By Laura Thierry
There are few topics likely to garner as much angst within staff teams, seminaries, and student groups as the “women in ministry” debate. For more than two decades this complex and important discussion has caused a significant deal, not only of careful textual reading, but also of pain and division. In the midst of the slew of books that have been written on this topic, Andrew Bartlett’s book, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts brings several beneficial elements to the table.
Firstly, Bartlett writes, not firstly as a theologian (although he does have a degree in theology and is remarkably well read), but as a lawyer. Bringing his judicial skills to bear upon the key exegetical questions at play, he attempts to come to the debate without bias—as a neutral player. The result is a well-reasoned, thoroughly researched, carefully stated work. Bartlett’s dispassionate tone, careful logic, and judicial fairness clears up some of the debris that inevitably surrounds this topic.
Secondly, Bartlett’s work is saturated with a deep love for and passionate commitment to the Word of God. As he states, “The Bible is our anchor. If we set ourselves adrift from it, we are severing our connection with God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.” (xxii).
Thirdly, his overall goal in writing is to promote unity within the church. This book is written from a firm conviction on the importance of unity for the life and witness of the church (xxi). As he writes in his dedication, he is truly honouring of those on all sides of the debate, and treats their work with the dignity and respect worthy of image-bearers
Without in any way seeking to diminish the excellence of this unique piece of scholarship, it is perhaps worth noting two small elements of the work that strike one as less satisfying than they might have been. Firstly, the claim to evaluating and adjudicating between a debate without bias, while admirable, also seems questionable, especially given the topic under investigation. There is perhaps no other discussion so personal, delicate, and infused with often unintentional bias as gender relations. Surely, especially in our current thought climate, attempting to see anything utterly without some measure of bias is like trying to speak with absolutely no accent—that is, a thorough impossibility. This, I think, comes about most clearly with reference to his use of church history. Which leads to my second point, namely, that the claim that all of Christian history up until very recently, has been patriarchal, and that “male superiority and female inferiority were understood to be grounded in nature as created by God, or else in nature after the fall” (10) is simply not the whole story. Bartlett may be said to write without bias with respect to the complementarian and egalitarian positions, but I am not convinced that he can easily be cleared of a perhaps more insidious form of bias, namely historical bias, or “chronological snobbery” as C. S. Lewis would call it.
Early in the book, Bartlett (quite justly) wishes to remove from complementarians the “trump card” of claiming for themselves the historical position. He does this by making a case for Christianity’s understanding of women as essentially misogynistic until remarkably recently, thus showing that both the complementarian and egalitarian positions (in their appeal to the absolute equality of worth for both men and women) are innovative. In a sense, this evens the playing field. In another it provides a very rocky foundation for moving forward, for it (I think unintentionally) perpetuates the myth that the Church’s gender debate is a binary polarity, with only two possible “right” answers, and that the majority of Christendom (up until the feminist movement of the 20th century and the employment of the historical-critical method of exegesis) got it wrong. It is a sad a sobering thing that he can call up such a ferocious list of quotes that would seem to suggest that misogyny has been the default of the church throughout the centuries, and yet, the reality is that this claim is simply not the case. From Gregory of Nyssa’s honouring of his sister Macrina as “the teacher”, to the extraordinary teaching ministries exercised by women such as Hildegard of Bingen or Catherine of Siena (not, of course, even to mention the extremely high esteem with which the church has viewed Mary the mother of Jesus) tell a very different story. Thus, while I am deeply grateful for Bartlett’s work in so carefully summarizing and adjudicating between the two current and deeply influential positions, I am hesitant about the value of doing so in such a way that (again, I think unintentionally) strikes from the conversation the lives and perspectives of countless women and men throughout the ages who have sought to interpret and live under the authority of Scripture with respect to gender issues, and have done so in ways that are not misogynistic, and yet nor do they fit the standard complementarian nor egalitarian model. While it is important to recognize the recent historical nature of how the debate currently functions, doing so should lead us not only to look at the biblical texts, but also to lean into the insights of how the church throughout the ages sought to understand and live faithfully into the witness of Scripture in these matters. A claim to an unbiased assessment that sets only two perspectives against each other, leaving the reader with the understanding that all perspectives that came before these two were misogynistic, does not bode well for producing the “fresh light” that Bartlett’s work desires.
And yet, these two caveats aside, the reality remains that, as a fair reading of the current classic complementarian and egalitarian positions, logically, lucidly and fair-mindedly read, this work is a superb read. The desire for unity and deep love for God’s word upon which it is built shine through clearly, edifying the reader and encouraging faithfulness and fairness in how we continue to treat one another in these discussions.
Laura Thierry a PhD candidate at Ridley College, researching medieval hagiography, Christology, and theology of the body.