When a Woman Challenges “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”

It’s a tale as old as time: Aimee Byrd wrote a book and complementarians started screaming in terror. 

It has been quite something to watch Byrd’s career grow since her first book, Housewife Theologian. While many would accuse her of a “feminist drift”, in my view she has remained remarkably consistent. She has built a career encouraging women to develop sharp theological minds while also calling the church to embrace the theological contributions and insights of the women in their midst. This same goal is at the root of her latest effort, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

This seems to be a thoroughly uncontroversial mission, regardless of your position in the egalitarian vs. complementarian debate. 

Boy, am I wrong!

Somehow, in the upside-down world of evangelicalism, a conservative writer from the OPC has become public enemy number one for a large company of complementarians. For an observer from outside that combative world (I am an egalitarian that serves in a denomination that accepts both egalitarians and complementarians), it all becomes very confusing.

For the uninitiated, let me explain my confusion. Byrd is a member in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a confessional denomination that does not permit women to be ordained into any office. Byrd herself has, on numerous occasions, affirmed a male-only ordination standard. She has also made clear that she believes in the headship of men in the home. 

More than this, Byrd and her podcast co-hosts at Mortification of Spin have spent considerable time discussing what they perceive to be the dangers of the sexual revolution (concerns that I mostly share). 

In case this was unclear, Byrd says so explicitly in her newest book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

“I share CBMW’s [more on them in a bit—MO] concerns for speaking out against the damage and pain caused by the sexual revolution. I share their zeal for promoting holiness and making known the good news of redemption in Christ available to all.” (page 171)

To recap: Aimee Byrd does not believe in women’s ordination, affirms male headship, celebrates a biblical standard for human sexuality, and advocates holiness as produced by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Sounds pretty orthodox and conservative to me. 

So why have critics labeled Aimee a poster-child of third-wave feminism and a paragon of gender-ignoring liberalism (okay, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic…a bit)?

It is because she has repeatedly criticized the gatekeepers of the evangelical gender conversation, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). 

Byrd’s criticisms of CBMW are by no means new. In fact, one could say that her criticisms became most pointed during the now-infamous “Trinity Debate”, an intramural scrum that saw conservatives at each other’s throats. This time the debate centered around one of Christianity’s most sacred truths: the Trinity. God is One in Three Persons. 

While church history has provided a wealth of careful theological reflection and language for describing our God, certain leaders in the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood school of thought began using “Eternal Subordination” language (ESS or EFS as shorthand) to describe the relations between the Father and the Son. Doing so enabled them to locate the ground for the subordination of women not in biblical commands or creational mandates, but in the very being of God himself. 

Unfortunately for proponents of ESS, their view of the Trinity leans closer to the ancient Arian heresy than it does the biblical witness (though it is not strictly the same as Arianism). When Byrd and many others pointed this out, an uproar broke out that remains unresolved today. 

Still, the Trinity Debate was only a flash point. Aimee has been asking for years about the undue influence that a parachurch organization like CBMW has over the church. CBMW has not only shaped the debate about gender roles in the church, it has defined them. It is through the grid of CBMW and their Danvers Statement that all complementarian churches and leaders must interpret biblical teaching on what it means to be a man or a woman. 

I call foul. Aimee Byrd does too. Which is why, despite my disagreements with Byrd on matters of women’s ordination, I happily endorsed her book. 

The quest for “biblical manhood and womanhood” has taken our eyes off the ball. We are busy asking questions about the appropriate way a woman can give a man directions or debating the appropriateness of a woman giving a man directives at work (see the seminal book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper) instead of providing women with the tools they need to rightly divide the Word of truth and take every thought captive to Christ. Instead of encouraging the mutual submission of Ephesians 5, complementarians lead men to “Christic manhood” and encourage women to become a “second Eve”. We label gentleness a feminine fruit of the spirit (after all, men are supposed to be tough!) and blame women for a man’s lack of self-control or worse, sexual violence. 

None of this is biblical discipleship. Far from it. Rather, it is an exaltation of gender at the expense of the unity we have in Jesus Christ. 

So Byrd wrote a book calling us to strip off the “yellow wallpaper” that inhibits women—and by extension robs men of the disciple-sharpening voices of our sisters in Christ—by returning to a biblical complementarity that celebrates God’s grand design for his church: a household of brothers and sisters built on the foundation of Christ and his Word.

Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is ultimately a book about discipleship that, while certainly controversial, offers a vision of discipleship that we need to interact with, whether we agree or disagree. 

Not that critics seemed to care about this central thesis.

Reviewer Andy Naselli spent considerable time trying to locate Byrd on a surprisingly intricate table of “leanings and theological instincts” regarding gender roles. Mark Jones pivoted quickly to an argument regarding women’s role in the church, certainly a topic that Byrd tackles, but he ignores the broader questions about discipleship that Byrd is asking. By trying to limit Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to current debates about ordination, women teaching men, authority, etc., Jones unfortunately misses the point. 

Even less charitably, a reviewer at the Kuyperian casually dismisses Byrd in the introduction of his review by saying she violates one of Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules. 

Okay then. 

It seems to me that a good-faith effort at reviewing Byrd’s book would require accurately identifying the book’s aim. From the subtitle to the structure to the major and minor themes within the book, Byrd is clear: the evangelical church has taken her eyes away from her primary goal of making disciples in favor of the lesser goal of defining manhood and womanhood.

The posture of Byrd’s critics proves her point. When a woman demanded that we consider the biblical witness regarding the discipleship of women and men, complementarians immediately tried to paint her as a feminist. When she argued that the framework of CBMW contained numerous theological flaws, she was dismissed as a closet egalitarian. When she called on leaders to take more seriously the abuses of complementarian leaders, she was labeled rebellious and ambitious.

In the end, it seems that Byrd’s desire to theologically educate women and include them in the intellectual life of the church was just a step too far for some corners of the complementarian world. 

Good. Maybe it’s long past time for those corners to simply fade away altogether. 

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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