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Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood [a review]

The role that gender plays within Christian thought today is nothing if not confusing, ambiguous, and convoluted. Pastors within theologically conservative traditions often find themselves at a loss as to how to effectively shepherd the women in their congregations. It would be a dream to see all their congregants—men and women—equipped theologically and discipled well, and they want to exercise loving oversight of all their members, but well-placed fears begin to creep in as they call to mind all the many pastors who have mortgaged their ministries for a moment of sexual indiscretion.

The functional result, though, is that there are a wealth of opportunities for men to learn and grow and receive discipleship within the church while women have to fend for themselves, leaning upon sometimes questionable Bible study material or looking outside the church to parachurch ministries in order to get the discipleship they need. Conservative churches also want to take scripture seriously when it comes to passages that seem to teach countercultural messages about gender, but that conservative instinct is a double-edged sword because it leads churches to err—truly err—in the name of caution.

This is the morass into which Aimee Byrd wades with her latest work, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The title is a savage pun on a the title of a book published almost 30 years ago, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, in which John Piper and Wayne Grudem pushed back against the tide of the sexual revolution arguing that in fact biological sex is meaningful today, and that God’s word actually does speak to the question of how men and women ought to relate to one another in the home, the church, and the world. Byrd acknowledges that this was their aim and stands with them in the fight for scriptural authority (and even male-only ordination!), but nevertheless contends that the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement has ultimately just sort of propped up male privilege and power while undermining women and failing to acknowledge female voices and their contribution in the church and beyond.

A prophetic edge

Byrd’s book bites with the incisiveness of Old Testament prophecy, naming and identifying a multitude of ways in which the church has been unfaithful in shepherding women. For example, there is nothing wrong with volunteering in the nursery, baking a casserole for a potluck, or preparing one’s home for guests, but the insidious reality is that the church has come to see these as the only ministries open to women, and that they may not enter into the intellectual life of the church. It is a beautiful thing when women exercise motherliness and hospitality, but we need not be surprised when women exist outside that mold and thus try to cram them into our expectations. They may not speak up or teach Sunday School classes. Heck, even coed classes are viewed with suspicion! If we let women do things beyond cooking and taking care of babies, won’t we suddenly morph into a wild, crazy-eyed liberal church that rushes to stay in the graces of the current cultural moment?

There is another way, argues Byrd, which is revisiting scripture with an eye toward its female cast of characters. Through several studies of various passages in the Bible, she makes the case that women often "interrupt" the male-centric narrative in ways that help the reader see a fuller picture. Even simple interruptions like that the Book of Ruth is not called the Book of Boaz show that God is not interested in "upholding the patriarchy" but is instead demonstrating ways in which men and women are players in the grand narrative. The conservative church tends not to see these things when it is led by men and when it offers zero avenues for women to contribute to the exegetical and theological work of the church at large. When Bible study is sectioned off by gender, a brother never has the chance to see the text through his sister’s eyes, and vice versa.

Instead of defining women by what they can and cannot do, argues Byrd, we can let women be women because they are women, and not because they’re the ones who do the housework and childcare. She elaborates:

We need to stop using the word role in reference to permanent fixed identity. Roles can change, especially in different cultures. My sexuality is not a role I play. I don’t need to act like a woman; I actually am a woman. Furthermore, role playing is neither our identity nor our eternal aim.

Byrd’s point is just this, that we want there to be a script for what it precisely means to grow up into mature manhood or womanhood. We want someone to tell us the things we must do and the traits we must inhabit in order to be fully masculine or feminine. And there’s a lot of shame for a man to not be "manly" or for a woman to not be "ladylike," so we feel this pressure to do that and be that. But Byrd flips that script; you’re a woman… because you’re a woman. You’re a man… because you’re a man. Watching football, drinking cheap beer, and owning a gun doesn’t make you manly. Wearing makeup and perfume and cooking a Pinterest-worthy dinner is not what makes you feminine. Inasmuch as complementarians prescribe specific, extrabiblical requirements for masculinity and femininity upon human beings, we must see this as a binding of the conscience that will only twist and warp human beings further away from the image they are intended to bear.

Much more could be said to commend what Byrd has articulated, but for me the helpful takeaway was mostly this: we must not impose requirements upon women (and men) that the Bible does not instruct us in, and conversely we must not prohibit women from certain things (like teaching) just to be safe because it’s kinda like the preaching of an ordained elder. We must be careful to obey all that God has commanded us regarding gender and the interaction of the sexes, and we must be careful to not do what he forbids. Rather than trying to fill in the ambiguity in between with our own inferences, Byrd advocates for giving people—particularly women—freedom of conscience, although she does not spell this out in so many words.

A muddled vision

I rather wish she would have spelled that out, though. My main criticism of the book is that in spite of how crystal clear her critiques are, the book kind of meanders around, looking here and there at intriguing Bible passages, dissecting common complementarian dogma, making a suggestion or a comment... but never really outlining her thesis in a concise, positive manner. The book is divided into three sections—Recovering the Way We Read Scripture, Recovering our Mission, and Recovering the Responsibility of Every Believer—but despite this structure it never really feels like she’s shooting the arrow at a specific target. She does move from saying, "Don’t define female gender roles just by what they can’t do!" to, "Let’s prove from scripture that women CAN do at least most of those things!" which is fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but what’s the vision here? As I write this, our nation’s streets are filled with protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death demaning the end of qualified immunity for police and the end of police brutality toward black and brown people. But that’s obviously not the end goal; the vision is that folks with black and brown skin would be seen as human beings instead of just thugs who are probably right about to commit a crime. This vision is what felt largely absent from Byrd’s work: except for a few snatches, I never really gained a sense for what her vision of rightly ordered sex and gender in the home, church, and world should be if it’s not the CBMW version and it’s not the CBE version.

Here’s the thing: you might justifiably critique CBMW complementarianism, but you have to give it credit for concretely laying out what life should look like for the average man or woman in the church who wants to live in a godly manner but who has only rudimentary training in biblical interpretation. Think of it as almost a 20th/21st century revamp of the Great Chain of Being from medieval christendom: here is your place in society, and this is what you must do to execute that role well, now go do it. Byrd points her finger multiple times at their example of a woman fetching mail from the mailman, but the charitable reading is to see this as "pastoral case law": CBMW is working so hard to help out the average man or woman that they’re even trying to help you think through the most insignificant interactions in one’s day. I happen to agree with Byrd’s critique of this scenario, but if you’re going to say, "This ain’t it, CBMW," then you need to tell us what it is.

If she comes anywhere close to giving such a positive vision of the world and how it should be, it’s her thoughts about siblingship and how that’s the lens through which we largely ought to see one another rather than headship/submission. There’s obviously plenty of biblical warrant here—it’s a common form of address in the New Testament—but it’s pretty hard to understand what content those terms hold anymore for Byrd. If we’re not going to pigeonhole a woman according to a certain set of stereotypes—like being tender and caring and homely—and if we’re going to eliminate all gender distinctions of what one may do, then how is the word "sister" any longer any different than "brother"? She suggests, "Sisters make great adult Sunday school teachers when invested in well, as well as excellent contributors in class discussion as learners. They could also contribute theologically in written resources the church offers," but I’m left wondering why, if we’re all just persons, that we should take any care at all to prioritize female voices in these spaces. Is it because their vocies tend to be in a higher register? I’m being facetious, but at the same time I’m not; if you erase all but biological distinctions, I don’t know what else would make a sister’s voice different than a brother’s.

I also tend to find the CBMW theory of gender to be somewhat unsatisfying, and to be prioritizing the preservation of a specific culture rather than fighting for fidelity to God’s revealed word. While Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does a fantastic job of articulating the problems with complementarianism today, it falls down on presenting much of an alternative vision. It’s certainly a helpful resource to me as I think through the ways women are underserved by the church, but I think I will have to keep looking for a more positive articulation of what complementarianism could be.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.