Some Christians ask, “Is it appropriate for men to read Bible commentaries written by women?” Or “Are women allowed to be police officers?” Others suggest that women are more easily deceived than men, and therefore cannot be trusted. Still others suggest that the fundamental difference between the sexes is authority and submission. For many people, these are the things conjured by the term “complementarian”.
About a year ago, I remember having a conversation with myself about gender roles. I’ve heard enough bizarre teaching and seen enough horrific behavior in my years as an evangelical to have gotten burned out on the topic of gender roles.
But last year I started wondering what the truth really is after we cut through all the distortions and cultural layers. It was in this context that I said to myself, “I’m not sure what I believe about gender roles, but it’ll probably end up being what Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd believe.”
Thus, when Rachel Green Miller put out a tweet asking for volunteers for her book launch team, I, in faith and with some trepidation, volunteered.
Rachel Green Miller is a theological conservative, a member in good standing at a Presbyterian church, the former editor of The Aquila Report, and a prolific blogger. All of her work is highly researched and clearly communicated, and she possesses the uncanny ability to see and trace connections between ideas and people. I know her primarily from her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and from Twitter. I gravitated towards her work immediately, feeling that she was both discerning enough and conservative enough for me to feel safe with and trust her thought processes. She has been immensely helpful for me in moving from being a “cynical evangelical” to a “discerning evangelical,” and for that I am immensely grateful.
For a more “official” introduction, here’s her bio taken from the P&R Publishing website:
Rachel Green Miller is a researcher and popular blogger who is passionate about elevating the dignity of women, improving the cultural conversation about gender relations, and defending orthodox Christianity. A member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, she lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Matt, and their three sons.
In Beyond Authority and Submission, Miller overviews the history of gender roles and the nature of men and women before looking to how these concepts apply in marriage, the church, and society. She summarizes the message of her book in this way:
“…as theologically conservative Christians, we must acknowledge where extrabiblical and unbiblical ideas about women and men have permeated, weakened, and confused our teachings. We need to move beyond a focus on authority and submission in order to incorporate equally important biblical themes in our discussions, such as unity, interdependence, and service. As we do, we will strengthen our vital relationship as co-laborers in Christ.”
In this book review, I will share highlights from each section and then give my response and recommendation.
Miller begins her book by clarifying that she is not comfortable identifying as egalitarian, complementarian, feminist, or patriarchalist. She does, however, believe that God created men and women to be equal and interdependent; that marriage is between one man and one woman, ideally for life; that husbands are called to servant headship and wives are called to voluntary submission; and that ordained church leadership is restricted to qualified men.
She does, however, disagree with many voices in complementarianism, such as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Voddie Baucham, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Doug Wilson, and Mark Driscoll. Throughout her book, she provides dozens direct quotes from these organizations and individuals to back up her claims about what complementarians believe and practice.
In Greco-Roman times, women were viewed as inferior to men, had few legal rights, and were thought to operate in the “private sphere” whereas the “public sphere” belonged to to men. In Victorian times, women were treated as children, were expected to endure abuse by their husbands, and had no legal recourse if their husbands were unfaithful.
Things begin to change with first-wave feminism, which emphasized votes, education, and employment opportunities for women and chastity for men. Second-wave feminism pushed for allowing divorce in cases of abuse. Some feminists of this time bought into the sexual revolution as well as promoting abortion, whereas other feminists saw industries such as abortion and pornography as exploitative of women. Third-wave feminism is largely joined to the abortion and LGBT movements, with some exceptions, as well as being one of the drivers behind and the #MeToo movement, which helps men and women speak up against sexual violence.
From a historical Christian perspective, feminism is a mixed bag—doing much good as well as sometimes supporting immorality. As evangelicals grew in their concerns regarding feminism, they rightly spoke up for biblical truth, but unfortunately often “corrected” by doubling down on ideas borrowed from Greco-Romans and Victorians rather than Scripture; this has resulted in concerning teachings and practices in evangelicalism today.
The Nature of Men and Women
For many complementarians, the fundamental difference between men and women is authority and submission. A tandem belief is that women are more easily deceived and have a core desire to usurp male authority. Together, these beliefs set men and women up to be at enmity with one another.
Miller describes the typical complementarian belief that women are to be “submissive, gentle, quiet, responsive, soft, life-giving, and helping” while men are to be characterized by “strength, authority, and theological discernment and as being initiating, providing, and protecting.” She suggests that these stereotypes come not from Scripture but from culture. In fact, in looking at Scripture,there are positive examples of women leading and initiating (Deborah), providing (Lydia), protecting (Miriam and Abigail), demonstrating strength (Jael), and having theological discernment (Lois and Eunice, Priscilla). Likewise, there are biblical examples of men helping (Barnabas), being gentle and quiet (see the instructions in Paul’s letters to both men and women), giving life (Adam), responding to other’s leadership (Barak and Apollos), and being soft and tender-hearted (David and Paul).
Not only are the complementarian stereotypes not biblical; they can also cause harm and unnecessary pressure. Women who have strong muscles or leadership qualities may feel condemned in their femininity. Men who are short, like poetry, or have emotional intelligence may feel inadequate in their masculinity. However, these stereotypes are merely cultural. There is much freedom within the biblical definitions of maleness and femaleness for uniqueness, and we do well not to add cultural rules to biblical ones.
When authority and submission are the main lenses through which complementarians view marriage, the man is seen to be the ruler (prophet, priest, and king) of the house while the woman’s role is to run the home in practical matters. Miller, on the other hand, believes that from a biblical perspective, companionship is at the heart of marriage, along with interdependence, unity, and service. Within this context, she affirms men are to be servant heads and women are called to voluntary submission.
When marriage goes wrong, the question of divorce is raised. There are three main views held by evangelicals. The first is the “Permanence View”, which is that no marriage is ever to be broken by divorce. The second is the “Adultery-Desertion View”, which is that divorce is permitted only in cases of adultery and desertion. The third view is the “Serious Sin View”, which allows for divorce in cases of serious sin such as all kinds of abuse. Miller advocates for the third, asserting that serious sin breaks the marriage covenant; divorce, when chosen, merely makes the broken covenant legal while freeing the aggrieved party from a broken situation. She writes:
Because we hold a high view of marriage, we need to acknowledge that some sins are so heinous that they destroy a marriage. Hard-hearted sinners who break their marriage vows shouldn’t be allowed to make a mockery of marriage through their actions. Marriage is important, but it’s not meant to be preserved at all costs.
When it comes to church, some complementarians believe that men should be the priority, that women are theologically inferior, that men mediate between God and women, and that the church should have a masculine culture. All men are to lead in some capacity, and women may participate in hospitality and childcare.
Miller affirms that women have direct access to God and that only qualified men should be ordained (and therefore preach, administer church discipline, and administer the sacraments) while pointing out that in the Bible, women are shown as singing, praying, prophesying, evangelizing, learning theology, and serving. Miller suggests that women should generally be able to do anything that an unordained man can do.
Miller’s final topic in this section is abuse. Domestic abuse exists in all circles and is justified by people of all belief systems, but there is a particular kind of man who finds cover in hyper-complementarian churches. It’s imperative that we are honest about this, that we condemn both the abuse and the wrong teachings used to justify it, and that we prioritize the lives and safety of the women at risk. The world is watching, and the name of Christ is often slandered because of how churches respond to abuse victims.
When it comes to men’s and women’s roles in society, some complementarians teach that men are to initiate and form while women are to complete and fill. They suggest that godly societies and persons will prefer male leadership in business and government and that female co-workers are dangerous. (Miller, as usual, provides ample documentation that these views are actually widely taught.)
Miller, on the other hand, points to Genesis in saying that work is a shared calling for both men and women. Education, also, is rightly given to all people. There is much freedom as to how men and women work and function in society, to be guided by wisdom, situation, needs, and preferences. Miller also points out that Scripture dignifies both business leaders and employees.
As I read this book, I found myself often and involuntarily saying either “yes!” or “ew!” as I was struck by Miller’s insights or horrified by quotes from others. What I read put words to my concerns and beliefs. Miller provided data and quotes backing up my intuitions regarding the problems in much of complementarianism. She connected the dots and showed where things came from.
I loved the biblical examples of men and women performing different kinds of tasks and displaying different types of character qualities! I felt a sense of relief and assurance that it’s okay not to fit societal stereotypes. I found myself wishing that various friends and acquaintances of mine who have struggled unnecessarily in the past could feel the same relief.
I love how Miller points to Jesus as the ultimate example of both authority and submission and urges both men and women to look to him as their model for both!
I really appreciated Miller’s balanced approach to feminism. It was fascinating to read a good summary of each of the different “waves” and then to realize that I’m probably a 60 to 66% feminist.
I love the emphasis Miller put on companionship in marriage. Over the years, I’ve been unsure and uncomfortable when I’ve heard people talk about marriage being primarily about either hierarchy or holiness. I think that in the biblical text, particularly the beginning of Genesis, companionship is at the heart of marriage.
In recent years, I have researched the topic of different Christian views on divorce. Hearing Miller list the three main views gave categories for me to better understand. The “Serious Sin View” lines up well with the PCA’s position on divorce, which is that unrepentant serious sin is a form of abandonment and therefore biblical cause for divorce. This is my position as well, and it was helpful to have Miller’s reasoning to further strengthen my position.
I’m very thankful that Miller touched on the topic of abuse in the church. This is something close to my heart, and I think there is opportunity for Christians both to repent of how they have dealt with abuse in the past and then to set an example for the watching world of what it looks like to treat with dignity and truth those who have been victimized by all kinds of abuse.
In general, reading Beyond Authority and Submission has made me less afraid of the topic of gender roles and more confident in my faith, the Bible, and in the wisdom that I have developed over the years. I feel affirmed in my belief that the Bible is safe for women when properly understood and practiced.
In summary, Miller engages insightfully with topics vital to the health the church, the dignity of all image bearers, and the witness of the church before the watching world. I recommend this book for those interested in the connection between history and current Evangelical teachings, for those who want a robust interaction with Biblical truth, and for those who are developing their own theology of gender roles. This book is good for both church leaders as well as lay people, both men and women.
I will note that this book is from a primarily Western and Caucasian perspective, meaning that it looks at the history of the West and specific teachings prevalent in white evangelicalism in the United States today. Other cultures may be able to relate to varying degrees, but I want to acknowledge that Miller’s critiques may or may not be true of other cultures. (She never claims that they are, but for those reading in a different cultural context, I just want them to be aware.) For example, Kyle James Howard, a seminary student and biblical counselor, has written about the teachings and practices regarding gender roles in the African American church and how they differ from teachings and practices in many white churches.
Miller’s writing itself is clear and concise, well-organized and easy to follow. The concepts are fascinating, the historical overview is helpful, and the many quotes shared back up her claims regarding prevalent teachings in evangelicalism. She is committed to historical and credal understanding of the Christian faith and she has the endorsements of people such as Carl Truman, Aimee Byrd, Jacob Denhollander, Wendy Alsup, and Liam Goligher.
In conclusion, thank you, Rachel, for writing such an insightful and helpful book! I give it five out of five stars, and I highly recommend it. I found it personally refreshing, clarifying, and helpful. I believe it is an invaluable resource for the church as we wrestle with what it means to be biblically male and female in our homes, our churches, and our societies.
I’ll leave you with a superb summary quote and call to action from Rachel Green Miller herself:
Too often we find ourselves fighting each other face-to-face instead of fighting side-by-side as we were meant to. From the beginning, when Eve was made to be a helper for Adam, they were meant to work together for God’s glory and for His kingdom. As believing men and women, we have been united together in Christ. Instead of being distracted by what could divide us, we should focus on what unites us. We are the body—the church. Through the work of the Spirit, we are knit together and our true goal has been restored: women and men united and interdependent, serving together as co-laborers, glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.