Yesterday I went to a B&Q hardware store. Full disclosure: this is not my natural habitat, but my need for a light bulb was pressing. Faced with a frankly staggering array, I asked for help. To my surprise, advice on light bulbs was available at the Paint Mixing Desk. I don’t know what image comes to mind when I say “Paint Mixing Desk”, but it was high tech. Think Mission Control at NASA, and you won’t be far off. While mixing a custom pot of emulsion, the woman behind the desk told me about power, lumens, bayonet caps, all that. As we spoke, another saleswoman passed by in a forklift, deftly handling a huge pallet of putty.
Quite naturally, my mind turned to theology – I should explain, I write about philosophy, so when I go to B&Q, the big ideas are never far behind.
I asked myself, as evangelicals I do it so often, what would John Piper say? Women spoke with authority and operated heavy machinery as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and in a hardware store of all places. Was this a full-scale attack on God’s vision of masculinity, or just another Monday morning in the paint department?
In reality, my morning shopping trip was nothing out of the ordinary. But it got me thinking about how everyday events might be interpreted by gender theologians.
The THINK 2018 conference is poised to make gender a hot topic. Andrew Wilson, a London pastor, saw the conference as an opportunity to rethink the theology of women and men. Talk to Early Christianity, Wilson admitted that his views on women had changed. “I would have been in a position 10 years ago when we didn’t have women in the preaching rotation. And we do it now – in the two churches I serve. He wants the emphasis to be on “complementarity,” a theology that recognizes the natural differences between women and men, as well as equality. Apparently, Wilson wants to use scientific studies of women and men to help Christians understand gender differences.
Alastair Roberts is one of the main speakers of the event. What’s interesting is that while this approach to theology seems entirely reasonable, Roberts quickly becomes very controversial.
Roberts’ view on women and men goes something like this: he thinks men are more inclined towards technology, while women are more inclined towards people. He believes that men are more likely to be interested in philosophical and theological topics, while women will naturally prefer discussions of art or personal matters. Additionally, he believes that men are physically and mentally fit for combat, while women are not.
Roberts believes these natural differences reflect God’s plan. Specifically, he says that “Scripture repeatedly presents procreation and faithful management of a home as the primary form that women’s vocations will take. Roberts admits there will be some women who play a different role, but he believes those women will be exceptions to God’s overall plan.
In practice, this means that women are likely to play a very limited role in certain areas of life. In fact, there are areas where Roberts thinks women aren’t needed. For example, Roberts believes that it is not necessary for women to contribute to theology. Likewise, in tasks related to physical strength or technology, women are also likely to play a small role.
Can we persuade women to think about theology or develop a real interest in technology? Roberts thinks efforts to encourage women in these fields will likely be futile. Encouraging women to enter the world of theology or technology sets most women up for failure, because fields like these simply don’t take advantage of their natural strengths. Worse yet, as women fail, they will become frustrated and resentful, and they will try to prevent men from succeeding in the areas they find naturally fulfilling. In fact, Robert thinks this type of resentment is one of the hallmarks of feminism.
What’s funny about Roberts’ view is how quickly he moves from the uncontroversial idea that men and women are different, to the much more provocative idea that men and women women should lead very different types of lives.
What does Roberts’s view mean in practice? What if my daughter wants to study theoretical physics at university? Do I say “Go for it!” or do I say, “Wait a minute, you’re a woman, chances are you’re not cut out for physics.” You will just become frustrated, irritated and become a feminist – no one wants that. Or maybe: “OK, a university is a good place to meet a man with a wallet on his hips.” It’s never too early for a woman to start thinking about settling down, faithfully running her household, and having children.
Of course, I’m sure Roberts would never say something that crude – no one wants to be called a sexist. But Christian men do it, and if you don’t believe me, Google #thingsonlychristianwomenhear and #thingsonlyblackchristianwomenhear. Plus, people don’t need to say these things to communicate this kind of bias.
The other strange thing is that, in a way, Roberts doesn’t think men and women are complementary at all. Roberts believes that men and women naturally make friends in very different ways. He therefore believes that the inclusion of women in male friendships constitutes “a threat to many male groups”.
Roberts’ views on women and men turn my experience in the hardware store into a big deal. I, a manhad to count on a woman to explain the technology. A saleswoman had to talk to me about issues that had nothing to do with her relationships. A woman operating a forklift was doing work requiring physical strength. And why didn’t these women raise their children and run the household faithfully? If Roberts is right, the whole situation was a complete disaster.
The idea that men and women are different is hardly controversial. But Roberts seems to imagine a world in which most scientists are men and most women live at home. It looks more like middle-class white America in the 1950s than heaven.
If women and men are truly complementary, surely that means we must serve God together in all areas: raising children, making laws, understanding creation, making music, ruling the home and church, thinking to theology.
Roberts and Wilson are free to call their new theology whatever they want. But if their ideas tend to exclude women from all areas of life, they have not succeeded in achieving true complementarity.
Dr Robin Bunce is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman.