Book Review: Women and Men in Scripture and the Church

If you want a book to unintentionally persuade you that the arguments for women to be elders and bishops are incredibly weak, then I suspect this might be the book. It is one of the worst I have read.

I'm doing some presentations on the issues of women's ministry in a couple of months and, whilst being a fairly convinced complementarian, I recognise good, faithful, Bible-believing Christians come to a different viewpoint to me. In practice that gives me a tendency to read outside my viewpoint for the best of their arguments.

The editors tells us "The aim of this book is to help individual Christians, small groups and even whole churches to look again honestly and carefully at what the Bible says about women and men in family life, in ministry and in society." (p. ix) They do then go on to admit that all the authors are egalitarian, but the book could still be even-handed. In particular it was compiled (too hastily I might suggest) to speak into the situation after the general synod vote where the legislation for women bishops did not pass in 2012. Commendably they suggest the way forward is "more than a process to keep everyone together. We must also examine what we believe." (p. ix) and even more commendable they turn to Scripture for that purpose.

However, I think the purpose of the book is more accurately summarised as follows: "The authors all share the conviction that the Church of England should move rapidly towards the consecration of women as bishops, and a conviction that this is more consistent with and supported by the Scriptures." (p.xiv) The purpose is to persuade the reader that Scripture need be no barrier to the agenda of consecration of women bishops.

With those aims, the book is written at a popular level, with study questions and guides to reflection and is certainly a fairly straightforward read. Each chapter is written by a different author with some extra notes on most of the chapters written by Paula Gooder.

So why am I so negative about the book. Here are a few thoughts.

  1. An egalitarian position is too often stated rather than exegeted. The chapter on Galatians 3:28 is a good example where the principle of "no longer male and female" is extended to ministry without much of an exegetical argument. But this problem is found throughout, e.g. on Genesis 1 we read "Equally, man and woman function together in ruling over the rest of creation, thus excluding the possibility of one gender claiming power over the other." (p.7) Now there are quite a few unhelpful things in that one line, but relevant here is that there's no argument from the author for why men and women couldn't fulfil the rule with different roles. We read on Romans 12, "And because gender is conspicuously absent from this teaching on ministry, we can conclude that the gifts and their complementary functions are interchangeable." (p.63) Again, where to start with an argument from an assumed conspicuous silence and an assumed interchangeability.
  2. Complementarian arguments are ignored or treated shabbily. A reader who knows anything about the debate will spot quite a few things that are simply missing. For example, on Genesis 2:18 we read "In no way can this phrase be understood to imply male leadership" (p.8), when in reality the pages of this chapter spend some time dealing with the fact that it may well be a legitimate reading! Nothing is mentioned, for example, about why Genesis 2 deals with men and women differently. What is the distinction? Why? This is also particularly evident in the chapter on Paul, which slides past the permanence of 1 Timothy 2 as based on the creation order (p.37) and describes 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 as "obscure" and "odd" (pp.40-41).
  3. Context is king, but not when we import it. That's perhaps a little harsh, but again this is particularly clear in the chapter on Paul. Each of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11, 14 are explained away with context. The problem is that the context used by the author isn't found in Paul and Paul does give a context (creation, the Godhead and the law).
  4. Much of the discussion seems to set up a straw man. For example, chapters on Romans 12 and 16 don't seem to directly address the question of should women be bishops (or elders), but seem to attack those who don't want women to do any ministry - well who exactly are those people?
  5. Language is loaded rather than precise. A few of the examples above have shown this already and this seems quite common in the book, but it is occasionally quite offensive linking the complementarian position to being pro-slavery (p.18) and domestic violence (p.53).
  6. The book is theologically variable. It is clear that some of the authors see different trajectories for their theology. The chapter on Galatians 3 presents a developing theology that reacts to the culture. The chapter on Ephesians 5 seems to link equality of husband and wife, with equality for homosexual couples (p.51). But then the chapter on frequently asked questions takes a rather different tack (p.77-80). This begs the question about what theology (particularly of Scripture) actually underlies the book.
As a book to push women bishop's legislation over the final hurdle, this may have been effective. However, for someone who really wants to engage "honestly and carefully" with the Bible on this issue, it is frankly pretty dismal. There are much better books written from both sides of the debate, books that take more care exegetically and are less manipulative in trying to achieve their result. Some excuse may be given because of the brevity of the book and the speed of its publication, but I'm not sure that is satisfactory.

As I said at the start, I came away from this book thinking that if that's the best egalitarians have to offer, then they must be wrong! However, one lesson to learn from a book like this, is that it is very hard to write careful, well-argued, persuasive and gracious books. I've seen this in books on both sides of this argument. I continue to long for precision in particular - when I read someone's book I want to see clearly why they are saying something and to see a correlation between the strength of your argument and the strength of your conclusion...

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