Easter season has reminded us of God’s solution. But to what problem? I read a book last week that helped solidify in my mind that when we mistakenly interpret the problem, we miss the beauty of the gospel’s answer. I think many conservative evangelicals have sorely misdiagnosed the root problem on gender issues. That has clouded our presentations on the subject, and frankly, no wonder people resist our teaching. So this is both a book review and a call to re-examine an important issue for women in the church that colors how we approach topics involving egalitarian, complementarian, and feminist thinking.
God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women examines a number of controversial passages from the Old and New Testament on the roles of men and women in the church and home. Claire Smith, the author, has a PhD in New Testament from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. D. A. Carson wrote a glowing recommendation for the book, and that got my attention. I have enjoyed Carson on this topic – especially here and here. I appreciate his exposition of Scripture and generally resonate with his tone. However, despite my appreciation for him, I was very disappointed in this book. As an author, I am sensitive to criticism of my own books and therefore try to be sensitive in my criticism of the work of others. Dr. Smith is obviously well studied and brings much personal passion to this topic. But there are broad issues in the way she discusses this topic that I think need to be addressed for the health of the larger Body of Christ.
On the topic of gender in Scripture, I have long been interested in a book that simply examines and exposits Scripture on gender issues, minus defensiveness or pejorative analysis of the opposition. From the description, I thought that’s what this book would be. Instead, this book is more an argument against egalitarian interpretations of Scripture than a simple exposition of Scripture on the topic. From beginning to end, the author addresses issues raised by Christian feminists. Earlier, the author rightly said, “None of us reads the Bible as a neutral reader. We are influenced by personal factors and we are influenced by our fallenness ….” (p. 218) When I read the last chapter concerning the author’s personal life history, I understood the personal factors that strongly influenced her tone.
“I am old enough to have been raised in the heady heyday of the women’s liberation movement. Its impact on my home, my school and broader society was profound—all the more so because I spent half my school years in an exclusive all-girls school, and from my mid-teenage years lived in an all female household (even the pets were female!).
I was raised to think that a woman could do anything a man can do (and she could do it better)… that the world would be a better place if women ran it. I recall I had very little respect for men.” (p. 219-220)
Apparently, the vast majority of gender issues in the author’s context center around Christian feminism. In contrast, I come from a background rarely dominated by feminist discussion. But even in my current context of the progressive Pacific Northwest, in a state with both a female governor and two female senators, I wouldn’t say feminism is the dominating issue for women. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a generally sexualized culture that projects onto the youngest of girls that they are most valuable when they are sexually provocative—these are the things with which women, including Christian women, still most struggle in my zip code, just as they have for 1000’s of years. Even in Dr. Smith’s 1st world, apparently feminist dominated context of Australia, she cites statistics that around 17% of women there have been violently abused in a current or previous relationship. I wonder what the statistics would be for the far more heavily populated 2nd and 3rd world nations (with far less gender equality) of China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan? In my experience, THAT statistic much more than views on feminism most affects the average woman’s attitude on gender issues.
Throughout this book, Dr. Smith discusses eternal truths from Scripture on gender in this very limited context, one with a relatively short history. With almost each examination of controversial words on gender, she mentions “getting our feminist hackles up” or offending our “feminist sensibilities.” It left me wondering (though I feel personally convicted of the answer) if Scripture’s instructions and admonitions address gender issues in areas where women wear burqas without the right to show their face, let alone to vote, in, say, the Middle East? We KNOW they do, but this text only peripherally deals with those applications.
The author is consistent with herself though. This disconnect is accounted for by the author’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16’s curse that the woman’s desire will be for her husband. Dr. Smith says, “Eve’s desire is a desire to dominate or manipulate or control her husband,” and says the created order and harmony of Genesis 2 have been “replaced by woman’s constant desire to control her husband.” (p. 178) In light of this, the author IS keeping a personally consistent tone as she interprets each Scripture, a tone reflecting her belief that women universally despite culture or socio-economic status are going to naturally resist these passages out of a desire to dominate men. The problem is that this interpretation of Genesis 3:16 does not keep the straightforward method of reading the text for which she advocated with I Timothy 2’s and I Corinthians 14’s controversial words to women. Genesis 3:16 says simply that the woman has a desire (the word indicates a strong craving or longing) for her husband. I gave a longer analysis in this post. Please read it if you are unconvinced of my straightforward reading of Genesis 3:16.
Genesis 3:16’s curse is not that all women want to dominate men and ultimately be in control. Good grief, NO! It’s that apart from Christ, we are predisposed to look to men to fulfill in us things that only God Himself can fill. It’s that we are idolators. By misinterpreting Genesis 3:16, Dr. Smith fails to address the root issues of worship and idolatry with which women struggle in every culture regardless of background. Subsequently she fails to address the root answer to the gender wars particularly for women, which I believe is the climax of Christ’s death on the cross – the tearing of the veil that stood as the barrier between God and us. In Christ, I am now invited to boldly and confidently enter God’s presence to find grace and mercy for every need—to have my desires and needs met in Him. As the Psalmist says in Psalms 73, “Whom have I in heaven but You and there is none on earth that I desire beside You. My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion (inheritance) forever.” This is the right answer to the woman’s misdirected desire of Genesis 3. It’s the gospel!
Dr. Smith is certainly not the only complementarian to interpret Genesis 3:16 this way. In fact, I think it’s the number one problem that undermines complementarian presentations. It’s hard to convince people to take other controversial words to women in a straightforward way when leaders interpret the initial curse and root problem for women in such a convoluted way. Plus, it colors the tone of our presentations. When a speaker or author thinks a woman’s number 1 problem is that they want to take over the world from men, then normal questions, concerns, or push back become evidences of a nagging, manipulative, or dominating spirit. You can’t have a conversation with such a spirit of suspicion. I really hope more complementarian pastors and authors will start leading differently on this issue.
Despite these differences between myself and the book, I was caused to think about a number of passages of Scripture in greater depth as I worked through the book. In particular, I was reminded that with Paul’s controversial words on gender in his epistles, he repeatedly calls men and women back to reflect what God created us to be in perfection, despite the ways the fall has caused all of our relationships to struggle. God set up very good things in Genesis 1 and 2, and the cross of Christ that we celebrate particularly in this season makes a way for us to reclaim all that was lost in the fall. Creation, not curse, now defines us as His image bearers.
Bottom Line: This book is strongly influenced by the author’s particular background (then again, few books are not). You’ll likely find the study of various passages in this book helpful if you are already convinced of a complementarian perspective, but I don’t suggest this book as a tool for convincing someone else to your position.