There has been a long-running debate in Christian circles over gender roles both in the home and in the church. This debate was one of the key issues in the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, and continues to be a major point of discussion today. Recently, Aimee Byrd wrote a book entitled Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This is a direct shot at the popular Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that was edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper and which has been the most influential work in the complementarian wing of evangelicalism, often represented by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Byrd’s book points out some very legitimate criticisms of some aspects of conservative evangelical culture while falling very short on some other points. I will unpack what I believe she gets right, then address some major concerns I have with the work.
The Church Needs to do Better
In her criticism of the CBMW, Byrd makes some very accurate evaluations of weaknesses within many evangelical churches. I’ll break them into a few categories.
Many churches are very weak in discipleship
If you walked into the average evangelical church in the US, you would probably find a lot of people who profess a deep and abiding love for God, but who in reality know very little about that God. The fact is that many believers simply don’t grasp the basic doctrines of the faith. In the SBC, you would probably find a lot of church members who are either for or against Calvinism, but who could not accurately describe either belief system in a coherent way. I don’t know if it’s because believers don’t hunger to know their God better or if churches are just too scared to teach biblical theology, but this is a failing. Nowhere is this seen more than in Women’s Ministry. Most Bible Studies labeled as “women’s” studies are puff and fluff with surface-level interpretation (if the biblical text is seriously engaged with at all). Why is this? Have we trained the women in our churches to believe that they are not smart enough to understand theology, or that theological discussion is just for the men? We need churches that are full of theologically stout men and women.
Churches need to stop outsourcing discipleship
In the vacuum created by the lack of discipleship and theological training taking place in the church, two other sources of training have filled the void, though neither in an effective way. First is the parachurch ministry. These are ministries that exist outside of the local church and (are supposed to) come alongside the church to help in areas that churches may struggle to sufficiently address. Parachurch ministries have their place, and can play a vital role in advancing the gospel. However, they are inferior as a means of discipleship because they operate outside the context of the local church, and usually operate on a level that crosses denominational lines, often with very basic doctrinal statements. These ministries are more effective if they function solely within their primary purpose (prison ministry, creation ministry, etc).
A second inferior means of discipleship that has arisen is the celebrity pastor. Now let me be clear: I have no problem listening to pastors or preachers outside of your local church. I do so often. I am encouraged, strengthened, and challenged by the preaching of godly men who have been blessed to be well-known in evangelical circles. But those men are not my pastor. They are not members of my local church, and they are not my primary means of discipleship. That is a task best (and biblically) done by the local church.
Churches have struggled to develop their women
The desire of those who hold to a complementarian position on gender roles has always been to help both men and women flourish in their God-given roles in the church. In many cases though, churches have placed restrictions and limits on their women that are not found in scripture, while placing men in positions of authority whose only qualification is that they are male. This is a massive problem and the solution is beyond the scope of this article. But it must change. Women in our churches are sisters to be developed and whose gifts are needed in the church. Woe to the leadership that limits the use of those gifts in ways that Scripture has not prohibited! On the other side, we need to be just as careful that we do not place unqualified men into certain roles in the local church. I believe that there is a dynamic here that needs to be changed in many churches.
Aimee Byrd Misses the Mark
There are a number of areas where I believe Byrd’s book simply is wrong or misguided. Let’s look at a few of those here.
The CBMW makes discipleship all about gender roles
Byrd has very little good to say about CBMW or the Danvers Statement. She accuses the CBMW of making discipleship all about gender roles, and of elevating the Danvers Statement (the original statement that launched the CBMW) above first-order issues. Both of these accusations fall short. The CBMW is a group that is focused on helping churches work through biblical texts that speak to the roles of men and women in the church. Out of necessity, it focuses on those issues (much as Answers in Genesis focuses on Genesis 1-11). Byrd’s criticism in these areas seem to reveal a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the work of the CBMW.
Byrd struggles to engage with the actual text of Scripture
Byrd spends a lot of time in the book working through her philosophy of gender roles. You can find an excellent critique of these written by Denny Burk, so I won’t retread that ground. By far my biggest concern in reading this book was Byrd’s hermeneutic. She refused to address in any way the key texts in the debate over women’s roles in the church, and instead highlighted examples in the Scriptures of women acting in leadership roles. She then seemed to draw general principles from these accounts that form the structure of her view of gender roles. An example is how she views Phoebe. Phoebe was tasked with carrying the letter to the church in Rome from the apostle Paul. This is a significant role, and it should not be minimized. It speaks to the spiritual maturity of this woman, and the high regard that Paul had for her. However, Byrd takes this role to mean that Phoebe was sent not just with the letter, but with teaching authority in the local church. This just isn’t in the text, and requires a leap of logic, especially without dealing with the texts that actually directly address the roles of men and women in the church.
In summary, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has some solid points. Aimee Byrd points out some legitimate areas where we need to do better. She also struggles to formulate a coherent alternative theology of gender in the church. In this, Byrd fails in fairly dramatic fashion. Her book had a lot of promise, but ultimately fails to deliver any kind of coherent contribution to the overall conversation.