Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gender Debates at Her*meneutics Blog

Her*meneutics, which bills itself as the "The Christianity Today blog for women," recently ran a two-part series on the gender egalitarian/complementarian divide in evangelical Christianity. In it, Rachel Stone interviewed egalitarian theologian William Webb and complementarian Russell Moore.

Right off, I, and a few commenters, found it troubling that both theologians interviewed were men. Not because men don't necessarily have valid things to say about sexism against women, but, well, the primary topic at hand was what a male-dominated religion says about male authority over women and women's silence and leadership within that religion. So, no matter how well-intentioned male commentators are in such a conversation, when those issues are still considered debatable matters while male authority and leadership is a given, including only male commentators can send a message like, "enough about how you women experience sexism, let's hear what the Real Authorities think about all of this" even if that message isn't at all intended. A gendered power imbalance is inherent in the very conversation.

So, while I appreciate that Ms. Stone addressed some commenters' concerns about only interviewing men (basically, she thought their being men was "incidental" to their being qualified to talk about the matter), I still think including only male interviewees about a topic that uniquely affects women is problematic. Is gender ever "incidental" when gender is still considered a relevant category for the creation of hierarchies and stereotypes?

That being said, I did find both interviews interesting. I am quite familiar with the Christian notion of gender complementarism, which generally puts forth that men and women possess essential, unique, and complementary (sometimes "opposite") traits, but I also learned what passes for "egalatarianism" to some Christians.

For instance, explaining his beliefs further, Webb says:

"I call my own position 'complementary egalitarianism.' I believe that women and men complement each other sexually, reproductively, and in other ways, too. Fathers provide something different in families than mothers do; men and women are certainly not wired in identical ways. The real question, however, is whether or not hierarchy (unilateral submission) has to be one of the necessary or biblically required components or not. I believe in complementarity without hierarchy. Or, better put: mutual deference and shared leadership. Do we lose something here? No. We gain something incredibly valuable while maintaining male-female complementarity."

As the purportedly more-feminist(?) position, I had to chuckle at the essentialism and stereotyping. I've asked the following many times in conversation with complementarists and have yet to receive an adequate answer: Aside from physical characteristics, what are the specific contributions that all men provide to families that no woman possibly could, and vice versa?

I mean, Webb is making a really big claim, indeed one that is commonsensical to many, about how "fathers" and "mothers" contribute "different" things that the other cannot possibly provide, but he fails to articulate what these contributions specifically are.

When pressed to do so, in order to be intellectually honest, he would have to concede that the best he'd be able to do is make qualified statement like, "well, fathers tend to be..." and "mothers are generally more ______ than fathers..." So, in addition to being inaccurate, I think it's still sexist stereotyping to women (and men) to continue the complementarist narrative, even from a purpotedly "egalitarian" perspective.

That being said, I do appreciate Christians, such as Webb, who advocate against sexist hiearchies. If Christianity is going to stick around, it would be nicer if a less-sexist one gained dominance.

The interview with complementarian Russell Moore was interesting too, but a bit disappointing. By mostly summarizing what "some complementarians" believe, I thought he avoided answering questions about what he personally believed, possibly to avoid appearing *clears throat* problematic himself on a blog for ladies.

For instance, on the question of women in the pulpit, he answers:

"I don’t think the issue is one of comfort — there are many women I would love to hear preach, and who are much better Bible scholars and communicators than any man I know. But the issue is whether the Scripture’s qualifications for this office (1 Tim. 2 and others) are normative."


To me, that really sums up the crux of the issue: The reality, acknowledged even by complementarians, is that women are capable of as good as, or better, leaders than men. Which means that the debate, when framed accurately, is actually whether religious people should or should not use the Bible to pretend away that reality.

Funny how it's always the sexists who think they're the ones who are the brave truth-tellers about man's inherent supremacy in our PC Gone Mad World.

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