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’
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.
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
- Wendy from Practical Theology for Women Complimentarians, the curse and a book review
- Emma Thornett Worth the Wait (why she chose to give her review the slogan of the abstinence movement is beyond me – does she mean God’s Good Design is better than sex?) Thornett is the editor of the book, writing in another Mathias Media publication, so whether her piece can fairly be called a ‘review’ is up for grabs.
- The Gospel Coalition Word filled women
- Patrick Mitchel What the Bible really says about men and women (a ten point critique)
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)
- Patrick Mitchel Book review: The message of women
- George Wood Biblical egalitarianism: A review of the message of women