Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Its Purpose, by Aimee Byrd. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2020, 235 pages, $18.99, paper.
Aimee Byrd, an OPC member who supports the headship of husbands and the ordination of males-only to gospel ministry, writes this work in critique of the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement (hence, BMW). While acknowledging that the movement arose to resist genuine threats, she states that it has harmed “the health of God’s church” and is “stifling the force of the biblical message and strangling the church’s witness and growth” (18–19). She proposes an “alternative” 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” (25).
Byrd identifies many specific problems with BMW. It views manhood and womanhood “through a filter of authority and submission, strength and neediness” (70) and appears “to say that all men lead all women” (22). It utilizes “cultural stereotypes” (18) and “Victorian-age gender tropes” (70), and has not “retracted any of the hyperauthoritarian, hypermachismo teaching about manhood and … hypersubmissive and stereotypical teaching about womanhood” (109). It has diverted the church from its chief aim of preparing Christians for everlasting communion with God (26). It also thrives “under popular Biblicist interpretive methods” (27) and teaches that men and women should pursue different virtues (109). Byrd repeatedly highlights BMW’s association with the eternal subordination of the Son, “an unorthodox teaching of the Trinity” (100–104, 120–21, 170–72).
Part 1 addresses how we read Scripture. Concerned especially about the proliferation of men’s and women’s study Bibles, Byrd argues that we all read the same Bible, albeit one that includes many “snapshots from a woman’s perspective and experience” (43). She discusses accounts of Huldah, Ruth, and many others, in which “we see women treasuring God’s Word, meditating on it, and acting on it, not within isolated women’s ministries, but connected to the body of faith” (92). These stories break down many common stereotypes of femininity and masculinity. Part 2 focuses on the church’s mission. She calls for the church to focus on its “ultimate goal,” everlasting communion with Christ (109). In doing so, it should encourage theological study among women and value women as co-laborers. Byrd also warns against the prominence of parachurch organizations and says that chief responsibility for Christian discipleship lies with the church, the covenant community that provides proper context for reading Scripture. Finally, Part 3 continues several of these themes, reflecting especially on how women can contribute to the church’s life and worship. They are “necessary allies” of men, “not optional, subordinate assistants” (189).
Since Byrd’s book is explicitly a critique of BMW, the inevitable initial question is whether she has described it fairly. I’m not the right person to make a final judgment on that; people affiliated with or heavily invested in BMW can offer their assessment. But Byrd has documented a lot of evidence for her claims and many of them appear accurate to me, at least regarding some prominent proponents of BMW. In this short review, perhaps it is best if I discuss some substantive moral/ecclesiological issues the book raises, with little further comment on BMW itself.
To begin, I mention several things to appreciate about Byrd’s case that confessional Reformed churches would do well to take to heart. First, Byrd’s discussions of women in Scripture present, in general, compelling correctives to many non-biblical gender stereotypes that I fear are all-too-present in confessional Reformed churches. She sometimes wanders into speculations beyond what the texts themselves say, but these don’t nullify the many legitimate conclusions she draws. Second, Byrd is correct to emphasize that Scripture calls men and women to the same Christ-like virtues and that the New Testament’s many “one another” exhortations describe our mutual responsibilities in a non-gendered way. Men and women have some distinct obligations in Scripture, but these are dwarfed by their myriad of joint obligations. Finally, Byrd’s emphasis upon the church—as the God-ordained forum for confessing the faith, making disciples, and studying Scripture—is most welcome.
I conclude by raising two issues worth further reflection in our churches. I believe Byrd’s book stimulates reflection on these issues without providing final answers.
First is the metaphysics issue. In two relevant texts, Paul grounds the authority of husbands and male church officers in the creation order, but its “order” is in terms of sequence, not ontology. That is, husbands and male church officers have authority because God formed Adam first and then made Eve from him (1 Cor. 11:8–9; 1 Tim. 2:13), not because he created the world in such a way that males are ontologically better equipped to exercise authority than women are. This presents a caution to those appealing to biblical manhood/womanhood to claim that there are clearly distinct masculine and feminine traits and that men have a general obligation to lead women and women to be led. Nevertheless, we still face the question of how to understand male and female differences (beyond the obvious physical differences) through natural revelation, or through metaphysical inquiry, as Byrd puts it. She deserves credit for recognizing that this issue needs to be addressed, although her discussion of it (123–30) is neither entirely clear nor obviously consistent with everything she writes elsewhere in the book. I believe confessional Reformed people should keep reflecting on this, in a charitable and mutually edifying way. They should also remember that our metaphysical reflections on natural revelation are not the sort of thing that the church rightly imposes upon the consciences of its members, though they should enrich the wisdom by which we encourage and disciple each other. I suspect that these reflections, if sound, will lead in a direction similar to where Byrd points: that there are real distinctions between males and females, and yet they’re not rigid, certainly not in a way that justifies raising our sons and daughters with nice, clean lists of masculine and feminine character traits which point them toward distinct lists of acceptable vocations.
The second issue concerns office and ecclesiology. When reading some BMW proponents on texts such as 1 Timothy 2:11–14, I have found their discussions lacking a robust view of office and ecclesiology (as perhaps is expected among non-confessional evangelicals). That is, they apply Paul’s prohibition of women teaching and exercising authority to relationships and activities among church members generally and to institutions other than the church. In contrast, I believe Paul, in context, is focused on the church (not on other institutions) and on the exercise of ministerial office (not on other kinds of relationships among Christians). Keeping these different perspectives in view might be helpful for understanding Byrd’s important contention that laymen and laywomen have the same responsibilities in the church. I believe she is correct about this. Issues she raises such as reading Scripture in worship and passing the offering basket (or, I might add, teaching adult Sunday school) are issues of office, not general male/female leadership relations. The proper way to put the question is not whether women can do these things but whether only officers (or which officers) should be doing them. Byrd’s broader discussion points us in this office-focused direction, which seems to me is a more confessionally-Reformed (and biblical) way of approaching these matters. We probably will not all agree about what the proper ministries of the church ought to be or what things are properly performed only by officers (and I note that Byrd’s opinion on laypeople reading Scripture in worship  differs from Westminster Larger Catechism 156). But if we could discuss these things in terms of office and not in terms of men and women generally, that would be a helpful development in churches where it’s not already happening.
David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2020.