Aimee Byrd and Biblical manhood (part 1)

Another row has been brewing and building state side and whilst it may not appear to have immediate implications here in the UK, I believe the implications are there both because of the international interconnectedness of the church and because there are lessons and warning signs of for us too.

The row centres around an author and blogger, Aimee Byrd who wrote a book called Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The title is a play on the title of a multi author volume from some years back called “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” which was edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. The fall out of her writing the book is that she was strongly criticised by a number from within the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement and removed from a podcast and a blogging platform.

At first sight, that may seem straight forward. I wouldn’t expect to be compelled to provide a platform for someone who disagreed with my foundational position. However, things are a little bit more complicated than that.  You see the debate is around two perspectives about the way that men and women relate within marriage and the church.  These are usually summed up under two headings.

Complementarianism represents the belief that men and women “complement” one another. The idea comes from Genesis 2 where God makes a helper suitable for Adam. The Hebrew behind “suitable” could also be translated more woodenly “like (but) opposite to.” So complementarians generally believe that men and women are equal, both made in God’s image and both co-heirs in Christ of the blessings of the Gospel. At the same time, they argue that men and women have distinct roles to play in the church and the family. Specifically, they would argue that elders should be male and that husbands have a responsibility to act as “the head” in the marriage relationship and family life.

Egalitarianism is the belief that because God made men and women equal, it would be wrong to assign particular roles, especially where there is an authority/leadership dynamic. We should be careful to avoid anything that undermines equality. Therefore, in effect when it comes to men and women within the family and the church, there has to be a level of interchangeability in roles, just as we would expect in the modern workplace.

Now, at this stage I should declare an interest and make a disclaimer. My declared interest is that I am personally from the “Complementarian” camp.  I’ve written from that perspective and you can download two e-publications from this site that reflect that position.

Marriage at Work

John Wesley on the Slave Trade

My disclaimer is that I have not read Byrd’s book yet but I have been intending to as soon as I could get some headspace. So I may agree with her a lot more than I am expecting to or a lot less. However, I have seen a little bit about what she has written both from her own words and from reviews.  Additionally, much of the current controversy is not around the book itself but around perceptions of how she has been treated by those who disagree with her since and how she has conducted herself online in the aftermath. I intend to look in more detail at those aspects of the controversy in a further post. However, in this one I want to set out some of the issues that are up for discussion.

In effect, the argument comes down to the question “is Biblical Manhood and Womanhood the same as complementarianism?”[1]

From what I have seen, in summary, Byrd is arguing that there are issues with the CBMW approach in terms of theology and practice. These include that the position of Piper and Grudem arises out of a contemporary debate and is more reflective of recent cultural assumptions than of Biblical teaching.  Secondly Byrd argues that they are propagating and relying on an argument based in a novel, unorthodox view of the Trinity.

I agree with her on the first argument and disagree with her on the second.   I will explain in a later article why I do not think that they are in error on Trinitarian theology but here I want to pick up on the first point.

Let me identify two issues with the CBMW position.

Cultural

In my dissertation on work and marriage, I quoted John Piper saying

“When my father came home he was clearly the head of the house. He led prayer at the table. He called the family together for devotions. He got us to Sunday School and worship. He drove the car. He guided the family to where we would sit. He made the decision to go to Howard Johnson’s for lunch. He led us to the table. He called the waitress. He paid the check.”[2]

Later I note that this statement reflects specific cultural assumptions about the role of women both in the home and the workplace which are really time-framed to a romantic image of western life (and possibly specifically American life) around about the 1950s. I offer a survey of the role of men and women in the home and the workplace throughout history.  It was illuminating to see that the assumptions about these things offered by those advocating a  Biblical Manhood and Womanhood position do not fit with the historical evidence. I wrote:

“The point remains, however, that even within a hierarchical society, the role and power of women has been more variegated than sometimes our mythology assumes. This works against the two extremes of romanticised history; there was neither the Complementarian golden age suggested above, but neither was there the great heroic feminist struggle for the right to work sometimes assumed at the other end of the spectrum”[3]

I also argue that the role of woman, called to help man in his work in the garden (Genesis 3), the description of the proverbial wife (Proverbs 31), and the injunctions from Paul in Titus 2 do not fit with that cultural perspective either so that John Stott comments on the description of the wife’s role as being busy at home:

“It would not be legitimate to base on this word either a stay at home stereotype for all women or a prohibition of wives being also professional women. What is rather affirmed is that if a woman accepts the vocation of marriage, and has a husband and children, she will love and not neglect them. J.B. Phillips’ word ‘home lovers’ sums up well what Paul has in mind. What he is opposing is not a wife’s pursuit of a profession, but ‘the habit of being idle and going about from house to house.’”[4]

From my perspective, it is possible to be complementarian and disagree with the way that some complementarians apply their position to contemporary life.

Exegetical

Ephesians 5:21ff is one of the key passages on men and women. It was the focus of my masters’ dissertation. In the dissertation, I disagree with the egalitarian interpretation of headship which excludes any sense of leadership and authority. I show that the Greek word kephale clearly includes those concepts and these are central to the context of Ephesians.

However, I also note that this headship comes within the context of mutual submission. Ephesians 5:21 talks about submitting to one another. A number of my fellow complementarians have argued that mutual submission is impossible and have tried to avoid the difficult interpretation here by suggesting it simply means that we submit to those we are required to submit to.

However, the text through into Ephesians 6 shows that the thing Paul is asking for is exactly a reciprocal, mutual submission.  Paul asks husbands to sacrificially love their wives, parents not to exasperate their children and masters to treat slaves in exactly the same way that the slaves were to treat them.

John Calvin writes:

“Now a man may think it strange at first glance that he should say that we ought to be subject to one another. For it does not seem fitting that a father should be subject to his children, the husband to his wife, or the magistrate to the people whom he governs, or even that they also who are equal in status should be subject one to another. But if we examine all things well, we shall find that St. Paul has not without reason put all Christians under this subjection”[5]

Once again, we might see that a contemporary complementarian position is out of line with a historical one.

Conclusion

At this stage, I simply want to note that there are significant variations within the complementarian position both in terms of the current debate and historically. It should be possible for someone to challenge the CBMW position as Byrd has done without this putting them beyond the pale.


[1] Indeed as a specific organisation exists, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW, we may ask whether or not that organisation effectively reflects the complementarian position.  The question being potentially analogous to the question of whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement and the BLM organisation are the same thing.

[2] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 31-32.

[3] David Williams, Marriage at work, file:///C:/Users/Local%20User/Documents/study/faithroots/publications/pdf/Marriage%20at%20Work.pdf

[4] Cited in Williams, Marriage at work, 58-59. John R.W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus (Leicester: Inter Varsity Press: 1996), 189.

[5] Cited in Williams, Marriage at work, 30, John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Rev. Rpr. Trans. Arthur Golding. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), 560

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