This guest post was written by Mark Lauterbach.
For half a century, I have affirmed God’s order of creation of man and woman, the restriction of church office to qualified men, and the God given responsibility of husbands to be the “head” of their marriage and household. I’ve held this position in the face of an Ivy League education, friends who have moved to egalitarian positions, and a culture which is increasingly hostile to it. I have not changed that position.
Because of my convictions and the culture wars, I have been a supporter of CBMW, and my wife has written for them. I was once an advocate for the “Blue Book” (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). There is much good in it. All that was until 2016.
What Broke the Spell?
In 2016 there was an eruption in the blogosphere over the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). For the uninitiated, that is a novel doctrine taught and advocated by prominent lights of the complementarian movement. Those leading the charge against it were not watered down mainstream evangelicals, but highly Reformed and conservative theologians and thinkers. The whole exposé set me to examine the issues. Four years and 5000 pages of reading later, I have come to utterly reject ESS/EFS (Eternal Functional Subordination) as bizarre and unorthodox. But more than that, I wondered how I let it slide by in my study of the books which propose it. I also wonder how it gained such a foothold among publishers and elders.
Why did I miss it? Probably because I was caught up in the contemporary necessity of defending God’s view of gender and its application to marriage and family. I was so fixated on that issue that I was willing to accept any argument that supported it. But like the foot of Narnia’s Puddleglum inserted into the witch’s fire, the classical theologians broke the spell. And with that, I began to consider what else I had missed.
What Else Did I Miss?
When I no longer took CBMW and the blue book as the orthodox standard, I began to read “outside the box” authors, complementarians who found some fault with the status quo. I began to read evangelical and/or Reformed women authors like Michelle Lee-Barnwell, Rachel Green Miller, Elyse Fitzpatrick, and Aimee Byrd. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was Elyse’s pastor for about 5 years. Our families are friends.) I have found the writings of these and other women (as well as a number of Reformed men) to be eye opening, not in terms of changing my fundamental conviction, but in terms of revealing two things: over application and unnecessary implications. I have been shocked at the ways some (not the silent majority, but a loud minority) of my brothers in ministry have dismissed, slandered, and “excommunicated” any woman who dares to question their conclusions.
I have found these writings of these and other women (as well as a number of Reformed men) to be eye opening…in terms of revealing two things: over application and unnecessary implications.
It was with great expectation that I read and reread Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. She is part of the team on the podcast Mortification of Spin. My review will cover the core of her argument, not every detail.
Aimee is deeply committed to encouraging pastors and elders to equip the women of their churches unto their fullest flourishing in Christ. She is convinced that such flourishing will include theological acuity, true partnership in ministry, and open doors for substantial influence – all the while affirming the distinctive role for men in the church and the home. She repeatedly clarifies what she is saying and what she is not saying.
To accomplish her objective, she sets herself to awaken the well-intentioned elders (like me) who have not taken time to look at the world through the eyes of the women of the flock. She is clearly aware that there is risk in this. Some men do not take the theological writing of women seriously. She has good reason to reach this sad conclusion.
But she sees another large obstacle: the prevailing stronghold of “orthodox” patriarchy exemplified in CBMW (but present in many places). The teaching she wants to address is grounded in definitions of masculinity and femininity first offered in the “Blue Book,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
What This Book Assails and Affirms
Aimee judges that these ideas have taken on a life of their own. she believes that they now hinder women from full maturity. This presents her with a great challenge: to assail this stronghold all the while affirming the need to clarify the created complementary order of male and female in the midst of our current cultural madness. Again, she repeatedly clarifies on both points.
Aimee is a card-carrying member in good standing of the rigorously Reformed Orthodox Presbyterian Church. She affirms Confessional Reformed teaching in a church that is led by faithful men of exceptional qualifications. Her Reformed commitments shape her. I found nothing in her writing that would make me question this. I appreciate the fact that she is no broadly evangelical, seeker-friendly church woman.
She begins with a metaphor from a 19th century work (The Yellow Wallpaper) to show how we can be blind to our androcentric assumptions. That metaphor shapes the rest of the book. While I appreciate the story, it took me off course. I found myself wondering about the stupidity of 19th century mental health practices. But the book brought me back quickly.
She begins with a metaphor from a 19th century work (The Yellow Wallpaper) to show how we can be blind to our androcentric assumptions.
She moves on to her clear purpose, stated many times throughout, often with probing questions. Aimee is not taking exception to the distinctions between male and female, but to its elaboration and application. In modern times, this was grounded in the definitions of masculinity and femininity proffered by John Piper in 1991, which she quotes:
AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
AT THE HEART OF MATURE FEMININITY IS A FREEING DISPOSITION TO AFFIRM, RECEIVE AND NURTURE STRENGTH AND LEADERSHIP FROM WORTHY MEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A WOMAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
These words present an ontological definition of male and female. In other words, we are more than biologically different. Aimee does not deny that sex is written upon us body and soul. But she finds these sweeping definitions both extreme and unsupportable. According to Piper, not only has God given certain responsibilities to both men and women in the church and marriage, but being masculine and feminine shows up everywhere. Our very sanctification now includes progress in manliness and womanliness.
The Result of Faulty Definitions
These sweeping definitions have led to excess. Aimee gives examples. Study bibles are now tailor-made for men and woman. Women are pressed to consider how to be feminine in dozens of “case scenarios.” For example, how should a woman give help to a man who stops and asks for directions? The blue book and its later expositors propose that every interaction between male and female must be governed by the aforementioned definitions. This is what Aimee finds errant. I agree. Is the Living God concerned with whether a woman gives directions to a lost male traveler in a way that supports his masculinity?
Given such absolute and unqualified definitions of masculinity and femininity, all that needs to be offered in critique is counter example, from Scripture. For if these definitions are universally true, they should be universally exemplified in the word of God. But they are not. A large portion of this book presents an exposition of the exceptions, the cases where women did not act “feminine” by blue book definition. Quite to my surprise, there are many. To name a few, Aimee offers us Ruth, Huldah, Deborah, the midwives of Exodus, Abigail, Mary and Elizabeth, and the women at the resurrection. She will also explain Priscilla, Phoebe, and the women in the closing of the letter to the Romans.
All Aimee does is pay attention to details that do not fit the blue book definition. As was true when I read Worthy, I saw things in Scripture I had not seen before, even though they were right in front of me.
I think Aimee makes her case, and it is based on solid interpretation of the passages. Her exegesis emerges from a plain reading of Scripture. Yes, I can quibble here and there, but on the whole she is sound. She looks at the cultural contexts, the literary devices, and the meanings of words to show the inspired record of the dignity, significance, uniqueness, and strong influence women have had in the kingdom of God.
A Welcome Contribution
This (along with some of the other books noted above) should be a welcome contribution to the discussion. It seems that whatever the bench texts on gender roles mean, they cannot run roughshod over these many examples. Some will say her work gives preference to narrative over doctrine. If it does, that is precisely what Jesus did to poke a hole in the certainty of the Sabbath-nazis. He simply pointed out that their universal certainty did not fit either the Scriptures (David and the showbread) or their daily practice (circumcising on the sabbath). Aimee is asking for reconsideration. She does not think it is OK to read these “exceptions” under the rubric of, “The only reason the women were leaders is that the men weren’t being manly.”
I have chosen not to write this review looking at every detail. Indeed, it would not be possible to do so. Aimee drops ideas and perspectives from so many angles, covering so many points and passages it is hard to digest them all. She presses and probes with good questions. In some ways, she has tried to do too much.
Aimee is not a feminist. She is confessionally faithful. But she thinks the narrow definitions of masculine and feminine are reductionistic. She, along with more and more male authors, think authority and submission are not the sole or even the predominant category of male-female relationships even in marriage. To name a few, let’s add in the categories of partnership, unity, and sibling relationship. She finds that excess attention to our sexual identity based on authority (masculine) and submission (feminine) diminishes our greater identity as being in Christ.
Aimee is not a feminist. She is confessionally faithful. But she thinks the narrow definitions of masculine and feminine are reductionistic.
This is the reason she writes – to encourage biblical ideas of godliness. “Christian men and women don’t strive for so-called biblical masculinity or femininity, but Christlikeness.”(114) She notes that the vast majority of the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God in male and female is the same. Only a few passages describe their distinctive responsibilities in marriage and family. There is not a masculine way to love truth and avoid slander. There is no sub species of a feminine poverty of spirit. This being the case, the church must take the discipleship of women as seriously as it does the discipleship of men. It is not enough that Titus 2 is a woman’s sole curriculum.
Her Vision of the Church
Aimee is passionate about the church being the central place of discipleship in God’s purposes. Her vision of the church local is spacious and eternal (everyone would benefit from Chapter 5). The church is uniquely suited for discipling believers, because it is Christ himself who works in the ordinary ministry of the church.
She esteems the historic creeds and confessions of the church, which have been universally or widely affirmed as true by generations of faithful church officers. These extra-biblical documents endure because they are stated with right proportions. Church confessions address created sexual order. Nowhere is there a definition of masculinity and femininity.
She also clearly has a target: the parachurch dominance of CBMW. I would summarize her concern in this: they are not confessionally grounded but cause oriented. Building a movement with its publishing and speaking and advocacy around the doctrine of man as male and female (without beginning with the person of God and his redemptive plan) is out of kilter. The Danvers statement, produced by CBMW, has no ecclesiastical authority. It is not necessary. Male and female are already covered adequately in centuries old, wisely affirmed, statements of faith.
Losing Our Center
This gave me food for thought. How many good causes go astray because they lose the center? The great consensus of history is that the center of our faith is the Eternal Triune God of three persons, in their ineffable and infinite relationship. The center is God creating image bearers, male and female. The center is the gracious purpose of God to redeem a people for himself through the incarnation of the Son and his substitutionary death on the cross. Finally, the center is the eschatological glory of the Triune God showing and sharing his glory with the redeemed bride, the church, who will be one with him.
When we make gender roles (linked with authority and submission in all male and female relations) the center of our faith, we might be tempted to read the temporal and created order back into the infinite and eternal God and to remake the triune God to suit our arguments. And that is exactly what happened.
Aimee’s book makes some serious charges, usually with significant respect for those she critiques. No doubt the church has been compelled to affirm the Word of God regarding male and female, marriage and the church, in view of our current cultural situation. But, she asks, how is it that Trinitarian orthodoxy has been subordinated to gender orthodoxy?
How is it that Trinitarian orthodoxy has been subordinated to gender orthodoxy?
She notes that the CBMW leaders have displayed relative indifference to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (and its corollary doctrines of simplicity and inseparable operations, I might add), have buried their past teaching so it is hard to find on the CBMW website, and have not repented as publicly as is merited. This, Aimee notes, is not right. If I were cynical, I would ask if they simply waited for the news cycle to bury the memory of the controversy so as not to lose donors? Or do they think that broadly affirming the Nicene Creed now answers for all the distortions and lies about God that they have proffered?
This is a good book.
No, I did not agree with everything. I could pick at this point or that throughout, but the substance of her work was solid. For example, I do not think Aimee made the case for Huldah approving the Canon or Phoebe as the interpreter of Romans, but those are not central to her argument. I wondered why she quoted so many egalitarian authors, not because I think I have nothing to learn from them, but because I do not think it is the best way to make your point. I was not convinced with her handling of 1 Corinthians 14 – but I have yet to find a view that answers all my questions on that passage.
Aimee packs a lot into her book. I know I am leaving a few things out (this is already 2700 words long), but what I would say is this: Aimee makes sound points in so many cases that those points need to be incorporated into the discussion. She is a woman who has done her homework, with good scholarly counsel, and has ventured into the world of debate. She is clearly confessionally orthodox. So, I ask my brothers in ministry, Will she be welcomed? Or will she be dismissed as a closet feminist? Can the advocates of the blue book’s supposed orthodoxy come out of their foxholes and have a conversation?
I have three takeaways:
First, after finishing the book, I was finally gripped by the story of the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. But rather than asking an abstract question about my blind spots, I imagined this man and wife were in my church and came for counseling. If I were a pastor of this woman and her husband, how would I have counseled her? Him? This question revealed my blinders about men and women, husbands and wives, and the nature of submission and headship. Aimee’s book, and the others cited above, have changed how I would speak to them.
Second, after reading Aimee’s explanation of Romans 16, I asked: Would I ever write Romans 16 and say exactly what Paul said? If I would not, why not? I found myself seeing the rich meaning behind the terms used to describe the women of that last chapter of Romans. But would I use them?
The same sort of question came to mind about the story of Ruth, the role of the midwives in Exodus 2, the boldness of Abigail, and the ministry of Priscila. How I would write those stories? If I would not write as Scripture did, if I find no examples of such women in my writing or preaching, then my life as a pastor is, in that particular, contrary to the Word of God and I should repent and reform.
If I would not write as Scripture did, if I find no examples of such women in my writing or preaching, then my life as a pastor is, in that particular, contrary to the Word of God and I should repent and reform.
Third, Aimee gave me new windows to see my own marriage of 41 years. It has been a partnership unto unity, a communion of two, image-of-God, male and female persons, and a call for me to sacrifice and “submit” for her glory and flourishing. My wife has been my necessary ally. This book affirmed that and shed new light on it.
Thank you, Aimee, for daring to venture into the realm of debate. I hope my brothers treat you with honor. Thank you for being clear and forthright, for telling us of the bad effects of the over application of a definition of masculine and feminine that does not fit all of Scripture, and for calling us to be faithful to the Scriptures.
Respectfully, Mark Lauterbach, Teaching Elder, PCA