Review: Discovering Biblical Equality (Third Edition)

Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives (Third Edition), Editors: Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, Associate editor: Christa L. McKirland. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A compendium of scholarly essays addressing gender differences in marriage and the church supporting an egalitarian perspective.

One of the divides among evangelical churches is over the question of the roles of women and men in the home and the church. One group would contend that the Bible teaches distinctive roles for women and men, teaching the subordination of women to the headship of men in marriage, and that men alone may lead and teach in the church, except in the case of ministry with women or children. This position has been variously termed traditional, hierarchical or most popularly, complementarian. It is represented by the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). The other group would maintain that the Bible teaches mutual love and service of husband and wife in marriage and open all roles in ministry to both men and women on the basis of gift rather than gender. This position is most often referred to as biblical equality or egalitarian, and as evangelical feminism by its opponents. This position is most publicly represented by Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) International.

Each has published compendia of scholarly articles serving as resources in support of their respective positions. CBMW’s publication is Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, now in a revised edition. Discovering Biblical Equality represents the scholars who would identify with CBE International, including Mimi Haddad, its president. It is in its third edition, with Cynthia Long Westfall taking the place of Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, co-editor of the first two editions and an essay contributor, who passed away in 2018. Christa L. McKirland also joined the editor team as an associate editor and contributes one of the most thought provoking articles on gender essentialism.

The work is set up in four sections. It is not meant to be read straight through necessarily, as I did, but to serve as a reference work. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize the content of each section, highlighting essays that particularly caught my attention.

Looking to Scripture: Essays in this section address questions of exegesis of the relevant passages on gender in marriage and the church. I particularly appreciated Aida Besancon-Spencer’s study of Jesus’s treatment of women in the gospels and his affirmation of women as learners, disciples, and laborers alongside men, while also addressing reasons for the male apostles. Lynn Cohick’s study on Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-19 addresses historical and exegetical concerns and supports the idea of mutual love and submission within marriage. Linda L. Belleville’s exceptionally thorough essay on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 discusses the translation of authentein and contends that Paul is addressing a particular occasion in which the Ephesian women were trying to gain advantage over men by teaching in a domineering fashion, and thus that Paul is not prohibiting all teaching but only that striving for the upper hand.

Thinking it Through: Theological and Logical Perspectives: Christa L. McKirland argues against the gender essentialism of Piper and Grudem that roots maleness and femaleness with distinctiveness of roles in being created in the image of God. She argues that dominion and reflection of the divine presence are not gender dependent, and that genderedness connects us not with the image of God but other creatures. Hence, personhood is not essentially male nor female. That doesn’t mean there are no differences, but these are not essential differences. There are interesting questions this essay raises about gender identity, particularly in cases of intersexuality or gender dysphoria that I would like to see developed further. Kevin Giles offers a helpful summary of the theologically questionable use of hierarchical arguments about the subordination of the Son to support the subordination of women, noting that other complementarians have refuted this position. Finally, the essay by the late Rebecca Merrill Groothuis on “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role” shows the logical fallacies in this view, often invoked by complementarians and reminds us of the fine scholar we lost in her.

Addressing The Issues: Interpretive and Cultural Perspectives: Jeffrey Miller offers a helpful, data-based essay on the impact of gender-accurate translation and how our contemporary translations differ in this regard. Heidi R. Unruh and Ronald J. Sider offer a highly relevant essay on gender equality and the sanctity of life, written pre-Dobbs. They argue for a compassionate, pro-life feminism. They argue for a whole of life approach to being pro-life, and argue for how pro-life and pro-choice advocates may work together to seek the flourishing of women.

Living It Out: Practical Applications: I appreciated Mimi Haddad’s essay of how at the church level, people might be helped to understand biblical equality through: speaking biblical truths in understandable language, emphasizing how mutuality improves marriages, connect this message to core Christian beliefs, model the message, and allow simple, safe ways for people to try out their Christian freedom with regard to gender. Kylie Maddox Pidgeon’s essay on “Complementarianism and Domestic Abuse” makes a powerful case that intended or not, complementarianism creates systemic discrimination, and “implicit and explicit biases that disadvantage women.” Alice P. Mathews concludes this section with an essay titled “Toward Reconciliation.” She calls for honest discussions between those holding competing paradigms with both biblical rigor and courtesy, the paradigms must be explained at many levels, and we need to work at embracing each other across the chasm, centering our relations in the gospel.

My sense is that the “sides” of this discussion operate as echo chambers, each amplifying its own voice and muting the others. Certainly with regard to this book, egalitarians could use this work as just such an echo chamber. Yet this work is important, especially for women in contexts where they receive little encouragement for their gifts or support for their personhood in their marriages. I pray for the days when scholars on both “sides” of this discussion engage with each other rather than writing about each other in separate tomes like this one or the CBMW counterpart. I look forward to the days when what scholars of color are saying is heeded in what has been a predominantly white discussion. I look forward to the day when there is one less instance of the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that evangelicalism’s critics have observed of us. And I hope this work will serve to promote understanding rather than unfruitful argument.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

One thought on “Review: Discovering Biblical Equality (Third Edition)

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2022 | Bob on Books

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