Friday, 1 March 2013

Women in leadership 1 – different roles for different …?

Many Christian evangelicals refuse to countenance women taking positions of leadership and authority in the Church. There are many arguments for this position, and some are better than others. Some people prefer the complementarian position, which argues that men and women are equal, but with different roles.

This position argues that it’s only a coincidence that the man’s role happens to be one of leadership, and women happen not to be suited for this. Unfortunately this then begs the question, what is the woman’s complementary role, which men aren’t suited for? Without using biology, it’s very difficult to come up with one. And if the argument is predicated on biology (men can’t get pregnant for instance, since they don’t have a womb), this then begs the question, what is the biological reason why women can’t be priests or pastors?

Unfortunately the complementarian argument fails because it is based on the idea of the different inherent characteristics of men and women. And these have proven to be based not on unchangeable ‘nature’, but on changeable cultural conceptions and contexts. Rather than being one’s intrinsic nature, they are externally imposed by society.

Cultural conceptions have systematically been stripped away throughout the 20th century as women proved step by step that they can be educated, own property, work in factories, vote intelligently, run their own business, judge court cases, be a politician, lead a country, even fight and defend their country bravely. All these are things that previously men, who held these roles exclusively, argued firmly that woman just weren’t inherently suited for.

Now women, in many households, are the main breadwinners, men look after the children while the women go out to try and sort out the world. And what’s more, this reversal of roles from what has often been assumed to be the ‘natural’ way, rather than merely the ‘traditional’ way, seems to work. This shouldn’t astonish us of course, since for many centuries there have been societies like the Haenyo in Korea which have enjoyed a working matriarchal society, without their society crumbling. And other societies have done so as well. But for the West, this is a recent change, and any recent change attracts suspicion and fear from those who see it as a cause or symptom of the loss of a past golden age: a prevalent myth that every age has held, since written records began. And a myth that is logically, and evidentially flawed, when exposed to reason.

Sometimes the argument even goes so far as to claim that it is a blessing for women that they don’t have the burden of leadership, to save the women from having to suffer carrying such a terrible weight of responsibility. Apparently men selflessly suffer by having to be leaders. It is a job so terrible that there is rarely a lack of male volunteers for it though. But doesn’t this argument rest squarely on the idea that women are more fragile than men, and need to be protected and shielded from the world by a stronger male? It is the same infantilising argument that made fathers feel less guilty for sending their sons to school and not their daughters. Education is such a terrible responsibility, surely it is better that the girls are protected from it. They should be protected by men from dangerous ideas because they aren't wise enough not to fall for wrong ideas.

Indeed when looked at under a harsh light, the complementarian argument appears to exist only as a post hoc justification of what has already been decided. It is a comfort to those who still feel partly guilty that women are still being excluded from positions of responsibility and leadership based solely on their gender.

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