Andy Naselli wrote a lengthy review posted on the CBMW website the day before the release of my book, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I’m not surprised to see a negative review of my book on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood since I heavily critique their movement in my book. And, given the vitriol I have experienced from some, this review—though hard-hitting—is a welcome, respectful engagement. It is my desire to have profitable discussions on this important matter.
However, it is a very lengthy review, and to present and respond to Naselli’s arguments in detail would take the time of writing a small book of its own. So I cannot cover it all. Readers interested in the teachings on discipleship for men and women can read my book and Naselli’s review and come to their own conclusions. There are some fundamental differences in the lens CBMW writers and I use in understanding men and women. And so I find that even as Naselli seems to labor to represent my view well, he misses some of the overarching points as he tries to fit them into his CBMW categories of complementarianism. It’s a major reason why I find the term so unhelpful now, as it’s carrying too much CBMW baggage.
The first part of the review is Naselli’s summarization of my book. He states that I don’t offer a thesis statement, but he would summarize it as, “The gist of Byrd’s book is that biblical manhood and womanhood—especially as John Piper and Wayne Grudem teach it—uses traditional patriarchal structures to oppress women.” However, in the Introduction I lay out the purpose of my book, which is to “present an alternative to all the resources marketed on biblical womanhood and biblical manhood today, focusing on the reciprocity of the male and female voices in Scripture, the covenantal aspect to Bible reading and interpretation, and bearing the fruit of that in our church life.” These three aims provide the framework of the book.
There are a few parts I want to push back on in Naselli’s summary, but for space I will only mention one. He says, “In Part 1 (31–95), Byrd argues that we need to recover the way we read Scripture—especially by emphasizing parts that have women-centered perspectives.” I do not encourage readers to emphasize women-centered perspectives in Scripture over the male-centered perspectives. I take a look at some of these to see how the female voice functions in Scripture, often telling the story behind the story, making visible the invisible. Unlike the radical feminists who think Scripture is so male centered that women need to develop our own resources on Scripture, and much of the complementarian resources that send that same message, I am making the case that female literature is already in there functioning synergetically with the male voice.
Moving on, Naselli asks this question:
Where Does Byrd’s Book Fit on the Spectrum of Views on Men and Women?
There doesn’t seem to be a category in the six views that Naselli lists in which I fit nicely into. But neither does the Bible, so I’m ok with that. While labels and terms can be helpful, I find that the teaching in God’s word regarding men and women to be much more beautifully complex than we can offer a term for.
Naselli then zooms in on the complementarianism view, charting a comparison and contrast between “narrow (or thin) complementarianism” and “broad (or thick) complementarianism.” The first time I heard of this thin complementarianism business was when Denny Burk labeled both me and Carl Trueman as such. It is also the first time I ever received the accusation of being thin as an insult. I didn’t think it a helpful term then, and I still do not. And in reading Naselli’s chart, I would disagree with what is now associated with this so-called thin brand. So if it’s a thing, I’m not in it. For instance:
• I do not think men and women only relate to one another differently in the home and in the church. I write extensively about how the two sexes relate as brothers and sisters in all of life.
• I am not reluctant to define manhood and womanhood. Men generate differently and their bodies correspond to this, every cell in their DNA is male, they are fathers, sons, uncles, nephews and brothers. Women, as well, generate differently with corresponding bodies in which every cell in them are female, and we are mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, and sisters.
• I’m not reluctant to specify differences beyond biological ones. I just am reluctant to reduce our differences to stereotypes and bad gender tropes.
• I’m not reluctant to treat manhood and womanhood as significant for Christian discipleship. I teach quite differently in the book, that the reason we need strong investment and encouragement for both laymen and laywomen to be discipled well is because our respective sexes provide a dynamic, synergetic reciprocity as tradents to the faith.
I could quibble with some other points, but I will stop there and summarize what I see lacking in this contrast between thick and thin. The underlying framework of these assertions is that you either see sex distinctions as CBMW does, or you have an androgynous view. That’s a false dichotomy. In their view, authority and submission is the distinguishing factor between men and women—that is why so-called thin comps are accused of the above. While I am not saying those categories do not have a place and purpose, I find distinctions between men and women to be telling us a much richer story. And so my book is not focused on equality or rights, but on the metanarrative of Scripture and what that means for men and women as disciples. So, I just don’t find all the naming of names of who is thick and who is thin helpful. I don’t see myself in these categories. Naselli concludes that I overlap with parts of both complementarian and egalitarian views even though I claim neither of those categories for myself. Yes, I prefer to just say I am confessional and leave it at that. And I do hope that the book is challenging for both complementarians and egalitarians. But I do realize that means both sides will be frustrated with me. I’m okay with that.
I will add, since Naselli mentioned my denomination, that my views are not out of line with the OPC’s report on women in the church. They are interestingly closer than some of my critics.
After listing four areas where he agrees with me, Naselli concludes that my overall approach to manhood and womanhood in the book is misleading and misguided. First, he says that I do not interact with the three most significant books on complementarianism. I do in fact interact with the most significant book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW), edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper. I also interact with significant other published material from the originators of the movement, The Council For Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, including its foundational document, The Danvers Statement, and more recent one, The Nashville Statement. I could have done a much more extensive critique of the movement, included the two other books Naselli mentions, as well as even more thorough interaction with the movement’s more foundational book, RBMW. He is right there. My approach, however, wasn’t to write an academic tome critiquing every part of the movement, both good and bad, but to provide an alternative resource. In order to do that, it is necessary to directly engage with the crux of what is troubling in this movement because it affects how we read Scripture, view discipleship, and our responsibilities to one another. I wanted to reach the very people who are trying to “recover from” the errors taught in this movement. The bad teaching in this movement needs identified and peeled away. But, as I say in the Introduction, “In peeling [it away], we reveal the glorious beauty of God’s church, Christ’s bride, whom he is sanctifying, cleansing by his Word, and preparing for glory to be holy and blameless (Eph. 5:26–27). Thus this book is not merely a critique but also an invitation to recover the beauty and participate more fully in it.” I chose to focus on that.
Here are some more of Naselli’s concerns:
Byrd Asserts That Complementarianism Teaches That All Women Must Submit to All Men
Under this section, Naselli shows how even John Piper has taught the opposite. But that is just the thing. If Piper teaches in RBMW that “At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships” (35-36) and that “to the degree that a woman’s influence over a man is personal and directive it will generally offend a man’s good, God- given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order” (51), women have no agency other than submission to what the men around them are saying. Maybe we have some agency as to submit to some men over others, but there is no room for agency of our own, contribution of our own. I give examples in the book.
Byrd Asserts That Complementarianism Teaches That the Key Aim of Discipleship Is Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Naselli says he is not aware of complementarians claiming this as a key aim. However, I identify this in my book, quoting from RBMW:
The 2006 rerelease provides a new preface in which “a practical embrace of biblical womanhood [and manhood] in the local church” is presented as a key aim for “preaching, teaching, and discipleship.” We are told that unless we embrace the CBMW teaching of distinctions between the sexes, “Christian discipleship [will become] irretrievably damaged because there can be no talk of cultivating distinctly masculine or feminine virtue. One can only speak of a vague androgynous discipleship. . . . We need masculine males and feminine females in order to generate the kind of discipleship that results in commitment to complementarianism.” While I wholeheartedly affirm distinction between the sexes, I am convinced that our choices are not between CBMW complementarianism and vague androgynous discipleship. Statements like these raise many questions. What makes a “masculine male” and a “feminine female”? What are feminine and masculine virtues? Is biblical manhood and womanhood our aim in discipleship? Are there distinct approaches to discipleship that we should be implementing for men and women?
Byrd Presents a Particular View of the Trinity as Essential to Complementarianism
Pretty much, as far as CBMW was concerned. As I say in the book, “you can’t make a claim that ESS and CBMW complementarianism aren’t connected when there was an official statement regarding the Trinity on the CBMW website connecting the two and when much of the teaching in books, articles, and conferences from the organization not only promote ESS but also base its teaching on gender on it. At a CBMW conference, the former president pushed the matter, saying, ‘The gospel has a complementarian structure.’ The implication is that anyone who does not subscribe to his teaching on complementarity, the teaching that directly connects ESS to ‘biblical’ manhood and womanhood, is denying the gospel. I firmly disagree.” CBMW claimed the term complementarian and attached it to their teaching on the trinity. I cite multiple references from their foundational book, RBMW doing so.
Now, I am referring to the CBMW teachings on the trinity. None of this was challenged by other confessing complementarians until Liam Goligher wrote a guest post for my blog pointing out that it is unorthodox teaching not in line with confessional Nicene trinitarianism, sparking the notorious “trinity debate.” CBMW has not retracted any of its teaching on ESS/EFS, but rather their new president said they are a big umbrella for multiple views on the trinity, as long as everyone agrees on the Danvers Statement.
Byrd Argues against Broad Complementarianism without Substantively Engaging Its Strongest Exegetical and Theological Arguments
Here Naselli takes me to task for failing to consider or, as he says, superficially interacting with what he sees as the strongest biblical texts teaching broad complementarianism. First, I will say that I just don’t do this broad/narrow comp. stuff. See above. Second, there is a reason I don’t hit all of these verses and that is due to the aim and approach of my book. For instance, Naselli keeps returning to 1 Tim. 2:8-15. While that is a pertinent text when discussing ordination and corporate worship, my book is about discipleship and what laypeople do. Now, I do realize that some do not interpret these verses in the context of corporate worship, but I do, so it wasn’t a relevant text for me within the context of my writing. Again, Naselli highlights some verses about marriage, which just weren’t as pertinent to my subject matter. I wasn’t writing in detail about men and women in marriage. Could I be faulted for that? Maybe. Maybe the book would be better to add in these areas as well. It certainly would be a bigger book and those verses would come into play more. Again, my book isn’t about ordination, marriage, or the social/political matter of equality and rights, but a theological look at how whole metanarrative of Scripture speaks to men and women as disciples, tradents of the faith. With this in mind, I worked with the verses I saw as most significant. That being said, it isn’t exhaustive and there’s plenty more to cover. I concede to that and look forward to seeing more good work in those areas.
One important section Naselli said I interact too sparsely with is Gen. 1-3. I agree that is very important and while I would have loved to interact with it even more, I did hit on what I found significant about the creation and fall narrative. Naselli wanted me to interact directly with Grudem’s points, which outline why he believes this section of Scripture to be teaching male authority and female submission. I did not directly. But I did hit on some of those points (with different conclusions than Grudem) in my own presentation of the text, namely, creation order, representation, accountability, purpose, conflict, and mystery. This is where I was most upset with the review, as Naselli left out the juice of my book: 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. And this understanding is so much more theologically rich than Grudem’s reductive points of interpretation. 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. As Christopher West put it in the title of his book, our bodies tell God’s story.
This is the tension I see between Naselli’s review and my aim for the book—he doesn’t seem to be able to look past the Biblicist reading of Scripture to a more theological teaching on the wonder of “he created them male and female” (Gen 1:27). And so I take this theological look at Scripture when discussing men and women as disciples, weighing all the particular verses with what the rest of Scripture is teaching. I don’t see the need to try and fit square verses into circular holes, making thick and thin categories of how men and women are in ontological authoritative and subordinate roles. That is missing the whole point.
This response is getting too long so I will end with some take-away points.
A Few Ending Points:
- Not all confessing complementarians align with CBMW’s teaching on men and women.
- Much of the teaching from CBMW needs to be rebuked. I wish more complementarians would do this. It’s not an umbrella I will stand under.
- My book critiques these troubling teachings while presenting what I find to be a more biblical and richer picture of men and women as disciples of Christ—things the church needs to recover.
- I do expect disagreement. I wish this wasn’t such a polarizing topic though. I find much of the labels offered to us to encourage this polarization. I write within the bounds of my confessions, and that gives us some freedom to have these disagreements with a profitable aim.
- I presented what I see to be biblical principles, and then made applications, suggestions, and even had some fun using historical imagination. I distinguish between these categories. I conclude the chapters with discussion questions where I encourage church leaders to lead conversations with their congregants on where they are.
- I agree with Naselli that these are important matters and that people should study this issue for themselves.
- Yes, I interact with egalitarian scholarship in my book. I have been sharpened and have learned from egalitarians who uphold the authority of Scripture. I also interact with and have learned from Roman Catholics on this matter. It doesn’t mean I am an egalitarian or a Roman Catholic. I think it’s important to have meaningful discussions across these aisles. They aren’t the boogey man.
- For me, it isn’t a matter of just avoiding the ditches on the extreme sides. That’s not good enough. Besides, nobody thinks they are the ones actually in the ditch.
- This is the most important point: I am learning and still learning. My book certainly isn’t without need of improvement and it is a meager contribution to a growing concern in the church. While I give significant critique of CBMW’s teaching, I also have learned much from men and women who write for them. Andy Naselli is one of them. While our differences are significant, I suspect there is more where we overlap than we both realize. We all want to be biblical. We all care about God’s design. We all want to glorify the name of Christ.
- *Originally published May 4, 2020.