More equal than others? How complementarianism (mis)uses language to skew the gender debate

Being a child of the 70s, the 'intellectual dark web' has passed me by. YouTubers locked in debate, Ben Shapiro destroying 'liberal snowflakes', the Rubin Report – this kind of kerfuffle's not my thing. Put simply, I wouldn't know one end of Jordan Peterson from the other. But this weekend I took the plunge: I watched Natalie Collins in discussion with Phil Moore on gender theology on Justin Brierley's Unbelievable broadcast for Premier. That's what I call a New Year's treat.

Natalie Collins, Justin Brierley and Phil Moore discussed gender theology.Premier

Now is a good time to talk about gender theology. Across the world the #metoo movement has exposed widespread sexual abuse, and in the church #churchtoo has done the same. Additionally, New Frontier's 2018 conference THINK 2018 all but abandoned complementarianism – the gender theology the New Frontiers first adopted in the late 1980s. However, the conference did not advocate egalitarianism. Rather, THINK 2018 outlined a new position: complementarity. During the debate, Phil Moore spoke up for complementarity while Natalie Collins advocated gender equality. To be fair, Moore advocated equality too. But crucially, when Moore talks about 'equality' he means something else.

On the subject of language, the first thing that struck me was Moore's Orwellian use of language. Orwellian is something of a misnomer, as Orwell was against the abuses of language that he highlighted. The most obvious example of Moore's Orwellian language was his discussion of Ephesians 5:21, 'submit to each other out of respect for Christ.' Moore commented, 'I would totally agree. It is about mutual submission, but its about mutual submission in a different way.' For husbands, Moore argues, submission means the willingness to 'take a bullet' for their wives; for wives, submission means 'being willing to trust, no matter what the cost'.

Moore's formulation that 'It is about mutual submission, but its about mutual submission in a different way', is hauntingly similar to Orwell's celebrated 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.' Like Orwell's adage, the first part of the phrase gives, the second takes away. For Moore, a husband's submission is no submission at all – it's defence. A wife, by contrast really submits: she trusts 'no matter what'. Its worth recognising that 'no matter what' is an extremely open-ended proposition. Does she trust no matter verbal abuse? Does she trust regardless of sexual abuse? If Moore answers 'No', then he doesn't really believe a wife should trust 'no matter what'; if he says 'Yes', then is he really committed to stamping out the abuse of women?

What is more, Moore's definition hides a profound inequality. Moore leads churches based in Clapham, Richmond, Kensington and Croydon. Gun crime in these areas is all but unknown. Moore might as well be asking men to promise to defend their wives from falling meteors, or from drowning in champagne. Domestic abuse, by contrast, is much more prevalent. Orwell was against the use of dying metaphors, such as 'take a bullet'. He argued they were a sign that the writer or speaker wasn't really thinking about what they were saying.

Other examples of Orwellian language include Moore's statement, 'Elders elder'. I'll parse the sentence: 'Elders [noun, plural] elder [verb, present continuous]'. Orwell discussed this linguistic abuse in Politics and the English Language. Moore used the phrase to distinguish between 'leadership' something that anyone can do, and 'elder[ing]' which is something that Elders do. Orwell's point about the transformation of nouns into verbs is that first, its lazy; and second, it clarifies nothing. Moore has to say that 'Elders elder', because there is no common, everyday word that describes what he wants to describe. Yet by saying 'Elders elder' he does nothing to clarify the concept he is trying to explain.

Moore relies on these kinds of techniques throughout the discussion. For example, he uses the word 'headship'. It's a word that cannot be found in the Bible, and is not used outside conservative evangelical circles. As a result, it's meaning is very hard to pin down. Consequently, its hard to know what Moore is getting at, and hard to know if Moore understands what he is trying to say. Time and again in discussion, Collins would paraphrase something that Moore said, only for Moore to claim that she had misunderstood him. My thought is that its almost impossible to understand Moore, because when he says submission, he doesn't mean submission; when he says equality, he doesn't mean equality; and on top of that he uses words such as 'elder [verb]' and 'headship' which cannot be found in the Bible and have no clear definition.

Moore's use of language is curious. He's in favour of gender equality, but wants to exclude women from Eldership. He wants to stamp out sexism, but he wants the church to discriminate against women, because they are women. Oh, and he really values the voices of women. The way that you can tell this is that he interrupted Collins mid-sentence to tell her so.

One of Moore's central ideas was that we need to grapple honestly with the Bible. I agree. But in order to do so we first need to speak, read and think clearly. The misuse of language is an obstacle to understanding or explaining the Bible's message. For example, if Ephesians 5 says 'wives', we should not read 'all women'; where the Bible says 'submit' we should not read 'defend'; when in Mark 10 the Pharisees ask Jesus about the status of divorce in the Mosaic Law, we should not say they are asking about 'sexuality'; and where we are grappling with a concept, we should define it rigorously in plain English, rather than repurposing nouns as verbs, and inventing words like 'headship' which mean nothing outside the church. Until we seek to think clearly about the Bible we will be stuck with the nonsensical theology that all people are equal, but some are more equal than others.

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.