarian’, believing that ‘equal but different’ meant what it sounded like – that men and women were actually equal, but that they were ‘different’ – and, from my teen perspective, I could see they were different. They looked different, they smelled different, and they thought differently about things. I never thought that women shouldn’t preach, but I did think there were bigger concerns. I did, however, react violently against the dating books, the language of ‘warrior princes’ and ‘pure princesses’ and the flowery skirts brigade that still infects many evangelical churches today. I would sit there in my trackies and jumper (and sometimes jeans if I were feeling really gracious toward my parents) and feel disgust at the guilt piled onto girls about their sexuality in particular. I understood wanting to dress modestly, but my frame of reference was the fact that, to me, most immodest or revealing clothing was just another patriarchal imposition – high heels, after all, are shoes designed to make it harder for women to run away. In church, teenage boys talked about their struggle with porn, teenage girls talked about their low self-esteem. I felt fine about the way I looked, and had definitely watched porn. Where was that conversation? Once, at university, I tried to bring that up in a flowery-skirted bible study, and was greeted with relieved I’m-not-the-only-one faces, but also silence.

At university I also discovered that many of my evangelical male friends were pleased that I described myself as ‘complementarian’, and I began to understand what that word really meant –men had the final say, women were ‘naturally’ submissive, and working mothers were, at best, a no-other-option choice – not a good model for raising a family. I had seen none of that in my parents’ own marriage, and began to think that maybe I didn’t belong in this camp. I was too brash, too outspoken, wanted to argue theology when that was a ‘male’ domain, and I began to resent my ‘female’-ness.

And so the word ‘complementarian’ slowly dropped out of my vocabulary, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the insidious male/female gender divides I saw in my (in other ways absolutely wonderful) evangelical church. Men went out for curry, beer, and theology, women had afternoon tea and craft days. Male students had male mentors in positions of church leadership, and there were no such leaders/elders amongst the female mentors. I had switched to the theology faculty for my final two years of study, and had several concerned conservative male friends suggest that it wasn’t a great idea. No women suggested that to me. In fact, I rarely heard evangelical female friends make theological assertions or discuss theological ideas at all, outside of the need for evangelism and personal Bible study. Like all of academia, Theology conferences were predominantly white and male, in both speakers and attendees.

I began reading more anthropology, and found that, as I did so, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sexes beyond the fact that women could birth and feed children and men had greater physical strength. There were no universal norms as to ability to lead, intelligence or subtlety of thought, fierceness of spirit, or preference for quiet, sitting down activities. In fact, the only true universal was that male physical strength led to male dominance, and that meant that male names were far more prevalent for both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities (e.g. the most famous sports people, warriors, chefs, artists, craftspeople, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, etc. are, for most of history, male, even though assumptions still prevail that little boys will want to run around outside and poke insects and little girls will want to bake and paint and play teacher). The most genuine ‘difference’ seemed to be one of opportunity, not natural tendency. (No one calls Van Gogh ‘girly’, but Cleopatra led ‘like a man’, because it was the men who led.)

If nature doesn’t really support gendered norms, should the Church? Of course, the Church is not bound by society, or even by what humans find ‘natural’ – even if it were ‘natural’ for humans to want to seek out multiple sexual partners (and some scientists argue that this is the case) I would still support marriage and one person commitment as the model God wants. And so, the questions became –

1) How much Spirit, and how much culture, do I read into any given Bible passage?

2) How much do I take seriously the feeling of call to leadership that many women in the Church claim to experience?

And 3) Why is the Church so slow to cry out against the oppression of women in all walks of life?

So, this is where I begin – a gender structuralist, who wants to take scripture seriously. A proponent for women in leadership, but who also understands the perspective of those who do not want it. Someone who wants to increase space for women in theological conversations, not by reducing male voices, but by making the space even bigger – I know that there are many white male theologians who have taught me a great deal, and I would not want to lose that, but I also don’t want to be limited to that. It’s exciting to me that all of us are going find our theological limits challenged in the next generation. The Church no longer looks white, male and western. It’s time for all of us to catch up.

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Introduction: Hannah Anderson

I grew up in a conservative home that was decidedly anti-establishment. (Cue irony.) My parents had met at a Christian university, eventually married, and moved to the country to raise five children. Their vision of the “good life” included hard work, creativity, living close to the land, education, and serving others. It did not include money.

I realize now how significant this was. Because we lived in a rural area and lacked financial resources, we also lacked the ability to participate in mainstream culture—including mainstream religious culture. We lived our lives in our small community of friends and family; our church experience was decidedly local. In many ways, we (almost) missed the gender wars entirely.

It wasn’t until college that I began to hear about biblical notions of “manhood” and “womanhood.” At first, it was refreshing; to an eighteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, it was relevant and timely. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been taught a conservative reading of gender—my father was definitely the “head of the home”—but growing up, gender was a minor question compared to all the others. My church would not have ordained women, but women served in every other major capacity of church life. I had also been schooled in the “greats” of the Christian faith. So while I believed that men, like Charles Spurgeon, may be the only ones called to ordination; I also believed that women, like Mary Slessor, could tame the jungles of Africa with nothing more than fierce determination and the gospel.

Having grown up outside the genders wars, I didn’t initially understand the landscape. I embraced a label of conservatism, assuming that a complementarian position best expressed the views with which I had been raised. But the more I listened to both sides of the conversation, the more I realized that few of the definitions and paradigms on either side described my experience or values.

There was no category for my paternal grandmother who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, mothered five children, and retired as a factory worker. There was no category for my maternal grandmother who was the first in her family to receive a college degree but was also a submissive wife and partner in ministry with her husband. There was no category for my mother who, though doggedly conservative, was more likely to quote Abigail Adams or Amy Carmichael than Elizabeth Elliot.

The conflict between the conservatism I’d received from my upbringing and the conservatism being promoted in the gender wars forced me to return to core principles. This meant starting with a clear understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image—what it means to be human. For me, the nuances of being made “male and female” are meaningless if we don’t understand what it means to be image bearers in the first place.

At the same time, perhaps because of my conservative reading of Scripture, I don’t see gender as peripheral to the human experience. I strongly affirm the goodness of gender and believe that God was purposeful in creating us male and female—that gender reflects something about Him that we would not understand otherwise. In the end, the tension between what men and women share in common as image bearers and what differentiates us from each other is, itself, a mystery of Divine proportion.

Introduction: Alastair Roberts

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I have been given the privilege of being the first to post here. Within this first round of posts, we intend to introduce ourselves, briefly to sketch our backgrounds, mention some of the concerns and interests that we bring to the conversation, and to share what we hope that it will achieve

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in the Republic of Ireland, where my parents were missionaries and church planters, starting a Reformed Baptist congregation in the town of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Although I am now an Anglican with high church sympathies and have moved away from my background in a number of other respects theologically, I retain many of the conservative evangelical instincts and convictions with which I grew up. Growing up in an evangelical home, but outside of a wider evangelical culture and as a Protestant English boy among Catholic Irish peers, I have never lost some sense of myself as an interloper and still relate to evangelicalism as one who can’t fully identify with it. Although I had been taught the Scripture from the earliest age (as were my three younger brothers), my theological passion first developed during a few years of prolonged illness during my later teens. Since that point, I have read and written voluminously.

I studied Theology at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales (now WEST), did a Master of Theology in the University of St Andrews in Scotland and have just successfully defended my doctoral thesis at Durham University, in the north of England. My more recent work has focused upon liturgy and biblical typology (for any who are interested, my thesis title is The Red Sea Crossing and Christian Baptism: A Study in Liturgy and Typology). I have been an active blogger since 2003 and currently blog of a wide range of subjects at Alastair’s Adversaria. My Twitter handle is @zugzwanged. I am also a regular participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.

There are a number of concerns that I bring to the current conversation. Here are some of them:

  1. I believe that in the debates about gender and the Church very little receptive communication is occurring between the sides. I would like to see more of this taking place, as I think that we have much to learn from engagement with each other.
  2. I believe that the extremes on each side tend to receive more attention than they merit: there are moderates of differing persuasions who could achieve significant rapprochement. I think that a lot of pointless polarization is also created by a focus on labels that distracts from substantial engagement with the underlying issues.
  3. I believe that our differences could be broken down to a much less threatening size, were we to work at mutual understanding. I also believe that there is much common ground to be identified and worked upon together.
  4. I believe that our thinking and positions are honed as we spar with intelligent people who differ from us and that our understanding will be enriched as we learn to be attentive and sensitive to concerns that we might not otherwise hear.
  5. I don’t believe that close enough attention has been given to the contingency of the current form of the debate, to the ways in which it is provoked and moulded by particular historical, economic, social, and political circumstances.
  6. I don’t believe that the role of prudence, imagination, and creativity have been given their due place on account of an evangelical focus upon universal systems and legalistic ideologies.
  7. I don’t believe that enough thought is given to identifying the factors that frame the debate and the effects that these can have. For instance, the question of women as priests and pastors is frequently tackled without any attention being given to the role that our ecclesiologies and broader theologies will play in shaping this.
  8. I don’t believe that either side has yet done justice to the biblical witness on these matters.
  9. I believe that conservative evangelical teaching on gender is frequently unbiblical, overly prescriptive, claustrophobic, and rests too heavily on gender stereotypes. While I don’t find most of the alternatives provided persuasive, I am convinced that we can do much better.
  10. I believe that we need a positive theology of men and women, one that neither focuses primarily on what women are supposedly not allowed to do nor downplays the significance of the fact that God created the human race male and female.
  11. I don’t believe that women and their gifts have been given their due place and honour in the life of the Church. I would like for this to be registered as a problem and to work together to provide a theological foundation upon which this situation can be addressed.
  12. I would love to see this conversation encourage and inform concrete change on the ground in various quarters, with the effect of recognizing and employing the gifts of women more fully in the Church’s life.

One of my favourite theologians, Oliver O’Donovan, writes:

When really serious issues are at stake and talk of doctrines ‘upon which the church stands or falls’ begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.

But that is all a trick of the light…

None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape – a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think – and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! – is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

My hope is that together we will create a place where this happens. I doubt that any unanimous position will ever be reached, but I hope that our differences would be broken down to size, situated within a loving and respectful context, and that we might all learn and grow through the engagement.