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

Written by Aimee Byrd Reviewed By Claire S. Smith

The publication of Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RFBMW) created such a social media firestorm that the reaction to the book became the story rather than the book itself. Not here, however. This review is of the book.

The title is a play on the title of perhaps the most comprehensive work in the complementarian canon, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (RBMW), ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), and references the American organization, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and the cultural entity of “biblical manhood and womanhood.” With the simple addition of a preposition, Byrd’s title signals the nature of her book: it is both personal and polemical.

Byrd writes as a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small Reformed denomination in the US, but her target extends beyond this. She describes a church culture where women are not able to hand out church bulletins, read the Bible, pray or lead singing in public worship or take up the collection; where women’s desire to learn from God’s word is not taken seriously by male pastors; where women’s gifting for “coed” ministry is not acknowledged; and where a burgeoning market of women’s Bible study resources is woefully thin on good theology (pp. 131, 145, 197, 202, 232–33). This culture, she claims, is due to the unbiblical and harmful teaching of biblical manhood and womanhood (pp. 19, 22–23, 27, 100).

As an evangelical Anglican living in Australia, I cannot know how accurate this description is or how widely it applies, particularly because little is provided by way of hard data. Certainly, as a “complementarian,” who moves in complementarian circles, I do not personally know any complementarian church that fits this description. My point is that to assume all complementarian churches are like those Byrd describes—even in the US—would be to fall into stereotyping similar to the kind she is reacting so strongly against.

Byrd begins her book by introducing readers to an early feminist novella, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, where, in the unsettled mind of the first-person narrator, a woman is trapped behind the yellow wallpaper in the narrator’s room and the narrator must remove the wallpaper in order to free the woman—who turns out to be the narrator herself. The wallpaper represents the oppressive patriarchal attitudes and gender stereotypes of the day that silence, entrap and disempower women. Byrd appropriates this metaphor, claiming the complementarian movement is “constructed with a lot of yellow wallpaper” (p. 100), and that her book “presents an alternative to all the resources marketed on biblical womanhood and biblical manhood today” (p. 25).

RFBMW presents two competing visions for women. The first is the yellow-wallpaper-like dystopian entrapment of biblical manhood and womanhood, which is referenced by somewhat labored repetition and allusion to Gilman’s novella (e.g., “wallpaper” over 57 times). The second is drawn antithetically from a description, written by Jewish feminist scholar, Rachel Keren, of the effects on women of exclusion from Torah study in the centuries after the destruction of the temple. On the premise that Jesus overturned prevailing attitudes to women studying Torah (p. 186), Byrd believes this description can serve as a counterpoint to what we should find in the church today.

Thus, reappropriating Keren’s words, Byrd claims that for Christian women to flourish we must “participate in creative and spiritual life in the church. We contribute literary expression and spiritual creativity. We must be in the heart of existence. We pass on the heritage of the tradition to future generations.… We are to serve in roles that identify with knowledge of God’s word. And this inclusion will affect our public image” (p. 186, italics original). The appropriateness of using statements about the missed experience of Jewish women in the period beyond the close of the NT as the template for Christian women’s flourishing is not addressed by Byrd.

At its best, RFBMW directs our attention to two important needs in the church today.

The first is for all God’s children—male and female, ordained or lay—to contribute to the building of his church, using the gifts he gives by the power of his Spirit. If churches do not consider women (or laymen) worthy or capable of serious study of God’s word or do not allow the mutual participation within the public gathering that we see in Paul’s letters (1 Cor 11:4–5; 14:26–40; Col 3:16) or in the private instruction of Apollos by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26), then something has been lost of the Bible’s complementary vision of women and men. RFBMW directs us to examine our church practice to ensure that all God’s children are being nurtured, and our church practice is expressing the (ordered) interdependency and mutuality that are to exist in the body of Christ.

Secondly, RFBMW directs our attention to the need for further theological reflection on the Bible’s teaching about personhood, sex, and gender. The initial impetus for RBMW was the rise of “evangelical feminism” (i.e., egalitarianism), and the new interpretations of Scripture it entailed. On both sides, the debate was focused on what the Bible said about submission and headship in marriage, and leadership in the church, and their application today. But the debate now—made more urgent by the rise of transgender ideology and subjectively-determined identity—is not about what women and men can do, or even how they are to relate, but about what a woman is and what a man is, and wherein lies the difference.

RFBMW pushes us to ask these questions, but it does little to progress the conversation for several reasons:

  • While Byrd rejects the visions of masculinity and femininity offered in RBMW and the Danvers Statement (pp. 21–22, 104–05, 120–22), she arguably misrepresents them in doing so (e.g., “all women are to submit to all men”, p. 105, cf. RBMW, pp. 169, 493).
  • While she rejects “the hyper-masculinity and femininity teaching taught in some conservative circles” (pp. 88, 172, also “hyperauthoritarian, hypermachismo”; “hypersubmissive”), she provides few details of what this entails.
  • While she rejects androgyny (pp. 19, 104, 111), and acknowledges distinct relational responsibilities for men and women in the family (p. 116), as well as order in marriage and the church (p. 105), she gives almost no content to those differences.
  • While Byrd rightly calls both sexes to a common pursuit of Christlikeness (pp. 109–14, 122), she creates a false dichotomy by rejecting gendered Christian discipleship.
  • While she gives a nod to biological gender essentialism, she does not want to overgeneralise every man’s or woman’s disposition (pp. 124–26).
  • While she claims to present a more robust concept of man and woman than what is on offer from either complementarians or egalitarians, both camps would broadly agree with the relational complementarity RFBMW presents, and readily affirm that “we are brothers and sisters in Christ, placed in a dynamic, synergetic, fruit-bearing communion” (p. 130)—exactly because questions of order have been avoided.

In short, RFBMW shows that the task of understanding what Scripture has to say about personhood, sex and gender is a work-in-progress, but the book itself provides little fresh grist for the mill. Moreover, Byrd’s assertion that “I simply am feminine because I am female” (p. 114, cf. p. 120) just does not wash in a culture grappling with the challenge of transgenderism.

More significantly, RFBMW sets us back in two respects in its handling of Scripture.

First, at points the book uncritically accepts claims of feminist and egalitarian authors, which do not align with Scripture. Consider the following examples. Byrd accepts Christa McKirland’s claim that the prophetess Huldah is “arguably the first person to grant authoritative status” and canonize the Torah scroll, and that “the first person [in history] to authenticate the written Word might have been a woman” (pp. 46, 64). But Hilkiah the high priest and King Josiah knew the book found in the temple was God’s word before Huldah enters the story, which is why Josiah tore his clothes upon hearing it read, and said that “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us” for not obeying it all (2 Kgs 22:13; 2 Chron 34:19–21). God’s authoritative self-authenticating word had cut him to the heart well before Huldah had spoken a word.

Further, she claims “women were even leaders of house churches,” listing Prisca, Chloe, Nympha, Apphia, Lydia, Junia, and Phoebe as examples (pp. 190–92). However, the closest these women get to that claim is that churches met in their homes (Prisca, Chloe, Nympha, and Lydia)—not that they led or “planted” churches—and in the case of Apphia, the house in question is Philemon’s alone, as the singular σού makes clear (Philem 1–2). Byrd accepts Michael Bird’s claim that Phoebe not only carried Paul’s letter to Rome, which is probable on the basis of Paul’s commendation (Rom. 16:1–2), but was also entrusted by Paul to authoritatively teach the Roman Christians its contents (pp. 147–48)—about which the text says nothing, and other texts speak against (i.e., 1 Tim 2:12).

She also accepts Philip Payne’s claim that Paul’s use of “work hard” (κοπιάω) for his own ministry and the authoritative preaching and teaching of others indicates that the women listed in Romans 16:6 and 12 did likewise (pp. 149–50), when this wrongly reads into the meaning of κοπιάω in Romans 16 its connotation and collocation with terms of authority in other contexts (cf. Matt 6:28; Eph 4:28; 2 Tim 2:6).

Additionally, Byrd also builds on Richard Bauckham’s notion of “gynocentric interruptions”; i.e., places in Scripture where it is claimed that a female voice interrupts the dominant male voice (pp. 44, 51). For both authors the Book of Ruth is a key example, where they claim the main story is told in a feminine voice which is then cut off by the androcentric voice of the genealogy (Ruth 4:18–22)—“in order to be exposed by the female voice of the narrative as pitifully inadequate in its androcentric selectivity” (p. 51, citing Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], p. 11). While both authors reject radical feminist views of the Bible, the approach still uses a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion and, in Byrd’s hands, stresses the need for the gynocentric voice to interrupt (25x) the male voice. This undermines the unity of the text, and risks creating a pink-letter Bible. It also shows no obvious awareness of the risks of subjectivity, as there are no stated methodological controls for identifying the male and female voices or discerning their intent.

The use of arguments like these is regrettable, especially when they are not needed to make the important point Byrd wishes to make about the equal dignity and worth of women, and their gifted and valued contribution to the people of God. There is plenty in the Bible that affirms this without the conjecture and overreach involved in some of the arguments she incorporates. Their weaknesses undermine her own argument. It is also no way to read Scripture.

But there is a second problem with the book’s handling of Scripture: not all relevant Scripture is examined. This is no more evident than in its failure to consider 1 Timothy 2—an omission that has several negative flow-on effects.

It makes Byrd’s insistence on male-only ordination (pp. 70, 119, 121, 228, 232) seem an unexpected outlier, especially in light of the feminist and egalitarian argumentation she otherwise embraces. It also means she must depend on more speculative arguments to explain this conviction (e.g., Adam’s priestly function, p. 105 n. 17; Christ our Bridegroom being best represented by a man, p. 231), and leaves readers with no clear guidance as to how women should contribute to the fellowship (just that they should) or why, in Byrd’s view, women might teach adult Sunday school (p. 233) but not hold a particular office.

Most importantly, this omission means that RFBMW fails to engage Scripture at the very point where God’s word most clearly addresses the different ways that women and men are to participate in the authoritative teaching and oversight of God’s household.

In a similar vein, while the book does a lot with the idea of Christ as Bridegroom, drawing from Ephesians 5, there is little discussion of what Paul means by ὑποτάσσω or κεφαλή in that text when applied to wives and husbands, and no discussion at all of similar texts (i.e., Col 3:18–19; Tit 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1–7, cf. 1 Cor 11:3).

It is disappointing that in a book that claims to offer an antidote to what it judges to be unbiblical teaching about men and women, there is very little engagement with the key biblical texts that address just those matters. This is not finding fault for not writing another sort of book. It is saying that, whatever else it might be doing, a book that stops short of considering those texts is not bringing biblical clarity to God’s purposes for women and men as faithful servants of Christ, both in the church and in the home.

These misgivings notwithstanding, RFBMW is surely right to observe that an expression of “biblical manhood and womanhood isn’t so biblical if women in the early church were able to contribute more than they may today” (p. 202), as it is to direct our attention to the rich complementarity between women and men that God has created—but which only a careful and comprehensive study of his Word can reveal.

Claire S. Smith

Claire Smith
St Andrew’s Cathedral
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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