Thursday, September 5, 2019

Beyond Authority & Submission: A Book Review

Abuse of authority is an abomination to God. Misusing and/or going beyond Scripture sets us up for just such abuses. That's why I'm so grateful for women like Rachel Green Miller who are being like the noble Bereans, examining the Scriptures to see if what religious teachers are teaching is in accord with the whole counsel of God's Word, which is exactly what she sets out to accomplish in her newly released book, Beyond Authority and Submission.

Miller begins her work by examining the source and nature of authority and submission according to Scripture. To be clear, she isn't seeking to find a loophole that allows women to disobey the clear teaching of Scripture. However, she does make some very helpful observations of where the plain teaching of Scripture has been misapplied and misused. Miller carefully demonstrates that authority and submission are important but limited aspects of relationships and widens her lens to include the biblical themes of unity, interdependence, and service. After laying this foundation, she moves to examine cultural influences throughout history that have been imposed upon our definitions of "biblical" womanhood with particular emphasis on Greco-Roman society and the Victorian Era. She examines the first-wave feminist movement, its subsequent developments, and the conservative Christian response to these movements followed by an examination of what the Bible has to say about the nature of men and women. Miller closes with sections devoted to prevalent teaching on women and men in three different spheres: marriage, the church, and society, and closely compares what is being taught with what we encounter in Scripture.

Beyond Authority and Submission is a much needed start to a conversation that has needed to happen. Again and again, Miller illustrates areas where conservative religious leaders have gone beyond Scripture, imposing cultural definitions of manhood and womanhood upon folks while claiming they are biblical standards. Her careful attention to the whole counsel of God's Word reveals where mistakes have been made and where we need to bring our views into closer alignment with Scripture, representing "the full diversity of expression that is seen in Scripture" (pg. 125). Some errors have already been discussed at length on blogs (ex. The Trinitarian error of eternal subordination of the Son). Others have been less discussed. For example, Miller writes of the damage caused by mistranslation and misinterpretation of Scripture that leads men to be suspicious of women:
"When conservative Christians teach men to suspect women's counsel because women are prone to deception and will try to usurp their leadership, interactions become antagonistic. If women can't be trusted to make wise decisions, and if men have to be careful not to let women lead them, then men and women are pitted against each other. These teachings undermine the unity, interdependence, service, and co-laboring that should define Christian behavior." (pg. 119).
 Again, Miller doesn’t' go beyond Scripture in allowing women to lead men where the Bible clearly forbids it (ex. Women as elders), but she is careful to warn against going beyond what is clearly stated in Scripture. She highlights many examples of women who lead, initiate, protect, and provide in Scripture. She examines many instances in which biblical women exercise theological discernment. Miller is careful not to flatten out the distinctions between men and women but does highlight the many instances when we have conformed "to narrow or wooden definitions of masculinity and femininity" (pg. 148). For example, we rightly recognize that "...godly women should be submissive, gentle, quiet, and responsive...helpers and life-givers...", but we err when we limit these attributes strictly to women as many times in Scripture, godly men are to exhibit these characteristics as well. As a lover of theology and a bit of a "tom boy", it was so refreshing to read a more broad view of femininity and that doesn't pigeon-hole men and women into traditional cultural constructs OR compromise biblical truth.

Miller doesn't throw out the baby with the bath water and is careful to recognize that much of what conservative Christian leaders are teaching is good, but she does bring much needed balance to a movement that has made a severe overcorrection. Perhaps the greatest concern that Miller and others are highlighting is the damage these overcorrections do to the Gospel and the Church. She writes:
"When marriage is emphasized as living out a picture of the gospel as the highest calling for women, along with bearing children, it tends toward making marriage and family into idols. This is especially harmful for singles and widows and for those who don't fit the neat box of a nuclear family unit...Marriage, while a good and necessary thing, isn't the gospel. Conflating the two obscures the actual gospel and presents a truncated understanding of what Christ actually accomplished for believers through His death and resurrection" (pg. 165).
Additionally, Miller addresses unbiblical teaching on the purpose of marriage, divorce and remarriage, the subtle prioritization of men over women in the church, abuses perpetuated by abusive teaching that treats women like children, and many traditions that have crept into some teaching that is far more cultural than biblical.

Beyond Authority and Submission challenged some of my presuppositions and caused me to think more carefully about some of my positions. Many folks in conservative Christian circles will benefit from a thoughtful read of this book but particularly those in conservative circles who have been influenced by (or whose teachers/leaders have been influenced by) works on biblical womanhood/manhood such as those by John Piper & Wayne Grudem (as well as other contributors to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Mary Kassian, Elisabeth Elliot, Voddie Baucham Jr., Anna and Elizabeth Botkin, Douglas Wilson, Debi Pearl, Gary Thomas, etc. If you think all feminism has always been evil or pine for the good old days, Beyond Authority and Submission will serve to bring a much greater balance to your perspective. Rachel Green Miller raises important questions with careful attention to and handling of God's Word. May we all handle Scripture as faithfully as Miller as we continue this valuable conversation!

*Many thanks to P & R Publishing for supplying me with an advance copy of Beyond Authority and Submission! These are my honest thoughts.

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