Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Reflections on a Review

Well, I think my review of Aimee Byrd’s book may have touched a nerve. At least it seems that way from the wide array of responses I have seen on social media this week. There are a whole lot of folks that really appreciated it, and there are a number of folks for whom—let’s just say—it was less than edifying.

Years ago, I used to be more of a Twitter warrior and would have been online answering all the criticism. Not so much anymore. I don’t have the bandwidth for that kind of interaction, and I’ve come to see it as mainly futile because Twitter is often dominated by foolish speech and personal attacks. Even if you try to avoid it, you still end up getting some on you.

Having said that, neither I nor my review are above criticism. Some readers have actually pointed out some helpful things (misaligned endnotes, an incorrect page reference, etc.). So not all of the criticism has been bad. Some readers have pointed out that the review is short on summarizing Byrd’s book. That’s a fair point. Readers will be happy to learn that the print version of the review is actually considerably longer than the blog version because it includes more summary of Byrd’s book. So if you were looking for more summary, it’s on the way in the printed journal.

But the short version of the review (which is what appears on SBTS’s Equip blog) represents concerns that I thought worth highlighting in a short format. Andy Naselli has already written what will probably go down as the definitive review of the book, and his work is considerably more lengthy and in-depth than mine. I wrote my review with his in mind. My aim was brevity while highlighting issues that weren’t as prominent in Andy’s review.

Just a word about the timeline that I hope helps. I wrote this review weeks ago before the Geneva Commons imbroglio. After that blew up, I decided not to publish the review and to hold it back indefinitely. I thought it would have been received as piling-on, and I didn’t want what I wrote to be associated with the controversy surrounding Geneva Commons, which I had nothing to do with. So I held it back until the heat went out of the kitchen.

Some readers complained that the review was really about marking boundaries—about delineating who’s in and who’s out of the complementarian camp. To that criticism I can only say, guilty as charged. Not only is that what I tried to do with my review, but an honest assessment of Byrd’s book would recognize that she is attempting to do the same. She has told the world, from the title of her new book onward, that CBMW’s teaching requires “recovering from.” The message is clear: Move on folks, nothing left for you here. I am simply disagreeing with Byrd, and telling the world that if you listen to her, you will be leaving what many of our confessions define as biblical fidelity on gender, which is one of the most significant pressure points of our culture today.

Since Byrd’s book was released, I have seen some people treat this book as if it were basically a narrow complementarian book but just written by someone who doesn’t want to wear that label. That is a false impression of this book. Byrd is not a complementarian, and she is very clear about that in the book. More than once, she says as much in so many words: “I cannot call myself a complementarian” (121).

But this is not merely a nomenclature thing. And on this point my concern for boundary-drawing is pastoral. I am a pastor in a Southern Baptist Church. I also serve as a professor of Bible in a Southern Baptist Seminary. These callings include the responsibility “to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). I do not believe that Byrd’s approach to scripture can be reconciled with our complementarian confessional commitments. For example, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says this:

A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.

Byrd’s book argues against this view of headship. As I pointed out in the review, when defining “headship,” Byrd relies on a feminist scholar named Sarah Coakley to deny that “headship” involves any authority on a husband’s part. Headship is a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” structure (p. 107). Byrd uses the word “headship” but she fills it with Sarah Coakley’s meaning. The result: Rhetorically, Byrd sounds like a narrow complementarian. Substantively, she advances a feminist definition of “headship.”

This is not compatible with our denomination’s complementarian convictions. Perhaps it’s not compatible with the complementarian convictions of other denominations and churches as well. I will leave that to others to sort out. I am primarily concerned about the field I am laboring in. One of my aims was to make sure that readers can see clearly where this book lands. It’s not on the complementarian spectrum. This is not a first order issue, but it is a second order issue that our confession binds us to.

That is why I put such an emphasis on Byrd’s sources in the review. I want readers to see that she is not criticizing egalitarian/feminist scholarship. Even though she doesn’t claim the label egalitarian, she is nevertheless embracing their conclusions on many crucial points. This is not ad hominem or the genetic fallacy. It is drawing the lines clearly so that people can see them. At least that is what I was aiming for.

In Byrd’s responses to my review, she doubles down on this notion that complementarianism is somehow built on ESS. Specifically, she alleges that CBMW has endorsed and embraced this teaching. She has been making this claim for years and keeps insisting that CBMW “repent” of its endorsement of ESS. I will try to explain this once more. CBMW as an organization has never endorsed ESS. The organization exists to promote the teaching of the Danvers Statement and of the Nashville Statement. ESS is not in Danvers, nor is it in the Nashville Statement. The “official document” that Byrd claims endorses ESS is not an official document. It’s an essay in The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood from the early 2000’s. She is simply mistaken on this point.

The ESS view does not really even appear in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, except perhaps in an appendix that Wayne Grudem wrote on the Greek term kephale. I say “perhaps” because what Byrd describes as ESS is not what appears in that appendix. Byrd describes ESS this way: “This doctrine teaches that the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is subordinate to the Father, not only in the economy of salvation but in his essence (101, underline mine). But this is not at all what appears in Grudem’s appendix. Grudem writes,

The doctrine of the ‘eternal generation of the Son’ has been taken to imply a relationship between the Father and the Son that eternally existed and that will always exist—a relationship that includes a subordination in role, but not in essence or being… The orthodox doctrine has always been that there is equality in essence and subordination in role and that these two are consistent with each other (RBMW, 457, underline mine).

To describe Grudem’s position as an outright denial of the Son’s equality with the Father would be a mischaracterization. Even in disagreement, charity requires describing an opponent’s position in terms that they would recognize. I think Byrd has failed to accurately describe what Grudem wrote in that appendix.

No matter how one interprets Grudem’s appendix, this still wouldn’t constitute an official endorsement of ESS on the part of CBMW. Piper and Grudem clearly state in the preface to RBMW:

We must say here that the positions advocated in the chapters are those of the individual authors. Yet the authors share a common commitment to the overall viewpoint represented in the book, and in every case the editors felt that the chapters were consistent with the position endorsed by the Danvers Statement (RBMW, xv).

Piper and Grudem are saying that there are a variety of interpretations that fit within the parameters of Danvers. This is the crucial point that I think Byrd misses. The doctrinal unity of RBMW is the Danvers Statement, not the individual chapters of RBMW.

I really don’t want to kick off another Trinity debate. That is an important discussion, but it is actually a distraction here. Byrd wants you to believe that complementarianism commits you to believing in ESS (however that is defined). She couldn’t be more wrong about that. And no matter how many times she protests otherwise, saying it doesn’t make it so.

These random reflections have gone on long enough, so I will draw to a close. The Bible really does teach that men and women are equal image-bearers of Almighty God (Gen. 1:26-27). It also teaches that God has a special distinct design of male and female that results in a beautiful complementarity.

This complementarity means among other things that husbands are to lead, provide, and protect their wives—to care for them as Christ cares for and loves the church (Eph. 5:21-33). Wives are called to affirm this leadership and to help their husbands in their mutual callings to follow Christ and subdue creation (Gen. 2:18).

God gives both men and women gifts and ministries in the church, and all of those vital ministries can be carried out in a way that honors headship (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Tim. 2:12). While all disciples of Jesus are called to be ministers of reconciliation, God intends for pastors to be men who are qualified by scripture (1 Tim. 3:1-7).

These are all glorious biblical truths that God calls us to embrace. Don’t give up on them because they are not fashionable today. These truths are good for us and for the world, and they are worth contending for.