‘Why do you call me good?’ On trying and (largely) failing to be a male feminist online

Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ (Mk 10:18) Some weeks ago, I had the strangest experience I have yet had online. Someone I do not know called me ‘good’. It stunned me. Horrified me. And flattered me, of course. I have been trying to process this ever since. I have not yet succeeded. But I promised a friend that I would try to blog on the subject this week because it seems to matter. And maybe my half-formed thoughts can be of some little use. * * * I was reading a blog; I vaguely knew of the author, but did not know her. She was writing about being a woman online, and about men online. She made many criticisms about how men online behave towards/around women online, qualified with ‘of course there are some good men, who get it’ – a phrase that was hyperlinked. I clicked the link, hoping to learn a little better how to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. My browser opened a page right here, on my own blog. I was, apparently, for a woman I have never met, had at that point never connected directly with online, the ‘good man,’ the one who ‘got it’. I was stunned. Then I was horrified. (And, yes, somewhere in the back of my head or the depths of my gut or both I was pleased and proud. Compliments are nice, even when you cannot believe rationally that you deserve them.) Stunned because I clicked the link looking for something, anything, to help me to be even slightly better, and found myself constructed as ‘good’. Horrified because if I my grasp of this issue is worthy of being held up as an example, we are so far behind where I thought we were that I despair. Horrified because I know I don’t ‘get it’. * * * And this question of ‘getting it’ surfaced again this week, in reflecting in conversation with Jody Stowell on the gendered reactions to the abuse women so regularly receive online. Jody asked, fairly, why all the (Christian) men were not leaping to the defence of women who were abused. We talked – you can see the interaction in the comment thread on Jody’s post. I suggested hesitantly that there was something about ‘getting it,’ about an experience common to women but generally opaque to men – including me – that made involvement in this issue feel at some visceral level more important for women than for men. And then I immediately reflected – the ‘I don’t know what it feels like’ line is the classic refuge of the misogynist – and the racist, and the homophobe, and the rest of the grotesque menagerie of oppressors. I don’t want to use that line. I don’t want to justify that argument. But… But I don’t know what it feels like. I have never been threatened with rape, asked to get my tits out for the lads, told to get back in the kitchen, informed that ‘I love it anal,’ and so on, and so on. I can check my privilege, but I can’t pretend to know what it would mean to live without my privilege. I know, deep down in my gut, that I don’t ‘get it’. And I worry profoundly when someone thinks I do. * * * But let me try some analysis – as I say, half-formed, at best. I get the fact of privilege, and the fact of oppression, and the fact of misogyny, and the fact of racism, and – well, you can do the list… What I constantly realise I don’t get is the power of these prejudices, or the power of intervention in them. I have been told many, many times that I moved someone – and I am thinking of people I know, people who I know are much stronger and much more capable than I am – I moved someone to tears just by saying something simple about this or that issue of prejudice. This always – still – takes me by surprise; if I (sometimes) ‘get it’ where ‘it’ is the wrongness of prejudice, I have to admit that I really do not ‘get it’ where ‘it’ is the power of prejudice to disable, disempower, dehumanise a person. And so I do not ‘get it’ where ‘it’ is the power a very simple intervention can have. And I wonder if that is the answer to Jody’s question, and the reason for my failures? * * * I don’t, particularly, need to understand what...

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Once more: congregationalism, authority, and gender

As a very young scholar, I was involved in organising a conference in honour of Colin Gunton’s sixtieth birthday. I commented to Colin over a meal in his favourite Italian restaurant after that conference that we worked in an odd field, where we assumed that the way to honour a colleague was to gather all his closest friends to tell him where he was wrong in public… I sort-of-knew then, of course, and know much better now, that there is no higher honour anyone can give to our writing than to take it seriously, and critical engagement is the way we take each other most seriously. I have had cause this week to be grateful for a couple of deeply serious interactions with my work: Fred Sanders and Matt Jenson have begun a blog conversation about my Trinity book which is extremely generous in its appreciation (thus far…) and careful and serious in its engagement; I look forward to learning much from their readings and reflections. Fred and I also both feature in the latest edition of Credo Magazine, which is on the doctrine of the Trinity, and which also includes a lengthy article review of my Baptist Theology book by Bobby Jamieson of Nine Marks Ministries – an engagement for which I am equally grateful. Jamieson is extremely kind in his appreciation of the book, and offers some helpful challenges (He cites statistics on open membership positions amongst SBC churches which are news to me, and which I must follow up; on the other hand, I’m sure I’m right about Spurgeon, but the point does need further defence; …). About a half of his review, however, is taken up with an extensive engagement of my suggestion in the book that Baptists – or other congregationalists – cannot, logically, accept the currently-popular version of ‘gender complementarianism’, because it relies on an account of the location of authority which congregationalism necessarily denies. I am enormously grateful for the engagement, and find his development of a version of congregationalism which is not susceptible to the charge I make fascinating and very helpful; my instinctive suspicion is that it is something of a departure from Baptist traditions, but we would need to have that argument with recourse to many specific texts, taking each of the manifold varieties of Baptists one by one – I am certainly open to the claim that congregationalism developed differently in North America and Europe, and that I have missed that, for instance. This is real, substantive, critical work, which helps me to see the limitations of my knowledge and imagination and to have a larger view of what is possible in our shared tradition at the end. I am, genuinely, very grateful. That said, the discussion of gender and ministry in my book ran to less than three pages – of 160pp in the book – and Jamieson is far from the first to highlight it. I will not pretend that it is not a subject I am passionate about – readers of this blog may have noticed – but the point borders on the incidental in this particular text. I knew when I wrote those few paragraphs that they would attract attention out of proportion to their length, of course; I left them there because the point is the best illustration I know of a broader theme of the book. As Jamieson notices, I try to sketch a ‘middle way’ between maximalist and minimalist accounts of Baptist distinctiveness. The core of that ‘middle way’ is to insist that Baptists are distinctive only in our ecclesiology, but then to suggest that our ecclesiology is sufficiently different that it echoes around the whole of theology, imposing itself in surprising ways in a whole host of places. I suggested that one of those places was the currently popular defence of ‘gender complementarianism,’ which turns extensively on notions of authority. Baptists have different ideas about where authority is found, and how it operates, in the church, I suggested, and so many of these recent arguments, which work perfectly well in presbyterian and episcopal polities, cannot work for congregationalists like Baptists. In this I assumed a piece of work I have begun to do, but not yet published, concerning shifting evangelical justifications for ‘complementarian’ positions. the ‘headship-authority’ defence is, I think, actually very new – a couple of decades or so old. There were several identifiable waves of previous defences, which all worked much better within a Baptist ecclesiology. So my point, and I hope I made it clear, was never that Baptists could not be ‘complementarians’ – I think we should not, but that is a different argument...

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On the Divine Names

In a comment on the previous post, Scott drew my attention to a post by Denny Burk, who says ‘While we don’t believe that God has a gender, we do believe that He has revealed Himself as God theFather and never as mother.’ This reminded me that Krish Kandiah pointed me late last year to a post by Matthew Hosier (on the Think Theology Blog) in which Matthew (who I don’t think I have met) argues a similar point, though with a bit more theological precision than Burk offered. His formulation ran as follows: (1) naming God as Mother is different to naming God as Father, in that ‘Mother’ is clearly used metaphorically of God in the Scriptures, whereas ‘Father’ is not; so (2) ‘Father’ is the proper name for God: “Father” is the proper name of God, and is no more metaphorical than my name being “Mr Hosier.” Sure, God at times acts in ways that are like a mother (that’s a metaphor), but Father is who he is. From this, Matthew argues that (3) this has decisive bearings on the ‘egalitarian-complementarian debate’ and (4) that understanding this truth allows us to enter fully into Trinitarian worship – citing Mike Reeves’s excellent recent book. What to do with this? We need to think very clearly about how we name God, in particular making the distinction between what the tradition called the divine names, which name the one God who Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are, and the hypostatic names, ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’. Getting this distinction right was near the heart of both the Cappadocian and Augustinian formulations of trinitarian doctrine. When we look for the divine names, we find a series of Biblical ascriptions of titles to God which do not, at first sight, appear to be metaphors. In the OT, we have supremely YHWH, the Name revealed to Moses when he asked God at the burning bush, ‘what is your name?’, but also such ascriptions as Elohim (‘God’ – assuming a pl. of majesty…), Eloah (‘God’), El Shaddai (‘God Almighty’ or ‘many-breasted God’, depending on which etymology you believe), El Elyon (‘God of Gods’), Adhonai (‘Lord’), … which do not appear to be metaphorical usages. As Brueggeman points out somewhere, however, the more characteristic ways for Israel to express their faith used verbs (‘The One who brought us up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’) or adjectives (‘The Lord, The Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love…’), not nouns. Is ‘Father’ a divine name? The answer must be yes: consider Dt. 32:6, where God is clearly spoken of as the father of Israel (‘your father, who created you, who made you and established you…’); this usage, however, is obviously – if not metaphorical, at least in some sense non-literal (in fact the fourth-century decision enshrined in orthodox trinitarianism was that all divine names are in some sense non-literal, for some very good reasons) – and God is described as a mother in the Scriptures in just the same way, and probably with a similar frequency. So the OT might invite us to say ‘YHWH is the proper name of God,’ but not ‘Father is the proper name of God’; what of the NT? Jesus certainly names God as ‘Father,’ and that is of course decisive; at the same time, there is a careful inclusion of Jesus himself in narratives of the divine life. This happens in a whole series of ways – see various books by Bauckham or Hurtado – but, to take the two most obvious, Jesus is repeatedly named as kurios, ‘Lord’, the title that translates the divine name YHWH in the OT; and OT confessions of faith in God are expanded to name Jesus alongside the Father (the expansion of the opening clause of the Shema in 1 Cor. 8:6 is perhaps the most obvious example). This creates a problem for us if we say that ‘Father’ is ‘the proper name of God’: if ‘Father’ is the proper name of God, then the Son, Jesus, is not God, because not properly called ‘Father’.  Strikingly, this was almost precisely the argument that was played out in the Cappadocian response to Eunomius, the great anti-Trinitarian heresiarch of the fourth century (he was far more significant than Arius). Eunomius argued, on the one hand, that human words could successfully apply literally to God, and that God’s proper name was ‘the ingenerate One’ – thus suggesting that the Father is truly God, having no origin, whereas the Son, whose essence is to be generated by the Father, is simply not God. Choosing ‘Father’ as the proper name for God leads to exactly the same problem; the Son...

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On Mothering Sunday: Gregory of Nyssa on calling God ‘mother’

Gregory claims that the Bible calls God mother, and so we must be prepared to also.

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On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

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