‘God’s good design’ or ‘The message of women’

It was my birthday last week and I found myself in the possession of an amazon book voucher surveying all the tantalising books that could be mine.

For the record I got the Economy of Desire; Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World and  Justice in Love (I don’t normally do philosophy, but apparently this one’s so well written that it’s worth reading just as an example of philosophers communicating clearly). But to max out my shipping (this is the only time I wish I lived anywhere but Australia – internet shipping costs) I needed one more book.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’d know I’m trying to work out what the Bible teaches about gender. Two books came out last year on the Bible’s teachings on women:

  • Tidball & Tidball The Message of Women which is about ‘women in Scripture’
  • Smith God’s Good Design which sets out to explain ‘what the Bible really says about men and women’

I was only going to get one. Both have the intro available for free online (here and here) to help me make my choice. This is what I learned from their introductions.


First up, the Tidballs implore the reader not to skip to the end to the bit on women in leadership because they’re concerned to understand what the whole Bible says about women (not just leadership).

When playing Monopoly the unfortunate player may be instructed to ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.’ Regrettably we fear that many who read this volume will fall into the equivalent trap and go straight to the chapter on women in leadership, bypassing all the other chapters en route. We beg you not to do so. One of the most interesting reflections on writing this book is how many people have assumed in conversation that it was about women in leadership rather than women in Scripture. While the issue of women in leadership, Scripture has much more to say about women than whether they can be ordained or not. Moreover, we would contend that it is by isolating this issue from the rest we are liable to misunderstand what Paul was teaching.

Claire Smith, on the other hand, begins her book with that very issue, starting at  1 Timothy 2 – women preaching in church. The following chapter is on 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings) then 1 Corinthians 14 (women speaking in church). The books’ theology of men and women is entirely built on the difficult and contested passages. She explains her selection of content in the introduction:

 This book is a text-by-text, verse-by-verse, and sometimes word-by-word look at passages that many of us have put in the ‘too hard’ basket.


The Tidballs structure their book according to the Bible’s own overarching narrative (creation, fall, new creation). It’s a Biblical theology of women.

The book is divided into four sections. First we lay some crucial foundations about women in creation and in the new creation. Then we survey the rich Old Testament material concerning women…The third section examines the Gospels…The final section deals with both the practice and teaching of the early church and fully examines some of the more controversial (and misunderstood?) writings of Paul.

Smith structures her book according to our 21st Century questions about women – what’s their ‘role’ (not a Biblical term) in church and marriage? She does the opposite to the Tidballs; she deliberately does not consider passages in the light of each other so that each chapter can be read in isolation.

The book falls into two parts. The first looks at those texts that deal with the roles and relationships of women and men when Christians gather together for what we call ‘church.’ The second section of the book focuses on their relationship within marriage, and in God’s original design for creation. Each chapter is written as a discrete unit dealing with a particular text, and so can be read on its own or as part of the whole.


What’s their approach to interpreting the Bible? The Tidballs say it’s difficult and complicated. Smith says it’s straightforward and that any difficulty is due to sin and our cultural biases (i.e. feminism).

This is what the Tidballs said about interpretation:

When we approach Scripture with integrity we find it speaks on the issue of women in ways which are diverse, complex and particular. Diversity demands we look to the range of the Bible’s teaching and do not merely select those passages which suit our particular viewpoint. Complexity demands we study the text carefully…Particularity means we must locate the text in its original cultural setting and the issues that were around then…before we consider how it applies to our very differenct cultural context and questions today.

And Smith:

The problem [of the difficulty we experience in understanding the Bible’s teachings on men and women] is not really with God or with his word. The problem is with us. The difficulties we have with those texts that deal with the responsibilities of men and women lie in us – not in the clarity or goodness of God’s word. We can expect God’s word to speak clearly. And it does.


The Tidballs are going for a more academic tone (though still very accessible), whereas Smith is writing for a popular audience. The Tidballs seem careful to explain their position with humility and graciousness towards those who understand the Bible differently.

Humility demands that we eschew calling one another names. Sadly a good deal of name-calling goes on in the church and some feel that labelling an opponent’s view as ‘feminist’ or ‘reactionary’ is sufficient not to consider thoughtfully what they are saying. This is part of a wide cultural trend which finds moral discussion difficult and thinks all questions are resolved by labelling those with whom we disagree. Such a trend…is deeply unworthy of the followers of Jesus Christ.

Smith, on the other hand, is ready to insinuate that egalitarians have a low view of scripture and are therefore unfaithful pastors.

Why would God’s word say one thing and yet mean the opposite? This is, in fact, what the various ‘egalitarian’ interpretations do. They claim to be uncovering the true meanings of these texts, and yet their conclusions fly in the face of the words themselves….

Sometimes…Christian brothers and sisters who at other times have been beloved and reliable teachers and shepherds in their sermons and books…tell us that these words of Scripture cannot be taken literally or that they no longer apply today, or that the evangelistic turn-off of these texts is baggage the church cannot afford to carry and that being missional means moving with the times and fitting with our culture.


Well, no prizes for guessing which book I bought after comparing their introductions. I am actually  surprised that Smith’s book has received so many recommendations (if you do recommend it and have read it please feel free to let me know why) when, as she indicates in the introduction, she starts with the contested, difficult passages and uses them to work out a theology, rather than interpreting the hard bits in light of what we know for sure from the clear passages, the Gospel and the overal story of the Bible. If her aim were simply to exegete hard passages, that’s fine, but to base her teaching of ‘what the Bible says’ on only the hard bits worries me. A Biblical theological approach, starting at Genesis 1 right through to Jesus’ New Creation – using the Bible’s own framework – seems to me to be a more reliable way of understanding what the Bible really says.


You may be interested to read some reviews of people who’ve actually read the books.

Reviews of God’s Good Design

Reviews of The Message of Women (couldn’t find any negative reviews of this one, perhaps it’s slipped under the complimentarian radar because everyone’s been so busy dealing with John Dickson)


10 thoughts on “‘God’s good design’ or ‘The message of women’

  1. Interesting comparison Laura! One of the tensions I find most perplexing about this discussion is the question of how ‘clear’ the Bible is on it.

    Claire Smith’s complementarianism seems to proof-text more than it does biblical theology but the simplicity of its approach is attractive. On the other hand, I appreciate the fuller treatment of (some) egalitarians but I feel like their arguments often draw on ‘extra’ or special knowledge which is only accessible to scholars.

    I don’t like the notion of a ‘plain’ or ‘common sense’ reading of a text but at the same time, I’m aware that we easily look for opportunities to dodge what we don’t like. So I find myself suspicious of both sides as well as my own motives.

    • Too true! I know what you mean with the suspicion that I’m ‘dodging’ the hard parts of the Bible. What I find hard is keeping a check on my own potential confirmation-bias while also trusting and expecting that the Bible will be good news for followers of Jesus like me. Is it bad to expect to like what the Bible teaches? Are we so sinful that good news will still seem bad to us?

      What’s not helpful is when egalitarian women are accused of reading the bible to suit their sinful agendas (actually when motives are ascribed to anyone doing theology). It’s a failure to listen to what they’re actually saying (or a way of avoiding it?) and can be really hurtful.

      • Hmm, the ‘good news’ thing on the women issue is an interesting one. I suspect for many women at the time, both Jesus and Paul’s attitudes to women were incredibly good news! I remember a Muslim friend reading Ephesians 5 and saying ‘this is so beautiful’ – yet I was worried about showing her because that’s not the way Australian women read it!

        I agree that ascribing sinful agendas one way or the other is unhelpful. Here in Tanzania we’ve encountered it the other way around too – western egalitarians looking down on more conservative Africans assuming that their views come more from their patriarchal culture than the Bible. (Perhaps they do, but how do we disentangle our own views from our own culture?!)

  2. Personally, I feel it is ironic that a woman who opposes the public teaching ministry of women in church nevertheless feels it’s perfectly acceptable to conduct a public teaching ministry through book publishing. Far better simply to let capable women teach in whatever venue God opens to them!

    • I think the argument is about the forum in which teaching occurs. I don’t think Smith’s argument is that women can never teach men ever. Otherwise, men and women couldn’t have conversations! I think the prohibition is tied to teaching because that’s seen to be the job of the pastor. Writing a book is seen to be less authoritative and thus OK.

      • Well as far as I can see you’re right. Mitchel’s review says:

        “Smith sees a place for women to contribute to academic discussion. The distinction here is her views are weighed and evaluated in the world of scholarship and not in the familial local gathering. So women can write books as Claire Smith has done, which are read by men and contain teaching, but the reader can weigh and evaluate her words and agree or disagree in a private way. This is different from teaching in the local church gathering.”

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