“Biblical Womanhood” in the Crossfire

One of the things I love about Advent Christian Voices is the ability of those who blog here to disagree respectfully on matters that are often more complex than we like to admit. That is an amazing quality in a time like ours fraught with division and fear of others who see things differently.

I’m diving into one of those areas, and adding my two cents into the good debate that Catherine Rybicki and Luke Copeland have had on these pages the past couple of weeks. This dive is prompted by my reading of Beth Allison Barr’s controversial new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Woman Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021).

Drop the Hammer

All of us bring spoken and unspoken biases to our work and I am no exception. So, let me state my point-of-view. Since 1977, I have been a biblical egalitarian who thinks that in family, church, work, and life women and men are partners in God’s call to ministry and service. My convictions are strong enough that I could not in conscience sign the 2000 SBC Baptist Faith and Message nor the Danvers Statement of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). My egalitarian convictions began with my experience at a Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts week-long seminar held in Long Beach, CA. Mr. Gothard was the complementarian poster-boy of the 1970s and thousands of evangelicals flocked to his seminars and soaked in his “teachings” about hierarchy. Mr. Gothard illustrated his teaching with his now infamous “umbrella” diagram complete with hammer and chisel; the tools for “molding” people, especially women and children, into his vision of Christian maturity.

I sat stunned as I watched 9,000 people lap up this stuff. No questions were permitted (those who know me know that I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask), especially questions that might challenge the entire house of cards that comprised the Gothard system. A couple of years later at one of his advanced seminars held in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Gothard told the group of pastors and leaders assembled that if a husband was assaulting and beating his wife, the wife had the obligation to stay and accept that in the hopes of witnessing to him. (Fortunately, one of the pastors there stood up in that large gathering, yelled out “you’re crazy!” and stormed out for all to see.) This was complementarian paradise and I wanted nothing to do with it; so I left behind Bill Gothard eager to discover a more Christian way, a way that affirmed the dignity, worth, and giftedness of every Christian man and woman.

Money, Sex, and Power

Fast-forward 45 years past the hundreds of books written and in my view, that way has become more clear even if the issues have become more complex. We’re not only talking about how we order our families, or about who can do what in our churches. Now we face the horrid reality of rampant sexual and spiritual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the United States and the entire world. Not a week goes by anymore when some prominent megachurch pastor or leader is outed because of gross sexual abuse or abuse of power. Richard Foster was right when he argued that almost all sin can be categorized as the abuse of money, sex, or power.

Barr offers her readers a helpful way of seeing how “biblical womanhood” of the past 50 years is more a creation of recent history than of early and medieval Christianity. The historical reality has been that the more centralized institutional structures of church and society become, the most restricted the lives and ministries of women. This is well illustrated by missions history. Many of the great endeavors in world missions were accomplished by women exercising gifts of preaching and teaching that they were not allowed to exercise in North America or Europe. Why? Because there was nobody else to communicate the gospel through preaching and teaching. And the folks who thought it was wrong for women to preach and teach were all thousands of miles away. You know what? God honored those women and thousands of men and women, boys and girls came to know and love Christ because God worked through their preaching and teaching. I’m fortunate to have met a few of them.

John Piper and others like to speak of Christianity as having “a masculine feel” and this “masculine feel” involves notions of authority and submission. This idea has become popular in circles where “biblical womanhood” is taught. Often it is connected to the heretical idea of the “eternal subordination of the Son,” Advocates of this rather Arian concept argue that “the Son, the second person of the Trinity is subordinate to the Father not only in economy of salvation but in his essence” (193). In other words, within the inner workings of the Triune God there is a hierarchical relation of authority and submission. There is a tactical reason for why some advocates of “biblical womanhood” like this idea. As Barr writes, “if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify” (195-96).

What about the Bible?

All of this is nice, you say, but what about the Bible. Does Scripture not clearly limit the roles of women both in marriage and the church? Space prohibits me from going into all of the exegetical arguments, so let me make two points. First, throughout the Old and New Testaments we see women performing tasks that those who advocate for “biblical womanhood” argue are off limits for them. Junia (yes, she was a woman) was honored among the Apostles according to Paul’s words in Romans 16:7. Phoebe was described as a “deacon” earlier in the same passage. The first two witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection were women and they proclaimed it publicly first to the twelve, and then by extension to Jesus other disciples. Women prayed and prophesized, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. The are more examples. I think we begin with what the New Testament (and the Old Testament) tell us that women actually did, and we interpret the Pauline and Petrine teaching regarding women in that light, and not the other way around.

Second, In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul is clear that we are to “submit to one another our of reverence for Christ.” Then he identifies three pairs where those who are view as stronger (husbands, parents, and masters) and who are weaker (wives, children, and slaves) are asked to practice mutual submission in important ways. As Barr writes, “Instead of endowing authority to a man who speaks and acts for those within his household, the Christian household codes offer each member of the the shared community–knit together by their faith in Christ–the right to hear and act for themselves” (49). Exactly.

I don’t like labels, even though here I’ve used the term “biblical egalitarian” to describe my views. What does that term mean? For me, the following:

(1) Women and men are created in the image of God and hence are equal in terms of identity and function.

(2) There are no ministries in the church of Jesus Christ that are off-limits to women, even preaching and teaching.

(3) Marriage is a partnership where both partners learn to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

(4) There is no place for the spiritual or sexual abuse of women (or men) in the Church of Jesus Christ and instances of that must be addressed with the utmost seriousness when discovered.

(5) There is a place for complementarity as we recognize that there are physiological and emotional differences between men and women, but complementarity does not imply hierarchy in home, in church, and in society.

The writer Dorothy Sayers authored a short book in the first half of the 20th century with a simple question as the title. Are Women Human? You would think that the answer is simple and clear, but Sayers had noticed all of the overt and covert messages in church and society that appeared to scream out, “No, they are not!” She lived in a society where patriarchy was still the order of the day. Hopefully, that will continue to change and Christians like you and me will have opportunity to offer a biblical word that affirms that like men, women truly are human in Christ.

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There are several good books that I would suggest for further reflection. The book that I have made mention of here is Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 244 pp. The best exegetical book that I have read is Philip Barton Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 541pp. This in my view is the best exegetical study of Pauline passages in the New Testament where Paul address women in family, church, and society. It solidified my biblical egalitarian convictions through outstanding biblical exegesis of those relevant texts. The little book by Dorothy Sayers is Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 2005).

Bearing God’s Name

For this post, I was privileged to review a new book written by one of our former Gordon-Conwell, Charlotte students, Carmen Joy Imes. From GCTS, Carmen studied and completed her PhD at Wheaton (IL) College and is now Associate Professor of Old Testament at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada. Carmen’s research focus has so far been in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament and in this newly published book, she writes for lay people and church leaders to remind us that the Old Testament is integral to God’s revelation of himself to you and me. This is a great book for Sunday school classes, small groups, and for understanding the essential message of the Old Testament. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

Imes, Carmen Joy. Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity 2019), 240pp. (Reviewed from a pre-publication manuscript).

Most people know little about the Old Testament beyond what they have heard as children. We probably have some favorite Psalms and in church we’ve probably heard sermons where the Ten Commandments are used. We may even have a few favorite passages like the New Covenant described in Jeremiah 31:31-34.  Many Christians view that passage as a precursor to the main event described in the Gospels.

Hence, it is not surprising that most Christians, when they read the Bible, concentrate on the New Testament and essentially ignore three quarters of the Bible. This reviewer has been there. Perhaps, that is as it should be when as new followers of Jesus we are finding our way in what St. Augustine describes as “faith seeking understanding.” After all, the Old Testament is filled with teaching and events that are hard to make sense of. Or, so we think.

Carmen Joy Imes wants us to move beyond that and find in the Old Testament a rich resource for learning to follow Christ in the 21st century. What she proposes in Bearing God’s Name is wrapped up in the title of her book. God’s people bear God’s name as they live and work in the world. This reviewer must admit his own personal perspective. Carmen is a graduate of the school where I serve as librarian, Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Charlotte, NC. I remember good conversations with her in the library about all kinds of fascinating topics related to Bible, theology, history, and ethics. Even more, I remember the passion Carmen had (and still has) for teaching the Bible to laypeople and students. The fruits of that appear on the pages of this book.

The author suggests that Christians must not “un-hitch” their faith from the Old Testament, but “re-hitch to Israel’s Scriptures so that we can truly understand who Jesus is and what he came to do” (3). In other words, we cannot understand Jesus’s mission and purpose without understanding the Old Testament narratives and what they teach us about God’s purposes and plans for Israel. Understanding those purposes and plans centers in God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai. Part One of the book frames Sinai as central to the Old Testament because it is there that we see the revelation of God’s justice and mercy for Israel and by extension, all of the peoples of the world in God’s desire for Israel to be a “light to the nations.”

One misnomer that many contemporary Christians often carry is that the Old Testament focuses on law (in terms of rules and regulations) while the New Testament speaks of grace. That is a serious misreading of the Old Testament’s teaching and purpose. “We miss the grace because we too often see the Ten Commands without the glorious context of deliverance. We miss the grace because we read the judgment stories in isolation, without the long litany of second chances” (30). According to Imes, the OT legal teaching is not about a means of salvation through the keeping of the law. Instead, it provides instruction for the people of God “on how to learn to live as free men and women” (35).

Covenant faithfulness

This reviewer especially likes how the author describes this reality. “Israel’s laws are the fences within life can flourish. They make possible a distinctive way of life so that other nations can see what Yahweh is like and what he expects. The law was never the means by which Israel earned God’s favor. The Israelites were saved the same way we are—by grace through faith. But their obedience expressed their covenant commitment” (35). Exactly.

In her exposition of the Ten Commandments, the author makes an important point that this reviewer especially appreciates. The final two commandments, in her view, hint at the function that the entire law plays in the life of the Old Testament people of God. “This is not legislation in a modern sense, but character formation. The instructions paint an ideal picture of a covenant-keeping Israelite, including both outward behavior and inward motivation” (56). As such, they function as Godly wisdom for both individuals and the community. Modern Christians often read them in a regulatory sense (as we do with most legal prescriptions in Western society), while God’s purpose for them focuses much more on covenant faithfulness meaning that through their keeping, we represent God well and we enhance the covenant community  among God’s people. “Every Israelite is a covenant member. Everyone is responsible to ensure the covenant is kept” (64). The practices of community life and worship are designed with precision in order that God’s people may fulfill their purpose in “bearing God’s name” to the surrounding peoples.

The author uses the balance of her work to describe how the people of God bear God’s name in their community life and in the world. Here she traces this through the Old Testament prophets and into the New Testament. In response to the covenant breaking described in the prophets, God engages not only in covenant renewal, but in the making of a new covenant. This new covenant “involves the same partners and the same law. The difference is that will enable every Israelite to internalize it” (129). The sacrificial system of Old Testament worship will no longer be necessary because through this new covenant, God will “put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Moreover, God “will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

This new covenant finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. “By bearing God’s name, Jesus lives out Israel’s vocation, show us how it ought to be done” (139). This assertion gets at something vitally important. Imes wants us to grasp that the mission of “bearing God’s name” is key to understanding the purposes that God has for his people. As Christians, we are challenged to live in a way that honors God and reflects God’s glory to the world.

Treasured possessions

In addition, through Jesus Christ this new covenant becomes open not just to those of Jewish descent, but to Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. “If Gentiles have been incorporated into the people of God, included in the righteous remnant without distinction, then our inheritance is one and the same. As we follow in the footsteps of Israel’s Messiah, we too take on the responsibilities of God’s “treasured possessions.” That is our identity as God’s people, and together Jews and Gentiles who declare allegiance to Jesus Christ bear God’s image in the world. “Gentiles who follow Jesus bear Yahweh’s name” (175).

The author’s work in biblical theology is beginning to draw notice among Old Testament scholars, and with Bearing God’s Name, she has written a wonderful survey of the Old Testament (and how its teaching impacts the New Testament) organized around one of the most vital themes found on the pages of Holy Scripture. She has done it in a way that people looking for a first book on understanding the essential message of the Old Testament will find it especially helpful. Bearing God’s Name is a book that I will recommend to lay Christians at my church and to students looking for a introduction to the Old Testament.

Especially helpful are the sidebars where she explains ideas that shed important light on how we read and understand the Old Testament. These sidebars offer concise descriptions of matters like the debate on how Scripture represents the population of Hebrews in Egypt, the nature of Yahweh’s purity and how that impacts Old Testament worship, the origin of the term “Decalogue,” among others. These are helpful to those who are reading the Old Testament scriptures for the first time or who wish to dig deeper into the biblical text. Also helpful are the bibliographies at the end of each chapter as well as the comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book. Endnotes appear after the final chapter so that they do not take away from the narratives of each chapter.

This reviewer hopes that this will be the first of several books from the pen of this new biblical scholar, teacher, and guide in the years to come.

Henri Nouwen and the Journey of Faith

Earlier this year, I heard someone on The Beatles channel point out that the calendar for 2019 matched exactly the calendar for 1974. While for most, this was one more useless piece of trivia, for me it struck a nerve. Nineteen seventy-four was a pivotal year for me, and indeed, for the entire country. The Vietnam war was winding down toward an inglorious defeat. Watergate percolated to the point where the Nixon presidency would end in disgrace. The intensity of the 1960s was winding down, and the “Age of Aquarius” was morphing  as self-help and “new-age” movements began to flower. Rock-and-roll was giving way to disco.

I graduated from college in May, and started to think about the future. Seminary was my immediate goal and by fall I had a full-time teaching gig and had started classes at Fuller Seminary’s first extension campus in the Bay Area. During the summer while I was working in Mt. Hermon, CA my father suddenly died and instead of leaving San Francisco, I stayed at home in order to make sure that my mom was cared for. Moving to Pasadena would have to wait a couple of years.

It was also the year that everything unraveled. Anxiety and depression made their first unwelcome visit to my soul, and the Christianity that I had known no longer made sense. Little did I know that in 1974 I would start a journey that would last for years and bring intellectual and emotional struggle in ways that I could not have foreseen; and that all of my comfortable idolatries would be exposed.

Parallel journeys

Sadly,  much of American evangelicalism at that time rushed headlong into destructive schemes like Bill Gothard’s “Basic Youth Conflicts” as well as a wild-eyed apocalpyticism marked by works like The Late Great Planet Earth. (The book title itself was a knock-off from Curt Gentry’s 1969 novel, The Last Days of the Late Great State of California.) So while many evangelicals of all ages looked for the formulas that would help them navigate an uncertain world, yours truly would watch Gothard lecture to a group of 9,000 fawning evangelicals in Long Beach, CA and think to himself, “Germany, 1933!”

Fortunately, the seeds of something new were beginning to sprout in the work of a small group of evangelicals–Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Archibald Hart, all of whom were influenced by writers as diverse as Paul Tournier, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Thomas Merton, and the many spiritual writers that permeated Christian history. One of those writers that they led me to was the Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen. At the time, Nouwen was teaching at Yale Divinity School and was already known for his work on pastoral care titled The Wounded Healer. 

But, the first book that I discovered was his diary of seven months from June through December, 1974 where he lived in a monastic community in upstate New York, titled The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery.  Ironically, Nouwen wrote at the same time that many pivotal events occurred in my own life, and as I read the entries in the early 1980s, I could remember where I was and what was happening on those same days. It was like Nouwen and I were fellow travelers on similar journeys. And, both of us weren’t fully sure how those journeys would turn out.

Wisdom for the journey of faith

I reread this book every few years, and this year with the calendar for 2019 matching that of 1974, my rereading is especially meaningful. The insights that Nouwen learned through his time of struggling with life as a “temporary monk” at the Abbey of the Genesee are still important for me today. I think you will find them helpful especially because they remind us that we cannot live by human formulas, that God will not be boxed in by our expectations, and that the Christian life can be messy as we try to follow our Lord. At a time when American evangelicalism is in full melt-down, we are challenged to find Christian wisdom that is grounded in the deep and rich traditions of Holy Scripture and the early Christian creeds and confessions.

For example:

“in recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the dangerous possibility of making the Word of God sensational. Just as people can watch spellbound a circus artist tumbling through the air in a phosphorized costume, so they can listen to a preacher who uses the Word of God to draw attention to himself. But a sensational preacher stimulates the senses and leaves the spirit untouched. Instead of being the way to God, his ‘being different’ gets in the way” (Saturday, July 13, 1974, 65-66).

” Contemplative life is a human response to the fundamental fact that the central things in life, although spiritually perceptible, remain invisible in large measure and can very easily be overlooked by the inattentive, busy, distracted person that each of us can so readily become” (Sunday, June 16, 1974, 36).

“The sentence, ‘When you leave the world to give yourself to God, there is no return’ hits me hard. It is an echo not only of Jesus call to leave everything behind to follow him but also of the many voices of the desert fathers. I am more and more certain that I still have not left the world but keep lingering on its edges. I am plainly and simply scared of the ‘no return,’ and fear that the road of total commitment to God is arduous, painful, and very lonely” (Wednesday, July 10, 1974, 62).

“Still, I am deeply convinced that when I allow God to enter into my loneliness, when I allow him to let me know that I am loved far more deeply than I can imagine, only then can I give and receive real friendship…When I can say with Paul, ‘not I live, but Christ lives in me,’ then I no longer need to depend on the attention of others to have a sense of self. Because then I realize that my most important identity is the identity I have received as a grace of God which has made me a participant in the divine life of God himself” (Friday, July 26, 1974, 88).

“Maybe I have been living much too fast, too restlessly, too feverishly, forgetting to pay attention to what is happening here and now, right under my nose. Just as a whole world of beauty can be discovered in one flower, so the great grace of God can be tasted in one small moment. Just as no great travels are necessary to see the beauty of creation, so no great ecstasies are needed to discover the love of God. But you have to be still and wait so that you can realize that God is not in the earthquake, the storm, or the lightning,but in the gentle breeze with which he touches your back” (Tuesday, July 30, 1974, 94-95).

“God cannot be understood; he cannot be grasped by the human mind. The truth escapes our human capacities. The only way to come close to it is by a constant emphasis on the limitations of our human capacities to ‘have’ and ‘hold’ the truth. We can neither explain God nor his presence in history. As soon as we identify God with any specific event or situation, we play God and distort the truth. We can only be faithful in our affirmation that God has not departed us but calls us in the middle of all the unexplainable absurdities of life. It is very important to be aware of this. There is a great and subtle temptation to suggest to myself or others where God is working and where not, where he is resent and when not, but nobody, no Christian, no priest, no monk, has any “special knowledge” about God. God cannot be limited by any human concept or prediction. He is greater than our mind and heart and perfectly free to reveal himself where and when he wants” (Saturday, September 14, 1974, 137).

“We have always struggled to understand how God can be just as well as merciful. Indeed, the mystery of God is that he can be both to the highest degree. But we cannot” (Monday, September 16, 138).

“As long as I am constantly concerned about what I ‘ought’ to say, think, do, or feel, I am still the victim of my surroundings and am not liberated. I am compelled to act in certain ways to live up to my self-created image. But when I can accept my identity from God and allow him to be the center of my life, I am liberated from compulsion and can move without restraints” (Wednesday, December 11, 1974, 203).

Simple but not easy

Reading these words forty-five years later prompts me to remember that understanding the Christian faith is relatively easy, but following our Lord is no simple task. We tend to get that backwards. We want to make understanding the faith far too complex, and living the faith formulaic. No wonder we wind up in the trap that it falls to us to fix ourselves, to fix others, and to fix our country and world. But, the essence of the Christian faith is that we are utterly unable to fix ourselves, fix others, or fix the world. The essential message of Christian faith is one of surrender. We surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and that surrender includes all of our own goals, all of our own agendas, all of our desires to remake the world in our own image. Instead we trust Christ for our salvation and for our very lives. As Henri Nouwen learned, as I am continuing to learn, as countless others have learned our journeys of faith are fraught with struggle and turmoil especially when we confuse following Jesus with the expectations of self and others. At the end of the day, it is all about grace and mercy. We don’t deserve those, but God invites us to them anyway.

As Sue Mosteller, Henri Nouwen’s longtime assistant and close friend, has written, “Henri’s friends always knew that Henri struggled to live up to what he wrote.” In that, he was no different than the rest of us, especially those of us who preach, teach, and serve as pastors. Henri died in 1996, ironically in his native land in the Netherlands while on his way to St. Petersburg, Russia to film a project related to one of his books. Fortunately, his journals, diaries, and books are still available. We still assign his little book on leadership titled In the Name of Jesus at Gordon-Conwell. Forty-five years after his life as a “temporary monk” at the Abbey of the Genesee, his account of those seven months is one that I still turn to when I need reminding that following Jesus does not rest in formulas or efforts to fix things that I don’t like in the church or world around me. It is about following Jesus through the joys, struggles, sorrows, of this world, and realizing that the new heaven and new earth still await.

If you haven’t read The Genesee Diary (Doubleday, 1981), let me invite you to read and reflect on what the Triune God may want to say to you about following him.