Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#5: Removing Wallpaper)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Discussions of biblical topics and texts like those in Aimee Byrd’s new book are inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Efforts to identify and address those controlling factors are a challenging but necessary and profitable way to sort out differences and to work toward consensus. With this in mind, we return to the place where we began our interaction with Byrd’s book, namely, to the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” No doubt Byrd, like many others, is happy to affirm that this adage is the framework from which she argues for the reciprocal coactivity of laywomen and laymen in the same capacities.

By contrast, without ignoring the aforementioned adage, our engagement with Byrd has taken up selected issues that she raises about the relationship and service of women and men within God’s household, and we have applied to those points the added framework provided by the general and special offices, the elements of worship, and the family-church analogy. So, what happens when we apply that additional background to the issues that Byrd raises? Perhaps this is best summarized in a set of affirmations. From the points we’ve studied in Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, we would believe and teach:

1. that all believers, men and women, should pursue discipleship, with Christlikeness as its goal, the church’s historic doctrines and practices as its focus, and the local church and the home as its two primary, yet distinct settings mentioned in Scripture;

2. that, when believers come together in church, laymen and laywomen may be coactive in all elements of public worship except those elements, such as the ministry of God’s word to His household,[i] that are reserved to those men who serve in the special teaching office;[ii]

3. that, when believers come together at home, laymen and laywomen should find there a setting where they may be coactive in teaching and learning according to their ability and maturity; and

4. that, whether believers come together in church or at home, they should seek to become examples of maturity; men to be respected as “fathers” in God’s household, among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder, and women to be honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women.

Whatever else the preceding affirmations may say, it seems clear that we must reevaluate the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” Certainly, the adage rightly reminds us that all believers serve in the general teaching office and may take part in all elements of worship not reserved for those men who serve in the office of elder. Yet our considerations have exposed the adage for what it is: it is itself a yellow wallpaper that hides an important truth. We need to peel back even this covering to reveal the truth of the family-church analogy.

That truth is that the relationship and service of women and men are not just about shared capacities; they are also about distinctive callings. Nor are they just about our shared siblingship; they are also about our different stewardships. Let’s put it another way. Both men and women may become exemplary teachers (Titus 2:3-4; 1 Tim 3:2; Heb 5:12) and exemplary household managers (1 Tim 5:14; 1 Tim 3:4-5). It remains, however, that, in a human family, a woman, as gifted and mature as she may be, can never become a father; a man, as gifted and mature as he may be, can never become a mother. Just as the callings of women and men are not interchangeable in the human family, so they are not in the church family. The adage, then, does not express and should not be allowed to eclipse Paul’s family-church analogy with its bearing on relationships and service in God’s household. In fact, the adage, well intentioned though it may be, is really not much more than another expression of extrabiblical suppositions that stereotype church members, in this case as interchangeable siblings to be treated the same and slotted to serve in the same capacities. The analogy, on the other hand, presents church members as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, to be appreciated for their differences, not least in calling.

Following the analogy, then, we will affirm that men and women may do anything in church that is in keeping with their callings. Moreover, we will press ourselves to work more carefully at honoring women who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “mothers” in God’s household, along with men who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “fathers” in God’s household. We will also press ourselves to work more carefully to comply with those rules in God’s word that are always to be observed, those principles that should govern the full assimilation and deployment of men and women in our churches as required by the family-church analogy, the elements of worship, and the general and special offices.

[i] The public ministry of God’s word would include both its reading and its preaching (as in 1 Tim 4:13).

[ii] To be sure, in a more complete discussion, we would explain that, just as men and women should not be coactive in the ministry of God’s word, so they should not be coactive in the ministry of the sacraments.

10 Comments

  1. cindycurtis said,

    August 5, 2020 at 9:19 am

    Thank you for these very helpful posts. How are we to think about a Christian conference (where Scripture is included in the presentations) attended by both men and women wherein the exclusive conference speaker is a woman? What about if a conference speaker is a woman but other speakers are men?

  2. rfwhite said,

    August 5, 2020 at 11:38 am

    1 cindycurtis: Thanks for checking in. You raise a good question to which there will be different answers based on the commitments of the one who answers. Here’s how I would go about it. I’d ask, first, if a Christian conference is one of the two settings mentioned most frequently in Scripture. My own answer is that a conference is neither church nor home. It is a meeting of individuals who have entered into a social contract to interact with one another, some as speakers, some as listeners. The social contract that governs a conference is not the same as the vows that govern relationships in church or home. In that light, the standards of relationship that carry over from family to church do not carry over from individual (or family or church) to conference. So my answer would be that men and women may attend a conference at which a woman is the exclusive speaker.

  3. cindycurtis said,

    August 5, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful answer.

  4. August 7, 2020 at 11:07 am

    […] draw to a close this series of posts on selected points of Aimee Byrd’s new book, we will look in Part 5 at the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” in the […]

  5. Ron said,

    August 13, 2020 at 7:06 am

    Fowler,

    That a conference is neither church nor home seems to be a distinction without a relevant difference. For instance, isn’t a child to submit to her parents in a conference setting even though outside the home? Obviously family government has at least some transcendent quality about it that is intended to permeate other social settings outside the home.

    Regarding social contracts vs vows, I fail to see a relevant distinction here too. I don’t see how it avoids the same sort of arbitrariness. Two points. Authority and submission is often not based upon vows. We are to submit to lawful authority whether we’ve vowed to or not. Secondly, a mother and wife does not stop being who she is “within the family” whether at a conference or a soccer match. Life is not that compartmentalized.

    I realize that you realize that Cindy’s question will be met with different answers. Notwithstanding, what I’m reading here seems to cry out for at least some refinement. When a position stands in need of so many clarifications as I believe this one does, that might be a good indicator that we are trying to accommodate contrary to good instincts and biblical precept. In such cases it might be better to push the reset button.

    I very much appreciate your conservative bones as well as your desire to nuance.

  6. rfwhite said,

    August 14, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    5 Hey, Ron: Thanks for interacting with my answer to Cindy. Since we’ve both pretty much given our answers and a summary of our reasoning, and your commitments on this subject are clear, let’s continue to interact via email. That way, the focus of the comment thread will stay on the thesis of the original post, and we can both try to refine, clarify, or nuance our answer(s) as needed, at least for our mutual understanding.

  7. Ron said,

    August 14, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Sure thing, Fowler. Also, please feel free to delete my post altogether. It could be a distraction to the OP. I almost didn’t post at all and thought it might be better to email privately or not even engage off line on this one. All the best, Brother.

  8. cindycurtis said,

    August 14, 2020 at 8:29 pm

    Hello to rfwhite and Ron,
    I so appreciate being able to see how you approach my question and the way you think it through. Is there some way that I could see how you further discuss this? I understand that you don’t want to do that here. I am not interested in debating or interjecting my thoughts into the discussion. I just want to learn how to think through the question. I have seen this brought up many, many times, but the discussions have never been satisfying. The ideas that rfwhite have presented are new to me. I have not seen the question approached that way and I would value seeing the refinement and clarifications for my own thought development. Anyway, if there is a way I could see how you approach this moving forward, I would be grateful.

  9. rfwhite said,

    August 14, 2020 at 9:22 pm

    Cindy, I imagine that Ron and I can figure out a way to keep you informed. Of course, I can’t predict the pace of our give-and-take, but we’ll see what we can work out. Stay tuned.

  10. cindycurtis said,

    August 15, 2020 at 11:21 am

    Thank you for your kind consideration.


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