Posts Tagged ‘gender issues’

Book Review: Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

Dear Reader,

I thought 2019 was my year to read books on gender-related issues but apparently the trend continues. When I heard about Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020) I knew I had to add it to my list. I “know” Aimee Byrd from her work on the Mortification of Sin podcast and  I like a lot of what she has to say so I went into this book with a fairly positive attitude.

I had also heard two interviews with Byrd discussing the book before I began reading, one on Mortification of Spin and one on Theology Gals. From these I know that Byrd was encouraged by her editor to use the current title for the book (which is somewhat inflammatory) and to include a fair amount responding directly to the positions of Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and other more conservative complementarians. The result, in my opinion, is that this book really has two main thrusts, one related more directly to gender issues in the church and one focused more on discipleship in the church with an emphasis on the discipleship of women. From listening to her regularly I know that the latter is a particular interest for Byrd and I think that there is something valuable here that needs to be said. However, the overall effect of this two-pronged approach, for me as the reader, was to make it a bit of a disjointed book.

Byrd’s title, as I said, is provocative. It plays on the title of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In the discussion of gender within the church, there are two main camps, the egalitarians and the complementarians. The former, as their name suggests, argue for equality in roles between the genders. That is, what men can do in the church (pastor a church, preach, etc.) women can do. The latter argue for a distinction in roles, saying that men and women while equal in value have different roles which complement each other. There is a wing of the complementarian camp which takes things a step farther and argues that the roles of men and women, being those of authority and submission respectively, are eternal ones. This applies in the here and now in the belief that all women should submit in some way to all men and is even read back into the Trinity in the belief that God the Son always submitted to God the Father. This is the position known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) or the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). Because this wing has to a large extent taken over complementarianism, Byrd does not use the term for herself (p. 121). Neither is she an egalitarian. She does recognize separate roles within the church for men and women, reserving ordination for men. This is pretty much where I would place myself in the debate as well, both before and after reading this book.

Byrd’s second major thrust, and from my understanding her original purpose in writing the book, is to argue for the discipleship of women within the church. Personally, I have never experienced much in terms of being looked down upon for being female within the church so I don’t come to these issues from as raw a place as others might.  I understand, however, that this is an issue for others and I do think it is something we need to be conscious of. Byrd’s message — that discipleship is the work of the church (as opposed to the parachurch) and that women as well as men pass on their faith and need to grow in their faith and therefore need to be discipled is a good one (p. 161). I particularly liked a point she made that even in our own private study we interpret the Bible not on our own but within an interpretive community (p. 164). If we are not educated in our faith and in how to do this, how can we even begin to read our Bibles?

Looking at these two big issues, I may not like the way the book is put together and find their juxtaposition a little awkward, but I am mostly on board with Byrd’s opinions on both. The biggest problem I have with Recovering is not actually with either of the big points Byrd is trying to make but with her use of Scripture. I should say as we get into this section, in case you are not a regular reader here, that my own training is in biblical Hebrew [1].

The first part of the book addresses what Byrd calls “gynocentric interruptions” within the biblical text. There is not a clear definition given for this term. As Byrd uses it, it seems to refer to those passages and stories in which females are the main characters. There are a couple of assumptions behind this phrase. The first is that the majority of the Bible, because it was written by men and because men are the main characters, is androcentric. The second is that stories which prominently feature females give us a female point of view. For Byrd, these female-centered stories are interruptions in what is primarily a male-oriented book. Her thesis for this first chunk of the book is summed up as follows: “Scripture incorporates the female voice in an androcentric text” (p. 92).

I object two both halves of this statement. I do not think Scripture is inherently androcentric and I do not think that those texts which feature females interrupt in any way or necessarily give us the female perspective. It puzzles me quite a bit why Byrd seems to accept the premise that the Bible is androcentric. Yes, men wrote it but they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Word more than man’s. And, yes, men are the major characters in most of the narratives, but again male characters does not automatically imply male perspective.

There is another assumption going on behind the scenes here. It is quite a modern one that says that I cannot know the experiences and feelings of someone from a different group. It is the kind of mindset that gives us phrases like “cultural appropriation.” I do not think that I cannot related to a story just because it features male characters. I do think that as human beings we are capable of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes and that is quite a wonderful thing.

Yet there is something to the idea that the stories featuring women stand out within the biblical text. The world of the Bible was a patriarchal one. That is a historical fact. Men had power and authority and status that women did not. So it should not surprise us that men are the primary actors in biblical narrative. In another book I reviewed recently, Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation, the author discusses how the Bible treats science. His argument is that the Scriptures accept the scientific understanding of the day and do not challenge it, a fact which is often disconcerting to us modern readers.  I think something similar is going on here: the Bible does not directly challenge the patriarchal traditions of the time in which it was written.  That does not mean that it accepts or approves those traditions but simply that its main goal is not to challenge and overturn them.

What is striking within all this is that there are so many stories in which women do play a pivotal role. I would argue that these stories do not stand alone, however, but are part of a larger dynamic. There are also quite a number of stories in which God works through others who would not have been seen by their society as the chosen few. We see this particularly in how God often chooses non-firstborn sons. Think of Jacob and Joseph and David. Again and again God shows us that He does not choose based on the world’s standards, that He sees things differently. Saul was one whom the world looked upon with favor but he turned out to be a bad king. David was the least of his brothers and the world would not have chosen him but God did. The role of certain prominent women in the Bible, I would argue, is not so much about their gender as about their unsuitability in the eyes of the world. In this they are not alone. Quite a number of men were also unsuitable and yet God also worked through them. The lesson for us in all this is that God does not see and the world sees and that God chooses the weak of the world to shame the strong and to show His power. Viewed in this way, the stories which feature women and not so much about the women themselves or their femaleness but about God and His electing will and His power. One could even say that God’s use of women, as well as that of foreigners and younger sons, confirms their unsuitabilty. He chooses them and works through them precisely because they are the means the world despises.

Though Byrd at times speaks of the Bible’s suitability as a means of instruction for both men and women (p. 51), she persists in this characterization of the text as primarily androcentric with gynocentric interruptions. In this I think she has accepted the premises of other groups from both ends of the spectrum who either dismiss the text as being irrelevant because it is patriarchal or who point to its androcentrism and a means of buoying up their own patriarchal ambitions. What we need is not to find the women’s voice in Scripture but to take the text as it is, as God’s Word to mankind, not just to man. It is the categories and divisions in our minds which are the stumbling block, not the next itself.

A second issue I have with Byrd’s way of using Scripture is her tendency to read into the text more than we are told. Now we all do this to some extent. We read and narrative and it is natural to imagine how the characters felt or what the larger circumstances might have been, but we need to be careful that the things we imagine don’t become Scripture to us. The nature of biblical narrative is that iftoften doesn’t tell us all we want to know. So we add to it, without perhaps even knowing we are doing so, and our additions shape how we read Scripture.

Many of the assumptions Byrd makes are about the role of women. She assumes, for instance, that when Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans that this necessarily entailed some kind of interpretive authority (pp. 147ff). Paul, she tells us, “also must have picked up on her theological vigor and poured into her, equipping her well to answer questions the Roman church was sure to have” (p. 220). No doubt the commission was a prestigious one, but we are not told and I do not think we can assume what Phoebe did or was expected to do with regard to helping the church in Rome understand the letter. The role of women in passing on the faith seems to be a sticking point for Byrd so she also assumes that stories about women much have bee told by women. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is such an example (p. 82). Again, there is an assumption here that only women would have told or could accurately have told a story featuring female characters.

Byrd, following others, also assumes that women led the house churches which were usual in the early church. “‘[I]f Lydia didn’t lead the fledgling church in Philippi, who did?'” she asks (p. 191). Byrd says that she adheres to male-only ordination, and I believe that she does, but she is walking dangerously close to the edge of the cliff here. If one accepts that Lydia led her house church which met in her home, led in terms of leading  worship and explicating God’s Word, why should women not do the same today? On the other hand, if we read the passages about these house churches within the context of the rest of the New Testament, I think we must conclude that Lydia and other women did not lead in these ways. Paul makes quite clear elsewhere that this kind of authoritative leadership is reserved for men. Who did lead the church in Philippi? We don’t know; Scripture doesn’t say. But there are lots of details like this that we are not given and many servants of God who are not named. This need not disturb us.

Byrd is unapologetic for the way in which she thus reads into Scripture, quoting Richard Bauckham, she calls this “‘historical imagination'” (p. 223). While there may be a degree to which it is impossible for one to avoid using their imagination in reading the narrative of Scripture, I would not tout this as a good and appropriate way to approach God’s Word. We should be aware of our own tendency to imagine not so that we may do so and try to fill in details God has chosen not to give us but so that we can try to avoid doing so and to stick more closely to His Word.

As a side note here, I will add that I am concerned about Byrd’s sources, about the books she is reading and quoting. I have not taken the time to look into them but, judging a book by its cover of you will, based on their titles and on the quotes she selects, it seems like many if not most of the people whose interpretations she is following are from the liberal egalitarian camp. Which is not to say that they may not at times have valuable and true things to add to the discussion but the impression I get is that there is little balance here.

I’d like to end my discussion of Byrd’s use of Scripture where she ends the book (or close to it), with her take on the story of Eve. Early in the discussion, she quotes one P. Wayne Townsend who argues that Genesis is written in light of the exodus and conquest of the land as an apologetic for the nation of Israel (p. 207). “‘In this context,” Byrd tells us, quoting Townsend, ‘”the story of the Fall functions as a pretext for the exodus-conquest. Genesis 3 identifies the sources of evil that have led to the suffering of slavery. It also justifies the conquest . . . ‘” and so on (p. 208). Byrd goes on to tie the sin of eating the fruit in Genesis 3 to the Levitical laws about cleanliness and the dietary laws. For a new Israel, separation from the nations was important and Genesis 3 gives the justification be presenting the original sin as one of touching and eating what should not have been touched or eaten.

This argument is oddly like that which LeFebvre makes regarding Genesis 1 in The Liturgy of Creation (again, my review here).  Both tie a Genesis narrative to the presumed original audience — the nation of Israel — and therefore place the significance of the Genesis narrative in its meaning to that audience which is primarily assumed to be a justification for the practices they already know. That is, for LeFebvre Genesis 1 justifies the weekly calendar of work and Sabbath and for Byrd (and those she is relying on) Genesis 3 justifies the Levitical laws about cleanliness and food. There is a base assumption here which says that the meaning for the original audience is the primary meaning. The narratives of Genesis are not read for their truth value (Is this how God really created the world? Is this how mankind fell?) or for their place within the larger revelation of Scripture (What do these events say about mankind’s state before his Creator?) but as a kind of ancient Israelite propaganda. In neither interpretation does the Genesis narrative considered even give new information to its original audience. They are into taught about how man was created or how he fell but are only given justifications for practices they already know. I find this a very narrow and unacceptable way to read Scripture.

For Byrd, reading Genesis 3 in this way, Eve becomes a find of hero. As you may recall, God had told Adam not to eat of the tree and Eve adds “nor touch it.” This may be interpreted various ways. Some say Adam added to God’s law in repeating it to Eve and thus make adding to the law a kind of sin and place it on his shoulders. In Byrd’s interpretation (again following others), Eve adds “nor touch.” In doing so she makes the prohibition more like the Levitical laws and thereby gives us “the story behind the story” (p. 209). Eve is portrayed as a kind of prophetess and the original sin its nature and its implications, are largely undiscussed.

Byrd has some valuable ideas which the church needs to hear. I like how she speaks of siblingship within the church and the need to disciple all lay people, men and women.  I agree as well with her critique of the extremes of the complementarian movement. But I am very disturbed by some aspects of how she uses Scripture to make her arguments. We do not need to accept the categories others give us that the text must either be androcentric or gynocentric and that men and women can’t fruitfully read texts which are not about their own gender. And when we do read, we need to be careful who we follow and we need to resist our own urge to fill in details, particularly when we then use our own “historical imagination” as the basis for our biblical interpretation.


[1] I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hebrew and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program at a prestigious secular university.