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.


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

Review: The Samaritan Woman’s Story

The Samaritan Woman’s Story, Caryn A. Reeder. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Challenges the view of the Samaritan woman as a sexual sinner, considering how this has been read in the church, and the realities of the life of women and marriage that points to a very different reading.

The narrative of the Samaritan woman in John 4:4-42 is one of my favorite gospel narratives. Over the years I’ve given countless talks and led numerous Bible studies on this passage. I’ve always portrayed the woman as of “questionable repute,” having gone through a string of marriages and living with a man who is not her legal husband. I suspect that’s how you’ve heard the story as well. Caryn A. Reeder argues that we’ve gotten the story wrong and that this both reflects and reinforces unhealthy attitudes toward women in the church that thwarts real partnership between men and women in the gospel, contributing purity cultures, fear of women as temptresses, and even offering license to men to sexually abuse.

Let me talk about the second part of the book first, in which Reeder looks at the social world of the Samaritan woman. First she discusses the life of a woman in Jesus’s world. She begins with the lesser worth of girls, who are mainly an expense in terms of dowries. Some baby girls were exposed and left to die. Unless coming from upper classes, girls were taught to manage the household and all its tasks–cooking, cleaning, family businesses, farms and gardens, and specialized trades. They were married young, usually around age twelve to an older man and their primary value, in addition to the household, was bearing children, often a significant number because of those who died in infancy and childhood. Of course, many women died young. Women were married young and kept in the restricted space of the home to protect paternity. Marriages were contracted between the woman’s father and the bridegroom with the bride able to consent to or decline the marriage.

This is important in the case of the Samaritan woman. She was not hopping from the bed of one husband to another. Her five marriages were ones her family was involved with, suggesting the possibility of significant financial resources and status. The marriages may well have ended with the death of a spouse or because of divorce. In either case, women were expected to marry again. Also, men and women often lived together during the period between when a marriage was contracted and formalized. No one would have blinked an eye at this.

Two other things are important to note in the passage. One is that Jesus never speaks to her of sin or pronounces her forgiven, saying “go and sin no more” as in John 7:53-8:11. Nor do the people in town shun her when she testifies about Jesus. Rather they believe her or at least come, and then believe Jesus. Reeder also discusses her noon time visit to the well in the full light of day, contrasting it to Nicodemus’s night time visit in secret. Reeder also contrasts the two dialogues. She is far more engaged, and far more intelligently so than Nicodemus, continuing to question and learn, and she is the first to know that he is the Messiah. She understands what Nicodemus fails to perceive and models discipleship both as a learner and a witness bringing others to Jesus.

Why do I, why do we, not tell the story this way? Reeder traces this to an interpretive history of this story, largely written by men, who perceive her as a sexual sinner, shaped by the perception at times that sex was somehow unclean, even in marriage, that men needed to be wary of temptation by women, and that objectified women as objects of male desire. In successive chapters in the first part of the book she traces this through the early fathers (Tertullian, Origen, and John Chrysostom), Reformation Protestantism from Calvin (who identified her as an adultress) to Clare Lucas Balfour and Moody (who saw the woman as a prostitute, though an effective evangelist), and the present. Liz Curtis Higgs treats her as a sexual sinner after the deaths of her husbands, Barbara J. Essex describes her as having a shady past but as the first missionary, and John Piper identifies her as a adulterer and prostitute who needed the protection of a gender patriarchy.

What was striking to me is that this interpretive history obscured in my own eyes things I should have readily noted in the socio-historical context, important to careful exegesis. I ignored the role of families in contracting marriages and read contemporary practice back into the text. I ignored the betrothal practices (that played into Mary and Joseph’s story) and made her a loose woman living in sin. I ignored the immediate context of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus. And with the sexual sinner aspect so large in my view, I diminished both Jesus and the woman, in terms of the conversation that led to her being the first to see Jesus as Messiah and then bring so many others to him. I missed what “living water” would have meant to a woman who had suffered and witnessed, perhaps, the deaths of multiple husbands.

In her conclusion Reeder discusses contemporary views of women in the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. She argues that how we tell these stories does color our views of women in the present–how we honor their worth and their voices. The story challenges men committed to Christlikeness to be like Jesus in this story–not afraid to be with her and respecting her enough to engage her in thoughtful conversation that invites her to explore and question. He takes her intelligence, worth, and voice seriously enough, that, despite barriers of gender and ethnicity, she joins him as a partner in mission.

One thing for sure. I will never tell the story the same way again.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Gospel According to Eve

the gospel according to eve

The Gospel According to Eve, Amanda W. Benckhuysen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A history of women who have written on Genesis 1-3 since the fourth century, treating their worth, education, their roles as wives and mothers, whether they may teach and preach, and as advocates of social reforms.

One more book on women and issues of biblical interpretation? Yes, but the reason you want to add this book to your library is that Amanda Benckhuysen has done something I’ve not previously seen. She has dug through history and found over sixty women spanning the time from the fourth to the twentieth century who have written on Genesis 1 to 3, either in works focused on interpretation of these passages, or works that reference the passages. [The work also includes one paragraph biographies of the women mentioned in this work in the back matter.]

Why is this important? When it has come to the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 with regard to women, most of the work through history has been done by men. For many, the focus has been on the deception of Eve, and the authority or dominance of men over women. While some of these women have taken similar approaches to Genesis, Benckhuysen shows that long before the contemporary discussion, women have been looking at Genesis 1 to 3 and many have reached very different conclusions that anticipate contemporary findings.

A few that stood out to me:

  1. Many women interpreters focus on Genesis 1 that presents men and women equally as made in the image of God. The only stated dominion is over the other creatures.
  2. In the Genesis 2 account, interpreters noted the creation of woman from Adam’s side, an image of partnership. God forms her separate from Adam so that she has a relationship with God before being brought to Adam, who recognizes her as a helper (ezer), the same language used of God’s help of his people. Nothing in the text indicates any inferiority of Eve to Adam, who celebrates Eve as like him in flesh and bone.
  3. While many interpreters read Eve as the one leading Adam astray in the fall, these interpreters suggest other motives to Eve, including Adam’s benefit in growth in knowledge. Instead of putting all the blame on Eve, they note Adam’s culpability, particularly if Adam was present, as the text suggests. What these interpreters emphasize is that each bears responsibility equally in this tragic episode.
  4. In Genesis 3:14-19, these interpreters noted that only the serpent was cursed. Many observe that the statements about men and women are descriptive of the consequences of the fall, not prescriptive of role relationships as God meant them to be.

Benckhuysen organizes the book around the way women interpreters who had insights like those above applied these to concerns of women of their day. She begins with tracing the interpretations of the early fathers of the church and subsequent interpreters. She then considers how women used the material on Eve to advocate for the worth and dignity of women when they were treated as chattel, how they advocated for greater educational opportunities for women, befitting their equal status with men and how they wrestled with Eve’s story as they considered the role of being a wife and mother.

Benckhuysen considers women as teachers and preachers of the gospel. One of the things that mark interpreters here, and elsewhere, is their canonical approach to scripture, interpreting scripture by scripture, noting not simply prohibitions, but the many examples of women in both Old and New Testament of women preaching and leading God’s people, all with the apparent approbation of God. We are introduced to Margaret Fell, a seventeenth century interpreter, along with other seventeenth century millenarian writers: Antoinette Bourignon, M. Marsin, and Rebecca Jackson. She considers the contribution of Deborah Peirce and Harriet Livermore, who speak of the gospel being entrusted to women, and Catherine Booth and Francis Willard, whose careful exegetical work defended the role of women in preaching. This is an example of the pattern followed in each chapter.

Concluding chapters focus on the representation of women in children’s Bibles and literature and the contribution of women to this literature, and the use of Genesis 1 to 3 in advocacy for social reforms in working conditions and opportunities, suffrage, and advocacy against the exploitation and abuse of women. The last two chapters consider the history of patriarchy in the church and the value of listening to these interpreters from other times. These women both questioned the foundations for patriarchy that male interpreters established in Genesis, and offered cogent alternatives. They used this to advocate for the flourishing of women in the home, the church, and the wider society, and against the ways they saw their sisters being abused in these different spheres.

Someone might argue against this gendered reading of Eve. But isn’t that what men have been doing for two millenia, often to the great harm of women and to the church? Benckhuysen doesn’t argue that women’s reading is superior to men. The truth is, her women vary in their interpretations and disagree, just as do men. Rather, what was striking to me was to listen to their collective voices through history as a man and to realize that they see things we have missed. We need their voices if we are truly to hear the whole counsel of God in this very important area of how men and women live together, upholding each other’s dignity, worth, and gifts as image bearers of God, and experiencing the redemptive work of Christ in relationships marred by the Fall, but intended for better.

Review: Trinity Without Hierarchy

Trinity without Hierarchy

Trinity Without HierarchyMichael F. Bird and Scott Harrower, eds. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019.

Summary: Engaging the American theologians who argue for eternal and functional relationships of authority and subordination in the Trinity, the contributors uphold a traditional, Nicean orthodoxy of recognizing the oneness of God, who is three equal and distinct Persons without hierarchy or subordination.

In recent years, a group of American evangelical theologians have burst on the scene contending for what some term “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) of the Son to the Father, or “eternal relationships of authority and submission” (ERAS) within the Trinity. The theologians making this contention are what is known as “complementarians,” rooting their understanding of authority and submission in male and female relationships in what they see are similar relationships within the Trinity.

This proposal has been challenged as problematic in terms of Trinitarian orthodoxy, and while not intending any of these things, opens the door to tritheism or forms of Arianism and semi-Arianism. [As one who has worked in multi-faith contexts, I believe this perspective also offers ample fodder for Muslim apologists.] While it is true that in the economic out-working of the Triune God in our salvation, the Incarnate Son obeys the Father, it is another move altogether to assert that this reflects the essence of the relationships within the immanent Trinity. There is also the problem of analogs between human relationships and the intra-trinitarian relationships.

The contributors of this book argue for what they understand is the orthodox articulation of the nature and relationships of the Triune God, as formulated in the Nicean-Constantinopolitan councils. Editor Michael Bird writes:

   The central thesis of this book is that the evangelical consensus, in keeping with its catholic and orthodox heritage, affirms that the Trinity consists of one God who is three distinct and equal persons, and the distinctions do not entail subordination or hierarchy. As such, this volume tries to do two things. First it constitutes a robust restatement of Trinitarian orthodoxy with special attention paid to a non-subordinationist and non-hierarchical account of the relationships within the Godhead. Second, it attempts to wrestle the doctrine of the Trinity away from the trenches of American evangelical debates about gender and authority.

One fact that is important to note in this work is that contributors differ on gender and authority roles, with some being egalitarians and some complementarians. Both argue for a Trinity without hierarchy.

The sixteen chapters in this work divide into three parts. The first part of the work considers biblical perspectives on the Trinity, particularly in engaging in close exegesis of contended passages in John, 1 Corinthians 11, Hebrews, and Revelation. Beginning with chapter 5, contributors write on the insights to be gained from historical theology for the present discussion with Peter Leithart considering Athanasius, Amy Brown Hughes focusing on Gregory of Nyssa, Tyler Wittman considering Aquinas and the subsequent Reformer: Turretin, Polanus, and Owen, and what their work delineated as to what could and could not be said about the inner life of the Trinity. Other writers focus more deeply on John Owen, the work of Protestant “scholastics,” and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Chapters 12 to 16 then engage the current debate more directly, including a lengthy critique of Bruce Ware’s methodology by co-editor Scott Harrower.

The final chapter, also by Harrower, was a succinct summary of why all this matters. He notes that semi-Arian tendencies in the 18th century church led to anti-Trinitarian and unitarian formulations over the next two centuries. His contention is that theological cultures have intergenerational impacts that the framers of subordinationist theologies must also consider.

I was impressed with the consistent careful scholarship, the fine-grained discussion pressing against the limits of human grasp of the nature of the Triune God. Nearly every chapter concluded with two to three pages of bibliography, evidence of a resurgence of trinitarian theology. The discussion also both gave me a deep appreciation of the importance of the Nicean-Constantinopolitan formulations regarding the Trinity and yet raised the question of whether this must, or will always be the church’s reference point. At very least, any new formulations must avoid the errors these formulations address. And here it seems, according to these authors, subordinationist theologies of the Trinity are not a step forward, building on the councils, but a step back.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



Power, Passivity, or Partnership?

men-1979261_1920I’ve just returned from a regional leadership retreat with the team of leaders for the segment of collegiate ministry I work with in our part of the country. The team of which I am a part is led by a woman, with three men and four other women as team members. It is a gifted team of people highly dedicated to advancing on our ministry in university campuses. We all are committed to bringing our “A” game to this work and to our time with each other. I am a better leader of my particular area of ministry because of the other members of our team. My supervisor, who leads our team, is skilled at keeping our focus on “the main thing,” using our time well, and I have regular sought her counsel on situations where I need wisdom and another perspective.

The sad thing is that the team I describe is not possible in many ministries and church communities. I grieve, because I think of all that would be lost if my women colleagues weren’t at the table with me. One of my female colleagues has stretched my thinking about the use of digital tools to extend ministry into places we cannot physically go. Another has opened my eyes to ways to better work with ministry donors and to help the team I lead with that. I could go on and on.

My purpose in writing is not to send another volley into the hotly contested discussion about gender roles in the church. Many scholars and other writers have probably said all that may be said, and I don’t want to argue this further. To state what I think succinctly:  I believe gender distinctions are real, but that the patterns of dominance and subordination between genders are a consequence of the fall, and neither God’s intention in creation, nor within communities of the redeemed. I have deeply respected friends who think differently about these matters, and if you see things as they do, I’ll suggest what I say to them: let us pray for each other and continue to seek the light of God’s word.

What I wanted to do is share a few observations around two unhealthy places we often occupy and a vision for something better. I especially want to speak to other men (other than to express deep thankfulness to God for the women colleagues I work with, and my most important partner in life, my wife of nearly forty years). There are three words I want to reflect on: power, passivity, and partnership.

Power: Sadly, it is often a case of who has it, and who wants more of it, and our fears of losing it. I wonder if it is often the case for men that there is a fear that we may no longer be able to do things the way we’ve done if women are in the picture. What also strikes me is that when we try to hold onto power, we set up weird dynamics where parties try to control, while others try to manipulate or “game” the system. No one is particularly happy. Whenever I have relinquished power to others rather than fought for control, I find we are more “powerful” together than I could be by myself.

Passivity: One of the fears I’ve heard among men is that if women lead more, men will lead less and become passive. Male passivity is a problem at times, but men, I would like to suggest that it is our problem, and not that of women with gifts and insights they can exercise for the good of Christ’s people. Why must women step back for men to step forward; or men step back when women step forward? Why cannot we move forward together, spurring on one another?

Partnership: This leads me to the vision I would propose, one of partnership, of men and women leading together, encouraging, and allowing each of us to bring the best of what God has given us to advance the work of God. While our team was together, we studied 2 Kings 22, in which King Josiah orders renovations to the temple to encourage the worship of God, high priest Hilkiah finds and reads the book of the law, and prophetess Huldah confirms that Judah is facing judgment but that it will not come in Josiah’s lifetime because he humbled himself before God. The three subsequently lead the nation in revival and reform that lasts the lifetime of Josiah. We noticed what happened when these three came together, and that no one questioned the word of the Lord Hulda brought because she was a woman! There is something powerful and catalytic that happens when this team comes together around the word of God and the purposes of God.

I’ll touch on one other matter before I conclude, and that is the fear men express about sexual temptation if they work closely with female colleagues. I don’t think this is to be laughed at. But neither should our “stuff” as men stop women from the full exercise of gifts God has given. It’s our problem, not theirs. The truth is that both egalitarians and complementarians succumb to sexual temptation. While not temptation-proof, when we see those we work with as whole persons, fellow “kingdom professionals,” that serves as a powerful disincentive to even go the first step in one’s mind toward an illicit relationship. Of course, in the end, our daily dependence upon the grace of God must be the first and last word in these matters.

As in so many things, what we fear often keeps us from seeing and entering into what may be gained. To my brothers in Christ, I would say there is a richness that I hope you will discover. Finally, I would say thanks to my sisters in Christ, for all the ways you have stepped forward, and shown me what an exhilarating journey it can be to press into the call of the kingdom together.

Review: Partners in Christ

partners in Christ

Partners in Christ, John G. Stackhouse, Jr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: A case by a convert to egalitarianism for why both complementarians and egalitarians find scriptural foundations for their views with a proposal for what can make the best sense of the diverse testimony of scripture.

There may be some of you who read this review who may wonder, “what’s the big deal–of course women should be able to do anything men do in the home and the church–and perhaps more because they are also able to bear and nurse children.” But in certain circles within evangelicalism, this is a live issue and subject of both popular and theological writing. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., who once held a “complementarian” position (one that recognizes role distinctions between men and women in marriage and limits the roles women may exercise in leading and teaching in the church), describes his own movement to an “egalitarian” position (that there are no fixed role distinctions for men and women in marriage, nor limits as to the role of women in leadership and teaching in the church) and the theological method that led to his conclusions, amid the diverse biblical texts and conflicting interpretations:

“We should not wait to come to a theological conclusion for the happy day in which we have perfectly arranged all of the relevant texts. Instead, we should look at all of the texts as open-mindedly as possible, and see whether among the various competing interpretations there is one that makes the most sense of the most texts and especially the most important ones. We should look, in basic epistemological terms, for the preponderance of warrants or grounds to believe p instead of q. If no such preponderance is evident, of course, then we should suspend making a decision. But if we do conclude that a preponderance is discernible, then we should acknowledge it–indeed be grateful for it–and proceed to act on that basis” (p. 31).

Stackhouse recognizes a preponderance in what would be considered “control texts” for an egalitarian view–from Genesis 1 to Galatians 3:28. He would understand the rise of gender role distinctions and patriarchy as a consequence, not of creation, but the Fall of humanity. Yet he also recognizes a certain “doubleness” in scriptures, sometimes within the same passage (as in Ephesians 5:21-33, where verse 21 commends mutual submission, and then the following  verses commend distinctive role behaviors for husbands and wives) that serves as foundation for the concerns of complementarians. Is there a way to understand this “doubleness” that does not involve scripture contradicting scripture and that addresses the concerns of both egalitarians and complementarians for biblical integrity? Stackhouse thinks there is.

He finds this in the recognition of the church’s missional priorities of proclaiming the gospel within Roman culture, and their expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. This is a culture with clearly defined role distinctions for men and women along patriarchal lines, as well as for masters and slaves. Stackhouse writes,

“So it would make sense—given gospel priorities, holy pragmatism and eschatological expectations — for the apostles to teach a policy of cultural conservatism (“Get along as best you can with the political powers and social structures that be”) in the interest of accomplishing the one crucial task: spreading the gospel as far and as fast as possible. And they do”  (p, 56).

He would contend that, while we find in Paul and others the seeds of egalitarian relationships in marriage, and roles for women in teaching and leading, even in his own missionary teams, the presence of scriptures that recognize role distinctions reflect a kind of holy pragmatism that realizes that the advance of the gotspel is of higher priority than leading a revolution in gender roles, or upending slavery. However this also brings him to the conclusion that in a society that upholds egalitarianism, the opportunity is to practice the full liberty found in germ form in the testimony of scripture. Perpetuating gender role distinctions now may hinder the gospel, even as promoting egalitarianism would have New Testament times.

Stackhouse deals thoughtfully with counterarguments that may be posed from theology, church history, and contemporary experience and practice. He addresses fears about inclusive language in translations, and boundaries in terms of language used of God. One of his most thoughtful chapters is on why women do not lead. He concludes with a plea for women to continue to speak into his life about his “enduring sexism” while still assuming personal responsibility for it.

I suspect Stackhouse’s book satisfies neither committed egalitarians nor complementarians. Egalitarians may feel the book opens the door to those who would advocate patient waiting, even in our present day. Complementarians may still be unconvinced that gender role distinctions are a consequence of the fall. The book is silent on implications for parallel discussions within Catholic and Orthodox circles. Yet for others, who consider the impasse between the two sides in this evangelical discussion a scandal, Stackhouse’s irenic and biblically grounded approach offers at least a meeting ground for those no longer interested in battling over gender roles. His tone of humility, both in matters of interpretation, and in coming to terms with the implications of his understanding of scripture for how he partners with women in ministry, is an example other men may wish to heed.

There may be some who wish to argue with the author in comments on this review. First of all, please realize that this is my summary of the author’s argument, which I hope is an adequate reflection in much abbreviated form. Second, if you really care about this, I urge you to read his book and engage with him directly. Above all, I hope that wherever we come down in this discussion, we will practice the humility and openness to change modeled by this author.

Review: Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian

Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian

Neither Complementarian nor EgalitarianMichelle Lee-Barnewall. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Summary: Argues on the basis of the biblical texts for a reframing of the discussion of the relationship of men and women from one of power versus equality  to one that focuses on the elements in the biblical texts around reversal, inclusion, unity and service.

In the mouthful that is the title to this book lies a heated, sometimes hurtful, occasionally constructive intramural discussion in the evangelical community about how men and women relate to each other in the church and in marriage. Complementarians argue for gender distinctives that are complementary, for some form of male headship, female submission in marriage and that certain roles of leadership in the church are open only to men. Egalitarians argue that the best way to understand the biblical texts is that in creation and redemption, men and women are equal at the foot of the cross, that all roles of leadership are open to both in the church and that husband and wife mutually submit to each other as equals. Both “sides” contend that they are being faithful to the teaching of scripture.

I’ve watched this debate go on through my adult life, although rarely have scholars on one side or the other of this discussion reached out to see if there is some way the two positions can be reconciled. Over time, some have moved to a “soft” complementarian position, while egalitarians have been open to explore distinctives of gender while avoiding any form of hierarchy in marriage or church. What has troubled me is that the discussion has often been framed around authority or rights and hasn’t explored questions of servanthood, inclusion, and the kind of mutual care that ought characterize communities shaped by the crucified and risen Christ.

Michelle Lee-Barnewall has been troubled by this as well and thinks that part of the reason for the impasse to which we’ve come is that the discussion has been framed around categories of roles, authority, and rights that may draw more from contemporary culture that the biblical narratives and that there may be a perspective inherent in the narratives that is missed because of the framing questions we ask.

The first part of the book reviews the evangelical history of women. She breaks this into three periods, the first of which is around the turn of the 20th century when women were significantly involved in many social and mission causes, the focus being on doing one’s duty where needful. The second was a period of retreat, after the turbulence and separation of World War II, emphasizing the role of women in the home and in child-rearing. This transition, in the post-civil rights and feminist era to a focus on equal rights for women, with others holding to a more traditional role, that in contemporary discussion has been framed as complementarian.

The second part of the book turns to biblical theology and the biblical text to develop themes that might reframe the discussion. First she considers the idea of the kingdom of God and the emphases on unity and corporate identity, and on the great reversals of power, including the exaltation of the lowly and the humbling of the exalted. She then goes on under the theme of unity to explore the idea of inclusion and whether this is a better way to understand the place of women than either complementary roles or equal rights, that women are welcomed in Jesus circle and shared in and were included in the blessing of Pentecost. She also explores the radical teaching about leadership as servanthood, or even slavery, which radically upturns for both men and women, the hierarchies of the New Testament period.

In the latter part of this section, she considers two passages, Genesis 2-3, and Ephesians 5:21-33. In Genesis 2-3 she notes particularly the one flesh instructions to Adam and how in his disobedience, this is broken as he blames Eve, even though it is to Adam that God first addresses himself. She does note how the relationship originates in Adam, through whom Eve is given life and named, and yet the focus, she contends is not his authority or precedence but his leaving, cleaving, becoming one flesh with her. In Ephesians, while the man is indeed “head” (and the meaning of this can be debated) there is no command to exercise authority but rather to love and give oneself, with the husband and wife relationship demonstrating the union between Christ and church.

Lee-Barnewell does not take a “side” in this discussion, even in conclusion. She advocates instead for a different kind of discussion. She suggests that the rhetoric used to characterize the “other” as “feminist” or “patriarchal” is not helpful. Rather than answer the question of what women can or cannot do, she believes these other biblical themes are crucially important as foundations for any constructive discussion, and for reaching a place informed more by scripture than culture for all concerned.

My fear with a book like this is that it will either be disregarded or attacked by advocates on either side of this discussion, and especially by complementarians. I do think the upshot of her “reframing” would be to support the position of egalitarians, albeit with a different spirit. Yet I think this is an important book, as are similar books around questions of origins and the Genesis text, in reframing the discussion by changing the kinds of questions we ask of the biblical text, indeed in trying to listen to the text and let it deliver us from our own cultural captivities. That might even have the effect of bringing us together in the inclusive, unifying ways Lee-Barnewell envisions.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Crossroads


Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today’s Uganda, ed. Christopher Conte. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2015.

Summary: Narratives of fourteen Ugandan women on various aspects of growing up in a Ugandan society in the midst of political upheaval, the intersection of traditional and modern ways, between repression and reform.

I’ve written in the past about the need to read diverse books, to listen to diverse voices, and not simply western White voices of my own political and religious persuasion. Among the voices I’ve wanted to listen to are women’s voices. I’m also aware that as Americans, we have not often listened to African voices, at least I haven’t. So when the editor of this collection of narratives, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, contacted me about possibly reviewing this book, I made an exception to my usual rule of saying no to these kind of review requests. It was worth it.

You can’t really argue with narratives. You either listen and learn, or shut your ears and eyes. The narratives of these women capture the incredible beauty of a culture where people take time for relationships, where a village really does raise (or did raise) a child, and the wisdom of elder women, and village herbalists. The narratives also capture a great deal of pain of a conflict-ridden society in the midst of rapid social change.

The opening essay describes how people are “pigeon-holed” into religious categories by names, and the difficulty of adopting a traditional African name when the two categories are “Christian” or “Muslim”. Other essays describe the clashes of traditional and modern culture around things like sex education and gender roles, including the difficulty a woman who loves sports has until a movement of women athletes in various sports gains traction. There is the transition from traditional forms of discipline like caning to more enlightened forms. One essay explores the labyrinthine organization and ineffectiveness of western NGOs working in the country.

An underlying theme in several essays is the syncretistic religious beliefs of many of these women, and the impact of modernity upon them. It is apparent that for many, whatever Christianity they experienced was more rules and ritual than a theology or a worldview that informed those rules and ritual. Often it was a pastiche of traditional beliefs in spirits and demons mixed in with Christian or Muslim practices. Often it was interwoven with social structures that were repressive of women, permitting severe abuse, incest, rape, spousal violence, and polygamous marriages when woman did not bear sons. One essay describes the struggle of being lesbian in a society where this could lead to rape or murder. Little wonder that as a number encountered university education, that they threw off much of their religious backgrounds, in particular the parts that weren’t African, or were most repressive.

Some of the most disturbing narratives are those written about the personal effects of political disruption and guerrilla warfare in the post-Idi Amin years. One essay describes the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of two women unaware of the charges for which they were undergoing this torment, resulting in the death of one of them. Another tells of fleeing to the jungle each night to escape the forces of Joseph Kony, and slaughter or abduction, returning to the village each day.

I found myself with nothing but admiration for the resilience of these women, who experienced so much and live in the hope of a better Uganda. As a Christian, I was troubled by the portrayals of Christianity in these essays. Again, you cannot argue with the narrative, but only listen and learn, and it was clear there are lessons for the church, both in Africa, and the West, if we will listen.

I also wondered if these are the only narratives. Were other women finding liberation, not from, but within religious communities, seeing the teachings of those communities provide the basis for deep social reform in a changing country, rather than colonialist repression, affirming both the best of what is African, and the justice, mercy, truth and beauty that are at the core of Christian faith? I know of such movements within African societies, but you would not know of them from this collection of essays, which I cannot help but wonder came from a particular circle of women writers.

Still, it is important to listen to these voices if we would understand both the injustices women here, and elsewhere in the world, face, as well as the aspirations of such women for a better world for their children, more opportunities in every sphere of life, equal partnerships with those they love and form families with, the chance to have their own name. And they help us understand the struggles of so many African societies to negotiate the paths between village and clan traditions and outside influences of faith, commerce, and learning.

But will we listen?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Abusing Scripture

Abusing ScriptureAbusing ScriptureManfred T. Brauch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: The author explores the different ways we misread the Bible and consequently interpret and apply it in ways that abuse both the intent of the text, and sadly, in some cases the people with whom we apply these texts.

I teach the Bible in my work, and on occasion, in the congregation of which I am a part. That is both an exciting and sobering opportunity for me. One one hand I believe that I am explaining what God has said through human beings, and that this can be powerfully transformative in lives. On the other hand, I am keenly aware that how I explain and apply a text can either lead people to such transformative encounters with the living God, or mislead them. I’m always mindful of James’ comment that “we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NIV).

Manfred Brauch is concerned that we might in fact abuse the scriptures in our mishandling of them. This is strong language which he defends in his opening chapter by the fact that we may well do violence to the intent of the text by our mishandling of it. And this violence in turn may warp the understanding of Christian truth by those who hear such teaching, and may, often unintentionally, result in causing others in the Christian community deep pain, or in misrepresenting the message of Christ.

He begins by focusing on the nature of scripture and argues that it is both intentional and incarnational and that abuse occurs when we ignore either the intent of the Bible or its incarnational character, both as the word of God and as given to particular people in a particular cultural context. In succeeding chapters Brauch six ways we mishandle scripture in our interpretation and application:

  1. The abuse of the whole gospel. We may tend toward a focus on a gospel of personal salvation or a social gospel, focusing on the redemptive work of Jesus and its impact on overcoming injustice and setting right the structures of society. Neither alone are the whole message of scripture.
  2. The abuse of selectivity. It is often observed that differing positions on an issue like gender roles can both cite scripture for their view. The issue often is selective use of scripture, ignoring passages that may not agree with one’s view. Often, we need to listen to all the relevant texts and look particularly for those that reflect the overarching redemptive trajectory of scripture.
  3. The abuse of biblical balance. This differs from the abuse preceding it in overemphasis on a particular doctrine while under-emphasizing others. We may focus on certain sins while ignoring others. Again, we need to hear all these perspectives and consider a both/and rather than either/or approach.
  4. The abuse of words. Most of us read, and certainly preach the Bible in translation. Care must be used to be certain that the words we use and meanings we attribute to a word accurately reflect what the author would have understood, as best as we can ascertain. Brauch uses as an example the word cephale and argues for how our translations as “head” may ignore the dimension of “headship” that has to do with “source” and instead uses the term hierarchically.
  5. The abuse of context, both literary and theological. Literary context concerns the place of a particular passage in a larger narrative. Theological context has to do with relating a particular theological idea to the larger theological themes of a book, or even all the books of a particular writer, like Paul.
  6. The abuse of context, relating to historical context and cultural reality. We may universalize what is particular to a historical context or assume that teaching in a context must be applied in the same way in very different cultural contexts–for example, how we understand Jesus healings on the sabbath and the implication for early Christians of whether and how to carry over Jewish sabbath practices.

He then concludes by considering what it could mean if those who differ over scripture and give weight to one part while ignoring others would simply begin to listen to the witness of each other. And he includes appendices going deeper on selective issues of interpretation. And most helpful throughout is that Brauch illustrates both abuses and the proper handling of scripture using contemporary issues.

This book is important for anyone who teaches the scriptures and seeks to be thoughtful of engaging the disparate views one encounters with others who may even claim a similar, evangelical faith. It advocates neither a culture war nor expulsion of those who differ, but the engagement that takes both the scriptures and our hearers seriously. Church leaders facing sharp doctrinal challenges might read this to think through how this might be approached both irenically and yet with doctrinal integrity.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Work and Gender

bringing_home_the_bacon“Dad brings home the bacon and mom fries it up.”

That pretty much summarized how work and gender functioned in my family growing up in Youngstown. It was typical of many, though not true of all, and it became less the case over the years as many families felt it increasingly necessary to have both adults in wage-earning jobs.

Many of the blue-collar jobs of that time were thought to be too strenuous and dangerous for women, although then as now, one of the principle dangers was the men themselves as there was almost no protection against sexual harassment. Yet as time went by courageous or simply financially motivated women broke through in many of these male preserves.

My wife talks of employment options for women being fairly limited in terms of what was talked about in schools: secretaries, sales clerks, nurses, teachers, telephone operators being some of the leading ones. Men went to work in the mills, in machine shops, and if more educated, in management and more technical jobs. But for many families, when children came along, mom stayed home either by mutual choice, or sometimes, the husband’s choice. There was the expectation, sometimes resented, in many households that when the man came home, dinner would be on the table.

Work around the house tended to be divided up by gender, at least at our house. The guys primarily did the outside jobs — yard care, painting and maintenance, work on the cars, and some of the inside tasks like plumbing and carpentry. Most of the indoor work — cooking, cleaning, laundry was women’s work. Laundry was a job. My mom used to wash the clothes with a ringer washer by laundry tubs where they were rinsed and wrung out. I’ve heard of several women whose arms got mangled in those wringers. Then the clothes were hung on lines–we had them in our basement for cooler weather.

I think as kids we were fortunate to have a parent at home. It was a gift to be able to talk with mom about a bad day at school, or being made fun of, and then have someone get after you to do your homework! Only in later years did it begin to occur to us that it didn’t have to be mom. My dad worked hard, and he was decent with the people who worked with him, but he never was all that good in making any more than we needed to get by. Somehow, I suspect that mom would have been shrewder and better at this if she had the chance.

Some say World War II was the watershed opening the doors of women into the workforce. Both of our moms worked during the war–my mom as a telephone operator, and my wife’s mom as an aircraft inspector (she was still single at the time). But neither continued to work when family came along and my recollection was that most moms in the neighborhood were at home–if they weren’t volunteering at the school PTA.

Is it better today? In some ways certainly as many positions, even in the military have opened to women and progress has been made toward equal pay. There are still gaps, and the truth is that women still seem to bear the brunt of child-rearing responsibilities. Part of it is that I think we still, to some degree, question the manhood of men who aren’t “bringing home the bacon” and many employers still don’t give men who want to spend time caring for their kids much help with this.

I haven’t even talked about single parents. That’s not my experience but I can only imagine the challenges of being sole provider AND caring for one’s children. I’m amazed at those who do it so well.

One thing I know is that most people, men and women, worked hard in working class Youngstown. They bought houses, raised kids, and in some ways, built a city. We might see gender roles differently today and open opportunities for work for women and parenting for men that once weren’t considered. But nothing can take away from what our parents’ generation did.

What did you see in your experiences growing up of work and gender?