Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Book Review

Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose

Aimee Byrd, Zondervan Reflective, 2020, 224pp, £9.79 (Amazon)

In 1997, Aimee Byrd graduated from college, got married, and set out to be “the perfect Christian wife” (99). She took the symposium Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, (eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Crossway, 1991) as her “handbook”, and tried to live it out. Over subsequent years, she was disturbed by “strange teachings on femininity and masculinity which emerged under the rubric of biblical manhood and womanhood” (100). Eventually she decided that she had to “recover” from “biblical womanhood”, and she wants other women to recover from it too. Hence her latest book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Byrd’s earlier books include Housewife Theologian: How the Gospel Interrupts the Ordinary (P&R, 2013), No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God (P&R, 2016) and Why Can’t We be Friends? (P&R, 2018).  A member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Byrd is passionate about seeing women well-equipped for biblical ministries. She has rightly raised concerns about the unhelpful overreach of some para-church ministries and the extremes of some aspects of the American “purity” movement. She has correctly criticised the “commodification” of women’s ministries, when money has been made from unnecessarily-gendered “branding” of bible study materials.

Her latest book is divided into three sections:

  1. “Recovering the Way we Read Scripture” repeats the concerns expressed in No Little Women about Bible study materials for women which are sometimes “fluffy” and lightweight. She argues that not only does Scripture consistently present a high view of women, but it contains many portions written from a female viewpoint or containing feminine testimony, illustrating this with a rich reading of Ruth;
  2. “Recovering our Mission” proposes that our prime aim as believers should not be to live out an ideal of “biblical manhood” or “biblical womanhood”, which she says is so often viewed through a “filter of authority and submission, strength, and neediness” (22). Rather we should all seek to be conformed to the image of Christ. This section revisits Byrd’s concerns about the dominance of some evangelical para-church ministries. She also argues that the complementarian movement has been fundamentally discredited in that some key leaders have promoted the doctrine of the “eternal subordination of the Son” and tied this to the man-woman relationship in family and church life.
  3. “Recovering the Responsibility of Every Believer” argues, rightly, that the local church is the household of God, and should operate on an “every-member ministry” model. Byrd supports this with examples of women’s ministry from the New Testament, and also includes a section on how both men and women are called on to model submission in various contexts; discipleship is not to be narrowly defined as submission for women and leadership for men.

There is much to be applauded here. When she handles Scripture closely, Byrd is fresh, insightful and Christ-centred. Her call for women to think hard about doctrine and to use their gifts, including their voices, for the proclamation of the gospel and the building up of the church, needs to be heard today. In addition, her message about Scripture’s emphasis on male and female sibling-partnership in this work is very timely. With regard to the critical aspects of the book, I sympathise with Byrd’s frustration, even anger, at some aspects of American culture, especially the commercial exploitation of over-exaggerated femininity. We should reject resources aimed at women which are superficial and feeble. We should be disturbed at the experience of some Christian women who report patronising attitudes in their churches; it is true that in evangelical circles there is sometimes a failure to recognise and use women’s gifts. Byrd rightly underlines, by way of contrast, biblical instances of powerful and godly women, as well as the interdependence of men and women in the early Church. One could add to her list of significant examples, Proverbs 31, where the Hebrew language throughout alludes to military imagery, pointing to the extraordinary strength of this woman of valour which brings blessing to the vulnerable and honour to her husband.

However, as Aimee Byrd surveys the various abuses and distortions in the evangelical church with regard to the place of men and women, she places the blame for these firmly at the feet of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. More particularly, she levels her anger at the Danvers Statement (1989), and at the symposium published nearly thirty years ago: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (RBMW). The statement and the symposium were produced in response to the growing influence of evangelical feminism, which (as the name suggests) attempted to reconcile the demands of the feminist movement with biblical Christianity. The position taken by both the Danvers Statement and RBMW was that some governing/teaching callings in the church should be held only by (suitably gifted) men, and that husbands and wives have distinct, non-reversible callings.

Over the past thirty years, people who hold to that central biblical conviction (often described as “complementarian”) have differed on how exactly it should be applied. At the more conservative end of the spectrum, some have over-emphasised female submission and interpreted male headship as centred on governing. Some have implied that “all women should submit to all men” and have presented exaggerated stereotypes of the sexes as ideal. Byrd blames John Piper for this and takes particular exception to his definition of mature masculinity in RBMW, including “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships”.[1]

Sadly, the polemical tone of the book, betraying Byrd’s anger and hostility towards the leaders of the complementarian movement, seriously diminishes its usefulness. She is right to object to the suggestion that “all women must submit to all men”. But to blame John Piper for this unbiblical teaching is unfair. His inclusion of the phrase “appropriate to a man’s differing relationships” (see quotation above) guards against the idea that “all men must lead all women”. Piper’s affirmation for women limits accepting leadership from men to ways “appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships”. This cannot, on a fair reading, mean that “all women must submit to all men”, although over-zealous complementarians may sometimes have applied it that way. Admittedly, Piper offered some examples of his definition which many (including myself) found too prescriptive and out of step with biblical models. At the same time, as Byrd herself acknowledges, there was much in the “big blue book” that was reflective of careful exegesis and empowering for women. We need some balance here; no human preacher or author is infallible. We are to exercise discernment and wisdom, and test all by Scripture.

It is unfair, too, for Byrd to insinuate that Piper and other contributors present male and female discipleship as totally different in type; this is not true.  While some general resources and even Bibles, may often be branded for women or men by publishers, RBMW addresses those specific aspects of church and family life in which sex makes a material difference. Piper’s many other works about discipleship assume that the practical and theological dimensions of prayer, mission and spiritual hunger, amongst other concerns, are equally relevant to men and women.  Underlying the complementarian movement is a conviction that men and women are equal, in very many ways the same, and in some significant ways different. They have an equal need for God’s grace and an equal call to know and serve Him.[2]

To understand RBMW it is important too, that we take account of context of both production and reception. Back in 1991 the publication of RBMW was a timely and helpful corrective to false teaching that was weakening confidence in Scripture. We read this work now in a very different cultural moment. Since 1991, many others have spoken and written in this area of sex and the church, refining some of the positions outlined in RBMW. And since then, both in America and the United Kingdom, there have been many positive initiatives in terms of biblical women’s ministries within local churches, and training women for such ministries. In the UK, for example, the FIEC women’s ministry team encourages and supports female church workers. Women are able to access theologically-rigorous training by means of courses such as the Flourish and Priscilla courses. As one would expect, there will always be unhelpful extremes in any movement. But it is ridiculous to lay all the blame for these and other aberrations at the feet of those people who were willing to lead and articulate a biblical response to a God-dishonouring movement that challenged the authority of Scripture. It seems singularly misplaced to attack Piper and Grudem, whose wider teaching has been so greatly used to stir up love for God and his Word and feed a hunger for systematic and biblical learning in countless women and men. Do we have to agree with everything Piper and Grudem say? No! Should we be thankful for their ministry? Surely, yes!

With regard to the controversy over the so-called “eternal subordination of the Son”, complementarians have taken a variety of positions on this over the last decades. Byrd’s representation of the debate does not do service to the sophistication of theological discussion which had been, and still is, ongoing.[3] Looking back at church history, one outcome of debate has often been a clearer articulation of biblical truth. One example of this is a careful and biblically faithful paper in a recent issue of the Westminster Theological Journal which offers a positive way forward through this minefield: Benedict Bird, “John Owen and the Question of the Eternal Submission of the Son within the Ontological Trinity”, WTJ, 80 (2018), 299-334.

Aimee Byrd calls for women (and men) to “recover” from what she regards as the false construct of “biblical manhood and womanhood”. She suggests that biblical truth has been overlaid with a thick and ugly cultural “yellow wallpaper” which keeps women firmly in their place and minimises men and women’s shared identity as repentant sinners. Her language of “victimhood” and “patriarchy” echoes the false feminist narrative that women as a class are oppressed by the “patriarchy” (men as a class). We should not be deceived by these claims. Looking at history, it is not true that all women have been oppressed by all men. While Byrd herself maintains that there are distinctions between male and female callings in marriage and in church leadership, these are not explored in the book and it would be easy for a reader to come to different conclusions because of these presuppositions behind some of her arguments.

Byrd’s use of sources here is fascinating. She makes reference to Sister Prudence Allen’s massive historical and theological works and also to Mark Garcia’s recent biblical theology to argue for ontological differences between men and women in contrast to the emphasis on “roles” which she finds in RBMW.  This is stimulating but undeveloped, but it seems to me that actually there are real commonalities between what she condemns and these sources she champions. Differences in nature between men and women are discussed in complementarian literature and the language of “roles”, though not without problems, appears to have been used advisedly to emphasise the equality of the sexes, rather than to promote ideas of performance or intrinsic rights. So, the new, alternative vision of the sexes Byrd offers is in reality very close to the old one which she rejects.

Aimee Byrd has good intentions. She is rightly upset at some manifestations of American evangelical culture. But her claim to be a victim of biblical womanhood, and her depiction of other Christian women as victims who also need to “recover” from this movement is over-dramatic. Real victims are those millions of men and women trapped in ungodly ideologies and false religions who have no access to the glories of biblical truth and the wonders of the gospel. Real victims are all who have been deceived by the false promises of sexual liberation and unlimited personal freedom. By contrast, all those who enjoy the benefits of salvation and who have free access to Scripture are not victims; we are blessed.

Sarah Allen
Regional Director of Flourish, London Seminary

 

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