Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Zondervan, 2020).
Aimee Byrd has written a book with a specific focus: as a member in a confessional Reformed denomination (OPC), she asks her readers “to look at the yellow wallpaper in the church and to do something about it” (p. 19). The yellow wallpaper “manifests itself in much of the current teaching on so–called ‘biblical manhood and womanhood’” (p. 21). The yellow wallpaper motif, which runs throughout the book, is a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book, The Yellow Wallpaper, a classic nineteenth century work of feminist literature. Using this as a trope throughout the book, Byrd is primarily aiming to show how various complementarians, especially those associated with the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, have denied to women in the church a voice that the Scriptures rightly give to them, and to show also how certain complementarians have wrongly applied an authority/submission model to male/female relationships. One can sympathize that in some circles abuses have taken place regarding male authority, which lead to some odd applications of that principle. But the book goes further than merely pointing out excesses in others. It seeks to make something of a revisionist case for the role of women in the leadership of the church. Byrd makes frequent use of the phrase “gynocentric interruption(s)” (23 occurrences), which refers to the dominant female voice in various biblical texts that help us to overcome a purely androcentric reading of the Bible. (But if they are interruptions then is not the ordinary narrative androcentric?). Byrd also argues that certain key women played an instrumental role in biblical revelation itself, in granting it public authority and in explaining its contents (pp. 46, 147). Indeed, in two places Byrd appears to endorse women missionary church planters (pp. 190, 226). The book is not merely polemical; the author raises many questions about the nature of wisdom and biblical maturity, offers interesting re-readings of certain key biblical passages, and extols the beauty of trinitarian worship.
The book can be summarized in terms of her overall proposal that Christianity advocates for the equality of the sexes (e.g., men and women equally benefit from God’s word), which has ramifications for how we conceive the role of women in the church (e.g., men and women equally sharpen one another, pp. 25, 173, and share in God’s mission, p. 42). Against a radical feminist view of the Bible, she argues that the female voice functions synergetically with the male voice (pp. 94, 126), which means men and women can work together in learning from each other in distinct ways (p. 205). For Byrd, the Bible is not a Patriarchal text. She alerts us to role of women in God’s redemptive story, looking at both the Old and New Testaments. Byrd believes the Scriptures prescribe female missionaries, church planters, and theology teachers (of men as well as women, p. 233). In corporate worship, women reading Scripture and also offering prayers is encouraged (p. 232). Therefore, the church should not merely permit “gynocentric interruptions,” but promote them (p. 70). Byrd believes (see part 1) that resources marketed on biblical manhood and womanhood do not sufficiently highlight the female voice in Scripture. She wishes to locate her theology of gender in terms of covenantal and ecclesial frameworks. Besides the polemical arguments throughout, there are also extended discussions of Ruth (ch. 2) and Phoebe (ch. 8) that Byrd uses to make her points about the value of women in the church. Byrd also relates the historical example of Anne Hutchinson, concluding that maybe if Anne had been taken seriously as a woman and received a theological education at the same level as other men, she would have been an ally in the church instead of being excommunicated (pp. 34–36). Anne was a threat to the New England elders’ authority and we get the impression from Byrd that the blame lies largely with the leaders in this instance who did not want a female voice to work with the dominant male voice. Her excommunication was to “squash any thought of female contribution” (p. 36), which is a reading that may not fully convince those who have studied the New England antinomian controversy.
Byrd marshals a number of arguments that have been made in the (ever–growing) secondary literature on male–female roles by appealing to egalitarian theologians such as Carolyn Custis James, Philip B. Payne, Michael Bird, Richard Bauckham, Cynthia Westfall, and others. One gets the impression that the egalitarians do the heavy lifting for Byrd in terms of the more controversial points she wishes to make, whereas the “complementarian” theologians (e.g., Allen, Swain) are invoked for points less debateable, but nonetheless helpful. In one example, she quotes a blog post by an egalitarian, Marg Mowczko, that claims Lydia led the church in Philippi. Byrd argues then that Lydia planted this church with Paul (pp. 191–92). Women were planting churches and were not subjected to a subordinate role (pp. 187, 192). Byrd recognizes, as she speaks of “a coed team of apostles,” that she’s moving beyond mere lay roles (p. 227). She does well to alert us to the counterculturally key roles played by women in the early NT church, but whether readers will charitably understand “planting” in some broader sense than the usual ecclesiastical Presbyterian sense remains to be seen. Maybe a little more explanation from Byrd on what this looks like would keep less sympathetic readers from getting too critical. She says Junia was an Apostle but seems unsure what to do with that in today’s context (p. 227). Where there is a disputed interpretation of a text, Byrd will cite selectively, usually from egalitarian authors, without drawing attention to the arguments against her position (e.g., in her discussion of Junia’s role there’s no counter–evidence presented). Interacting with the best “complementarian” arguments would have buttressed her arguments by giving readers assurances she’s fully aware of the issues. In addition, she shows an eagerness to look at the texts that will support her arguments, but I was surprised at the omissions of certain texts that might appear salient to the concerns of the book (e.g., Eph. 5:24; 1 Cor. 11:7–9; 1 Tim 2:8–15; 1 Pet 3:1–7). Readers may wonder why these omissions happened.
Initially, one expects that the major target of her criticisms is the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW/CBMW’s, 62 occurrences), but by the end the readers will see that Byrd also has in view Confessional Reformed churches that have, in her mind, unduly limited the roles of women in the church. I am quite sympathetic to some of the questions and criticisms that are raised against certain complementarian applications (last para, p. 106), including the infelicitous way they have sometimes expressed themselves. Byrd refers to “hyperauthoritarian” and “hypermachismo” teachings that the CBMW has not retracted (p. 172), but at this place in the book one might have wished for some tangible examples of such teaching. In connection with this, “Patriarchy” (6 occurrences) and “Patriarchal” (25 occurrences) are not clearly defined concepts in the book, but words that assume a meaning that remains unclear to me.
One of the key issues in Byrd’s book are her remarks on authority and submission, especially in light of the creation account. She takes issue with the ontological argument that conceives of male/authority and female/submission by certain complementarians, which, in turn, leads to an “androcentric focus” that isn’t in the text of Genesis itself (p. 116). She says, “there are no implications of male/female distinction being authority and submission” (p. 116). She notes that Adam must lay down his life for his bride, which I agree with. Yet, for Byrd, submission seems to function as a synonym for sacrifice: “Adam was called to submit, or sacrifice…” (p. 117). Ironically, using these terms this way mutes her (justified) critique of ESS. Based upon her reworking of submission, Jesus submitted to the church, but she doesn’t explicitly say this is so – though one might have expected her to follow through on her argument that way. In my view, the terms are not synonyms – they are figural, which is a significant difference! Do we get to the point where wives submitting to their husbands in everything (Eph. 5:24) is actually mirrored by the husband doing precisely the same thing? (I don’t recall seeing a discussion of that verse, though on page 105 she speaks of “mutual submission” and footnotes Eph. 5:21–33).
Byrd appears to have given in to the temptation to counter disordered patriarchy by highlighting ways Adam might in some way be said to “submit.” This actually is not altogether different from the view she is critiquing since she’s still locating the discussion in terms of “submission.” She is right about much of what she says here (pp. 116–117), though the omissions are more startling to me. More fundamentally she’s countering her opponents by imitating them. A ritual–liturgical ontology of gender (something she hints at in places) provides us with a clear grasp of authority, but this just isn’t developed as much as I think it should have been. Byrd seems to grasp the importance of this point, but she fails to work through the implications of these differences for the rest of life. This failure, in my opinion, is the most significant weakness of the book. Where Byrd is making one of her more forceful theological points in an attempt to get many readers to re–think authority and submission, she stops short. At such a crucial stage of her argument, her reading of Adam in Genesis 2 is underdeveloped– there are some statements of teleology and eschatology but fuller explanation is required. She is right that authority/submission can be a poor way of describing our original parents, but, as I noted above, re–working our idea of submission and locating it in Adam needs to be understood in terms of a more robust biblical analysis. Adam and Eve are not symmetrical. Rather, the author of Genesis makes alterity and harmony the prominent concepts. The male/female polarity is striking, resembling the forming/filling polarity of chapter 1. Who is charged with forming, ruling, naming, taming, guarding, serving, teaching, and upholding the Law? The man. Who is the one who brings life, union, glory, succession, and fills? The woman. These differences will and ought to manifest themselves in our lives in distinct ways.
We all agree that man and women are both made in the image of God, but that idea is not left on its own for us to interpret how we see fit. The bible and particularly Genesis 2 give us many clues about the way man and woman harmonize. Paul explains how the man is presented as summing up the human race in himself (Rom. 5) and who is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7). God creates man before the woman; but the woman, whose being derives from Adam’s, is created to be the helper of Adam. She addresses his problem of aloneness. Adam is first “formed” (1 Tim. 2:13) but the woman is “built” (binah). Adam is created outside of the Garden, prior to its creation; Eve is created within the Garden. Eve relates primarily to the inner world of the Garden, but Adam relates uniquely to the earth outside of the Garden. Adam’s priestly tasks of guarding and keeping the Garden come directly from God. The woman is not priestly. Adam is given from God the law of the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, but the woman is not. The difference is one of immediate versus mediate reception. The priest (Adam) guards and teaches (see Mal. 2:7). Priests and Levites were male, and they guarded the sanctuary and taught the law. Adam is given the task of naming; as king he is to rule over the world. Adam names the woman two times. The woman is formed as a helper for Adam, but this is not explicitly reciprocated (i.e., he is not a “helper”). The woman’s commission is defined relative to Adam’s task. Yet, in many ways, her tasks are the reason for his own tasks, and his require hers. The woman is created to do things that Adam cannot do. Adam and Eve sin in different ways. Adam’s is more serious because it is “immediate” whereas Eve’s is “mediate” insofar as she received the command from her husband. It is Adam that God holds ultimately responsible for the Fall, as the priest, prophet, and king. The judgments upon Adam and the woman differ according to the original vocations and origins, which proves that the curses are not egalitarian. Importantly, they highlight different areas of vocation (cf. Byrd, p. 116, where she says, “we even see that in the fall Eve was equally culpable for her sin.” True, but why not mention the different curses are vocationally related?). The concept of equality emerges frequently in the book (e.g., p. 42), but I think this is largely a modern preoccupation. Harmony is the better theological concept, and we might all do well to move away from a-theological modern assumptions of equality that don’t seem to be sensitive to the focus of the Scriptures on male-female relations.
We can argue Adam’s rule directs outward into the world, just as Christ is now over all principalities and rulers. Jesus is head of the Church. Complementarians say that Christ exercises authority over the church, but we might wish to also say it is for the church. The same would have been true of Adam. Like Christ (Isa. 42–53), the man is a servant of God, called by him, in a way that will build up the woman (and reflect glory back to the man – as the bride does to Christ). The man is not primarily defined by a mission towards the woman and the home. His mission is primarily out into the world, and precedes the woman’s creation, but his mission is still via the woman and then it is brought to completion. In the same way, through the Church, Christ’s glory fills all things. This is my understanding of biblical “complementarianism.” But this leads to certain necessary conclusions regarding men and women. But these differences listed above are underplayed by Byrd.
Man and woman are differently constituted, and God seems to go out of his way in the Genesis narrative to make that abundantly clear. Subduing the earth and exercising dominion falls to the man primarily, whereas the woman is tasked with fruitfulness and multiplication; she gives man something to fight for and protect. Here we are not speaking about specific individuals, but the two halves of humanity. Men are generally responsible for ordering the world, taming the creation, inventions, discovering, establishing institutions, etc. Women are created to care for the communion of humanity. They bear and raise children (1 Tim. 2:15). They develop the glory of the new humanity. Even Byrd’s advocation for women as “necessary allies” (Heb. ezer kenegdo, Gen. 2:18) doesn’t tell us much about how men and women relate (plus this might be the most overused and misused allegedly Hebrew element of gender discussions among evangelicals and beyond). Without detailed discussion, the term can become an ideological importation of the author where its meaning is supposedly self–evident. I prefer “helper” over “ally” for a number of reasons; for instance, in Isaiah 31:3, you can see the relationship between noun and verb: “ally” doesn’t have a corresponding verb (“He who helps [the Egyptians] will stumble, and he who is helped [Judah] will fall”).
In relation to the concerns above, part of Byrd’s project involves the contention that “Christian men and women don’t strive for so–called biblical masculinity or femininity, but Christlikeness. Rather than striving to prove our sexuality, the tone of our sexuality will express itself as we do this…My contributions, my living and moving, are distinctly feminine because I am a female. I do not need to do something a certain way to be feminine (such as receive my mail in a way that affirms the masculinity of the mailman). I simply am feminine because I am female” (p. 114). I would say this goes against a lot of classical Christian thinking on anthropology that I have read. At this point, Byrd misses the vocational aspect of gender. I agree that for a woman to be feminine is “to be” (essentialism), but it is also “to become” (eschatological fruition), which only works if a woman has distinctively feminine aspects. As Mark Garcia has mentioned in his Greystone lectures on theological anthropology, in the Bible the feminine is a virtue complex we are called to, not merely a descriptor of what one is. Otherwise the motherly images of God in Scripture (nurturing, protective, strong in defense and care, etc.) are meaningless and may as well be asexual. It reduces to an amorphous asexual humanity, contradictory to her own agreement earlier that the feminine is meaningfully eschatological. Thus her contention that she doesn’t need to act like a woman because she is a woman (p. 120) is sort of like a Christian saying, “I don’t need to act like a Christian because I am one.” We are holy (positionally) and we are to be holy (progressively). Those sympathetic to her critiques of CBWM will see a statement like the one just mentioned and wonder if Byrd is really offering a better alternative.
This book is meant for Christians to read and discuss, especially in church contexts. I must admit to being a little wary of how some of the questions are framed. In one place she asks, “Does your church value women’s theologizing as fundamental to the development of Christian thought?…If your church upholds male–only ordination, does that squelch or promote the sisters in your congregation in communicating and communing in key responsibilities?” (p. 235). This might be judged as a leading question. I suppose it depends on what one means by “key responsibilities,” which for Byrd is the introduction of “gynocentric interruptions” into the life of the church (e.g., women teaching men in appropriate contexts).
Complementarianism is sometimes about ideology, not reality. Revision needs to take place in some circles, and I would like to see a strong condemnation of ESS from all complementarians. In my view, the issues before us, in terms of the role of men and women in the church, need to be done carefully and in a context where authors are not approaching these questions from a preoccupation with teachings in their own contexts. This book is perhaps too preoccupied with CBMW, and in particular Piper and Grudem. Thinking against such a foil means the texts may not be approached attentively but rather they are being subjected to the demands of the debate. Or maybe the author isn’t allowed to develop their positive case well because of the polemical concerns.
In the end, we have a bold and provocative book by an author who wishes to liberate the church from what she perceives to be unbiblical views on male–female roles. I admit that I do not write from a female perspective, and some women may feel unjustifiably silenced in their churches in various ways. As a pastor this book makes me think about my own church context and whether women feel valued. Yet, a lot of her views have been already stated in the many books on this topic out there, which means the distinctiveness of this book is perhaps the polemical tone towards CBMW (hence the title of the book). For this reason, I worry this type of book will entrench party–lines more than develop sympathetic understanding. Whether supporters and opponents of Byrd’s project in the current climate have the ability to read both critically and sympathetically is an interesting question. But I think the biblical–theological case in this book needs filling out in more detail, and in a way that doesn’t basically re-state what has been offered already in recent decades. I also feel she’s (perhaps unwittingly) been squeezed into the demands of a debate where the church has not offered in recent decades the right theological tools for us all to work with. This issue is a truly difficult task before the church, and I pray God will raise up future authors (male and female) who can guide us on these admittedly sensitive (but hugely important) topics.