Published by Zondervan on May 5, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology
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While evangelicalism dukes it out about who can be church leaders, the rest of the 98% of us need to be well equipped to see where we fit in God's household and why that matters. Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a resource to help church leaders improve the culture of their church and disciple men and women in their flock to read, understand, and apply Scripture to our lives in the church. Until both men and women grow in their understanding of their relationship to Scripture, there will continue to be tension between the sexes in the church. Church leaders need to be engaged in thoughtful critique of the biblical manhood and womanhood movement and the effects it has on their congregation.
Do men and women benefit equally from God's word? Are they equally responsible in sharpening one another in the faith and passing it down to the next generation? While radical feminists claim that the Bible is a hopelessly patriarchal construction by powerful men that oppresses women, evangelical churches simply reinforce this teaching when we constantly separate men and women, customizing women's resources and studies according to a culturally based understanding of roles. Do we need men's Bibles and women's Bibles, or can the one, holy Bible guide us all? Is the Bible, God's word, so male-centered and authored that women need to create their own resources to relate to it? No! And in it, we also learn from women. Women play an active role as witnesses to the faith, passing it on to the new generations.
This book explores the feminine voice in Scripture as synergistic with the dominant male voice. Through the women, we often get the story behind the story--take Ruth for example, or the birth of Christ through the perspective of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. Aimee fortifies churches in a biblical understanding of brotherhood and sisterhood in God's household and the necessity of learning from one another in studying God's word.
The troubling teaching under the rubric of "biblical manhood and womanhood" has thrived with the help of popular Biblicist interpretive methods. And Biblicist interpretive methods ironically flourish in our individualistic culture that works against the "traditional values" of family and community that the biblical manhood and womanhood movement is trying to uphold. This book helps to correct Biblicist trends in the church today, affirming that we do not read God's word alone, we read it within our interpretive covenant communities--our churches. Our relationship with God's word affects our relationship with God's people, and vice versa. The church is the school of Christ, commissioned to discipleship. The responsibility of every believer, men and women together, is being active and equal participants in and witnesses to the faith--the tradents of faith.
This is a difficult book to review. Even though Aimee Byrd’s analysis is worth reading and thinking through, this book is a mixed bag from most denominational standpoints and biblical convictions. Also, the provocative title, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, is fairly misleading. Based on the title and synopsis, I went into this book expecting that it would address how Christians can understand and deconstruct unbiblical gender stereotypes that have masqueraded as Christian discipleship. I hoped that this book would be a conversation starter and encouragement for the church to focus on discipleship into the image of Christ, rather than discipleship into the image of Chuck Norris and June Cleaver, but this is something else entirely.
If I could re-title this, I would call it Peeling Back the Yellow Wallpaper: The Status of Women in the Biblical History and the Church. That would give a much more accurate vision of the book’s theme and contents, because it focuses on women’s issues 99% of the time, using The Yellow Wallpaper as an analogy for how people can become blind to gender inequity because they are so used to the way that things are. This book addresses lots of important issues, and there is nothing wrong with a female-focused perspective, but since the terminology of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is much broader and encompasses much more than Byrd’s focus here, I wish that her title and description provided a more accurate vision of the book.
The Author’s View of the Issue
Aimee Byrd criticizes the way that many Christian leaders and resources have taught men and women to see themselves as beings with completely different core natures and static social roles. She cites alarming quotes from the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that describe men as strong leaders and teach that women are subordinates who exist to affirm men’s masculinity and prop up their strength and self-esteem. She provides firm argumentation from Scripture against this view of women, but does not take into account the different variations of complementarian views. Personally, even though I have a similar denominational background to Byrd, I have never encountered these extreme ideas within my church context and social circles, except as an example of what is not a biblical view. I don’t understand why Byrd would present these views as the culture-defining norm for Christians without any nuance.
However, I am not accusing her of making a straw man argument. She never distorts the influential material that she cites, and she addresses ideas that are prevalent within some extremely conservative circles. The problem isn’t that she addresses these extreme claims, but that she characterizes the entire concept of “biblical manhood and womanhood” according to a position that views women as completely subordinate to men and dependent upon them for their identity and mission. Because she focuses on dismantling an extreme ideology that most Christians already disagree with anyway, she fails to address many subtler, more socially acceptable permutations of problematic views, and unfairly characterizes people who hold to some role-based distinctions without the pervasive sexism of the view she criticizes.
What This Book Does Well
Even though Byrd oversimplifies a complex debate, she addresses a number of issues very well. I appreciate her writing about how important it is for pastors to learn to preach to their entire congregations instead of primarily directing their sermons to men with male-dominated sermon illustrations. She also addresses issues with Christian marketing, arguing that men and women read the same Bible, and that women don’t need pretty study aids and sidebar essays about motherhood in order to get into Scripture. To illustrate this, she shares historical analysis about the role of women in biblical history, showing that women are already part of Scripture and don’t need special Bibles now in order to connect with God’s Word.
Byrd also shares great arguments about how important it is for discipleship to happen within the context of the local church. She argues that even though parachurch ministries accomplish great good, they should not become someone’s interpretive community. Byrd urges churches to invest in their women and provide them with opportunities to serve and grow, and she challenges parachurch organizations to work through their often convoluted standards for female leadership in a context that doesn’t require ordination.
Byrd has a robust view of what life in the local church should look like, and I appreciate her emphasis on how important it is for men and women to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ. One of my favorite parts of this book is the section about what sibling relationships were like in the ancient world, because this provides helpful context for what it means to be siblings in Christ. I appreciate how much historical research Byrd included in her helpful analysis of women’s involvement in Israel’s history, the early church, and Paul’s ministry.
However, Byrd adopts postmodern categories for understanding women’s voices and involvement in the Bible. She characterizes women’s appearances as “gynocentric interruptions,” borrowing this phrase from a scholar and repeating it innumerable times. Her stated argument is that women have been part of Scripture all along, but because she presents women’s stories as radical invasions into a male-dominated storyline, she does more to damage her argument than support it. Her language and focus imply that the Bible is a male book with occasional appearances by fabulous females, rather than the Word of God delivered for all the saints.
This is likely to bother the same complementarian believers whom she has already offended through her lack of nuance. Also, other Christians who are less decided about their own views of gender may still take issue with her interpretive lens, since it implies that the Bible is a story about us, not God’s self-revelation. I understand why she specifically focused on women’s contributions, but the way that she presented that material gave me pause, and I’m sure that other people will have issues with it as well. Worthy, a similar book recently written by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher, takes on a similar task of exploring women’s contributions to Scripture, but it does so in a Christ-centered way. I could not help negatively comparing aspects of Byrd’s book to that one.
The Ideal Audience?
Based on what I have said so far, someone might assume that this book is best suited for a nontraditional audience. However, many of Byrd’s beliefs go against common tenants for progressive Christians. She holds to male-only ordination, firmly believes in the differentiation of the sexes, and opposes LGBT relationships and the redefinition of gender. I respect Byrd’s willingness to hold to her convictions without adopting all the tenants of a particular camp, but because she alienates both sides of the debate through different elements of her beliefs and arguments, it is difficult to evaluate who this book is intended for.
Also, because Byrd frequently references specific teachings, controversies, and online debates that the average reader may not be aware of, people with different backgrounds may have a hard time following this. In some ways, it seems like she wrote this book primarily for the people who read her blog and follow her on Twitter, because it seems fine-tuned to a specific audience’s shared awareness and specific concerns, instead of directed to the church at large. In my case, I was aware of some of the controversies that she wrote about, but I was oblivious to others, and I know that people who are less involved in her spheres will have an even harder time following the minutiae of debates that they may not even be aware of.
Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has many excellent elements. It addresses the role of women throughout Christian history, challenges laypeople and pastors to make their churches more equitable and hospitable to women and their varied gifts, and provides a robust vision of what discipleship should look like in the local church body. Byrd makes excellent points about issues in Christian culture that disproportionately effect women, but even though this book covers a variety of important topics and often does so well, the flaws in Byrd’s approach and her narrow focus on particular contexts and controversies make this book a mixed bag. People who are interested in this book’s topic will benefit from reading and evaluating it, but I can only recommend it with significant caveats.