Byrd Has Not Yet Flown the Coop

I just wrote a series of blogs on paradigms, and it’s important to keep that in view when reading or reviewing Aimee Byrd’s book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. As a scholar and philosopher, I read the book in a different way than the average laywoman, and we both read the book differently than trained ministers. We all want the same thing—God’s truth, but our way of analyzing texts and arguments are from different perspectives. It’s important to note that Byrd’s book is not about leadership. I have seen comments that show that some people approach her book with the presupposition of it being about leadership and submission. However, her stated thesis is about discipleship. The background understanding of her thesis shapes the way we read the book. If one reads her book with the lens of leadership and submission or look at parts rather than the whole, they will have a different understanding of her book than those who read it through the lens of her thesis.

Covenantal Activity

The description is a good place to start before reading and when evaluating the book. “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!” God redeems His people and in Him there is no male or female. While men and women have different roles, discipleship in God’s Word should look similar. We do well to remember that studying God’s Word is a covenantal activity, that includes men, women, and children together.

Submissiveness

Byrd recognizes the cultural issues that the teaching on biblical manhood and womanhood addresses. She agrees with the diagnosis but differs on the cure because of its theological baggage. It is beyond the scope of this review to address the problems with ESS, but here’s a good resource for those who wish to learn more. In addition to that troubling view of the Trinity, Byrd points to examples Piper has written to show that men must be affirmed in their masculinity and leadership at all times by women who are submissive, even when a man is lost in a neighborhood and the only person around to provide assistance is a woman. This is an extra-biblical reaction to a cultural problem. There are some men who finds this offensive. My husband has stated that he finds Piper’s words offensive and does not want me to submit to and affirm the masculinity of all men I meet. The Bible tells me to submit to my husband, and by submitting to him I cannot submit to all men.

A criticism Byrd offers, which gets back to my initial point in the intro is, “As we’ve been taught to focus on aiming for biblical manhood and womanhood, we have missed the bigger picture for Christlikeness to which we are called. And we have lost aim of what the church is for: preparing us for eternal communion with the triune God.” This is perhaps her most salient point, and it’s the reason for her book. Are the people in your churches being discipled as a covenant community, or has individualism creeped in? Byrd is concerned that when we focus too much on gender roles, we lose sight of who the Bible is about.

The Female Voice

Don’t think that Byrd’s criticisms are just against Piper or stereotypes. She chides women for their “life-as-performance mind-set” when they post pictures of devotional quiet time that rivals magazine covers. Women bear a strong responsibility for removing themselves from covenant discipleship to something based on aesthetics and proving their righteousness before other women as a show and for rejecting serious study in favor of emotional fluff. Unfortunately, she goes from there to talk about the androcentric perspective of theology books. She writes, “There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with reading the androcentric perspective, but there were barely any female voices to reciprocate male authorship when it came to religious books.” She says that maybe this is the reason for the popularity of female leaders in American church history. I part with Byrd on this. Yes, there was a backlash to women being treated as though we are deficient, which is not only an insult to women but to the One who made us to be complements and help-mates to our husbands, but instead of being biblical and confessional, many women writers of theology rebelled.

I want to pause to note that while I agree with Byrd’s assessment of treating the Imago Dei in women as though it is somehow deficient, her wording does not do the job of uniting the sexes as she intends. By using words like “androcentric,” “gynocentric,” and “woman’s voice,” some of the terms she uses in her assessment works against her and appears contradictory. I want to emphasize that her overall message of discipleship as a covenant people is correct as is the fact that women served vital contributions throughout the Bible, but her terminology has the potential to divide. Her phrasing is at odds with her continual insistence on covenantal discipleship because the terms make divisions, yet gathering as a covenantal people is uniting. However, the biggest issue with her use of the term “gynocentric interruptions” is the implication that God’s Word needs to be interrupted, that it’s not a cohesive story of God’s redemption for all His people and that woman is somehow on the outs in this story and needs to insert her voice. Of course, Byrd would reject that implication, but words are powerful tools with great meaning. They should be chosen wisely as to not imply something the author never intended.

In her discussion of the book of Ruth, Byrd writes, “God put man and woman on this earth, and he intends to use both sexes in his mission. In Ruth men and women see that sometimes we need a different set of eyes to see the fuller picture. And what a beautiful picture it is.” This is a more poignant and well thought out idea of women in Scripture. It is a beautiful thought that has unfortunately been overshadowed by both Byrd’s choice of words and the controversies surrounding the book.

True Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Another thing that is pointed out in her commentary on Ruth was Boaz’s response to Ruth when she gleaned his fields. He showed her considerable kindness and humility and instructed his workers on how she should be treated. He even invited her to eat with him. Byrd compares Boaz with Jesus Christ who ate with sinners and served the people around him. This is biblical manhood. It’s wrong to say that “she criticizes and dismisses traditional roles of men and women without offering a real alternative” as one blogger wrote, when the truth is she’s pointing back to biblical understandings of these roles. What we see in Ruth—her courage, strength, submission, and faithfulness—are examples of biblical womanhood. What we see in Boaz and our savior Jesus Christ are examples of biblical manhood. These are the ideals that Byrd upholds.

Problem with the Danvers Statement

Circling back to ESS, Byrd’s criticism against The Danvers Statement put forth by the leaders of CBMW is a strong one because they believe “the gospel has a complementarian structure.” (Owen Strachen, presented at CBMW preconference) They teach that the complementary perspective of the Trinity and the gospel is a first-order doctrine. “CBMW introduces the statement this way: ‘The Danvers Statement summarizes the need for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and serves as an overview of our core beliefs.’” They warp the nature of God in order to promote these divisions and call it their core belief. I don’t think I need to point out how dangerous and unbiblical and antithetical to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that is. It is also deeply troubling that ministers are criticizing Byrd in such a harsh manner while largely neglecting those who have deserted “the grace of Christ for a different Gospel.” (Gal. 1:6)

Joint Virtues and Telos

Earlier I spoke of identifying the right diagnosis while prescribing the wrong cure. I believe Byrd gives the right diagnosis. Her solution needs work, which I will get to later. She rightly lays out the virtues that we are to pursue by pointing to the Sermon on the Mount, which is for all and not gender specific, and she points out that the words in Matthew 5:3-12 is a description of Christ Himself. We are to be like Christ because we are united in Him. She points out that being called Christ’s bride and being called the sons of God is a joint telos. As bearers of the Imago Dei, we manifest God’s presence. As Christians, this manifesting is even stronger as we have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Byrd says that we are to strive for Christlikeness and that “the tone of our sexuality will express itself.” She goes on to affirm that “God made man and woman as true complements in this mission.”

Main Criticism

There’s a lot more that can be said about the book. I have over 4,000 words of notes, but because this is already lengthy, I want to skip to the last chapter, which has caused the greatest amount of alarm. It’s also where my assessment of her book is the most critical.

When Byrd gets to the part about Phoebe, she glosses over the word deacon being used in some translations vs. the word servant. Instead she focuses on the original Greek word diakonia, and that with the usage of the word, Paul identifies Phoebe as a servant and as an agent of his in her role as a go-between among churches. She also makes the distinction between the way the word was used back then, as servant, and the modern Reformed use of the word today as an ordained office that is in line with Acts 6. I’m satisfied with this explanation, though I wish she reiterated that since it is an ordained office that it’s to be occupied by men only. However, she steps outside of what Scripture indicates in imagining that since Paul told the church in Rome to receive her as his helper in delivering his letter to the church, when the people of the church had questions about Paul’s words they asked Phoebe to explain. While women can give explanations and teach in a non-ordained role, this imagining of Byrd’s is outside any biblical or historical evidence. Also, if a letter is presented to the church, wouldn’t it have been read in a formal gathering with explanations given by the minister? Phoebe could not have fulfilled that function, and saying that she did opens doors Byrd claims that she is not.

I was glad to see that Byrd stresses the importance of women as allies in helping men in the work they’ve been appointed to do. Because women are necessary allies in the work of the church, proper education and discipleship is also important. Women should be equipped to help men for the service of God’s mission. One example Byrd gives is Lydia. When talking about Lydia, Byrd pointed out that she planted the church in Philippi, but that Paul did not have her lead the church. Lydia planted the church by opening up her home, but men were placed as overseers and deacons.  Paul recognized the importance of teaching women and the work they did in his ministry, and Byrd recognizes that men led the churches.

When looking at I Corinthians 14:34-35, the passage admonishing women to keep silent in the church, Byrd pulls back to look at the structure and order of worship, starting in chapter 11—how men and women who are prophesying ought to dress, the sacraments, gifts and nature of the body, the hymn to love, spiritual gifts, the building of the body, and order in worship. I Corinthians 11: 5 mentions how a woman must conduct herself when praying or prophesying, yet chapter 14 says they are to keep silent. First, I will give Byrd’s understanding of what appears to be a discrepancy (and I do emphasize the word appears because the inerrant Word does not contradict itself), then I will give Simon Kistemaker’s interpretation.

Byrd points out that everything must be done in decency and in order. If one person is prophesying, all others must be silent. So, why did Paul signal out women in that passage? She points out that Paul spoke in the context of learning and asking questions and encouraging these women to ask their husbands questions at home instead of disrupting the one who is interpreting or discussing prophesies.

Simon Kistemaker, a conservative Reformed Dutch theologian, wrote, “The Corinthian women at worship are not told to be silent in respect to praying, prophesying, and singing psalms and hymns. They are, however, forbidden to speak when the prophesies of their husbands are discussed. They are asked to observe the creation order recorded in the Law and to honor their husbands. Telling the women three times to be silent, Paul instructs them to respect their husbands at public worship and to reserve their questions for the privacy of the home.”

Looking at Byrd and Kistemaker’s interpretations, we see both similarities and differences. They both affirm that women could prophesy in the church. They both said the admonition to keep silent is regarding women asking questions. Where they differ is Kistemaker emphasizes the creation order, and that it is disrespectful and shameful for a woman to usurp that order by interrupting the service or her husband. Byrd mentions it, but just barely.

Now we come to the part about Junia that the Christian blogosphere has erupted over. Byrd points out that many patristic writers considered Junia to be a woman and that the name Junias wasn’t attached to her until the 16th century. Byrd spends little time on this, so there isn’t much scholarship supporting her view. But let’s assume that Junia was a woman since earlier tradition shows that. Byrd makes the argument that Junia was an actual apostle and quotes Chrysostom to confirm this. I don’t know if Chrysostom was the only patristic to view Junia as both a woman and as an apostle and that Byrd cherry picked a single early church father to support her view. This is sloppy scholarship, and it’s irresponsible to pick out the one early theologian to agree with one’s viewpoint without considering dissenting opinions. I have much respect for Chrysostom and can’t condemn either him or Byrd as being outside the faith, but it is nonetheless a troubling viewpoint. Also, taking an obscure phrase that tells us very little in order to make a significant theological point is an abuse of Scripture.

Byrd made some positive points in the last chapter, but those were already made in other parts of the book. The only new thing of value she brought to the last chapter dealt with strength of siblingship as we are called brothers and sisters in Christ. She writes, “Siblingship is the very framework that will help us to uphold distinction without reduction. We have unique responsibilities and contributions to our sexes because women will never be brothers and men will never be sisters. The plethora of sibling language in the New Testament teaches us about the realities of being summed up into Christ’s household and how that shapes our communion with one another.” This is extremely important because we in the church often use the terms like “brother” and “sister” as sentimental asides, rather than truly treating each other like brothers and sisters and seeking that unity we have in Christ. I plan on writing about Christian unity next week, but as one bride rather than put a gender focus on it.

I am editing to add some insight from my priest. He said that Byrd’s arguments follow the same pattern that opened the doors for female ordination and liberalism in the past. I have not studied these patterns personally, but I trust his scholarship and judgement.

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