We shouldn’t reluctantly affirm biblical manhood and womanhood, nor should we follow it while thinking it seems arbitrary or even a bit illogical. We should love and celebrate biblical manhood and womanhood as good and wise and beautiful and fitting. It’s how God himself designed men and women to flourish. Nobody needs to recover from it. In a culture that rejects God’s design for men and women, many need to recover it.
John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1991, and now Aimee Byrd has written Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood some thirty years later. Byrd, an influential author, speaker, blogger, and podcaster, claims to be recovering from so-called “biblical manhood and womanhood.” For the past several years on her podcast and blog, Byrd has been criticizing the version of complementarianism that leaders such as John Piper teach. (The term complementarianism summarizes the theological view of the Danvers Statement and conveys that men and women are both equal in value and dignity and beneficially different.) Byrd has developed and expanded those critiques in her latest book.
Is Byrd’s case compelling? I don’t think it is. To demonstrate that, I proceed in three steps: (1) Summarize the argument. What is the gist of Byrd’s book? (2) Provide some context. Where does Byrd’s book fit on the spectrum of views on men and women? (3) Evaluate the book. Is Byrd’s book fair and sound?
- Summary: What Is the Gist of Byrd’s Book?
Byrd doesn’t explicitly state her book’s thesis. Here’s my attempt to paraphrase her basic argument: So-called “biblical manhood and womanhood”—especially as John Piper and Wayne Grudem teach it—uses traditional patriarchal structures to oppress women. Byrd argues that “biblical manhood and womanhood” is not all biblical. A lot of it is unbiblical. A lot of it is based on cultural stereotypes that wrongly restrict women and thus prevent them from flourishing.
Byrd uses yellow wallpaper as her main metaphor throughout the book. She draws this metaphor from The Yellow Wallpaper, an 1892 novel and semi-autobiography by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a utopian feminist. In Byrd’s book, the yellow wallpaper symbolizes how “biblical manhood and womanhood” oppresses women:
Today the church’s yellow wallpaper manifests itself in much of the current teaching on so-called “biblical manhood and womanhood.” . . . We often don’t see the yellow wallpaper because it was established as a hedge against real threats to God’s people. I believe that is the case with a lot of the teaching on biblical manhood and womanhood. . . . And even though the teaching may have good intentions behind it, it is damaging. . . . This kind of teaching chokes the growth of God’s people. . . . The gender tropes of biblical manhood and womanhood . . . keep us trapped in the yellow wallpaper. (19, 21, 22, 229)
Byrd’s book proceeds in three parts. 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. “Liberal radical feminists like to regard our canon of Scripture as a ‘hopelessly patriarchal construction,’” and Byrd wonders if the way conservative evangelicals “market customized devotions to women sends that same message” (37). “When we examine Scripture, we find that it isn’t a patriarchal construction. And we find that it is not an androcentric text that lacks female contribution. In fact, we find that the female voice is important and necessary” (42–43). The book of Ruth, for example, “demolishes the lens of biblical manhood and womanhood that has been imposed on our Bible reading and opens the doors to how we see God working in his people” (49). “The female voice is needed in Scripture. . . . In Ruth men and women see that sometimes we need a different set of eyes to see the fuller picture” (54). In the Bible, “Women aren’t left out. They aren’t ignored; they are heard. They are more than heard; they contribute” (68).
In Part 2 (99–178), Byrd argues that we must recover our mission through church-based discipleship. The aim of discipleship is not biblical manhood and womanhood. Byrd qualifies,
There are plenty of helpful teachings in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, written by authors who have benefited the church in numerous ways. This is what makes the troubling teaching all the more disconcerting. I’m not saying that everything the authors have contributed is bad. It’s because they have offered so many good contributions to the church that we need to be all the more discerning of their influence on us. (100)
The most serious “troubling teaching” is that God the Son eternally submits to God the Father (100–103 et al.). When Byrd hears complementarian leader Owen Strachan assert, “The gospel has a complementarian structure,” she responds, “The implication is that anyone who does not subscribe to his teaching on complementarity, the teaching that directly connects ESS [eternal subordination of the Son] to ‘biblical’ manhood and womanhood, is denying the gospel. I firmly disagree. This is exactly why I cannot call myself a complementarian” (121).
Another troubling teaching for Byrd is to define masculinity as leading and providing for and protecting women and to define femininity as affirming and receiving and nurturing strength and leadership from worthy men. Byrd writes,
Nowhere does Scripture state that all women submit to all men. My aim in life is not to be constantly looking for male leadership. And it’s very difficult for a laywoman like me, who does see some theological teaching for God outfitting qualified men for an office to see this kind of reductive teaching and call it complementarianism. Perpetuating this constant framework of authority and submission between men and women can be very harmful. My femininity is not defined by how I look for and nurture male leadership in my neighbors, coworkers, or mail carriers. I am not denying the order needed in both my personal household and in the household of God, but I do not reduce the rights and obligations in a household to mere authority and submission roles. Paul teaches mutual submission among Christians even as he addresses husbands and wives specifically. I uphold distinction between the sexes without reduction, as Scripture does. (105)
It is unhelpful, Byrd argues, to sharply distinguish between feminine and masculine virtues (106–9). “In Scripture we don’t find that our ultimate goal is as narrow as biblical manhood or biblical womanhood, but complete, glorified resurrection to live eternally with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (109). Christ presents virtues for us “in the Sermon on the Mount, which is surprisingly not a gendered pursuit” (109). “There are no exhortations in Scripture for men to be masculine and women to be feminine.” (The translation “act like men” in 1 Corinthians 16:13 is unhelpful [111–12].) “Christian men and women don’t strive for so-called biblical masculinity or femininity, but Christlikeness” (114). “The word complementarian has been hijacked by an outspoken and overpublished group of evangelicals who flatten its meaning and rob it of true beauty and complementarity” (124).
Church leaders must do a better job at proactively “equipping women well in the church as competent allies to the men” (145). Byrd argues that Paul embraced reciprocity with women by placing himself under Phoebe, who was a leader and ally in a patriarchal culture (148).
Parachurch often reinforces bad gender tropes, outfitting and amplifying many of the divisions between men and women in the church. . . . When parachurch organizations such as CBMW [the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] develop their own confessional statements [such as the Danvers and Nashville Statements], we need to ask if they are replacing the church as an interpretive community in this way. (169)
Byrd explains why she is hesitant to recommend the Nashville Statement: “CBMW also hasn’t retracted any of the hyperauthoritarian, hypermachismo teaching about manhood and their hypersubmissive and stereotypical teaching about womanhood. Instead, I have seen much more of the same by some of their popular leaders” (172).
In Part 3 (181–235), Byrd argues that we should recover the responsibility of every believer, which entails giving women more prominent roles to teach and lead both men and women in the church:
Under the ostensible banner of “complementarianism” women are told they may learn alongside men but are to continuously be looking for, affirming, and nurturing male authority. Many churches thus limit, in ways they do not limit for laymen, the capacity for laywomen to learn deeply and to teach. The consensus is that men are the necessary teachers in the church. While some give the nod for women to teach other women and children, they are sending the message that this is ancillary work to be done. Are the laywomen disciples in your church serving in the same capacity as the laymen? . . . Biblical manhood and womanhood isn’t so biblical if women in the early church were able to contribute more than they may today. (188, 202)
So in her book Byrd basically argues that so-called “biblical manhood and womanhood” wrongly restricts women and that women will better flourish if conservative evangelical churches remove what she believes to be unbiblical restrictions (such as not allowing women to teach the Bible in Sunday School classes to adult men and women).
- Context: Where Does Byrd’s Book Fit on the Spectrum of Views on Men and Women?
Before I evaluate Byrd’s book, it would be helpful to locate where her book fits on the spectrum of views on men and women. One way to lay out the spectrum from far left to far right might be something like this:
- LGBTQ+ activism
- radical feminism (e.g., Virginia Ramey Molenkott)
- reformist feminism (e.g., Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza)
- evangelical feminism or egalitarianism (e.g., Christians for Biblical Equality)
- complementarianism (e.g., The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)
- authoritarianism (i.e., males selfishly abusing authority—what my fellow pastor Jason Meyer calls hyper-headship)
As complementarianism has matured over the past thirty years, complementarians now hold some significantly different viewpoints and leanings and theological instincts. Two versions of complementarianism are now distinguishable: narrow and broad. (See Table 1.)
Here are four clarifying thoughts on Table 1:
- CBMW is an organization that prominently represents complementarianism—both narrow and broad (though most CBMW leaders are probably broad complementarians). Complementarianism summarizes the theological view of the Danvers Statement. According to Denny Burk (CBMW’s current president), John Piper drafted the Danvers Statement, and Piper, Wayne Grudem, and some others coined the term complementarianismin 1988. Burk then argues that the Danvers Statement itself is mere complementarianism—that is, what all complementarians affirm.
- Both narrow and broad complementarians affirm that women may teach in various ways. Grudem, for example, lists four areas:
Not all teaching is prohibited: Other kinds of teaching and speaking by women that Scripture views positively.  Acts 18:26: Explaining Scripture privately, outside the context of the assembled congregation. . . . This passage gives warrant for women and men to talk together about the meaning of biblical passages and to “teach” one another in such settings. A parallel example in modern church life would be a home Bible study where both men and women contribute to the discussion of the meaning and application of Scripture. In such discussions, everyone is able to “teach” everyone else in some sense, for such discussions of the meaning of the Word of God are not the authoritative teaching that would be done by a pastor or elder to an assembled congregation, as in 1 Timothy 2. Another modern parallel to the private conversation between Priscilla and Aquila and Apollos would be the writing of books on the Bible and theology by women. . . .  1 Corinthians 11:4–5: Praying and prophesying in the assembled congregation. . . .  Titus 2:3–5: Women teaching women. . . .  John 4:28–30 and Matthew 28:5–10: Evangelism.
- It might be helpful to suggest some examples of current proponents of narrow and broad complementarianism. Narrow complementarians probably include J. D. Greear,Kathy Keller,and Beth Moore. Broad complementarians include Denny Burk, Kevin DeYoung, Abigail Dodds, John Piper, and Tom Schreiner.
- There’s a spectrum within narrow complementarianism and within broad complementarianism, and sometimes it is challenging to distinguish someone as either narrow or broad.For example, John Piper is broad, and Wayne Grudem is narrower but not quite as narrow as the narrow complementarian column in Table 1. Piper and Grudem speak differently about the role of men and women in society. Piper more broadly applies what the Bible and nature teach by arguing that it is not fitting for a woman to be a police officer or a drill sergeant.Grudem is uncomfortable arguing that way:
We cannot assume that the general pattern of restricting civil government leadership over the people of God to men would also apply to the New Testament age, where the civil government is separate from the government of the church. The positive examples of women involved in civil leadership over nations other than Israel (such as Esther and the Queen of Sheba) should prevent us from arguing that it is wrong for women to hold a governing office. . . .
We are simply to obey the Bible in the specific application of these principles. What we find in the Bible is that God has given commands that establish male leadership in the home and in the church, but that other teachings in His Word give considerable freedom in other areas of life. We should not try to require either more or less than Scripture itself requires.
Some within broad complementarianism are broader than John Piper. For example, Michael Foster and Bnonn Tennant reject the term complementarianism and prefer the term patriarchy—that is, “the doctrine that men are made to rule in behalf of their Father, and that this naturally begins in their houses, and continues out into the larger houses of nations and churches.” The label patriarchy captures the concept of authority, but most complementarians agree it has insurmountably negative connotations.
Within narrow complementarianism, some are narrower than others. For example, some affirm that God requires men and women to relate differently to each other in marriage, but they are neutral regarding whether women may be elders/pastors.
So where does Byrd’s book fit on the spectrum of views on men and women? Her book addresses an in-house debate among complementarians, though she identifies with neither complementarianism nor egalitarianism. She seems to overlap with parts of both views. By affirming male-only ordination she overlaps with narrow complementarianism, but many of her arguments overlap with egalitarianism. She argues in line with Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission (for which Byrd wrote the foreword). Both Miller and Byrd write their ex-complementarian books from within “the complementarian camp” so to speak since both Miller and Byrd are members of churches in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination.
Read a response by Aimee Byrd to this review here.