In a race between me and Usain Bolt… what would be equal? A 70 metre head-start for me? A 50kg weight for him? Of course if we start equally, we’ll finish very unequally. Equality of treatment will not lead to equality of outcome. And that’s true in every realm.
Think of tennis. The men and women aren’t thrown into the same draw. There’s a men’s trophy and a women’s trophy. But not a “left-handers’ trophy” or a “Sagittarian trophy”. And there’s not a “trophy for whites” and a “trophy for blacks” either. No, that would be “discriminatory” we feel. But hang on – all these decisions “discriminate.” They all seek to treat people differently according to real differences which those in question have no choice over. Yet we consider differences in gender to be relevant, and differences in race and star sign to be irrelevant. In other words we discriminate between our discriminations. And such discrimination is absolutely vital for upholding “equality.”
Different people do get different treatment all the time. Sometimes this is negative discrimination (think of racism). But actually we must discriminate in order to have true equality. For instance, we ought to spend money on our buildings to provide equal access for wheel-chair users. Yet as soon as we make this pledge, both the costs and the benefits of these expensive projects fall unevenly. There is a certain kind of benign discrimination that happens which prevents another malign discrimination. But discrimination – i.e. making decisions based on real differences, and discerning between relevant differences and irrelevant differences – is inevitable. It’s part and parcel of true equality.
Now what kind of equality exists between male and female? Feminism has gone through at least three “waves”, plus “post-feminism” and it’s taken in a wide range of differing political and social expressions. The massive differences between those working for “equality” is yet more evidence that the meaning of “equality” is not at all obvious. Yet the upholding of concrete differences as we work for equality is absolutely vital. We should not want women to be equal to men on men’s terms. We should not want them to “become more bloke-ish” in order to receive the same rights. If there’s to be true equality, we should want women to be distinctly women and men distinctly men, and that they, in these differences, be one – completely equal in value and worth. Is there a way of having both?
In Genesis 1 we have a consultation within the triune God: “Let us make humanity in our image… male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26ff) The ultimate Union of Distinctions – the Trinity – is imaged in a humanity that is also a union of distinctions: men and women made to be one – and in their one-ness to be fruitful, making another. A whole race of blokes would not image the divine life. But men and women, in all their differentness, united in love – this pictures for us a true equality, one that respects and upholds concrete particularities.
If we follow the creation narrative we will see God place Eve – the bride – at the very pinnacle of the cosmos. God’s creative work moves from the waters to land to plants to animals to man to woman. It’s all heading towards woman. As Matthew Henry remarked, if Adam was head over creation, Eve was the crown. If he was dust, she was dust “twice refined”. She was taken from Adam’s side to be his equal, from under his arm that he might protect her and from close to his heart that he might love her. She is “opposite” to him – created to be very different – yet one with him (Genesis 2:18).
Just as the Father is eternally distinct from the Son yet utterly equal, just as Christ is different from His bride (the church) yet shares all things with her, so men and women are different but equal. (1 Corinthians 11:3)
What are those differences? Well that can be for another time. Perhaps click the “gender” tag to read more on the blog. But we all agree that there are differences between the sexes. Virtually every argument for why women should be better represented in the boardrooms of business cannot help but raise the different kind of contribution women bring to the table. That’s fascinating – we think there should be more women “at the top” not simply because women are equal to men but, just as much, because they are different to men! And no Christian wants to argue against that. Many Christians think the gender differences have relevance within marriage. Many Christians think they are also relevant in the exercise of certain church leadership roles. That might sound “discriminatory” – and of course it is. But so is every argument for equality. Even within the various feminisms there are huge disagreements over matters of positive and negative discrimination, for one thing. Being alarmed by a different vision of equality and diversity should not put you off. You’ll have to sit down and listen to the Christian arguments a lot longer before you conclude that this is malignant discrimination.
But then, where else will you go? Christianity has an account of differentness and unity that accords with what we want from a vision of gender equality. If all you have is unity, you’re left with a steam-roller, flattening differences. If all you have is distinction, you’ve got a ladder – every difference an opportunity to rank people. With the world’s philosophies of gender you will only find steam-rollers or ladders – or arbitrary balancing acts between the two. Yet with the triune God you have a unity and diversity that mutually inform each other. This unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity goes all the way down and all the way back. In this God you can find that your gendered identity is acknowledged, celebrated and upheld. It images the united love of God Himself!