Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose by Aimee Byrd
Aime Byrd is known as the housewife theologian. She is popular conference speaker, a prolific author with several books to her credit and, until the publication of this book, co-host of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals podcast Mortification of Spin. Her earlier work, No Little Women, made some valuable contributions concerning women and their ministries, but even there I registered some concerns in my review (http://tottministries.org/?s=little+women). Byrd takes several steps forward, or backward, depending on your perspective, in her understanding of women’s “role” (a word she detested and claims is unbiblical) in the church and within ministry. As a member of an Orthodox Presbyterian church, she still maintains that ordination and preaching within the local church is reserved for males (p. 121), but views virtually all other ministries, both within the church and through parachurch organizations, are accessible to qualified Christian women. As a matter of fact, Byrd’s primary focus and complaint is that women such as herself have been marginalized, belittled, and ignored by male leaders throughout church history. It is time to peel off the yellow wallpaper (a metaphor used throughout the book cf. p. 15) and get back to what she believes Scripture actually teaches on the subject. However, the primary offender to her position, and the one constantly in her sites, is “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” (CBMW) and its leaders such as John Piper, Wayne Gruden, Bruce Ware, and Owen Strachan (pp. 101, 171-172).
I will begin this review with some of the areas in which I believe Bryd is on target, then move to matters of concern. First, the author rightly clarifies that both men and women equally benefit from God’s Word (p. 25) and are called to Christ-likeness (p. 26). She asserts that debates regarding biblical manhood and womanhood can distract from our mutual calling (pp. 26-27). Secondly, as a collateral issue, she questions the value of gender-specific study Bibles, as if the Scriptures read differently for women and men (pp. 31-24, 38-42). Similarly, she sees little need for exclusive studies for men and woman (pp. 109, 114). Next, while admitting men were the human authors of Scripture and have played the most prominent role in biblical and church history, women have functioned significantly throughout. Byrd calls these “gynocentric interruptions” (p. 49), and offers Huldah (pp. 44, 64), Ruth (pp. 49-71), Deborah (p. 77ff), Rahab (p. 83ff), and several New Testament females as biblical examples. Such “women aren’t left out. They aren’t ignored; they are heard. They are more than heard; they contribute” (p. 68). Anne Hutchinson (pp. 34-36) and even Aimee Semple McPherson (p. 34) are given as contemporary examples. Byrd exposes her bias when she attributes the doctrinal errors of these latter two to male leadership not recognizing their contributions and not providing them with doctrinal teaching (p. 34). Finally, Byrd strongly believes that discipleship is a command given to the local church and should not be hijacked by parachurch ministries, which lack the means outside the church context to properly disciple believers (pp. 154-168, 174-175).
Moving to issues of concern, we start with controversial and debatable positions taken by Byrd which she has escalated into matters of first importance. Of primary significance would be what the author terms the “Trinity Debate.” The position taken by CBMW, which Byrd strongly opposes and considers nothing short of heresy, constitutes arguably the outstanding feature in her opposition to CBMW. To be clear, the Trinity Debate does not center on the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity which all conservative Christians affirm and is articulated in the ancient ecumenical creeds. The debate is wrapped around one aspect of the interaction among the members of the Godhead, that is, whether the Son was in subordination to the Father during His incarnation only or whether He has been, and is, eternally submissive. Of late, the CBMW has not only promoted eternal subordination, but link subordination within the Trinity with submission of the wife to her husband and women to male church leadership. In my opinion, commands for human submission in Scripture is not contingent upon Trinitarian subordination, but some within CBMW offer it as one of the reasons that women are to be in subjection under certain circumstances. If the Son, so goes the argument, is eternally subordinate to the Father, and yet in no sense inferior to the Father, then the woman too can be submissive to male leadership in appropriate situations, without being cast as inferior. Byrd, however, fully rejects eternal subordination and declares those who teach it as out of line with the Creeds and thus unorthodox (pp. 21, 100-104, 131, 159, 170-171, 173). At no point in Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood does Byrd attempt to prove the unorthodoxy of eternal subordination, rather pointing the reader to the works of Michael Allen and Scott Swain (p. 102). Having read and reviewed Swain’s signature work on the subject (see my review here: https://tottministries.org/?s=Swain), I was left unconvinced either way. Swain did not prove his point from Scripture, relying rather on theological arguments just as Byrd does. Claiming the eternal subordination of the Son as unorthodox definitely strains the available evidence, and should not become a doctrine which divides the church. Yet it is the primary reason that Byrd accuses the CBMW in particular, and complementarism in general, of being doctrinally errant.
Eternal subordination is the only significant doctrinal difference between Byrd’s soft complementarism and the CBMW’s harder version, but it’s enough for her to side with egalitarians (p. 121) on some other theological issues. However, it is the applicational aspects in which Byrd functions philosophically as an egalitarian and where she gets much wrong. In reading Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood it would appear, in my opinion, that Byrd is reacting against a straw man. She accuses CBMW, for example, of “The bizarre promotion of ‘sanctified testosterone’ and ‘soap bubble submission’” (p. 100). As proof, she claims that CBMW “says that all men lead all women,” (p. 22, cf p. 105) but this is certainly an exaggeration. I know of no respected Christian leader or organization which teaches such. This is the stuff of cults. Yet, she suggests that some complementarians would be concerned about how a woman might teach secular activities such as instructions for driving a car (p. 22). As a matter of fact, Byrd has written this book for laywomen who feel so put down by Christian males that they hesitate to use a word such as “career,” “lest it sounds too ambitious, and women who have no voice in their church because the men are leaders who have all the valuable input. . . [and for some who] end up questioning the faith” (p. 131). I personally recognize no complementarians who make such statements.
In essence, Byrd is rejecting the time-honored understanding of the role of women in the church. She is willing to accept that women are not to be ordained as pastors, but virtually everything else is on the table (pp. 119-121). Women, for example, while not elders in the local church should sit on the boards of parachurch organizations (p. 161), should be invited to preach to men at Bible conferences (p. 161), teach men within the church, except from the Sunday morning pulpit (pp. 115, 147-148, 174, 188, 197, 233-234), and lead in public reading of Scripture and prayer at Sunday worship services (pp. 233-234). Byrd believes that women can have authority over men in the church and even that Paul placed himself under Phoebe’s authority (pp. 147-148). And while she addresses authority (pp. 208-210), I found no place where she fleshed out exactly what she meant by it. She is concerned that women are separated from the intellectual life of the church (p. 204) and suggests that, when Paul sent Phoebe to Rome with the epistle addressed to them, she was equipped to answer theological questions, in essence making her the official teacher of the inspired text over the church at Rome (p. 220). It should be noted at this point that Byrd is reading a great deal into Romans 16:1-2. That Phoebe is the likely carrier of the letter to Rome does not imply that she was its teacher. Byrd is making an unsustainable assumption to support her views. Along the same line the author believes there were female apostles in the New Testament (pp. 224-227) who would possess the authority that came with the highest of New Testament offices.
Theologically, Byrd rejects the CBMW’s teaching, as found in their Danver’s Statement (pp. 120-122), specifically that male/female distinctions of authority and submission are built into the creation of humanity (pp. 116-119). She sees Eve equally culpable for her sin as Adam (although Romans 5:12-21 places responsibility on Adam) and twists any leadership that Adam might have given as an example of his submission to Eve.
Ultimately, however, this whole issue must be resolved by turning to Scripture. Byrd’s biblical argument is developed on several fronts:
1) She draws the reader to the numerous female voices and influencers found in the Bible such as Huldah (pp. 44, 64), believes that many were “tradents” who handed down inspired oral tradition (p. 63), holds that Phoebe was the theological teacher at the church in Rome (p. 220), terms women as “necessary allies” (pp. 188-193), and see Ruth’s example as radically different from that of most evangelicals (pp. 49-50, 59, 70). Of course, she also references Deborah (pp. 77ff), Rahab (pp. 83ff), and women found in the New Testament (pp. 89ff). There is virtually no theologian, however, of which I am aware who questions that women had a voice in the Scripture or played a significant role. Byrd distorts, or at least exaggerates the complementarian’s position, because she negatively reacts to their views, which she believes leads to the stance that teaching is the prerogative of male (pp. 143-144) and fosters a male culture (pp. 228-230).
2) She engages with key biblical texts on the subject, however not in depth. I found no mention of the important 1 Timothy 2:8-15 passage, which holds central place in the whole debate. She references Titus 2 as an example of women teaching doctrine without realizing that the context is practical living within the home not systematic theology (p. 115). When addressing First Corinthians 11 and 12, she can only refute the obvious teachings of such passages by accusing complementarians of being biblicists – meaning they are proof-texting rather than allowing broader theology to determine the meaning (pp. 156, 193-200, 233). This is where Byrd goes astray, as she places a theological system over the biblical text and interprets it according to her theology instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself.
That Byrd’s doctrinal bent guides her hermeneutics is evident in her opposition to new statements and confessions (pp. 168-173, 176), her consistent use of Redemptive Hermeneutics (pp. 108-109, 123, 127, 138, 206, 209), and her strange dependency on Roman Catholics leaders such as Sister Prudence Allen (pp. 123-124), Pope John Paul II (pp. 125-128), St. Teresa, and St. John of the Cross (p. 128). Byrd oddly embraces Roman Catholic teaching on the subject as more robust than that of evangelicals (p. 103).
Byrd believes she has discovered “yellow wallpaper,” which has been used by complementarians, and especially the CBMW, to cover over the truth related to women as found in Scripture. She has made it her mission to peel off that wallpaper and expose what the Bible really says. Instead I believe Byrd mostly succeeded in revealing how much her theology has been influenced and shaped by our present culture. I find this sad, because until recently I believed Byrd to be a good representative of how a theologically minded and informed Christian woman could greatly benefit the cause of Christ. Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, I fear, will not help that cause but lead to further unrest and division within the evangelical camp.
Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, by Aimee Byrd (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 2020), 235 pp., paper $18.99.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel