Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

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After I spoke with a group of church leaders once on the topic of discipling men and women in the church, one pastor took me aside. He didn’t want to make this comment during the Q&A session we just finished. He told me that my message had merit, but he was concerned about the feminization of the church and he wanted my thoughts on that. Wasn’t I worried that investing in more women would lead to this? Anecdotally, he said that he’s noticed that women were eager to learn; and the more churches invest in them, the more they will rise in leadership over the men. Or in influencing the men. Which feminizes the church.

Have you heard something like this before? I’m guessing so, because I hear it often. When someone starts talking about the feminization of the church, it is an instant red flag for me. I talk about this some in The Sexual Reformation. Here is an excerpt:

I don’t see anywhere in Scripture where there are warnings about the growing number of women joining the church over the men. I don’t see Paul worried that Timothy was brought up in the faith by his grandma and mother, so he might be too soft. No, he is thankful for Lois and Eunice passing down the faith (1 Tim. 1:5). We read nothing about Timothy being feminized because of it.

We seem to be forgetting that the first churches met in households. Talk about feminizing! And in Scripture we see mainly women hosting these house churches: Prisca (1 Cor. 6:19; Rom. 16:3–5), Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (Philem. 1:2), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Junia (Rom. 16:7 NIV), and Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2 NIV). Despite attempts to polarize the influence of women as purely domestic and never public, Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald note how these “categories are overdrawn and often too rigidly applied.”[1] Furthermore, Susan Hylen demonstrates that scholars have often read anachronistically when imposing a division in gender roles in Greco-Roman societies based on modern notions of private and public. While today we closely associate “public sphere” with “public action” (whereas everything “private” belongs in the home), in the first century, such association did not exist. “Private” often signified proprietary interest and did not necessarily delineate location. Many more activities were classified as “private” than we may think, including commerce, education, and business, and many of these were conducted in public spaces. Sacred spaces were distinguished from public spaces, and household spaces often held public functions, depending on the occupant’s social status. Women were not confined to merely “domestic” activities, but freely moved around and participated in public spaces in judicial, commercial, sacred, and political spheres.[2]

We see what is written about women (or not) by those who want to influence society. But we also need to take in consideration historical evidence from everyday living, such as personal letters, receipts, legal documents, invitations, or even architectural or burial inscriptions. These historical finds reveal women’s public agency and influence is more complex than what we find in “published” writings. We have evidence of women interacting and contributing in the home, society, and even in the synagogue, as factors such as location and needs of the community factor into a woman’s opportunities for education, commerce, and religious service.[3] Even so, we cannot deny “the domestic flavor that would have permeated Christian meetings.”[4] The everyday cares of household life are part of the beautiful, busy matrix of gathered worship. Osiek and MacDonald go as far as to say that since women managed all that went on in the household, “to step into a Christian house church was to step into women’s world.”[5]

What if a larger percentage of women in the church was a good thing? What if their contributions and influence were fruitful, and not feared? What if the very presence of female bodies spoke something glorious to God’s people? Rodney Stark argues that “the rise of Christianity depended upon women.”[6] Like it or not, “the early church drew substantially more female than male converts, and this in a world where women were in short supply.”[7] Likewise, Peter Lampe elucidates, “That Christianity found a hearing predominantly among women in Rome and elsewhere is sufficiently known and testified.”[8] Stark argues that women made up around two-thirds of the early church, although we really do not have concrete evidence for these demographics. This was at a time, according to Stark, when more than two-thirds of the population were men— around 70 percent! He attributes the shortage of women to their devaluation, shown in high levels of female infanticide. Even large families usually only kept one daughter. On top of that, the mortality rate was high for women during childbirth. And yet the church valued women. And women responded. Because of the Christian value for life, abortion and infanticide were condemned in the church. Exclusive, covenantal love in marriage was promoted. Husbands often converted to Christianity via their wives, what Stark calls “secondary conversions.” Even when the husbands didn’t convert, their children were still raised in the church and considered holy (1 Cor. 7:14).[9] Stark concludes, “Having an excess of women gave the church a remarkable advantage because it resulted in disproportionate Christian fertility and in a considerable number of secondary conversions.”[10] No one was complaining about the feminization of the church.

But we don’t need merely to conclude that women outnumbered the men because they were valued more there. Osiek and MacDonald argue that there was a simultaneous movement in Roman society, not in the modern sense of liberation for women, but one that did begin opening doors for of some social freedoms for women.[11] There were other options. Women were valued in Christianity, but even more so, they began to see what is most valuable. As Judith Lieu observes, women may have converted for intellectual reasons as well.[12] To take it a step further, the intellectual stimulation and contribution is sparked by the grace of God. Providentially, Christ was given to and received by many women, and they responded with their bodies, minds, and souls. What matters most is Christ preached and Christ nurtured in his people. Imagine that.

[1] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 3.

[2] See Susan Hylen, “Public and Private Space and Action in the Early Roman Period,” NTS 66 (2020): 534–53.

[3] See Cohick, Women, 322-323.

[4] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 246.

[5] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 163.

[6] Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became

the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), e-book, 159, emphasis added. In contrast, Larry Hurtado says a contributing factor to the demise of the cult of Mithras was the exclusion of women. Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 84.

[7] Stark, Triumph, 159.

[8] Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2003), 146.

[9] Stark, Triumph, 141–159.

[10] Stark, Triumph, 159.

[11] Osiek and MacDonald, Woman’s Place, 2.

[12] Judith Leiu, “The Attraction of Women In/To Early Judaism and Christianity: Gender and the politics of conversion.” JSNT 72 (1998), 5-22.

It’s been two years since Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published. I know because it popped up in my “memories.” It made me pause and think about how long and impactful these last two years have been. A lot has changed in my life. I’ve changed. Peeling yellow wallpaper is painful stuff. When writing my book, I didn’t realize how much of it was all over myself.

For those of you who haven’t read Recovering, I am referring to the infamous 19th century novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a brilliant and disturbing exploration of the effects patriarchal attitudes and constrictions have on female psychosynthesis.[1] Being forced into “rest therapy” for a bogus diagnosis of neurasthenia, the narrator of the book becomes completely fixated on the disturbing yellow wallpaper of the run-down estate she is made to stay in and becomes convinced that there is a woman trapped inside of its smothering pattern. She must peel it back to set her free. You see, the yellow wallpaper in this confined room of which she is made to stay is a symbol of the traditional patriarchal structures of family, medicine, and society. Following the stream-of-consciousness writing of the narrator’s journal-like entries, the reader joins her downward spiral from sanity. At the end, her voice changes to that of the woman in the wallpaper whom she’s set out to free.

In the Introduction of my book, I ask the question:

Is the woman in this story crazy for what she saw in the yellow wallpaper, or is everyone else crazy for not seeing it?

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I’m in a church that ascribes to the brand of complementarianism your book is troubled by and I am a woman so I don’t get a lot of weight when it comes to how my church discusses these questions. What does seeking a sexual reformation look like for me?

This one of the questions submitted for tonight’s Sexual Reformation Conversation Series live Q&A. There are so many ways to answer it, right? I didn’t realize it then, but I wrote my first book Housewife Theologian because of the need for sexual reformation in the church. I wrote it because in many ways I felt uninitiated as a disciple in the church. The answer to the question seems to be in the question itself: I am a woman so I don’t get a lot of weight when it comes to how my church discusses these questions.

There it is. Weight. Value. Contribution. Reciprocity. Dignity. Personhood. It looks like being seen, having a voice, and being asked to use it because it is gift.

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Did you know that the Jewish tradition is to read the Song of Songs at Passover? While the Song is placed right smack in the middle of our Bibles, in the Hebrew Bible it had a significant placement as the first of the five scrolls, or the five megillot. These “writings” were read at the major festivals, the Song being read at Passover.

The Song is also a great text for Holy Week. The beloved disciple himself was a singer of the Song in his account of the anointing at Bethany and the resurrection. Here is small excerpt from The Sexual Reformation on John’s cover of the Song:

It is fitting that we see reverberations of the Song in the beloved disciple’s, John’s, gospel. Ann Roberts Winsor wrote a fascinating book on the allusions to the Song of Songs in the fourth gospel.[1] The book begins with a chapter on John 12:1–8, noting the allusions to the Song, including hair, a king reclining, precious nard ointment, feet, and scent, in the account of Mary of Bethany using her hair to anoint Jesus’s feet with expensive oil.

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I wrote this article a little while after signing my first book contract. It was originally published on March 13, 2013. It was probably the first article of mine that was widely read. From other writers, there was a sense of “Aimee, we don’t talk about this part of Christian publishing out loud.” But readers were curious. About a year after it was published, a friend asked me if I regret writing the article. I didn’t understand why that was even a question. Reading it again 9 years later, I stand behind it even more. I’ve seen the effects of following the brand. And we’ve seen how much of a monster tribalism has become. Sure, I participate in marketing and think others should as well. But it’s good to struggle with our methods, not take ourselves too seriously, and always remember we are human beings and so are the people reading our books.

Carrying this conviction with me for the last 9 years that I am not a brand gave me the freedom to ask my own questions and write what I am passionate about. I didn’t always follow it well. That is a regret. There are times where I have to reevaluate and remind myself of this. It’s so easy to even turn our convictions into brands to package, sell, and defend at all costs. Branding is necessary, but needs put in its proper place. Convictions are not brands. People are not brands. Christ does not exploit his people.

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This is a question that’s been haunting me. My writing, publishing, and speaking were born out of both a desire and struggle to learn about discipleship in adulthood. I had some basic questions as a young adult:

If I’m going to take this being a Christian thing seriously, what does that look like?

If Christianity is true, what can I hold fast to when I don’t want to act like one?

And how do I grow into maturity?

In seeking answers to these questions, other women resonated with my curiosity and I was asked to teach a women’s Bible study. Of course, the beautiful answer turns our eyes to knowing and communing with the triune God. In this time, I experienced the thrill of discovering theology, a group of thinking women who ask the hard questions, and our joy in growth together. But this excitement came crashing down when the pastor revealed in a flippant comment that his expectations for our learning were lower than the theological questions we had. After all, we were the women’s Bible study. Keep doing your nice learning over there. Wink.

Where does a thinking woman in the church go to be discipled? Turns out we capped out.

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There seems to be a lot of concern and “I told you so’s” on social media this week over my trajectory. I find that an interesting word. At first, I was bothered by it as it is being used in the sense that I started off in a good place and now I’m headed to the danger zone. That all along, I’ve been deceiving everyone. I’m the devil in the shape of a woman, trying to take everyone with me on my trajectory.

But as I think about it, I am on a trajectory. That’s why complementarianism, as it’s defined in contemporary evangelicalism, can’t hold me. Women in their spaces can only grow in limited ways.

My trajectory is nothing less than communion with the triune God and all his beloved. My trajectory is the union of heaven and earth, Christ and his bride, behind the veil, joined with all who love the Son, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:11).

Because, typologically speaking, the last man standing is a woman. I think of Christ’s words to his church/bride:

 “Your neck is like the tower of David, constructed in layers. A thousand shields are hung on it—all of them shields of warriors.”

Song 4:4
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Colin Smothers wrote a piece for CBMW about me speaking during a church service last week and titled it, That Was Then, This Is Now. He pulled up an article I wrote back in 2013 answering a reader’s question about the difference between a woman preaching and a woman writing a blog post. He must have been doing some serious digging! I should thank him for reading through my archives so intently. But he’s right…

That Was Then

That was the good ol’ days when Aimee played by the complementarian rules. She discovered that they hold the subjugation of women higher than orthodox trinitarianism. She found that they value Danvers over Nicene. They demand that she publicly answer questions made by anonymous men, or lose her job. They misrepresent her work in their “academic” reviews. They turn her out of her own denomination by enabling their leaders to openly revile her, leaving her unprotected and traumatized by the whole process of asking for help.

That was then.

This is Now

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It is time! The Sexual Reformation: Restoring the Dignity and Personhood of Man and Woman is now available! And it doesn’t stop with the book. You can join me, Sheila Gregoire, Mike Bird, Beth Allison Barr, Nijay Gupta, and Tiffany Bluhm for a virtual conversation series and live Q&A on April 19th. You can sign up for that here. This is just the beginning. Here is a little sneak peek into the Introduction, Reformation Moves Forward:

Imagine there is a heaven.

In 1971 John Lennon released what became his bestselling single as a solo artist, “Imagine.” He asked us to imagine a world with no heaven, no borders, and no possessions. This imagining was supposed to help promote peace, as we live only for today and no longer have reasons for war, greed, or hunger. If we could just get rid of the realities of God, land, and our basic needs, we could come together as one. We would love each other.

John Lennon was wrong about that. We aren’t God, and we wouldn’t exist without him. But imagining that we could, we would have no goodness, as all goodness comes from him. The problem is not the gifts he’s given us but the corruption of our own hearts. The solution for peace isn’t imagining no heaven; the solution is setting our eyes on the beautiful truth. The solution is to have an eschatological imagination,[1] to think deeply about our ultimate aim.

Imagine heaven and earth coming together—a new heaven and new earth.

Imagine a triune God who created us to have eternal communion with him and with one another there. Imagine that this God created us as icons, or representative symbols, of himself, showcasing a great love story— the story of the outgoing, overflowing love of the triune God. Maybe it is hard to imagine this kind of love. But give it a try. Imagine that we are created to share covenantally in the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Imagine that our very bodies tell the story of a gift given in eternity—a gift of a bride to the Son. Imagine man and woman revealing the deep mystery of an eternal trinitarian covenant that is prefigured in creation.

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