What the Bible really says about men and women (1)

Claire Smith, God’s Good Design: what the Bible really says about Men and Women

This book is on my desk along with a bunch of others related to women in leadership. It is just published by Matthias Media and is strongly linked the world of Sydney evangelicalism, esp Moore College etc. The author is a PhD graduate.

Claire Smith covers the usual territory of texts. Rather than go through them all, I’ll do a couple of posts on her interpretation of one of them – 1 Timothy 2:11-15 – and compare and contrast it with Howard Marshall’s interpretation in Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (eds), Women, Ministry and the Gospel: exploring new paradigms.

The cover has a range of endorsements, the best known people being Don Carson and Peter Jensen. I totally agree with Don Carson on the difficulty of saying anything new or fresh on an issue that has been ‘thrashed out in countless ways’ but am then at a total loss how he sees this book as being ‘a breath of fresh air’. Yes, Claire Smith writes with a clear style and I’m sure she is a godly committed disciple of Jesus, but she doesn’t say anything new at all.

Let me say upfront that I not only disagree with this book but I dislike it as well.  Below are 4 reasons why. I believe in the importance of civil debate so, just to be clear, I’m not attacking Claire Smith’s integrity or character or sincerity, I’m questioning assertions and assumptions she makes in a published work that is out there to be read and discussed.


The first thing I dislike is the title. After all these years of debate by scholars on both the ‘complementarian’ / ‘creation order’ hierarchy / male leadership side and the ‘egalitarian’ / mutualist / men & women in leadership side, it takes some chutzpah to publish a book with that that little word ‘really’ in the title.

All I can say is ‘Really?’ Is this is the definitive statement that will settle the issues once and for all? Forget about scholars like F F Bruce, Howard Marshall, Gordon Fee, Linda Belleville, Sarah Sumner, Kevin Giles, Tom Wright, John Stott (supporting women’s ordination), John Stackhouse, Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight and so on and so on – this book ‘really’ has the right answers.

A second thing I don’t like are some of the endorsements. Jonathan Fletcher, a vicar in London, says this

“There is a strong correlation between a healthy, growing church and the recognition of distinctive ministries for men and women. Where women usurp men’s proper authority and are not themselves given their own unique and vital ministry, churches frequently decline.’

Wow. I’d love to know where the evidence is for that rather wild assertion. Notice whose fault it is – rebellious women who haven’t been ‘given’ proper roles by men. And I’d also be interested to know what is this ‘unique and vital ministry’ only women can do? For the whole problem with ‘complementarianism’ is that it is not complementary. There is no ‘unique’ ministry only women are called to and men are not. It is men who have the ‘unique role’ of preaching and ‘exercising authority’.

A third dislike is special pleading that her view is obviously the ‘plain reading’ of the text. In an endorsement Kathleen Nielson says Claire Smith ‘aims not to advance an argument but to listen well to God’s word about men and women and their relationships with each other.’ The author herself says the same thing.

“.. this book is not focused on arguing one side or the others of an issue – like women’s ordination or women’s ministry or the best model for modern marriages … the main focus is the Bible passages that should determine these issues.”

To state that this book is not arguing one side of an issue should be the cause of a good belly-laugh but I didn’t feel like laughing. Later she acknowledges that all of us come to the text not as neutral readers, we all ‘have cultural blind spots and sensitivities that influence our reading.’ But despite this, Smith seems to assume that since she comes to the text ‘simply’ wanting to let the passages ‘speak for themselves’ then her exegesis will ‘really’ be what the Bible says.

I can only label this self-deception, but she should know better than to make claims like this. She is a scholar who knows the material well. At least robust books like Blomberg and Beck Two Views of Women in Ministry are transparent in debating the issues in a respectful dialogue without one side trying to claim the moral high ground that the Bible is on their side before even getting to the text.

Smith’s obvious implication is that other readers who come to different conclusions must not be letting the Bible speak clearly – presumably due to feminist bias (she speaks of this in the opening chapter). There is more than a whiff of arrogance here – does she really think that other evangelical Christians are not coming to the text with equal sincerity and seriousness as she is?

This leads to the fourth dislike. She talks about the background noise of feminism that makes it hard to hear what God’s word is saying about men and women. And then she adds,

“To complicate things even further, sometimes this noise comes from Christian brothers and sisters who at other times have been beloved and reliable teachers and shepherds in their sermons and books. But now they 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 in with our culture.”

Those who do not agree with Smith have become ‘unreliable teachers and shepherds’. She needs to give specific examples rather than unsubstantiated generalisations. This is why I want to compare and contrast her interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 with Howard Marshall. He (to take one specific example) is not saying anything like what she accuses her opponents of saying. This is simply grievous stereotyping of fellow Christians – both in terms of content and motive.

So, not a good first impression in the preface and opening chapter.

(Civil) comments, as ever, welcome.

20 thoughts on “What the Bible really says about men and women (1)

  1. I just get so confused and maybe I’m missing something but as a Christian is she not somehow teaching through this book what the Bible ‘really’ teaches?
    If she believes that surely she would expect (and want) only women to read it?
    But then Don Carson (a man) has read this and believes that it has something new to offer and is endorsing her teaching through this book. And she is probably teaching that a woman should not teach a man. Or am I missing something?

  2. Indeed. It is confusing but the confusion lies with the subjective and inconsistent way that the hierarchical view is put into practice.

    She does talk about being a woman writing a book but distances this from ‘the ongoing authoritative doctrinal instruction of the church gathering’.

    So women can teach the Bible to men in other places and settings except Sunday mornings. This is because, she says, in a book her teaching can be weighed and the reader can agree or disagree. At this point you may like me be wondering how this is different from preaching. There seem to be curious notions of authority floating around here – as if a preacher’s words aren’t also weighed and evaluated?

  3. […] dominance is not egalitarian anarchy/cooperation.”Speaking of which, here’s my friend Patrick’s review of a recent book on women in ministry, not the least of which is the irony of a woman teaching us […]

  4. Patrick I am so grateful to you for covering this in such detail. I developed argument-fatigue on this topic a few years ago and have retreated to a place of resigned complacency.

    • thanks, it is one issue that has stayed ‘hot’ ever since I was in college back in prehistoric times and is I think being ramped up in some quarters (in the US but also in Oz and in some parts of the UK by the looks of this book) to a test of orthodoxy with resulting implications for division.

      And this reveals a fundamental gulf between the two views – that one side is saying that women are not just subordinate in ‘role’ (a misleading term) but she is part of the permanently subordinated sex. It is not just ‘function’, she is defined by her gender to accept a subordinate role whoever she is and whatever her gifts.

  5. Have you heard of this conference? Maybe it’s being ramped up a bit here in Ireland as well.Being married to female PCI minister (and it being held where it’s going to be held) I’m a bit uncomfortable. But I also don’t know that much about it and haven’t been so perhaps that is unfounded. The title though reminds me of the title of the book you are reviewing, and its for sale in the bookshop

  6. I’m also not very comfortable with how I supposed to deal with this issue.

    For a long time H___ would try to express how had it was to walk into a meeting a be the only female face in the room, or how it felt to be in college that was predominantly male and basically I would brush it of and say ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal’. I couldn’t handle all the talk and debate and how hot a subject it was when there seemed to be bigger things to get worked up about.

    But that was to ignore how hard it was for women like my wife. Sometimes they live their life quietly and get on with it as if they kick up fuss some people will say that they are feminists or liberal etc. And then people like me don’t speak up for it either as we don’t want in to turn into a slanging match. Those who don’t think it’s a big deal either or are unsure will probably never actively encourage a women to be a minister as they are unsure.

    So I’m not sure how to respect the view of people who hold the sort of thinking above but to also encourage them to consider the alternatives.

    • Given the gender imbalance in leadership, even within the PCI which does accept women elders and ordained ministers, I can only imagine how challenging it can be for women following a call to servant leadership. I admire people like your wife. I think that men who support the legitimacy of that calling have a major role to play in encouraging and affirming women to use God-given gifts with joy to the glory of God. And I think men need to be intentional about that.

      I suspect the two broad views of women in leadership (within evangelical circles – the RC and Orthodox Churches are another story altogether) are so well mapped out by now that it will likely be one of those issues where agreement will not develop (like baptism).

      So a consequence is how to live with that difference as brothers and sisters who believe the same gospel and follow the same Lord. I wrote this post out of dislike for (among other things) the way Claire Smith was linking disagreement with her view with being an untrustworthy teacher. Too often these days, this issue is being seen as a test of orthodoxy and this is simply divisive for evangelical unity and it is not respecting or loving of fellow Christians.

      But that works both ways! I may disagree with complementarian/hierarchical teaching, but am called to do so while maintaining the unity of the Spirit.

  7. I agree with this review, as it expresses what I – and I am sure many other women, especially those who have done any study on it – believe. Of course, many of us are in churches where we are not able to express our opinions (which also says something). I am angry because this has been made a core issue – only those who agree with this point of view are reading the Bible correctly ….
    And while I respect Don Carson (I have read most of his books), yet there are other scholars just as worthy of respect who do not agree with this interpretation of scripture … a few who come to mind are Gordon Fee, F.F.Bruce, R.T.France, Scot McKnight, Craig Keener, and N.T.Wright.

  8. I have not seen this particular book, so will not comment on it. However, it has to be said that it is not only on the complementarian side that intolerant attitudes exist. There are some (not yourself of course Patrick) on the egalitarian side who make just as sweeping generalisations and say that their view is the only correct one. A bit of understanding on BOTH sides would be appreciated!

  9. I’ve spent all of my Christian life in Anglican churches in Sydney, and often feel like the only egalitarian in this city! I knew Smith’s book was coming out (I saw a preview in an edition of the complementarian ‘Equal but Different’ newsletter a little while ago) but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bring myself to read it; the title certainly isn’t appealing, as you say, and I already know exactly what she’ll say and conclude – I’ve heard it taught and watched it played out in churches all around this city a squillion times. Thanks for working through it so that I don’t have to! I look forward to reading your future posts on it. 🙂

    • thanks and welcome Belle. I’ve been to Sydney and know a little bit about the context. It is interesting how integral ‘complementarianism’ is to evangelicalism there. My sense reading Claire Smith’s book is that it is written to and for that constituency rather than seriously engaging with alternative views.

      • Strangely the NT lecturer at Moore College, David Peterson, is quite egalitarian in his views or used to be. I attended a conference at Oakhill (where David used to be Principal) organised by the ‘complemetarian’ Reform on the subject of Women in Ministry. David gave a talk on a biblical theology of women in ministry that was egalitarian. To do the attenders credit, no-one objected (or perhaps they never noticed).

  10. Hi Patrick,
    while I agree that it’s absurd to argue that women play a second-tier role in a hiearchical organization–or worse, third, because God speaks to them through their husband–it is biblical to say so and you’ll find that the guy making that argument is constantly quoting scripture, while the guy on your side is using logic and philosophy rather than Holy texts. I note, for instance, that you don’t lean on the bible in your review above, even though you criticize the author’s interpretation thereof. The problem is accepting the Holy Book handed to you by your parents, realizing it teaches something absurd and not simply saying: I don’t follow the Holy Book on that point. Instead you find flaws with the person/book/approach making the biblical argument you don’t like. It’s more honest and true to say the bible was written to different people in a different time and now we know better.

    • Welcome Brian. Actually both ‘sides’ deal in great detail with the texts. It isn’t a question of one side quoting the Bible and the other using logic & philosophy. A couple of follow up posts will unpack two approaches to one text

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