I have to say that I find the latest post by Jonathan Master regarding my book Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood a bit perplexing. I wrote a book highlighting how a contemporary movement has damaged the way that we disciple men and women in the church, focusing on the way we read scripture, the way we view discipleship, and our responsibilities to one another. I wanted to offer an alternative resource that is faithful to Scripture. In it, I show how the creators of this movement have some seriously faulty structures—from unorthodox teaching on the trinity to Aristotelian views of sex—used to subjugate women. What is the response from my colleague?
Oddly, none of that is addressed in the post. There is not a separate post asking any questions about these serious errors being taught in the complementarian movement. There isn’t any engagement with the content and purpose of my book at all. Instead, it speaks of a number of nameless men who have some questions for me. None of these men can be directly challenged, as I am not given the privilege to know who they are, except for Jonathan. I’ve contributed a lot for ACE over the past 7 years and, while my colleagues don’t have to think my book is good and I shouldn’t be immune to critique, it seems some time could have been taken to interact with me better with these questions. Seeing how we are an alliance, instead of getting a heads up email the night before, maybe they could have 1) revealed themselves, 2) engaged more with the book itself, and 3) taken the time and courtesy to arrange this as an interview format rather than posting a list of 9 questions (the bulk of which are not directly even related to my book, some claim things that I do not say in the book, and some are already answered in the book) that I’m told I may or may not want to answer. What would be more helpful and edifying?
For example, the title of my book isn’t even mentioned. And instead of showing an image of my book, there’s a pretty yellow design. This seems really odd to me. Then, it’s thrown in there that I use an early feminist image of the “yellow wallpaper” that I say needs to be “broken through.” The yellow wallpaper is not a “feminist image,” it is a metaphor in a book. A feminist wrote the book. I’m a writer. The yellow wallpaper provided a brilliant metaphor for how we need to identify and peel back (not break through) some damaging teaching in the church. I don’t understand the sensitivity over borrowing a metaphor.
The nature of this post is the very yellow wallpaper that I am trying to reveal. Is it complementary that I write publicly so all can see my name and what my denomination and church membership is, exposing me and them to all kinds of cruel backlash, but these men will remain anonymous, writing and talking behind closed doors, while they post a list of questions for me? Is it complementary to put the burden on me to answer (or not) some list of questions more related to a book they wanted me to write rather than engaging with the one that I did? I just don’t get it.
Also, it’s easy to throw out this long list of questions (with no context or review of what my book is even about), but some of these take a lengthy response. It reads to me like, we’d like to bypass the main point of your book and make you answer these questions we have for you about women’s ontological subordination. Is that what really matters?
And in taking some space to address the oddness of all this to me, I now worry that I am going to be perceived as combative. Jonathan wrote to me that he is coming in good faith to this discussion. I appreciate that he is using his own name, that I have always been able to speak frankly with him, and the friendly working relationship we have shared over the years. I just wish the discussion would actually be about what I am addressing in my book. But nonetheless, I will address this first question:
- Does natural law or natural theology have anything to teach us about the inherent ontological differences between men and women as those differences relate to authority and submission? If so, how might that affect our understanding of male and female roles in the church and society (apart from the limited question of ordination)?
The nature of this question kind of reveals everything. After reading my book, it seems odd that the first question is about ontological authority and submission inherent in men and women.
I would like to ask these secret men about their own natural theology and why it’s so centered on male authority, and female subjection. The question itself reveals the Aristotelian views that I am combatting in my book. A reviewer summed up this so-called natural theology well in quoting from our church fathers:
How would Byrd’s book stand up to the charge of novelty? If she is correct, why has this not been noticed for 2000 years? Byrd has opened herself up to a serious charge, and I applaud her courage. I suggest she has perceived that the church in God’s providence can finally hear this, and I suggest four reasons for this readiness:
(1) Aristotle sounds harsh to our ears, whether he is parroted by AUGUSTINE, who does not attribute the image of God to woman as a separate creature (“…woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason”), by AQUINAS, quoting Aristotle (“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes . . . But man is yet further ordered (beyond procreation) to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation . . .”), by GOUGE (“The metaphor [wife’s head] shows that to his wife he is as head of a natural body, both higher in place, and also more excellent in dignity, by virtue of both which he is rule and governor of his wife.”) or by BAVINCK (“the woman must wrestle continually against her deficiency in logic that is manifested both in rigid tenacity and incorrigible willfulness, as well as in a fickleness that defies every form of argument”).
(2) Secondly, Vos has recovered biblical theology and the importance of typology for the church. Just as man finds his type in both prototypical Adam and the archetypal second Adam, woman finds her type in both prototypical Eden and the archetypal heavenly sanctuary;
(3) With the burdens of domestic life significantly eased by technology, women can turn their attention to contributing, which unfortunately often lead to confusion in understanding why their contributions are resisted. This question then becomes personal. Some simply go forward with their gifts and write exegetical commentaries (Karen Jobes, etc); some turn their attention to the global situation for women, including the Muslim world (Carolyn Custis James, etc.) or to tracing the historical understanding of woman (Prudence Allen, etc.).
(4) Lastly, we can no longer divert our attention because of the cultural challenges we face with the gender question. We need something better than Aristotelian sex polarity, Cartesian unisex theory, or the fractional complementarity suggested by many voices concerned about biblical manhood and womanhood today. For all these reasons, I am incredibly grateful for the service that Byrd has rendered the church in this book. She is calling us to do the hard work of theological anthropology and its outworking in love.
Now, I don’t want to throw out all the great work these men named above have contributed to the church, but there are some pretty serious bones that need identified and spit out, and they are in the field of natural theology. I also don’t want to dismiss natural theology because of this, but we need to beware of its limits. Natural revelation needs to be discussed in light of special revelation. Even John Calvin says, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” So, my question is do you, anonymous group of men, hold to the natural theology quoted above by our church fathers? Why is the burden on me here, when what has been handed down to my sex in this field is abhorrent?
I also doubt you would want to say men are capable of physically making women submit, which gives them a God-given ontology to rule over women. That would be the description of the consequences of the fall, not creation. We know that men and women are designed with different, corresponding strengths. Woman’s very bodies are a homology of sacred space, equipped to nurture and give birth to human life. Looks to me like men are given their strength to serve and protect the vulnerabilities this exposes women to. There are some ways these natural characteristics saturate our maleness and femaleness in which I speak to in the book, pointing to Pope John Paul II’s extensive work on the topic.
Even bigger than this, I propose that our very bodies speak to the spousal love Christ has for his bride. We have a whole book of Scripture enfleshing this, right smack in the middle of our Bibles. And when Paul speaks of this profound mystery in Eph. 5, he doesn’t spend this section telling them to rule over their wives, but to sacrifice their own rights and bodies to love them as Christ loves his church. So, I will continue to look to Scripture to help me interpret what I learn from nature.
Why the focus on natural theology when we are talking about God’s design for men and women? While there are things we can affirm here, why not tell the world the much richer picture we are privileged to behold as Christians? And so I will repeat what I responded to Andy Naselli. You are missing the juice: the very beauty of distinction between man and woman in God’s design in which our bodies speak of his great (mysterious!) love for his bride, the church. Let’s look at order and teleology. Instead of creating man and woman at the same time, God creates woman from man, not from the dirt, and he creates her second. What is significant about this? She is the crown of creation. She is not from the dirt, but an eschatological marker. When Adam sees woman, he sees his telos, what he is to become—part of the collective bride of Christ in union with her Groom. In creation, we see in woman a typology of the church, flowing from Christ’s side. Our distinctions are not only biological, but typological.
And now I’m back to the dilemma of responding to my list of questions: I haven’t even answered the first one at the length it really deserves, but this is a blog. And while my book may touch on some natural theology it really isn’t the thrust of my writing, which is more of a theological look at discipleship for laymen and laywomen (not marriage or church office) in the church. I do not see any biblical or natural arguments that laymen have ontological authority over laywomen.
The posture of this question troubles me. Authority is not an ontological attribute unless you are God. I do, however, write more about authorization he gives his church through his word and the royal priesthood of all believers. Here is one excerpt that pertains to this question as CBMW teaches it:
Now let’s return to CBMW’s definition of authority as “the right (Matt. 8:9) and power (Mark 1:27; 1 Cor. 7:37) and responsibility (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10) to give direction to another.” Is authorization an ontological right that belongs to a particular sex, a power bestowed on men to always have the say-so in all things? Don’t we need to ask who is authorized and what each person is to do specifically with that authority? While church officers have a distinct authorization in teaching and ruling, brothers and sisters who hear the word of our Groom are authorized as a priesthood under this ministry to testify Jesus to one another. As integral wholes, the voices of men and women together are fruitful and dynamic. What story behind the story might your church be missing by reducing a woman’s contribution to a hierarchal list? What corresponding strength do your women have to offer?
I am considering whether or not to answer the other questions.
*Originally published on May 9, 2020.
3 thoughts on “Peeling Yellow Wallpaper”
Looking forward to reading your thoughts, and supporting your work here.
I am so sorry. Please don’t stop. Your writing and podcasting has been such an encouragement to me. Your voice is valuable and necessary.
I actually encountered this controversy before I had heard about your book. For some time I had been lamenting the lack of female authors in my theological library so I picked it up immediately. I’ve since finished the book. I found it thoughtful and engaging throughout. Nothing in it compromises orthodoxy. It discusses critical issues that must be addressed broadly in the church. I am sorry for the way you have been treated. Thank you for your service to the church and please continue to persevere.