What role do women have in the church? How does the fact that we are women shape our Christian living? What does it even mean to be a Christian woman? Is it different from being a Christian man? How can women contribute in their churches with their gifts?
I have been stuck on these questions for quite a while now. As a woman pursuing a Ph.D. in a seminary, I am often faced with the reality that opportunities for women in the theological world are limited. In typical Korean churches, according to its cultural norm, I am expected to be either in the kitchen or in the nursery room, chatting with other women about recipes and children. Talking about theology or important matters of the church are reserved for men. To engage in such discussions would be considered as overstepping my boundary.
Hence, as it is for all Christian women, the questions I raised in the beginning are personal questions that call for answers based on solid biblical teaching. And this is why I found Aimee Byrd’s new book, No Little Women: Equipping All Women for God’s Household so helpful. It is not another how-to book that instructs Christian women what to do and what not to do, often limiting women to domestic roles as a wife and a mom, but it paints an overall picture of what value women have in the broader perspective of God’s kingdom.
Throughout the book, Byrd emphasizes the importance of equipping “competent, theologically minded, thinking women” (138). The key to her argument is based on her interpretation of the word “helper” (Hebrew ezer) in Gen. 2:18 to mean “necessary ally.” Women derive their value from being created in the image of God and they are called to be necessary allies to the men in carrying out God’s mission. She not only encourages women to take this calling seriously, but also urges church officers and elders to train women towards that goal. Included in the book are sections directly addressing the church officers and sections directly addressing the women. This strategy allows both men and women to learn from the book and to engage in discussions concerning this important topic. She writes, “I would love for this book to help build up the entire church, both brothers and sisters in God’s household” (22).
The author begins by pinpointing some problems in women’s ministries. She raises her concern that women’s ministry is becoming “a back door for bad doctrine to seep into the church” (22). Women are influential in both the church and their homes as necessary allies. When women do not recognize this calling and remain susceptible to sin, they can easily fall prey to false teachings. They may be “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” Paul refers to these theologically immature women as “little women” in 2 Timothy 3:6-7, which is where Byrd gets her title. We do not want to be “little women,” but instead we want to strive to become theologically competent and discerning women.
The irony, however, is false teachings that deceive women often come from some of the more trustworthy places, such as Christian bookstores and parachurch organizations. Bad theology pervades top-selling books marketed for women. These books tend to reduce Christian theology to domestic roles, sentimentalism, and mysticism. Byrd warns elders and pastors to be aware of this theological climate and invites them to invest in the women of the church by overseeing the materials used in women’s ministries. She also challenges the women to be good discerning theologians. For, she rightly argues, good theology is critically important to both men and women. Together, men and women are to be equipped based on the solid teaching of God’s Word so that they can carry out God’s mission in the family and the church, preparing for the new heavens and the new earth with Christ as our head.
So then, what can we do? Where do we look for a solution? Byrd makes a few suggestions.
First, she raises an interesting question: Can men learn from women? This chapter was particularly encouraging to me since I have had opportunities to teach at my seminary when my professor had to be away. And yes, there were male students in the classroom! Byrd refers to Priscilla as a biblical example of a woman who was actively involved in tentmaking and missionary work alongside her husband Aquila. Priscilla and Aquila also instructed and corrected Apollos the preacher with right doctrines. Also, using Mary’s Magnificat and Hannah’s prayer to support her point, Byrd argues that outside the authority of the ordained ministerial office, men can and ought to learn from women. She also discusses the sensitive topic as to why women do not normally get invited as guest speakers to parachurch conferences. She concludes that “there’s no easy formula,” but questions whether women’s contributions are being seriously taken in all areas of theology (157).
Second, she demonstrates how Scripture teaches women to function as necessary allies. As necessary allies, women (1) warn men to turn away from evil like Abigail; (2) are cobelligerents against evil enemies like Esther; (3) mediate the Word of the Lord like Miriam; (4) give wise instruction and counsel like Priscilla; (5) collaborate in service to others; (6) respond to God as examples of faithfulness; and (7) influence men from a gift of empathy and relatedness. The list provides helpful categories of what responsibilities being a necessary ally entails. To do the opposite is to become little women and only endangers the health of the church.
Finally, in the last section of the book, Byrd presents practical tips on how to be equipped as competent and discerning women. The most vital skill, she emphasizes, is to read well. The details on why one should read a book, how to approach a book, what to look for in a book, and how to read with discernment are laid out with the author’s personal know-how. She also introduces “theological triage” as a guide to critical reading. This method can be helpful, but it is unclear from the book how one can differentiate between first, second, and third orders of doctrine. She concludes the book with the topic of preaching. Writing to pastors, the chapter talks about pastoring and preaching to women. For women, the section explains the meaning of sitting under the preached Word.
One of the strengths of the book is that Byrd attempts to ground every argument on biblical teaching. One can expect in the book abundant references to Scripture, especially the passages related to women. Stories about Abigail, the Samaritan woman at the well, Martha and Mary, Priscilla, and Phoebe all challenge the readers to recognize the place that women have as competent and necessary allies in God’s household.
Another strength of the book is that while the topic is on women, it keeps the reader’s focus on Christ and the ministry of Word and sacrament in the local church. This stands out as an important theological backbone of the book. Ultimately, Christ is the head of God’s household. Our union with Christ is the foundation for all our relationships. And we are called to hear the preached Word and partake in the sacraments within the covenant community of our local church. These are fundamental aspects to our maturing as necessary allies.
Among the many Scriptural references, however, the author does not address passages such as Eph. 5:21-33 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12, which are common texts when discussing gender roles. Some of the interpretations have been used to support submission and authority of all women to all men. Byrd does explain what male headship means and where that authority comes from, briefly making note of Eph. 5 text, but explaining the meaning of these controversial texts in the context of understanding women as necessary allies would strengthen her arguments.
As a Korean reading this book, I was reminded of what place women have in my own church. From what Byrd has described in the book, I noticed some different application points while there were also some strikingly similar points. The differences are that in a typical Korean church, women’s ministry is set up so that Bible studies are often taught by pastors who are also responsible for deciding which book or devotional is appropriate for them. Also, there aren’t best-selling Christian books that are targeted to women only in Korea. Typically, many top-selling Christian books have both men and women readership. Overall, women do not have much voice in Korean Christianity so their bad theology does not pose immediate threat to the health of the church. But there are also similarities between the American and the Korean context, mainly in the lack of recognizing women as necessary allies in carrying out God’s mission. Typically in a Korean church, women are expected to serve in the kitchen or in the nursery, but are not expected to be good theologians.
So, while application points may differ, No Little Women is still helpful because it is not a book about what women should or should not do, which would vary according to one’s cultural context, but it addresses the fundamental value of women as described in the Bible. This book can be helpful for all women across the cultural spectrum in terms of finding their identity as disciples of Christ and realizing the need to be equipped as competent and discerning women.
It is always a great pleasure to learn from the wisdom of an author who has thought through a certain issue way more than I have. I learned much from the author and from her perspective on the value of women in the church. The book’s greatest contribution is that it is not another book about moral imperatives, but rather about the indicatives of what it means to be a woman created in the image of God.
I would highly recommend this book to all women in the church, regardless of their background, culture, or interest in theology. Hopefully, this book will convince all women that having good theology is important in carrying out our call as necessary allies. Also, I recommend it to men who take women seriously and care to see women thrive under God’s Word and the sacrament. (I hope that includes all men!)
Byrd writes, “No matter what our different circumstances and vocations may be, every woman is a theologian” (53). Yes, and let’s be good, discerning, and thinking theologians!