Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The following is the continuation and conclusion of my earlier comments on the role of women. As I have already stated, these posts are not intended to give the final word on the subject. The thoughts contained below are in a rather rough and disorganized form. They need considerably polishing. Their principal purpose is to encourage discussion and provide a place where I can gather some of my thoughts on the subject. Some of the following material has been culled from things that I wrote on the Wrightsaid list a while back.
Common sense is frequently an unwelcome intruder into debates about the sexes. Many people do not want to face up to the fact that men and women are different and, for this reason, are better suited for differing tasks. Only something as daft as political correctness could blind us to some of the obvious issues here.
We should recognize that there are certain areas where one sex is far more likely to achieve excellence than the other. Although some would like to believe that women will one day run the 100m faster than men (it has been argued), I struggle to believe it. I don’t believe that the fact that the majority of the most gifted scientists and mathematicians are male is necessarily just a product of discrimination. Gender isn’t merely imposed by cultures onto essentially androgynous beings; there are real differences between men and women. Even when women do lead in the public arena they lead in a manner that differs from the manner in which men lead.
None of this is to argue that women are somehow less than men. I do not believe that the male is the better of the female. Women and men are, in many senses, incommensurable. The problem is that modern society often sees equality in terms of ability to compete in the marketplace and achieve equal outcomes. Wherever women fail to achieve the same outcome as men, prejudice must be present. However, the sexes were never designed to successfully compete with each other; they were created to successfully complement each other. A man is not more valuable in the eyes of God than a woman is; the two sexes are of ‘equal’ value. However, the woman is the ‘weaker vessel’ — like a priceless Ming vase — and, whether our political correctness can stomach it or not, the sexes should not be treated as if they were the same.
We must also recognize that there are psychological, mental and physical differences between men and women to factor in here too. The following are all general tendencies, not hard and fast rules. Women are, in general, physically weaker than men. Physical presence does play a role in leadership and the male is built for physical confrontation in a way that the woman is not. Men don’t bruise as easily, have thicker skin, thicker skulls (as most women well know!), greater upper body strength and build muscle easier. The male body is designed for the use of force in a way that the woman’s body is not. These physical factors have a role in the formation of the male’s identity. The male who grows up playing contact sports will have leadership qualities shaped by the experience. The fact that women are not as physically equipped for contact sports has a formative effect on their style of leadership. Competition and aggression are more pronounced in the male for this and other reasons.
Men and women are different mentally. Our brains are wired differently. The brain of a woman has more neural connections between the two hemispheres. Men and women approach the act of problem-solving differently. Men are more likely to establish a hierarchy. Relationships established in the process of problem-solving are generally more important for females than they are for males.
Women tend to think more intuitively than men do. The elements within a problem are seen as far more interconnected than they are for a man. For this reason, women are more prone to be overwhelmed by the complexity of a problem and find it more difficult to separate their personal experience from the problem that they are tackling. Men are more likely to focus on one problem at a time. For this reason, they are less likely to appreciate the subtleties that might be necessary for a solution. Men tend to better able to separate their own feelings from the problems that they are addressing. Viewing elements of a problem as independent and following such a linear approach can be dangerous, but on other occasions, and in particular settings, it is very effective.
Women are better than men at accessing emotional memories. They are generally more sensitive. If a woman’s testosterone levels are increased they become more insensitive and indifferent to others. Men and women tend to approach relationships differently. Men tend to focus more on shared activities of different types as that which forms solid relationships; women tend to focus more on dialogue and sharing of experience.
There are certain mental, physical and psychological qualities of the male that mean that he will tend to approach the task of leadership in the public realm differently. These qualities do not make the man ‘better’ than the woman, just different. These qualities do, however, mean that the man will tend to be better equipped for leadership in the public realm than the woman will. There are genuine exceptions to all of the above generalizations. However, to focus on exceptions rather than generalizations is to paint a fundamentally misleading picture.
There is no single part of our lives as men and women that can be regarded as androgynous. The examples given above are merely a few examples from our bodily make-up. Such examples would need to be supplemented by many other forms of examples.
There is no warrant for the idea that women’s sphere of activity is limited to the home. However, the Bible does seem to treat the home as the more common environment for the woman (e.g. Judges 5:24). Nevertheless, even the woman whose sphere of activity is focused on the home can be quite economically active (as Proverbs 31 should teach us).
In addition to this, the Bible does not limit the role of the women to roles within the family. For many Christians today, the single (or childless) woman is somehow regarded as if she were somehow falling short of God’s design for the lives of women. Against such a position we must stress that the Bible has a very prominent place for single men and women. In no sense can they be regarded as second-class citizens (I might well post on the subject of singleness sometime in the next few weeks).
In the light of redemptive history it is important that we appreciate that the Church is the new Family, which relativizes all other families. We become members of this Family through Baptism. The role of the biological family, important though it is, is always secondary and subservient to the family of the Church. To regard single women, as many seem to do, as somehow falling short of their God-given vocation is, I believe, a result of a mis-telling of the story of Scripture.
Biblical masculinity does not compete with biblical femininity. In Scripture strong men enable their wives to be strong and vice versa. Egalitarianism blinds us to the complementary character of the roles of men and women and, as a result, places them in competitive roles. Egalitarianism has not tended to lead to the valuing of androgynous roles over gendered roles, so much as the valuing of masculine roles over feminine roles.
Far too often, in feminism’s fight for equality, the ideal imposed upon women has been a masculine ideal. Women must strive to be equal to men. Ironically, in this respect, egalitarian feminism has often been far more vocal and forceful in support of a masculine norm than patriarchy ever was. Egalitarian feminism has also undermined the very basis on which women can be valued precisely as women.
The narratives that feminism presents to women to inhabit are frequently far more oppressive than any of those dreamt up by patriarchal systems. Women are to aspire to be ruthless career women who successfully compete in a ‘male’ world. Those who fail to live up to this ideal — housewives, for instance — are frequently despised as complicit in patriarchal systems. Far from being liberating, egalitarian feminism devalues women and brings them into bondage.
As feminism has sought to establish an autonomous identity for women, free from the shackles of traditional positions relative to men, it has paved the way for new forms of tyranny. Detaching persons from such relational fabrics and placing them in competition with each other, feminist egalitarianism has ended up objectifying women and leading to further enslavement. Insofar as the quest for women’s liberation is continuous with the quest of sinful man to be self-defining, no good can come of it. Human beings are only truly valued in relationship. As Leithart comments, such an approach tends towards women being reduced to sex objects.
Some feminists, who resist the errors of egalitarian feminism, claim that the Christian faith presents women with no ‘horizon’ towards which to aspire, in the process of developing feminine subjectivity. While men have God as one who gives ultimate value to the masculine identity, women have no such idea to aspire to.
They are wrong. The Church is the Mother of all believers and the Bride of Christ. It is in the Church that women can find ultimate value in femininity and demonstrate that femininity is not a mere absence or lack of masculinity. The Church is our Mother in heaven. In the Church as Mother we can find value for women as women. In the Church we see that femininity is something positive and glorious. Evangelicals are to blame for not emphasizing the Motherhood of the Church as much as we should do.
Whilst some have criticized the Church for its use of such ideal figures of women as Mary to marginalize women, this need not necessarily be the case. Part and parcel of a biblical liberation of women must be a recovery of feminine imagery and an appreciation of the crucial typological roles played by such characters as Eve, Sarah, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and other scriptural characters.
The call for wives to submit to their husbands (and women to men in a more general manner) is contextualized by the requirement for each one of us to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) and esteem others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
The relationship between husbands and wives is reciprocal. Both parties are called to live up to the relationship. Men are to live as symbols of Christ. Women are to live as symbols of the Church. It is not up to the individual party to define their own relationships. The relationships are already defined by Christ and the Church. Christ’s relationship with the Church gives us a standard by which we can be called to give account. The husband has no right to choose his own relationship to his wife in opposition to the standard provided by Christ.
In the biblical commands to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, the woman is addressed first, and then the man. In most Stoic accounts of ethics, the woman wasn’t even addressed at all. She was not treated as a moral agent. As John Howard Yoder points out, the approach to ethics taken by the NT ‘gives [the slave and the wife] responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simply meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, an issue about which they can make a moral choice.’
Yoder argues that the woman is called, not to the mere passivity of submission, but to subordination. In subordination one recognizes the presence of an order. The woman is to recognize the order established by Christ in His relationship to the Church, and willingly and meaningfully subject herself to this order, over against all other orders. In this sense the man is also called to subordination. By this subordination of the man and the woman to the order established by Christ and the Church, marriage serves as a proclamation of the gospel. To refuse to be subordinate is to preach a false gospel by one’s life. This is an extremely important point.
The problems surrounding the question of women in leadership roles might stem in part from the privatization of the Church. If the Church operates merely in the ‘feminine’ private realm and not in the ‘masculine’ public realm, we should not be surprised to see a push for woman leadership. If the Church is a just a club composed of individuals who have a personal ‘conversion experience’ in common, the opposition to woman leadership does not make so much sense. Women can inspire people in their personal spiritual life and give them spiritual guidance (read ‘advice’) for their private relationship with God just as well as men. They can emote at people just as well as men. For all too many people, this is all that a pastor is really expected to do.
As the Church has withdrawn from the public realm — creating a secular space in its wake — the biblical prohibition on woman leadership has become increasingly problematic. Most people today approach worship as a private leisure activity. As public worship is increasingly reduced to the exercise of purely privatized (and feminized) spirituality, the gender distinctions that are more prominent in the public realm slowly recede into the background. Whilst there are certainly numerous exceptions to these rules, we should recognize that, as the Christian faith is sentimentalized and removed from the public realm, feminine forms of leadership will be emphasized over masculine forms. Even if we bar women from leadership of churches, we will have effeminate men. I believe that only by resituating the Church in the public realm will the prohibition on women teaching and exercising authority begin to make more sense. When we flesh out the fact that the Church is more than a collection of individuals but is fundamentally a body with a relational and hierarchical structure, the problems with women’s teaching will become more apparent.