Book Review: Equals

equalsLiving and church planting in Sweden, as I do, it is impossible to escape the issue of equality, it is everywhere. It’s reasonable, of course, to ask why anyone would want to escape something so obviously beneficial as equality? That largely depends on what you mean by equality as not every definition is, ahem, equal.

Secondly, as a father to a daughter, a husband to a wife and church leader of many talented women; in every one of those areas I want to help create environments in which women flourish. I’m convinced that churches of complementarian convictions need to do a much better job in this regard (I know some see that as impossible). So with those things in mind I recently bought Equals: Enjoying gender equality in all areas of life by Jenny Baker.

It’s an interesting and insightful read and there’s much here to support, be encouraged by or provides food for further thought. This isn’t a theology book, it doesn’t go into the various arguments that have divided the church on the extent and scope of the leadership ministry for women in the church but instead focuses on the practical, everyday issues of work, home and leisure. Personally I’m grateful for the thorough way this book thinks through various areas of life and tries to find practical ways that both men and women flourish together even though I approach the issue from different theological convictions.

Some areas of agreement

Firstly, the author is wise enough to note and explore the fact that gender inequality is not a one-way street. That, while it is true that most of the inequality in society goes against women, it is not true for every area of life. When it comes to mental health, education, cancer survival rates or suicide, for example, it is men who suffer disproportionately.

Secondly, Baker sees that men and women are different, that God making us ‘male and female’ is a good thing and that people are a complex combination of both nature and nurture.

Thirdly, I agree with her definition of equality (there are plenty of men who don’t). It is no hardship, not said through gritted teeth or with my fingers crossed behind my back to affirm the following statements:

  • Men and women are equally human
  • Women and men are equal in value
  • Men and women have equal rights
  • Women and men are equally intelligent
  • Men and women are equal in potential

I also mostly agree with the following:

  • Equality is not about uniformity
  • Equality is not necessarily about treating everyone the same
  • Equality won’t always result in identical outcomes
  • Equality isn’t just about women and men

In nearly every chapter covering parenting, marriage, work and home life there were helpful insights and practical suggestions. Most of which could (perhaps even should) be adopted whatever your theological framework. Any Christian with even the vaguest notion that we should ‘serve one another’ should see that no one person in a family should bear disproportionate responsibility for housework, parenting or even opportunity to earn.

I also agree that we are ‘called to work out the redemption [Jesus] offers in every area of life’ and that the ‘wisdom of walking in God’s ways and modelling something profoundly different from the damaged relationships between men and women in the rest of the world’ albeit seeing that model slightly differently. There was lots of common ground and that as usual there is more that unites than divides but where we do differ, those differences can run deep.

I was not persuaded that our physical differences are as inconsequential as Mrs Baker seems to think. She does recognise that our bodies matter, affect how we experience life (p.21) but clearly sets more store in the areas where we make helpful or unhelpful constructions of gender.

She says,

“In other words any differences that there might be between women and men don’t apply to everyone, they don’t tell you what people ought to be like, and they don’t prove that one sex is superior in any way to the other.” (p.11)

Well quite, but those three categories of universality, prescription or hierarchy are not even close to being all that we need to think about when it comes to the significance of our differing bodies.

For example, it’s not unreasonable to operate with the general truth that ‘men are stronger than women’ even though I know one or two women who could best me at arm-wrestling. This may seem harmless when discussing Olympic sports and world records but when man’s greater strength is coupled with man’s greater aggression (due in part to different levels of testosterone in a man’s body) it matters a great deal. Women suffer at the hands of aggressive men who turn violent when angry.

Because, as Baker rightly sees, we are all on a spectrum, there are huge differences within each sex, so we cannot say that ‘all men are more aggressive and stronger than all women’ but because ‘most men are stronger and more aggressive than most women’ it is appropriate to teach ‘all men’ how to think through the issues of strength and aggression. Self-control is a virtue that both men and women must have, the how and why of how that may be worked out should be more ‘gendered’ not less than we think, because we’re different. Equality means treating people differently right?

Strength, then to take this example further, isn’t something that should simply be muted in men but instead we need to re-discover ways in which this strength is put to better use and not by simply opening those tricky jar lids or lifting heavy objects into the loft. Indeed, the male’s greater physical strength has had a more profound shaping of careers then almost anything else (and it explains why, contrary to Mrs Baker, even though a nurse uses as much energy, she might not be strong enough to be a fisherman or a miner p.111).

Moving on from our physical differences and it’s significance, there were some familiar disappointments. When it came to marriage, the usual awful headship example was trotted out of some shouty moron demanding submission and the right to be the head of a household (p.79) as if that’s what we’re all really like. This was followed up the by the common complaint of why proponents of male headship in marriage are unable to make a decision in a reasonable manner like the rest of us.

Difficult decisions were described as choosing which school a child should go to or what to call the child in the first place or whether to keep the lodger or not (which is an indication of the general middle-class nature of the book). Tricky as these decisions may be none of them should actually be insurmountable for couples willing to do the basics of listening and talking to each other. A much better example was the one given by Clare Hendry in The Gender Agenda (review) about whether a child should be christened or not where the parents hold differing convictions as you cannot very well do both or wet just half the child. Baker offered examples of difference in choice but it is where there is difference of conviction and conscience that are much harder to resolve and do sometimes lead to an impasse without it necessarily being a sign of something ‘unhealthy’ (p.85) in the relationship.

Headship here should not be a ‘decision making trump card’ that makes genuine discussion pointless nor some kind of UN veto that guarantees the man gets his way every time. It is a leadership role that can be exercised whether your personality is an ‘initiator’ or a ‘supporter’ (no need to try to conform to some odd alpha-male stereotype) that humbly seeks to lead the family forward, taking responsibility for the consequences whether it was your choice or not in order that the whole should flourish.

Galatians 3:28 made it’s usual appearance, and the apparently un-ironic claim that what matters is the gospel but it’s OK to swap churches if you’re not happy with their equality policy, and the general inference that women are only celebrated in egalitarian churches.

The sometimes missed reality is that the picture is far more complex – than our simplistic categories allow. I know of, for example, churches with male-only elders that release more women into a far greater diversity of leadership roles because of their understanding of church leadership and practice than the church down the road with the woman vicar. So, genuine question, which one is the more equal?

Now, I also know plenty of churches that are like the Brethren church that Mrs Baker grew up in with attitudes to women that are hard to defend, but we must avoid the case of comparing my worst example with your best one or vice versa – it really gets us nowhere.

These differences aside, on the whole I’d have no reservation in saying that every church that by conviction holds to a complementarian position should have this book. Those churches in particular need to raise their game to the level of Paul in championing and including women to serve, help plant churches, be equipped to teach, train, evangelise, prophesy and do far more than make the tea or look after the kids. They also need to equip men to understand ways in which they can serve their wives and daughters and create environments in which the many gifts and talents of women can flourish for the glory of God. In both those causes this book can help.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Equals”

  1. samadelan says:

    You almost make me want to be complemetarian 😉 Although the books front cover makes me wince! I might give it a read.

    1. PRW1975 says:

      Hi Sam, the book is trying to show the wisdom of being egalitarian but the differences between that and a well-thought through complementarian view are not so great, perhaps

  2. Jenny Baker says:

    Thanks for the review Phil – great to hear your perspective. Nice to know you’re a marathon runner too!

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Thanks Jenny, although shortening my gaze to 10k and 1/2 marathons for the time being!

  3. Win says:

    The main task should be to equip women with habits and strategies for surviving marriage to someone who makes poor decisions or is non-responsive to the other party. Women need to be deliberately trained for agency and perseverance. They need to be taught that there is no instance in which they are held to less responsibility than their husband is.

    I was raised Brethren and married to a devout missionary kid. I barely survived the marriage with my sanity intact. I was so naive. I had no idea. Women need to have their eyes open to flee the first controlling behaviour they meet. It will only get worse.

    Submission is something freely given in a situation of reciprocity between equals. It comes from and begets happiness. If it niggles, feels humiliating, etc. it is the fracturing of one’s self and the road to depression, diminishment and the ultimate descent to meaningless emotional chaos.

    Its not so much training the men as training the women that they deserve a life of dignity. They deserve the same agency as men, since agency is a characteristic of being human. Why are women still treated as less human than men in the church? How does this glorify God?

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences Win and sorry to hear that they were so painful. I agree with you that submission is something freely given and not something forced or required of someone else. It is always a shame and a tragedy where women feel they are treated as less human and of course it doesn’t glorify God.

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