This Book Wasn’t Written For Me…
Before I go any further, I should probably be clear about my own background and how I came across this book.
I’m a Man
I’m a man. That may seem like an odd admission at the beginning of a book review but I think it’s important to note since the book is titled, Is the Bible Good for Women? I’m probably not the primary audience. Though I’ve always had a fascination with the place of women in the church and scripture (most likely since both my great-grandmother and aunt were/are preachers).
When I picked this book up, I knew nothing about it. I merely saw the title and figured it would be an interesting read. I didn’t know whether it would be from an egalitarian or complementarian view (or something altogether different). Neither did I know whether it was from a conservative or liberal author. I had never heard of Wendy Alsup at all. So, I opened this book completely blind and with very few expectations.
I’m an Egalitarian Complementarian
At this point, I have another confession to make (though you may have already figured this one out). I’m not a strict complementarian. I am what Roger Olson describes as an “egalitarian complementarian.” I affirm, with complementarians, that men and women are different. But I also agree with egalitarians that leadership within the church is not restricted to men. This is something of an awkward position to hold because I find myself disagreeing with folks on both sides of the divide – for different reasons.
So back to the review.
It didn’t take me long to realize that Wendy Alsup falls on the more complementarian side of the spectrum. Though as I read, I came to see that she maps out a more middle way that, though leaning complementarian, recognizes more of the breadth of scripture than I’ve seen in many other works by complementarians.
Before getting into any specific gender issues, Alsup first lays out some important, foundational presuppositions.
Laying a Needed Foundation
She begins the book by noting that “men and women have similarities as well as differences” and she uses a Venn diagram to visually display the concept. Then, she rightly notes that many in the church move to two extremes: one group which focuses almost exclusively on the differences between men and women, and the other which focuses on the similarities. This is an idea that she returns to again and again. And with good reason.
She also points out that too many Christians read Scripture as if it’s a repository of stories or facts like an encyclopedia or glorified Aesop’s fables. Instead of storing the different pieces of scripture in separate “file-folders”, Alsup encourages believers to see how “each story feeds into the larger story of God’s good plan before time began to redeem his people” (pg 17). I can’t stress enough how important this idea is – and not only for the issues relating to gender and scripture. But for all interaction with the Bible!
Once these ideas have been established, Alsup examines how women are portrayed in the Bible. She notes how men and women were created to equally image God (pg 33). She corrects the false idea that being created as a “helper” was somehow a subordinate or inferior role. And she does a marvelous job of explaining how many of the Old Testament laws which seem oppressive to modern ears were actually safeguards for women (this is important because many unbelievers use these laws to argue that the Bible – and thus Christianity – is innately bad for women and their rights). Alsup also notes important differences between prescriptive and descriptive texts – something that should be taught regularly in every congregation.
Charting a Middle Course
I also have to give her tremendous credit for examining the many references in the New Testament to women leaders. Since she obviously leans complementarian, I was expecting the standard complementarian approach to New Testament characters like Junia and Phoebe. But Alsup doesn’t turn Junia into a man. And she recognizes Phoebe’s role as a deaconess. Her conclusions regarding women in ministry are refreshing (though I’d say incomplete). She acknowledges that women should be able to serve as deacons and engage in discipleship (even with men). However, she limits the exercising of ‘spiritual authority’ as elders to men. Though I may not fully agree, I believe Alsup does a good job at making her case and it’s encouraging to hear her recognize the leadership that women exercised in the early church.
I’d Have to Respectfully Disagree…
With all of that said, I had a few disagreements with Alsup that are worth noting.
A Disagreements of Theology
First – and probably least important with a book like this – I disagreed with her theology. I’m neither Presbyterian nor Reformed so this isn’t a big surprise. When she started talking about ‘imputed righteousness’ and wrote that Jesus “placed on us His robe of righteousness, counting us as if we had obeyed the Law perfectly”, I had to agree to disagree and just press on (pg 101). This isn’t a deal-breaker for me but it’s worth noting.
A Disagreement due to Errors
Second – and not much more important – there were a couple of minor errors. For example, she notes that Isaiah describes the earth as a circle “two thousand years before Christopher Columbus first theorized that the earth was round” (pg 7). Say what? The ancient Greeks knew the earth was round at nearly the same time that Isaiah wrote. Since I was reading a proof, I hope this error was corrected in the final copy. Likewise, there was a heading about preserving “the lineage of Christ” that included a reference to Esther. The problem here should be obvious: Esther wasn’t part of the lineage of Christ. Though after reading this one closely, I realized that when Alsup spoke about the “lineage of Christ” she was simply referring to the Jewish people. I think it would have been good to clarify this though by changing the wording.
A Disagreement of Interpretation
Third – and much more importantly – I disagreed with her assessment of what she terms the “secret-decoder-ring approach” to Bible interpretation. Though I’d agree that such a thing exists, I disagree with her definition: “when someone refers to an obscure cultural issue not mentioned in Scripture to interpret a passage of the Bible” (p 142). Before I criticize, it’s important to note that Alsup does recognize that scripture was written in a particular culture. But because of the way she understands the sufficiency of scripture, she seems to assume that everything in scripture can be understood simply by referencing other passages of scripture (this makes for a rather peculiar view of 1 Cor 11:10-14).
This is a nice thought but it isn’t realistic. Yes, scripture alone is sufficient for salvation. But scripture includes things which cannot be understood apart from understanding the cultural background of the authors and audience. In other words, scripture is all I need. But that doesn’t mean that every verse can be fully understood by simply referencing other verses. If it were, we’d have no need for anything other than the text of scripture. But almost everyone recognizes the value of a good Bible dictionary or commentary to shed light on cultural issues. If you identify with Alsup’s view here, I’d recommend Richards’ and O’Brien’s Misreading the Scripture with Western Eyes.
Something I Found Dangerous
Fourth – and finally – I found one statement in particular to be rather dangerous. On page 133 she compares the Christian’s position to moving from the unfinished basement of a building to the penthouse suite. She writes, “It isn’t that they need to use the penthouse restrooms or kitchen to keep their residence on the penthouse level, but it doesn’t make sense anymore to keep going down when they have access to much better on the upper floor.” If we’ve been moved, we do need to begin using the facilities where we are. And if we don’t – if we continue in sin even though we’ve supposedly been seated with Christ – then we ought to ask whether we’ve been moved at all.
This kind of thinking leads directly to antinomianism. It’s the exact thing John was warning about when he wrote, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:7-8). Likewise, the passage Alsup appeals to – Colossians 3 – is adamant that we must “keep seeking the things above” because a sinful life is the reason “the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience” (Colossians 3:1,6). This passage is filled with imperatives. Paul isn’t saying “It would be nice if you would start living right.” He’s saying it’s a must. It is the evidence of your salvation.
All in all, there’s much to appreciate and be thankful for in Is the Bible Good for Women. Alsup corrects a number of misconceptions that have persisted in both Christian and non-Christian circles. She points believers to a way of understanding scripture that is both robust and faithful to the story God has been telling since Eden. She charts a needed course that moves between two extremes. And though I don’t agree with every word (especially in the last couple of chapters), I do agree with the broad thrust: God, his Word, and the Gospel are good for all people – men and women alike.