(Note: After writing what follows, I read Andrew Naselli’s truly superb review at the recommendation of a good friend. I highly recommend it to those who wish to see a detailed examination of the arguments Byrd makes, along with excellent and evenhanded counterarguments. In light of reading such a superior essay, I am glad I called this piece impressionistic. I leave it up as a sincere expression of a desire to process and advance beyond my previous progress.)
For all of my life, I have been inclined to view Biblical teaching regarding mens’ headship over their wives and children favorably. Something that has qualified my perspective in the last few years is witnessing church discipline against men who abused their authority. This made me open to criticism of male authoritarianism. Until then, I had simply read in a blinkered fashion to justify what I already believed was true. The problem I personally have with that is just with the immature way I read (the advice I received from complementarian books and mentors has served my own marriage very well). Hearing quite a bit about Aimee Byrd’s “Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” that interested me, I decided to give her book a read.
(Note: I am not in a good position to criticize Mrs. Bryd’s book as I am not deeply familiar with the pros and cons of the exegesis she relies on. I am therefore simply responding in terms of what I appreciate and what I question of what she said, knowing that what others have to offer will teach me better how to judge her claims. This review is not my final word, just a step forward in my own education.)
Things I Appreciated
Her relish for theology and biblical study
Mrs. Byrd obviously reads and writes from a love for the rich depths of the Christian faith. This is as natural and healthy for women as it is for men, though she charges that much of the personalized bible study aids aimed at women are lightweight and stereotyped in focus. I find that credible, though I think the same is true for men’s popular materials. The point is taken, however, that there is a larger male readership of serious theology and women should also be encouraged to join the conversation.
Her examination of faithful women in the Bible
She examines in some detail the stories of women such as Rahab, Ruth, Huldah, Debra, and the Syro-Phonecian woman. These were no servile shrinking violets, but bold actors, speakers, and even leaders within God’s people who are held out as examples of courage and faithfulness. The Scriptures do not belittle or place women on pedestals, though individual Christians have regrettably done both. The Christian tradition that urges us to self-examination and repentance as lifelong practices in so doing invites us to examine the fidelity of those we have received it from and improve on it in our own living out of the tradition.
The reminder of our status as the family of God
An aspect of relationships within the church that I, at least, have not heard much explained or worked out is us being brothers and sisters in the Lord. Thus, women in the church are not simply the wives, mothers, and sisters of other people, but my mothers and sisters, too. As one who has largely lacked relationships with women outside of my family, I’m intrigued. Maybe we can be friends?
(Note: I understand there is some controversy over another of her books, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, which I haven’t read, in which she criticizes the “Billy Graham Rule”. I really don’t know if there is a wise alternative to that rule. Certainly, the lives of many contemporary leaders in our churches and society show us that sexual sin is very, very common. It is hard for me to say whether all close relationships between the sexes outside of the family are inevitably affected by sexual temptation. It’s a question worth asking cautiously, not in fear of one another, but with due wariness of our own weakness.)
The reminder that submission is not just for women
It is not healthy to emphasize wives submitting to their husbands in a vacuum, for men also have authorities to whom they owe submission and obedience. Every healthy believer of either sex lives accountably to higher authorities. There is both equity and protection against the abuse of authority in God’s house, though we often flub it up.
Things I Question
Female Apostles and Traditioners, but only Male Elders?
I don’t feel like she answers the questions raised by her assenting to male-only ordination while identifying Junia as an apostle, Phoebe as the bearer and expositor of the letter from Paul to the Romans, and Lydia as the presumptive leader of the church at Philippi. What is distinct about an ordained leader that isn’t also true of, say, an apostle or leader of some other sort? I don’t assume it is impossible that she has good answers, per se, but I have observed in my reading online that she is accused of avoiding hard questions. It remains to be seen if this is a misperception or a weakness of hers as an writer. Her position invites questions, as it seems to be a novel mediating position between the more widely understood egalitarian and complementarian readings of Scripture.
Contextual limiting of Paul’s injunctions of female silence in the church
I frankly am biased toward accepting contextual limitations to the places where Paul said women were to remain silent in church. Broadly speaking, it seems to fit better with the presence in both testaments of prophetesses and a healthy regard for wise women. I just can’t say that Mrs. Byrd’s book delves deeply into the variety of options one has for readings those texts.
I left this book with a desire to know more about the Danvers Statement. I found it and in an initial sweep, I found that one of my primary concerns was mentioned.
In the home, the husband’s loving, humble headship tends to be replaced by domination or passivity; the wife’s intelligent, willing submission tends to be replaced by usurpation or servility.Affirmation 4.1 of Danvers Statement
I am glad the statement used the word “servility” in a negative light, since whatever else is true about the Biblical account of men and women, it isn’t the case that men are masters and women servants. The way the story goes, they were both made to be images of God, symbols and instruments of his rule over the creation, kings and queens. That is rich food for thought.
The Scriptures teach us specific hierarchies of obligation: children are to honor their parents, wives to respect and submit to their husbands, church members to listen to and obey their pastors, and citizens to yield taxes and obedience to their civil authorities. Human authority is specific and limited to certain peoples and places, not general. With application to women, therefore, they may rightly feel an amused defiance toward an arrogating man who is neither their husband, their church elder, or civil authority who attempts to exercise authority over them. In that sense, women are simply equal fellows with the vast majority of men outside of the specific hierarchies of their life.
I think it would be a great loss to the church if we only allowed (or cultivated) male perspectives on theology and other intellectual disciplines. Mrs. Byrd evidences broad reading on the issues and I’m interested in hearing what she has to say. She is not above criticism, though, and I will be reading her critics as well as her admirers to further examine the merits of her case. I am generally discouraged when people are wholehearted in either praise or critique of something. I recommend this book for those who can avoid either extreme.
A Personal Post-Script
I am a man who spends most of his free time with words and ideas and I testify to the small fraction of the world that I see. I am currently enjoying a key theological classic translated from Latin by a female scholar. I defer to her deeper understanding of the work and exquisite craftsmanship in selecting words and their order so that I can enjoy an important work. I believe no affront is posed to any man’s masculinity for listening to women wiser and more intelligent than himself. In that spirit, here are a few works I’d recommend about women by women.
- Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Unset – A good long rich view of a woman’s life from childhood through adulthood to old age and death by a great Catholic author.
- Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier – A rollicking and beautifully written celebration of women’s biology that is significant and worthwhile reading in spite of the ugly distortions present in places because of Angier’s secular humanism.
- Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense by Mona Charen – An enlightening secular Jewish response to the ideological extremes and bad scholarship of feminism by a woman who enjoys being a woman and mother.