The Future of Complementarity: When Newfrontiers became accidentally feminist

A couple of weeks ago I found myself sat in a restaurant explaining that as a feminist, no, I did not think that men and women were exactly the same. Which seemed to surprise people, but maybe that was because they haven't really spent much time with feminists before.

This was part of a three-day event I attended run by Think Theology, an offshoot of the Newfrontiers network of churches, entitled The Future of Complementarity. Andrew Wilson, arguably evangelical Christianity's most well-known complementarian, organised this conference to move ideologically away from US conservatives who want to return to the 1950s (John Piper et al). We are to no longer call it complementarianism, it is complementarity, which presumably makes Andrew Wilson a complementarityist.

What part can women play in complementarian churches?Pixabay

One of the many theological divides within Christianity is over the role of women. Newfrontiers belongs to the group that thinks God made women and men equal in value, but not in role. They would say God designed the sexes to complement one another with man as the head and woman as the heart. The conference explained that man is responsible for doctrine, discipline and dying first in persecution.

Other Christians dispute this, believing men and women to be called according to their gifts not their sex. They are known as egalitarians. And then there are the Christians who believe we need to smash the patriarchy, not only regarding men's and women's roles, but the entire system of power that disadvantages women and advantages men (while acknowledging how race, class, disability, sexuality, gender identity and other factors interact with that). These people are called feminists and I am one of them.

In 1983, Christian feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote Sexism and God Talk. Within it she guides the reader through 'egalitarian anthropologies', pointing to two of these which she calls Conservative and Reformist Romanticism. The first objects to modern society devaluing a woman's role in the home; woman's nature is more caring and loving than man's and as such Conservative Romanticism seeks to enable women to remain in the home, while advocating for men to value the home and be rooted in it before going out into the world. Reformist Romanticism, on the other hand, views women as having a unique feminine contribution to make across society and advocates for women to be in all roles in order to bring their unique feminine essence to improve the world.

Complementarianism emerged in the 1980s as a response to Christian feminists such as Ruether. US Christians George W Knight III, John Piper and Wayne Grudem were all instrumental in its formation (you can read more about its history here).

It came as quite a surprise to me that Think Theology's complementarian conference advocated for such egalitarian anthropologies, with both Conservative and Reformist Romanticism promoted throughout the event. It is extraordinary to me that the very feminism that complementarian theology was developed to eradicate was being preached by complementarians for three whole days. That's some turnaround!

So how exactly did Andrew Wilson achieve this sleight of hand, swapping out complementarianism for 1980s romantic feminism? He simply called it complementarity, told everyone one of his main speakers was a genius, and nobody mentioned the F word, feminism.

Wilson's star speaker Alastair Roberts uses a lot of words. So many words, in fact, that Andrew Wilson took his first 150,000-word manuscript and condensed it into a 40,000-word book. Roberts says things like, 'God didn't say man should be the head, he said man is the head,' which don't actually don't mean anything but leave everyone murmuring about how profound he is. He only speaks in the abstract, about needing to eradicate capitalism and making the household the place of production. One delegate asked, 'What do I do if my boss is a man, but my boss's boss is a woman?' Roberts categorised this question as too abstract.

Both he and the other main speaker, US blogger Hannah Anderson, didn't offer any information that was new to me. I've been working on gender justice and within egalitarian Christianity for almost a decade and everything presented is already available elsewhere. Delegates told me that the content was 'deeply theological' and exclaimed about how clever Alastair Roberts was. It wasn't; it was simply unfamiliar to most of those attending.

Think Theology's conferences normally study a book of the Bible (Romans for 2017 and Revelation for 2019), which are familiar topics for these delegates. Even though they hold to very strong theological convictions about gender difference which compel them to limit women's roles, they seem to have done very little theological study about gender. It seems complementarians do not see their theology as one of various options. Instead they simply think 'this is how Christians understand men and women'. And so, what was to me very old and very familiar was at once both profoundly new and immensely challenging to those who were hearing it for the first time.

When Andrew Wilson told the conference that Junia was a female apostle and that Paul mentions Priscilla before her husband Aquila in 2 Timothy, he did not tell them that feminist scholars fought for years for the integrity of Scripture to be valued over patriarchal interpretations. When Alastair Roberts critiqued capitalism, mass production, liberalism, and the separating of the public and private spheres, he neglected to mention it was men who formulated all of these systems, the same creatures that all the delegates still agree should remain in charge, regardless of their horrendous track record. The work of feminists and egalitarians remained unacknowledged for the most part, as the delegates were awed by Alastair Roberts, who I concluded was not as clever as they all thought he was.

Throughout the three days, no one sought to define egalitarianism or feminism, which is interesting. Advocating for something usually involves pointing out how the alternative possibilities will not measure up. There were some brief mentions of how feminists want women to more like men (we don't), but beyond that and some brief recognition that feminists are not all bad, what with us making women's lives better, the alternative ideologies remained suspiciously absent from the proceedings.

Based on all the speakers' contributions, I can say with confidence that Andrew Wilson's complementarity is a repackaged version of 1980s romantic feminism, which is different enough from 2018 modern feminism to lull delegates into believing they are maintaining their complementarian convictions, even though they're actually embracing something very different from Grudem and Piper.

What is a feminist to make of all this? Well, it's complicated. Andrew Wilson managed to get 200 complementarians (70 per cent male, mostly church leaders) into a room and convince them to consider some form of feminism. Which I can only applaud him for, given the vast difference it may make to the women in complementarian churches.

However, every speaker constantly referred to women as biological mothers. When questioned on where women without children fit, Hannah Anderson informed us that, 'Not every woman can be a mother, but every woman has a mother' which she explained made all women embodied feminine creatures. No other speaker challenged this rather nonsensical statement. For women (and men) struggling with infertility or those who are single or don't want children, this ideology will greatly harm them.

This version of feminism/complementarity relies upon a presumption of innate male and female difference. What does this mean for the women who do not conform to femininity? Where do we fit? And what of men who misuse power, who aren't kind and nice? Or men who don't feel called to have authority over women, but instead want to be led by whomever God calls (male or female)? One speaker, Phil Moore, told delegates that women should absolutely be able to preach, but only women who respect authority, as they don't want any 'Jezebel' women preaching (he did indeed use the word Jezebel).

After the conference I said to Alastair, 'You are saying that as an embodied female, my innate femininity will simply flow out of me as I live according to God's purposes. I am currently living my best life, in full obedience to God, but the model you have laid out over this conference does not have a place for me. How can you explain that?' He didn't seem to be able to.

The speakers tried to present this new 'complementarity' idea as an evolution of complementarianism, which lets complementarians off the hook in acknowledging the huge harm their theology has caused. The last person to speak at the conference was a woman on the final panel. She said:

'What do I think is the future of complementarity? I think, maybe not the future, but the path to the future, I think about things like corporate repentance; I think about prophetic lament; I think the path lies through a valley of lamenting and repentance – that starts personal, but has to have some kind of church-wide expression. Just in the same way that we think about race issues, we have to grapple with our history. It's no good to go, "We had that, and we had that for ages, and now we want to get there, so let's talk about solutions, let's talk about how the future looks different, lets jump right to how this looks in the nitty gritty." And I think that's really frustrated a lot of people, men and women, because how can you go quickly from, "It was always like this but now let's have some women preach," that's so granular.'

Yet, even after she spoke with such clarity, nobody got on their knees. Andrew Wilson simply said a prayer and that was it. But what else can be expected when this is being presented as an evolution, where complementarianism is not wrong, it is just being tweaked? Even if that tweak involves embracing the very thing that 30 years earlier complementarianism was started in order to eradicate.

Will complementarians embrace Andrew Wilson's complementarity? I hope so, for the sakes of the women in their churches. And who knows, maybe 30 years from now we'll look back and see that this was the time when complementarianism began its final demise.

Natalie Collins is an authorised preacher within the Anglican tradition. She is a gender justice specialist, director of the DAY Programme, organises Project 3:28, works in the Christian Feminist Network collective, and founded the Fifty Shades is Domestic Abuse campaign. Follow her on Twitter @God_loves_women