Jesus and Gender (book review)

Probably the single most divisive issue for churches during my life time has been the question of how men and women relate to one another in terms of marriage and in terms of church leadership.  I remember the controversy when Princess Diana used the wedding vows that omit a commitment to “obey.” Over just shy of 5 decades,  I’ve seen women ordained first as permanent deacons then as fully functioning Anglican priests and finally appointed as bishops but each of those moves has caused serious fissures within the Church of England.

In the United States a whole movement and organisation has grown up around the concept of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood with much ink spilt on books and journal articles not to mention blogs and tweets.  The question of gender has been at the heart of recent culture wars within American Evangelicalism. Recently I’ve reviewed and interacted with literature associated with a so-called Deconstruction project, most notably Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Du Mez and The Making of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. At the heart of their critique of Evangelicalism is the belief that the movement serves a patriarchy and that its exegesis, exposition, systematic and Biblical Theology as well as its leadership and politics are subservient to this patriarchal desire for white-men to hold power and keep women in their place.

It’s against that backdrop that Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher have written their latest book, Jesus and Gender, Living as sisters and brothers in Christ.  I had the privilege of interviewing Elyse a few weeks back to talk about the book and she also kindly forwarded my a pre-publication pdf of the book for review.

Their thesis is that we’ve got too wrapped up in debates about who gets to be boss. This is an affliction for complementarians and egalitarians alike.  Complementarians (those who emphasise male headship in the home and male eldership in the church), tend to think in terms of husbands and pastors have authority to lead so the “boss question” is fairly overt there. However, egalitarians too can end up seeing the issue in terms of hierarchy and who takes charge in the home and the church.

Fitzpatrick and Schumacher argue that we need to get away from such debates and disputes and instead fix our eyes on Jesus who offers a better way forward and a better example of what it means to be human for both genders. First, as Elyse explained on our podcast, we need to remember that God made humanity, male and female in his image.  This means that all humans share the same nature, there aren’t two natures – male and female. It also means that Jesus assumed human nature for both men and women, otherwise women would not be saved. They write:

“Here’s why this is so important: if there is a male nature that differs in essence from a female nature, and if Jesus assumed a male nature but not a female one, then I, as a woman, can’t be saved. The ancient theologian Athanasius (ad 296–373) rightly understood that if there were any part of human nature that hadn’t been assumed by Jesus in the incarnation, then that part of our nature, whatever it might be, could not be part of his record of perfect law-keeping and substitutionary death in our place. Jesus had to be like me “in every way” or I can’t be saved in any way. Jesus is the perfect human, which means he stands in as both the perfect man and the perfect woman. He is not merely my example, he is also my brother, my righteousness. He fulfilled all God’s law perfectly in my place and died for breaking the law in my place so that I, as a woman, can be both forgiven and counted completely righteous. The importance of this truth can’t be overstated: We share the same humanity”[1]

Yet whilst you would expect evangelicals to pay at least lip service to that, it does not always come through.  We may talk in terms of equal in nature but different in role but that seems to translate into a belief that the different roles reflect distinctions in nature which cannot but suggest female inferiority. In particular, women have at times been presented by complementarians as

“to exercise the kind of hard, judgmental discernment that is necessary in theological and Scriptural issues. By nature, a woman will more likely fall prey to the subtleties of mental and theological error.” [2]

It is worse than that though. Women have not merely been presented as naïve, weak and inferior but contemporary evangelicalism has bought into a historic narrative that they are dangerous. 

“Women and their gifts are devoured by churches and theologies that promote unbiblical or unbalanced teaching. What happens when seminarians hear that all women, by their female nature, desire to overthrow men? What happens when pastors-in-training are taught only about guarding themselves against temptations, false accusations, and seductresses? What happens when we tell them that friendships with women or coffee with female church members are dangerous and forbidden? Future pastors grow suspicious of their sisters. They will rob the women (and men) in their churches of meaningful partnership and unity in the gospel. The great commission and the unbelieving world are underserved when the church prevents men and women from functioning as siblings and allies.” [3]

In the Gospels we find Jesus relating to women in a completely different way to that. So unsurprisingly the book will take us to incidents such as Jesus meeting the woman at the well, where we are also encouraged to re-evaluate some of our presuppositions about her.[4]

Secondly, Elyse and Eric spend quite a bit of time on Philippians 2 where we are told that Jesus “humbled himself and took on the nature of a servant”. Here we see Christ, the one who assumed our human nature, both male and female modelling something totally different to the world’s craving for power. Christians should not be interested in the question of who gets to be boss.  Instead, our focus should be on what it means to be part of a family together as brothers and sisters with Jesus as our older brother, then our concern will be for each other’s mutual flourishing.

Fitzpatrick and Schumacher look at this concern to be brothers and sisters looking out for one another’s mutual flourishing in a number of contexts through the book.  They look practically (without claiming to offer an identikit blueprint) at marriage, raising children – both boys and girls and in the life of the church. 

The book will challenge you deeply.  I would encourage all male pastors and elders to reflect particularly on these words:

“Even if you think yourself to be something as seemingly helpful as a “benefactor,” one who would use his or her authority for the betterment of others, embrace servanthood. Jesus warned about the folly of pursuing anything other than that title and image for yourself. If you think it’s your right to lord your authority over others, even if you think you’re doing so for their benefit, then you’re acting like the world. Jesus said, “It is not to be like that among you” (Luke 22:26). When you claim positions of power for yourself, you’re acting like an unbeliever. It’s the world you’re imaging, not your humble Lord”[5]

This is something that has challenged me deeply. It’s one thing for me to think as a man that I’m somehow being servant hearted and generous if I act to enable women to have a voice, to climb the ladder, to secure senior promotions at work and use their gifts in church. Yet I can fool myself there if I’m happy doing those things because ultimately power and authority stays with me. Now I need to be careful writing as a complementarian but I must admit that I’ve met card carrying egalitarian men who are happy for women to be promoted in church so long as they remain in charge. You see, if we are honest, the issue isn’t so much about gender as it is about me personally and my power.  We all suffer with this sin called pride.

The authors are gently sensitive to the ways in which both men and women may have suffered from experiences that will affect their attitude to others.  For women, they write:

“Now we assume that there are some women who just read the above and felt a visceral response that might be summed up in, “Sorry … That’s never going to happen. I’m never going to be concerned about whether any man is thriving.” We understand. We know that some of you have finally gotten out from under an abusive relationship, and we would never tell you to go back into it. Please understand this: loving your neighbor and working for his flourishing doesn’t mean allowing him to sin against you. Ever. In fact, sometimes loving your neighbor means that you start holding him accountable for harm he has done to you; sometimes that means detaching yourself from him and letting the consequences of his wrongdoing hit him with the full force of justice. “[6]

In turn they observe:

“Again, if a man believes that most women are dangerous, seductive, and out to usurp authority, he’ll find it very difficult to enter deep, The Pursuit of Mutual Flourishing 123 healthy, and mutually beneficial relationships with them—but the Lord can transform a man’s heart, too. Some men have experienced terrible destruction in their relationships with women, perhaps a mother or wife who misused, abused, maligned, or crushed them.” [7]

When you review a book, you are usually being asked for an assessment and recommendation.  I tend to categorise my reviews into the following categories

  1. There are some books I highly commend because I believe they are crucial reading. They make an argument I am convinced by and make it well.
  2. There are some books I recommend you reading even though I’m not convinced by the argument. There’s a benefit to reading people who argue a position you disagree with but argue it well.
  3. There are some books that argue a point badly, whether or not one agrees with the argument made. I would not waste your money on such books.

My assessment of Jesus and Gender falls into the first category.  I agree significantly with the argument of the book and find its overall tone helpful. Are there little niggles/things I disagree with? Yes as you would expect in any book by fellow fallible human beings. I’d have personally liked even more on Jesus in the Gospels. I think there is a little more to say on what it means to raise godly boys and men -that whilst we don’t want to over-separate male and female, we are of the same nature, there do seem to me to be distinctions worth unpacking.  Perhaps though this is not the book for that. If so, I would suggest that someone needs to do for boys what the authors’ previous book “Worthy” did for women and girls (a book I strongly encourage dads to get and read with their daughters).  Finally I admit it, their attempt for a replacement label for Biblical manhood and womanhood and complementarian and egalitarian “Christic men and women” for some reason doesn’t grab me.  It’s hard to put in words and it may reflect transatlantic cultural differences. Maybe we just need to do away with the attempts to find labels that appeal to everyone?

To be clear though, these are niggles, not major issues. I strongly commend the book and its message. Like previous books by the authors you will find, even if you land in a different place to them on any of the questions regarding gender roles that the book as well as being well argued has a pastoral tone that will not only stretch your brain and challenge you but will warm your heart and give you grace.

[1] Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 54.

[2] Joseph Pipa, president emeritus of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary cited in Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 60.

[3] Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 38.

[4] Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 121-122.

[5] Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 24.

[6] Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 121.

[7] Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher, Jesus and Gender, 122-123.

Usual disclaimers apply. I was kindly sent a pre-publication pdf manuscript of the book. However, I do not believe that this has influenced my review.

Jesus and Gender is available in the UK from 20th April in Hardcover: £19.16. Kindle version – 6th April and also available in the States from then. You can pre-order it now.

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