Book Review: The Message of Women

Derek and Dianne Tidball. The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender. IVP, 2012

A defining characteristic of evangelicalism is a conscious attempt to have both theology and praxis based on the Bible above all other sources of authority.This immediately means several things:

1. At heart evangelicals will always want to know what the Bible says. They study it, discuss it, try to understand it, interpret it and apply it. They are ‘Bible people’.

2. Interpretations over what is ‘the biblical’ view on any particular text or theme have enormous significance for conferring legitimacy.

3. And this means in turn that ‘biblical’ tends to be one of the most over-used words in the evangelical Christian dictionary.

So when it comes to an issue like women in leadership, what is ‘the’ biblical view assumes deciding weight. The slight problem for this is that it’s rather obvious that agreeing on what ‘the’ biblical view on a host of issues is not the straightforward process that many evangelicals seem to assume it is otherwise there would not be thousands of Protestant denominations (for example).

So to this book just published in the Bible Speaks Today (BST) Bible Themes series.

As with all the BST books the approach is primarily exegetical, with chapters on selected texts structured within four sections. It begins with ‘Foundations’ (Genesis 1-3 and Galatians 3:26-28). Section 2 is on ‘Women in the Old Covenant’ (including family women like Rebekkah; victimised women cut into pieces in Judges; leading women like Deborah; resolute women like Ruth; prophetic women like Huldah; the passionate woman of the Song of Songs; and the capable woman of Proverbs 31). Section three is ‘Women in the kingdom’ (including women in the life of Jesus; in the encounters of Jesus; in the teaching of Jesus; and women as disciples of Jesus). Part 4 is ‘Women in the new community’ (including women in action, in prayer, in worship, in marriage, in leadership and in widowhood).

The big picture that emerges is the Bible’s highly diverse ‘message’ of women. In other words, the authors consistently question the idea of ‘the biblical’ view of women in ministry and in work and family life. For example, they warn against drawing straight lines from women within the patriarchal OT context to women as modern ‘homemakers’. Rather, they propose, “What the many stories of wives and mothers in Scripture teach us is that God’s will does triumph through the different patterns that men and women may adopt for family life and in all the less-than-perfect rough and tumble of the ordinary, not textbook, lives.” (79)

This means that attempts to fit the role of women within family and church life into a preordained mould are doomed to fail. In the OT, the prophetic ministry of Miriam, Huldah and Deborah show that God spoke through women as well as men and that “never is the right of a woman to be a vehicle for a message from God questioned.” (123). The capable woman of Proverbs 31 ‘supports the view that to restrict women to narrow a narrow domestic role is not biblically justified.’ Rather, she offers ‘the balance of serving and responsibility; or leadership and compassion; of enterprise and trust; and of freedom and commitment.’ (146)

More varied portraits of women continue to be drawn in the NT. There is a sketch of women’s courage and deep affection for their Lord at the cross and as the first witnesses of the resurrection. The inclusion of women within the kingdom as disciples and as witnesses points to an alternative community to the male dominated culture of the time. There is a new order of relationships; of respect and dignity for women and full equality within the new creation which flows from Jesus’ own revolutionary attitude to, and teaching about, women which was without precedent in Judaism. He values, respects, befriends, disciples, encourages, inspires and accepts love from women. He never denigrates or makes any negative remarks about women. (184). They are entrusted with the message of the gospel, serve alongside men, become travelling messengers of the gospel, teachers, evangelists (196), witnesses, patronesses, missionaries and even apostle(s). There is no hint of any restriction of ministry under authority of men. It is a remarkably expansive role, but at the same time there is no idealisation of women 209. ‘Gender is not the primary issue, only commitment to Christ and the formation of a Christ-like character.’ (209).

When it comes to the familiar texts concerning women in leadership (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:26-40 and 1 Tim 2:11-15) the authors unpack the texts fully (and convincingly! 🙂 )  arriving at egalitarian conclusions that I won’t go into detail here lest you think I’ve got nothing else to write about on this blog. How they do this is a model of careful exegesis and gracious engagement with complementarian thinking without lapsing into stereotyping. If only this debate in general was characterised by such graciousness and respect. The big picture?

‘Today, Paul is likely to argue that a refusal to exercise leadership in the church is what brings the gospel into disrepute … we suspect he would be rejoicing at the many women who exercise their wonderful teaching and leadership gifts in the church, for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ.’ (267).

In regard to marriage, this couple discuss 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. The thrust of the argument here is that the NT contains twin tributaries of thought: one emphasises equality of women and men in marriage; the other a sense of respect for social order that is inherent in creation and new creation and which was imperfectly reflected in the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century. If Paul accepts the social structures concerning marriage of his day, he ‘invests that skeleton with an entirely new and counter-cultural body’. This creates a current of thought that has, over time, broken through the banks of patriarchialism. In other words, NT teaching on marriage emerged out of a particular context but is not tied to that context. What remains is an order ‘formed in the community of the new creation by mutual love, mutual submission, mutual deference and by giving up the will to power.’ (248)

So rather than ‘the biblical’ blueprint being taken from the text and applied woodenly to contemporary life what we have instead is a theological task of reading the issue through the storyline of the Bible.

‘We cannot find what would be recognised as a contemporary equality agenda ready-made in the Bible. The Bible must be read in its own context before we use it to address ours. But, our review of Scripture leads us to believe that very significant progress was made towards egalitarianism in the course of the unfolding story of redemption and that the signposts point us unmistakeably in that direction.’ (283).

PS. The 10 page bibliography is a super resource for anyone studying or reading around the issue of women in leadership – every major work I could think of is there in one place and a lot more besides. It is also right up to date.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Message of Women

  1. Thanks for this great review! I’d like to get a copy of this book. I thought you had some spelling issues for a moment…and then remembered you are in Ireland where you spell “wrong.” Ya know, only us Americans spell English correctly. : )

  2. Thanks. I don’t know if it is published in the US, have my doubts. But maybe can still be got via the net. Rule of thumb on US English: ‘If you can shorten it, do so’ !

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