Alastair Roberts is an astute, articulate and assiduous commentator on both scripture and society. I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of what he has written. But I’m disappointed by his defence of the complementarian view of male-female relations in family and church.
In a recent video he makes the case against women’s ordination. He begins by listing briefly the obvious biblical arguments against the egalitarian position: the explicit restrictions found in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2; the circumstantial evidence that Jesus chose male disciples; the presumption of male leadership in the New Testament church (he defers discussion of the “apostle” Junia); and the precedent of male kingship and priesthood in the Old Testament.
But the main thesis presented is that men and women in scripture do not merely have social functions, they have sharply different symbolic values; and that the church should continue to reflect these symbolic distinctions in its management of male-female relations.
I will summarise the main points of his argument here, somewhat in his own words, and give my reasons for disagreeing with him. I hope he doesn’t mind.
The symbolic pattern is derived from the creation narratives
Roberts thinks that in modern western societies men and women are regarded as interchangeable agents who perform arbitrary social or economic functions. But in scripture men and women have important symbolic weight; they stand for different sorts of relations; therefore, they are not functionally interchangeable.
Adam was created to form, to till the earth, to establish God’s order. Eve brought unity and communion through joining with Adam. They have different orientations in the world, different symbolic roles, which the church should preserve.
The man, supposedly, is associated more closely with heaven, the woman with the earth. Roberts thinks that this is somehow evident in the curse pronounced on Adam and Eve. Like the earth the woman brings forth fruit from her body; the earth is the ʾadamah, the man is the Adam. The womb is associated with the earth. These images are very significant for understanding the symbolic world of scripture. The earth is our mother, God is our father, and as father God is in a different relation to us.
- First, I think he overstates the flattening effect of modern culture. I would say that what we are seeing, in principle, is a levelling of the playing field on which men act as men and women act as women. When Serena Williams recently accused an umpire of sexism because she thought she was being more harshly penalised than a male player would have been, she was not demanding that male and female tennis players be treated interchangeably.
- Roberts makes the mistake of conflating the two creation narratives by arguing that Eve was created so that Adam could fulfil the command given in Genesis 1:28 to multiply and fill the earth. This makes nonsense of the account of the creation of the woman in Genesis 2:18-25. Nothing is said here about procreation. The woman is God’s gift to solve the problem of man’s aloneness, his being “in separation”. The naming of the animals was an an attempt to solve this problem (“But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him”), but God obviously did not present the animals to Adam to see if he would mate with them. The woman would rescue him from his aloneness and “help” him specifically in the task given to him in this second creation account, which was to work and keep the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). There is no requirement in this narrative context that they should multiply and fill even the garden, let alone the earth.
- By creating the woman God introduces the possibility of relational oneness, but this does not make woman the active source or agent of “unity and communion” in contrast to the man. If anything, it is the man who actively creates relational oneness by joining with his wife: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
- It is important to realise that Adam in the story is not from the start the male without the female. Adam is a sexually undifferentiated human, who becomes male and female with the creation of the woman from his own flesh. The creation of Eve is the realisation of the potential for sex-based collaboration and communion that was in the ᐣadam created from the ᐣadamah. This is underlined by Genesis 5:1-2: “When God created man (ᐣadam), he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man (ᐣadam) when they were created.” True, this is a restatement of Genesis 1:26-27 rather than of the Eden narrative, but it makes it difficult to reduce the “alone” Adam of chapter 2 to the male individual.
- I don’t see how Roberts derives the symbolic antithesis between heaven and earth from the curse of Genesis 3:16-19. It seems to me that both the man and the woman are associated with the earth—arguably the man more so. Adam, after all, is earth (ᐣadamah); the ground is cursed because of him; he will work the earth by the sweat of his face until he dies and returns to the ground from which he was taken. The purported symbolic distinction between heavenly male and the earthly female never gets off the ground.
The office of pastor represents the male authority of God in relation to the church
Priests and pastors are to be exclusively male, Roberts argues, because it is a fatherly form of authority that is represented. God’s transcendence is symbolically masculine. He is presented in ways that highlight male authority—as king, judge, sovereign, lawgiver, master, or father. Christ is incarnated as a man who takes a bride, the church.
- It seems to me a questionable assumption that priests and pastors are supposed to represent the male authority of God over his people. The explicit purpose of the priest in the Old Testament was to serve God in the temple (eg., Exod. 30:30), not to represent him as a male person to the people. I suspect it would be more accurate to say that the priests represented Israel to God rather than God to Israel. They were chosen out of the whole people of Israel, as a holy and dedicated synecdoche, a part for the whole. A male priesthood appropriately represented patriarchal Israel to God, but wherever the people of God is organised on a more egalitarian basis, the representative “priesthood” or “pastorate” ought to reflect that essential equality.
- “Shepherd” is a gift of Christ to the church in the same way that “prophet” is (Eph. 4:11). What is said of one must be said of the other. The definition of “pastor” (poimēn) cannot exclude women from the office of “prophet” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5).
- The most that can be inferred from the image of Christ as husband of the church (eg. Eph. 5:22-33) is that male and female believers together constitute the “wife”. There is no ground here for restricting pastoral authority to the male. Paul uses the analogy between the headship of Christ with respect to the church and the headship of the husband with respect to his wife in order to mitigate the given inequality of the ancient patriarchal household.
Pastors need to be aggressive
Manly traits are required in the leadership of the people of God. In scripture the leaders of the people of God are tough men. Often they have killed someone! Shepherding entails the defence of the sheep, which requires the male character trait of aggression, albeit (presumably) in a spiritualised form.
- In the writings of the prophets the shepherd is as much a figure of nurture as of aggressive defence: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Is. 40:11).
- Only one shepherd exercises a royal authority over the sheep: “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23). Perhaps it could be said of Jesus as a “son” in the image of God, enthroned as a descendant of David at the right hand of God, that he exercises the “male” authority of God. But even then, it is not pastors and elders who are directly associated with that identity but the suffering church, the martyrs (cf. Rev. 20:4-6). There is clearly no suggestion that only male martyrs would reign with Christ throughout the coming ages.
Nice leadership doesn’t safeguard churches
Patriarchy has traditionally been the social norm because it is male strength that holds groups together. In scripture elders and pastors are primarily guardians and defenders of the church. Female leadership is “nice leadership” that won’t stand for anything, won’t keep churches safe, won’t uphold truth.
Women stand for the heart and inner life of the community, they are its generative source. When women get involved in positions of leadership, the agonistic [sic] dimension of them tends to close down. So either we lose the sensitivity of the heart of society or we have non-combatants on the front line of social issues. The result is that people do not fight error. A nice church will not fight error.
- Indeed, patriarchy has traditionally been the social norm, but that counts for nothing in a changing world. The social norm in the secular, democratic West is sexual equality. It has been decided that there is no good theoretical reason to discriminate between the sexes, and for some time now we have been working on putting that theory into practice, with some success. Arguably, along the way, we have exchanged one set of problems for another, but by and large it has been demonstrated that families, institutions, corporations, churches, and states can be run quite effectively on this basis.
- Roberts’ argument assumes a singular leader. Even if we accept the debatable stereotyping of men as forceful and aggressive and women as nurturing and “nice”, a collective leadership model—the “elders” of a community, for example—would easily accommodate both dynamics. Once that principle is established, it is a small step to recognising that some men within a leadership team may be inclined to nurture the community and some women to defend its theological, spiritual and moral integrity. There is no reason why men and women working together—as Adam and Eve were intended to collaborate—should not adequately safeguard the external integrity (cf. Eph. 20:28-29) and inner life of the community.
The story of Deborah represents the failure of male leadership
People sometimes point to the Old Testament story of Deborah as an example of a female leader in Israel. But Roberts maintains that what the story really demonstrates is the failure of male leadership. Barak doesn’t want to go into the battle, and the woman Jael has to kill Sisera. When outside forces want to destroy a society, they do so by removing the power of the men. Women establish the inner life and order of a society, but men defend it against external threats. The women give men something to fight for.
- The prophetess Deborah was already “judging Israel” when the incident with Barak occured: “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:5). This may well have been exceptional, but nothing suggests that it was considered regrettable or illegitimate. The people of Israel cry out to the Lord because they are being oppressed by the Canaanite king Jabin, and Deborah addresses the crisis by summoning Barak to go and fight Sisera. At his request she agrees to go with him, but she warns that “the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman”.
- It’s possible, though not certain, that there is some implicit censure of Barak for refusing to go into battle without the woman (4:8-9), but this is not the reason why Deborah takes the initiative. As a prophetess and a judge she hears from the Lord and instructs Barak to muster an army.
- Both Deborah and Barak sing the song of victory. It begins: “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the LORD!” (Judg. 5:2). Israel was in distress, Deborah “arose as a mother in Israel” (5:6-7), and the people of the Lord marched down for her against the Canaanites. Some of the tribes refused to join the campaign, but Deborah and Barak had already taken the initiative. The point is just as likely to be that the tribes were unwilling to fight for a woman whom the Lord had raised up to save Israel.
Ordained women have the wrong attitude towards power
Roberts thinks that women’s ordination has been ordered around a narrative of empowerment. There is a difference between people who have natural strength who go into an office where they exert that strength for the sake of a community and people who seek office for the sake of empowerment. Women unavoidably bring a false or unnatural authority to bear on the task. The result is that the office is corrupted.
- It may have been true during the period of struggle for change that the movement for the ordination of women was ordered around a narrative of self-interested empowerment. Perhaps some women sought the office of priest or pastor “for the sake of empowerment”—for the simple reason that they were starting from a place of disempowerment. Correction is often an uncomfortable and disorderly process. But once the revolution has achieved its goals and a new order of things has been instated, it is surely as true for women pastors as it is for men that they exercise their authority selflessly “for the sake of the community”.
The inclusion of women in pastoral ministry leads to a distortion of life of the church
The rise of women in pastoral ministry goes along with the rise of the corporate organisation, detached from the normal structure of life. We think only of offices that need to be fulfilled with different skill-sets, not recognising the differences between people. The corporate model is designed to flatten out individuals.
What we see in scripture is the organisation of the church built upon the organic structure of society, with the relationship of husband to wife, husband to children. When that natural relationship is lost, what we end up with is abstract organisations that do not develop the natural life and structure of the culture.
- Here, I think, we see the yawning hole at the centre of Roberts’ argument. The New Testament church was built on the organic structures of first century societies. Therefore, leadership was predominantly male, women had limited scope to speak, and the organisation of relationships in Christ-confessing households conformed to the prevailing patriarchal norm. The controlling paradigm was of patriarchy in Christ.
- The “organic structures” of our own society are admittedly in a state of flux, which makes things more difficult, but the patriarchal model assumed everywhere in scripture is now the exception rather than the rule. If we now attempt to do what Roberts advocates and build churches on first century organic structures, the likelihood is that we will build something that is very unstable. Paul would have had the same problem if he had insisted on the full exercise of equality in Christ and abolished hierarchy between husbands and wives, masters and slaves. Households and household churches would have become unstable and unsustainable, which would not have served the proclamation of the gospel. ‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up’ (1 Cor.10:23). The controlling paradigm for the church in the secular West today should be egalitarianism in Christ, which may well require its own set of corrections and adjustments.