Women in combat – a new frontline in the gender wars
The Equality agenda has undoubtedly gathered pace in recent months. Hot on the heels of the controversy concerning women bishops and the Government's plans to legislate for same-sex marriage in the interests of 'equal opportunity', comes the news that the Pentagon is now repealing all laws that restrict the role of women serving in combat.
Interestingly, it has been stated that the British armed forces will not be following suit. At least, not yet. Currently the armed forces are exempt from the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act for reasons of safeguarding combat effectiveness, but it would appear that EU equality laws require Britain to review its current policy within the next five years. Calls have already been made from high ranking British female officers that these restrictions should be abolished.
The issue is undoubtedly controversial, and perhaps one of the most powerful influences on maintaining the present limits is what could be termed good, old-fashioned British chivalry. Of course, for some, old-fashioned chivalry might be viewed as anything but good. However, the attitude that there is merit in guarding and protecting the vulnerable and defenceless still runs deep in the British psyche. It might not be exemplified so frequently in acts like opening the door for ladies, but in cases of emergency where, for example, a ship is sinking, it is hard to imagine that the principle of "women and children first" in the lifeboats would be seriously challenged. Having said that, such a custom would surely warrant review if there is to be any consistency in the Equality agenda.
The other practical factor that pragmatists would raise is simply the biological issue. A colleague of mine attracted an immediate response of "blatant sexism" when he commented on social media that the welcome accorded by civil liberty campaigners and female military personnel to the announcement that women may now serve on the front line might also be welcomed as an advantage by opposition combat units who may confront them. But however you interpret my colleague's comment, there is no escaping the fact that the physical requirements for front-line service as regards strength, endurance will need to be reconsidered.
However, tradition and pragmatism aside, the issue for the Christian is primarily a moral one. It goes beyond whether it would be unseemly or tactically compromising to put women on the front lines of combat. The question is simply: is it morally wrong? Those pursuing the Equality agenda consider it to be insulting unless women have the opportunity to do the same things as men. It is ultimately a matter of status. This was clearly in evidence in the furore following General Synod's vote on the issue of women bishops. Channel 4 asked the question: "Do any non-religious organisations ban women from top jobs?" There was no understanding that church ministry is all about being a "labourer in the vineyard", or being the "servant of all" (Mark 10:35). It was seen as an issue of seniority. Value is determined by status. Thankfully, the Gospel torpedoes any such equation. It is not what we do that defines our value before God, but what Christ has done through His atoning work on the cross. The danger is that morality becomes reshaped by relativism when we isolate it from biblical revelation.
Neither does wider society understand the generally accepted Christian belief that God created men and women to be complementary in their roles and responsibilities rather than identical. The noted Bible commentator Matthew Henry, writing about God's purposes in the Genesis account of Creation, gives, I think, one of the finest of summaries in these brief words: "When God made woman, he did not take her out of man's head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled on by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, from under his arm to be protected by him and from near his heart to be loved by him."
The role of women in the military is a complicated one, and it must not be forgotten that in an age of terrorism, improvised explosive devices and the like, the nature of warfare is significantly different from what it was in previous generations. What constitutes a frontline is no longer clearly defined. But as a society we will be much the poorer if we jettison the principles and values inherent in biblical morality in pursuit of a status-driven brand of equality.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.