A few months ago I took part in a question panel at my church’s women’s conference. As usual, some of the women submitted questions about the role of women in the church. Their questions were thoughtful and sincere. They reflected the desire of these women to serve God in a way that honours his word, and their confusion about what his word actually teaches.
I reminded my friend Susie – our speaker for the weekend – that we answered the same questions on a panel at a women’s convention 15 years ago. That was the first occasion I taught formally on the role of women within the home and church; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taught on it since. Susie has also taught extensively on this issue over the last 15 years. She’s spoken on national television, and has been publicly criticised for her unwavering commitment to the bible’s authority. I’m so grateful for her example of courageous faith.
As we chatted together, we shared some of the discouragements we’ve experienced as we’ve engaged with this issue. Not from brothers and sisters with egalitarian viewpoints, but from complementarian ministry friends who, either quietly avoid the issue and hope the women in their churches won’t cause a problem, or who confidently assert viewpoints they can’t adequately defend from scripture.
As women who speak on this issue, we read widely and study carefully so we can teach clearly and helpfully. And we’re heavily invested in getting it right. As I, perhaps rather dramatically, blurted out during our conversation, “We’ve betrayed the sisterhood!” It does sound dramatic, but it’s also true. We know that by believing and defending a complementarian viewpoint we deeply offend women we’ve grown up with, studied with, worked with, and even served in ministry with. When non-Christian friends find out what we believe we risk friendship. It’s costly to hold to this counter-cultural position.
We understand why some of our complementarian brothers may feel less equipped to engage with the issue (there are so many issues that require deep thought and study), but it’s frustrating when there appears to be no desire to dig deeper. Comments such as, “I don’t know why but I’m just not comfortable with women doing that,” aren’t an acceptable response to years of study and, in Susie’s case, a lot of flack! We need to be patient with our friends as they wrestle with the issue. But they do need to wrestle with it. Not to satisfy us, but for the good of the church – so women and men may flourish as they serve with the gifts God has given them. And so he is glorified as his good design is celebrated and displayed to a watching world.
So this month I’m recommending 5 books about God’s design for men and women, and how they relate within the church. The books vary in detail and style, but all are helpful in thinking through the issue. I’ve also recommended a couple of books that present alternative viewpoints. I’m not persuaded by the arguments in these books but it’s helpful to understand where others are coming from.
I know there are some notable absences from my recommended list of complementarian books – I just don’t agree with them! Too many complementarians go beyond what the bible teaches and present implications that aren’t justified from scripture. This is unhelpful at best, damaging at worst. So, while those books may contain sound doctrine, I believe the ones listed below are more helpful. Why not put one on your Christmas wish list and read it in the new year?
December’s Books: 5 Books about men, women & the church
- God’s Good Design by Claire Smith
- God’s Design For Man & Woman by Andreas & Margaret Köstenberger
- Different By Design by Carrie Sandom
- Women & God by Kathleen Nielson
- Women in the Church (3rd Edition) by Andreas Köstenberger & Thomas Schreiner
God’s Good Design
If you’re only going to read one book about God’s design for men and women, this is probably the most helpful. Claire Smith teaches through seven key bible passages about men and women and how they should relate to each other. She addresses common objections thoroughly, and presents truth with depth and clarity. She applies the bible’s teaching practically, showing how relationships within the home and the church should reflect God’s good design. This book is thoughtful and comprehensive, and models faithful handling of God’s word – in context, and without adding or subtracting from its teaching. It will challenge men as well as women, complementarians as well as egalitarians. Claire Smith writes as one who has wrestled deeply with these issues herself, and her example of humble and joyful submission to God’s word is refreshing.
God’s Design for Man & Woman
Most books about the roles of men and women focus on a few key passages; this book traces the pattern of male and female relationships throughout the Old and New Testaments. It’s rigorous, compelling, and thoroughly biblical in its presentation of complementarianism as God’s good and wise design for men and women. It is a more academic study than some of the other books but is pastoral and practical in application. By working systematically through the bible’s teaching on this issue, readers will be equipped to understand more fully the significance of being created in God’s image and how this truth must inform our relationships, our corporate worship, and our mission. There are two issues that aren’t dealt with comprehensively enough in my opinion (and I’m often wrong!), but this is still one of my favourite books on the issue. I read it in a weekend because I couldn’t put it down. If you’re looking for a detailed study this is a great book.
Different by Design
This is the book I’ve returned to most often when thinking about or preparing to teach on this issue. Carrie outlines the bible’s teaching on the roles of men and women clearly and graciously. She shows how men and women are designed to reflect God’s own nature – the equality, order, diversity and unity we see at work within the Trinity. She explains how western culture in particular has redefined equality as sameness, and how this has impacted family relationships and relationships within the church. Carrie provides practical wisdom for living out God’s design as men and women but, unlike some complementarian writers, she doesn’t go beyond what the bible says. This book is immensely helpful for women and men, single or married.
Women & God
Kathleen Nielson’s writing reflects her speech – warm, clear, compassionate, gracious. In this book she seeks to show the wisdom and beauty of God’s plan for women throughout history. She begins with creation and the fall, then works through some of the gritty Old Testament “Texts of Terror” to show God’s tender-hearted care towards women. She invites her readers to wrestle with hard questions about God’s design and purpose for women, and points to the beautiful truth found in his word. I’ve read books that offer a more comprehensive treatment of the topic, but what makes this one particularly encouraging is Kathleen’s enthusiastic and persuasive conviction that God is good, and that embracing his design for women brings joy and fulfilment.
Women in the Church
I know this won’t appeal to everyone but I believe it’s an important book. Its authors offer an in-depth study of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, carefully analysing the context, grammar, and sentence structure of Paul’s statements. They engage with a variety of viewpoints, clarifying issues and evaluating evidence thoroughly and graciously. The last chapter focuses on practical application of the text and includes contributions from a variety of women and men. It’s worth buying the book just to read that chapter, but you’ll appreciate it so much more if you’ve read the previous work. Of course, not everyone will agree with the authors’ conclusions, but it’s clear this book is written out of deep love for Christ’s bride, and sincere passion to see her flourish in the way God intends. I’m very grateful for that, and challenged to make sure I share this motivation in my studies.
Jesus, Justice & Gender Roles by Kathy Keller
(It’s helpful to note that male non-elders don’t preach at Redeemer Church, NYC. I agree that, in her context, Kathy Keller can – and should – use her gifts in any ministry area open to male non-elders. That isn’t the case in my context. However, the issue has prompted some lively conversation with my pastor!)
Radical Womanhood by Carolyn McCulley
God’s Design for Women by Sharon James
Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts by Michael F. Bird
(This book presents an alternative viewpoint arguing a case for gender equality in ministry. I didn’t find it rigorous or persuasive, but it’s good to read a different perspective.)
Two Views on Women In Ministry (Revised Edition) edited by James R. Beck
Hearing Her Voice by John Dickson
(John Dickson argues that women should not hold the office of elder but are permitted to preach sermons in formal church gatherings. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but it’s an interesting read and I appreciate his gracious tone.)
Women, Sermons and the Bible edited by Peter G. Bolt & Tony Payne
(This is a series of essays written in response to John Dickson’s book, Hearing Her Voice.)
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