The Introduction to Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book

Fowler and I decided that we needed to address in depth the contents of Aimee Byrd’s recent book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. We are both aware of several of the other critiques on offer. Some of them are on target, some of them have problems, and none of them are able to go into the kind of depth we intend. We are also aware of the Genevan Commons situation. Fowler and I both repudiate the personalized comments on that website concerning Aimee Byrd, though it also appears that innocent people have been smeared by some of the “discernment blogs.” We have no intention of wading into that brouhaha, only to note that it happened, and that we are aware of it. Our critique of the book will keep personalities completely out of the equation. Aimee Byrd wrote a theological book for laypeople. It is on that level that our critique will rest. Also, it should be firmly kept in mind that Fowler and I both reject the position of some theologians who argue for female submission on the basis of the heretical assertion that the second person of the Trinity is eternally subordinate to the first. These caveats seem necessary due to the unusual situation in which this book has come to publication and been received. That being said, our critiques will differ from each other. Mine will be more comprehensive and detailed. As such, it will not be synthetic. Some criticisms will therefore seem out of proportion to the totality of what Byrd is trying to accomplish. That is only because some issues will take longer to untangle than others. Those that do take longer may not be as central to Byrd’s argument. Fowler wants to address selected issues in a more synthetic direction. It should not be assumed that he and I agree on every point.

The introduction explains the metaphor of the yellow wallpaper. Based on a short story by Charlotte Gilman, Byrd uses the metaphor to mean a layer of blindness in church culture due to traditional patriarchal structures (17). What she wants to do in this book is to alert readers to the existence of this wallpaper, and then encourage people to do something about it (19). To put it more clearly, she believes that cultural stereotypes of how men and women should act are the wallpaper (21).

One of her aims, though by no means the only one, is to dismantle the problematic elements of the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the volume edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (hence the title of Byrd’s book). As we will see, a large impetus for Byrd’s critiques comes from the 2016 controversy on the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS, abbr.).

Another of her main aims is to promote communal fellowship in the church, which she believes has been hampered by the yellow wallpaper. This communion is also hampered by an individualism (27) that works against both Byrd’s vision and against the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW, the organization that promoted and published the above mentioned book). Byrd believes that a narrow focus on the issues CBMW raises has resulted in a corresponding lack of concern for Christlikeness (26). What Byrd hopes to accomplish is a recovery of the beauty of the church (28).

This is a somewhat brief summary of where Byrd is going in the introduction. What follows is evaluation. As has been mentioned, I agree with Byrd that ESS is heresy. I can also agree, in principle, that an overly narrow focus on one issue can certainly make higher priorities fuzzy. I further agree wholeheartedly that “Men and women are not androgynous. Gender is not fluid” (19). I agree that individualism has run amok in America, such that people are afraid to commit to the church at all. This is definitely an obstacle to fellowship in the body of Christ. I further agree with some of her critiques of CBMW’s volume. Indeed, if complementarianism be defined by ESS and by the particulars Piper lays out, I would not be one. However, there are several places in the introduction where I must register dissent. A minor issue is her assertion that the ancient Greeks are the basis for supposing women’s brains to be inferior to men’s brains. She offers no sources for this claim. She might very well be correct in this assertion. However, it should be argued and sourced, given the importance of the claim.

Secondly, she asserts, in connection with Gilman’s short story, “Since women weren’t even given the right to vote until 1920, poor Charlotte Perkins Gilman didn’t have much of a voice when it came to her own diagnosis and treatment” (14-15). The suffrage of women (and men!) is far more complicated than certain narratives suppose. Wyoming gave the right to vote to women in 1869, Utah in 1870, Colorado in 1893, Idaho in 1896, and all the Western states had women’s suffrage before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Furthermore, poor white men did not have the vote, in some cases, until well after 1920. The reader assumes that Byrd is using the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to assert that someone like Gilman would not have had the ability or the right to say anything about her own medical treatment. It is difficult to see a connection, however, between suffrage and medical treatment. It would need, at least, to be argued rather than asserted. Is Byrd implying that women had no voice whatsoever in America before 1920? To broaden the point, Byrd seems to be appropriating a reading of history that is debatable without any acknowledgement that it is debatable.

Thirdly, in Byrd’s summary of the story of the yellow wallpaper, it becomes clear that motherhood is seen as a lesser profession (15-16). When combined with what Byrd says on page 17, what emerges is that if a woman wants to go to work, but is “forced” into the lesser profession of motherhood, then she is being oppressed by the “traditional patriarchal structures” (17). Viewing motherhood as a lesser profession is a tenet of feminism, not something the Bible teaches. The Bible praises motherhood in many places, not least in the fifth commandment.

Fourthly, Byrd notes the story’s critique of John’s treatment of Jane, treating her “more like a fragile child than his wife” (17). No doubt that is how the story runs. I want to bring up a point about feminism here, which also treats women as fragile, though in different ways. Feminism tends to assert that feminists should never have to endure any patriarchal behavior from anyone, and that they should never have to be offended by anyone. Doesn’t that treat women as fragile? I am not saying that Byrd believes this tenet of feminism. I am merely complementing (pun intended) Byrd’s observation about treating women as fragile with a parallel observation that feminism treats women as fragile in some ways, too. The feminist fragility is much more invisible today than the fragility Byrd descries. A book cannot address everything. But, as we will see, the blind spots of feminism(s) are not things that Byrd sees in the book. I am not calling Byrd a feminist. She doesn’t in the book. Feminists themselves have a huge variety of opinions on many things, such that the label is not particularly helpful anymore.

Fifthly, and as something we will see several times in the book, Byrd speaks of cultural stereotypes as if patriarchal ones are the only stereotypes in play, and that they are still somehow all-controlling. She says, “Like John and Jane, we want to do what is right but often get sucked into cultural stereotypes that confine us without our even noticing it” (18). The stereotypes she has in mind are undoubtedly the often-bashed 1950’s stereotypes about a woman’s place and a man’s place. However, the question that can quite legitimately be raised at this point is this: what about the feminist stereotypes for what a woman ought to be? Throughout the book, in my opinion, Byrd over-estimates the power of the 1950’s stereotypes and under-estimates the power of feminist stereotypes. I think, in fact, that it is quite impossible to engage in 1950’s stereotypical behavior in such an invisible fashion as Byrd describes. It would be swimming against the grain of approximately 99% of today’s culture. If anyone is going to behave like a 1950’s family, they are going to stick out like a very sore thumb.

Sixthly, when she quotes John Piper’s definition of femininity, she summarizes it in this way, “These definitions appear to say that all men lead all women” (22). Is this summary something that Piper would agree is a fair summary of his position? This is unlikely, given what Piper says on page 50 of the same article: “But she will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men. This is true even though she may find herself in roles that put some men in a subordinate role to her” (50). He then lists twelve possible occupations that could have such relationships, where indeed, a woman would be leading a man. Whether Piper is correct in his analysis (50-51 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) of these relationships is beside the point. The point is I doubt Piper would think Byrd accurately summarized his position. On the rest of Byrd’s page, she only references the “yellow wallpaper” examples, without acknowledging the qualifications inherent in the very definition Piper offers, and in the rest of Piper’s article. The qualifications in the definition itself are revealing: the word “worthy” needs to be emphasized, as does the phrase “in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” The former qualification is the more important one, as it cuts out all possible feminine submission to unworthy men. This word alone makes Byrd’s summary a distortion. The second qualifier recognizes that being feminine is going to look quite different in different relationships, including those in which women may wind up being the leader. Therefore, I conclude that Byrd’s summary is a distortion of Piper’s position, not what Piper believes.

Seventhly and lastly, she asserts that aiming for biblical manhood and womanhood in the method CBMW advocates misses “the bigger picture of Christlikeness to which we are called” (26). She almost seems to be asserting that CBMW’s viewpoint on manhood and womanhood actually prevents people from being Christlike. She does not use any qualifier here like “may” or “could.” She asserts that it simply does. I doubt CBMW would agree. CBMW would argue that the biblical descriptions of womanhood and manhood are ways to pursue Christlikeness (and I would add that some of their authors accomplish this better than others). If Byrd is correct in her assessment, then no one in the history of the church who had any view of manhood and womanhood similar to CBMW’s would be Christlike at all. Is Byrd really willing to disenfranchise such a huge number of Christians of the past? This would be a sectarian position. I doubt Byrd had this problem in mind when she wrote that assertion. However, it is a legitimate question to raise.

I will conclude with this question: did Byrd give the manuscript of this book to anyone who fundamentally disagrees with her positions? She says, for example, that the book “isn’t a man-bashing book” (19). Undoubtedly Byrd thinks, from her perspective, that the book doesn’t bash men, nor does she intend to. Readers can believe that she means what she says. However, did she also run this book by someone who might see things in ways she doesn’t, such that unintentional bashing of men could also be averted? It does not seem so.