1 Corinthians 11:3. Ephesians 5:22. If you’ve been anywhere near the arguments about complementarianism you’ll probably know what these verses say about women without having to look them up. Even if you don’t, you’ll definitely be familiar with what people have said they mean.
Several of my reads in 2017 were about the role and place of women. There were moments I was ready to write very long thank you letters to the authors; other times, I filled the margins with angry scribbles. Here are some short reviews of:
- The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity
- The Meaning of Marriage
- God’s Feminist Movement
- Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves
- Why Not Women?
- Scars Across Humanity
The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity
By: Kevin Giles
Publisher: Cascade Books
First published: 2017
Genre: Theology, history of doctrines
I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who wants to be seriously informed about complementarianism. For the uninitiated, this is the idea that the Bible teaches that God intentionally differentiated the sexes in creation on the basis of differing ‘roles’.
Kevin Giles is himself an egalitarian, but the equality of women is barely discussed in the book. No, he’s writing about doctrines – how they are formed, how they are tested and why they’re important.
He sets out how the doctrine of the Trinity was developed, arguing that you cannot separate a doctrine from how it was formed in history. He talks about systematic theology (that is, the theology of matters that are not directly discussed in the Bible) and how Christians read the Bible. This in itself is a fascinating read for anyone who’s heard those wearying words, “But the Bible clearly says…”
He points out, with breath-taking clarity, how no one had used the word ‘role’ to describe essential differences between men and women, or indeed the persons of the Trinity [p9], before George Knight III did so in 1977. He sets out in detail how Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware (and John Piper) used this to build the case for the ‘unique leadership role for men in the family and in the church’ [p13]. These are the people who wrote the Denvers Statement in 1987 and the Nashville Statement in 2017.
But here’s the thing: their argument was based on a heresy.
Their doctrine about women says that male ‘headship’ over women implies ‘subordination’ of women and this must be true because … Jesus is eternally subordinate to the Father.
Wait, what? This flatly contradicts the Nicene Creed and the Athanasius Creed.
And for 30 years they preached this heresy until in 2016 they finally did a u-turn, realising that you can’t just make up your own doctrines in isolation from wider Christendom with ‘the Bible clearly says’ as your rationale.
Sadly, Ware, Grudem and Piper still defend their position on complementarity even though they now don’t use eternal subordination of the Son as their basis. But the fact that they had to u-turn on a matter that was extensively debated and settled by the early church says a lot about how robust their theological methods are. What’s more, I suspect many egalitarians will be mopping up their eternal subordination mess for a while yet.
In terms of caveats for reading this book, you’ve got to be prepared for his academic style. Even so, this is not a thick book. It also helps to be forgiving during the few times when his tone gets a bit heavy with, “I tried to tell the world and no one was listening.” When you’ve been labelled a heretic and lacked public support, it’s hard not to point that out when people start listening to you. Also, don’t read it looking for a case for gender equality. He is arguing about doctrinal method, hermeneutics, and church history.
But good grief, that’s worth reading about.
The Meaning of Marriage
By: Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller
First published: 2011
So, my husband bought this book in 2015. He bought it because he’d read a number of books by Tim Keller, including The Reason for God and The Prodigal God and found them useful and insightful. Then he read this one. Two weeks later, he was angry, upset and disappointed. He said, “If I was a historian living 100 years from now, and I compared this book to the other books of his, I would think that they’d been written by two different people.”
Last year I finally got round to reading it for myself.
Keller clearly has his own opinions about how society views marriage and sexuality, and he clearly thinks he knows why some segments of secular society seem to have divergent views to his own. Frankly, I don’t think he’s been listening to culture or the questions people are asking or why they’re asking them.
His use of scripture is sloppy. His use of CS Lewis is excessive (and conveniently selective!). His use of statistics is misleading. He doesn’t write coherently about abuse or coercive control; instead he mixes his language in ways that could lead someone to allow themselves to be abused. He doesn’t discuss the difference between promise (the kind God makes) and oaths (the kind that are ‘from the evil one’) – and again, mixes his language in ways that could lead someone to be imprisoned in a loveless marriage.
And Kathy Keller is quite happy to write gender essentialism, complementarity and submission.
The premise of this book is that we’re all corrupt beings and marriage forces us to refine each other spiritually and make each other more like Christ. No. No it’s not. And when you preach that it is, you normalise abuse by the back door. And you devalue people who don’t marry.
And yes, I intend to blog more about this in 2018.
God’s Feminist Movement
By: Amber Picota
Publisher: Destiny Image
First published: 2016
The back cover say, “Based on an intense study of Scripture, factoring in historical and contextual hermeneutics and original languages, Picota shares a practical, non-legalistic, and non-traditional (yet deeply Biblical) look at topic women commonly face.”
I was refreshed to see the word ‘hermeneutics’ appear (that’s the study of ancient texts, by the way), though if I’m honest, I feel the back cover oversells the book somewhat, as I wouldn’t describe the book as really delving deep into the issues. That said, I can see the book being useful for many women who are in the early stages of deconstructing how the words ‘headship’ and ‘submission’ have been used against them.
Picota illustrates her points several times with concise, relevant stories. She also had me writing “YES!” in the margin – particularly with her take on purity:
These analogies [that you would be like a crumpled up piece of paper or chewed bubblegum if you have sex before you’re married] are just not fitting. They are disrespectful, and I do not believe they offer an aspect of redemption. … If the analogy doesn’t contain an aspect of restoration, which none of these do, then we have no business using it as a piece of manipulation to keep teens from having sex. … You cannot shame teenagers into doing the “right thing.” Shame does the opposite. [p82]
At times I felt Picota’s tone was veering towards the slightly contrived, idealistic or simplistic, but even when this happened her positive regard for the reader still came through. When I saw her ‘activation’ prayer on p94, I raised an inward eyebrow before trying it out anyway (what did I have to lose?). And the funny thing was I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working within me as I prayed parts of it. That was a surprise.
I didn’t find the biblical analysis as rigorous as I’d have liked it to be. It reminded me of when I was in a chemistry class aged 14 or 15. Our teacher said, “OK, so in an atom, you have the positive nucleus in the centre and you have negative electrons orbiting in ‘shells’ around it. There are two electrons in the first shell, eight in the second shell, eight in the third, eighteen in the fourth…” Anyone who’s studied quantum physics will know that this is a terrible explanation of the atom and it’s not really like that at all. In a similar way, I read some of Picota’s arguments thinking, “Yeah, but… no…” Then I read the bit on p140 where she describes her “Aha!” moment, realising that in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible there were no chapter titles or even numbered verses. I thought to myself, “If she has to tell her readers this, to meet them where they’re at, then maybe I shouldn’t judge her for giving slightly simplistic takes on certain passages of scripture.”
All in all then, I think this book is a good start, particularly for women who need to be affirmed regarding their worth in God’s sight. But it shouldn’t be viewed as an ending because it’s not a definitive reference book for the issues it discusses. Also, Picota clearly has had the joy of an intimate walk with God, during which she’s been able to freely discern his voice. This may mean that some people who’ve come to a place of doubt, or felt God to be silent, could struggle with reading some of her anecdotes. For myself, I was encouraged to read about how God had spoken to her; the words felt real, not contrived, and consistent with the God I know. And I came away challenged – but in a good way.
Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves
By: Sarah B Pomeroy
Publisher: The Bodley Head,
First published: 1975
Genre: Classical History
“For centuries, half of the ancient world remained invisible.”
OK, this isn’t a specifically Christian book, but I picked it up to help me understand the world of the New Testament better. It is a densely written account of women in ancient Greece and Rome.
I only got to page 58 out of 230.
Probably what put me off reading this book further was how dreadfully women were viewed – both in Greek and Roman mythology, and in these societies. It got a bit wearying. The first chapter is an eye-popping account of the stories of the pantheon of gods and goddesses, in which it is plain that most of the gods were sexually promiscuous and most of the goddesses were consistent with female stereotypes.
The thing that struck me most though is how stories influence people’s thinking. And if this is how women were represented in Greek and Roman stories…
Sigh. I’d like to come back to it if I can find the time but I’m just not sure when I’ll be able to stomach that.
Why Not Women?
By: Loren Cunningham, David Joel Hamilton, with Janice Rogers
Publisher: YWAM Publishing
First published: 2000
So, I asked my husband if he knew a book that would be helpful for me to understand how Plato’s misogyny was read into Paul’s New Testament writings. He pointed me towards “Why Not Women?”
First thing to recognise about this book is that it is written by two male evangelical authors. Yes, they are evangelicals who support the idea of women in leadership, however, it still falls into some of the evangelical pitfalls, particularly in the chapters by Loren Cunningham.
For example, the tone is frequently, “The truth was always plain in the Bible and there waiting to be discovered, if we would just read it faithfully!” This means he’s willing to write many words on why women should be allowed to lead, whilst also dismissing other controversial matters as unbiblical in a few sentences. I would rather he had stuck to his lane. He also comes over as rather over-confident at times in terms of when a Bible passage is giving a universal principle and when it’s giving a message for its time. I got the feeling on more than one occasion that he was caricaturing his opposition.
Anyway, that said, Cunningham provides a plethora of examples of effective women in positions of leadership in the church, and what happened in situations where women were prevented from leading. That alone makes it a useful resource.
As for Hamilton, he goes into certain Bible passages in immense detail, including the creation narrative, the fall narrative, 1 Corinthians 11 (the bit about headship and head coverings), 1 Corinthians 14 (women should be silent in church) and 1 Timothy 2 (‘I do not permit a woman to teach’). What’s more, he also writes about the rampant, rampant misogyny in ancient Greek culture – and he did so in a way I found accessible.
Honestly, he had a ton of insights, considering the Greek and Hebrew words in detail. I’m not sure that all his arguments hold water, but he makes his case clearly and I came away with a much, much richer understanding of these Bible passages.
So yes, a useful resource for any egalitarian who’s asking ‘But does the Bible clearly say…?’
Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and overcoming violence against women
By: Elaine Storkey
First published: 2015
It took me quite some time to pluck up the courage to read this book, but it’s worthwhile for anyone who wants a strong, researched overview of how violence against women and girls happens. Elaine Storkey is a philosopher, sociologist and theologian who was president of Tearfund for 17 years. She wrote this book because on her extensive travels she saw the same guises of violence against women coming up, again and again.
We’re talking selective abortion, selective infanticide, FGM, child and forced marriage, honour killings, domestic violence, trafficking and prostitution, rape, and sexual violence in war.
Just sometimes the reasons given were different.
I recently had the privilege of hearing her speak about her book. One of the things she said was how men in particular had found it helpful. It catalogues different kinds of harm, but also the needlessness of this, and argues convincingly against the rationalisations that are used to justify it. Not least of these is gender essentialism, the idea that men are sexualised animals who can’t help but act on their primal instincts. Her take-down of that was fabulous.
The downside of a book like this, which is laden with statistics and where countries are at in terms of legislation, is that aspects of it will go out of date quite quickly. Even so, it provides a reference point, a snapshot for the current generation – and it’s worth us being aware. (The statistics I found most angering were those around child marriage.)
As Elaine said in her talk, if we name something as wrong, as sin, we are also saying that we can do better.
Amen to that.
In the previous post I discussed ‘The Twilight of Cutting‘ and what it taught me about FGM. In the next post I’ll look at the books on theology and Bible study; and then I’ll finish with the books relevant for people who want to think outside the box, particularly in regard to sex and gender.