Beyond Authority and Submission by Rachel Green Miller: Starting-Point for a Discussion the Conservative Church Should’ve Already Had

I feel compelled to repeat the disclaimer I threw on a book last week—and I should probably throw this on a lot of theologically-oriented works. This is another one of those works that I feel really unqualified to discuss. So, know that this is from the perspective of an opinionated and semi-(formally)educated reader and occasional armchair theologian. Not the reflections of an ordained minister or professional theologian.

Beyond Authority and Submission

Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society

by Rachel Green Miller

Paperback, 259 pg.
P&R Publishing, 2019

Read: September 22-29, 2019

Contrary to what popular culture states, women and men are not from different planets. We’re complementarymore alike than different. Without denying the differences, we need to stop defining women as the polar opposite of men and vice versa. Such divisive definitions create and encourage unnecessary conflict and set up unrealistic and unbiblical expectations for how women and men should behave.

Paul frequently refers to fellow believersboth men and womenas co-laborers. The word he uses, sunergos, means “a companion in work.” As we will see in the next sections, co-laborer captures the sense of what we were created to be and what we are called to be in Christ.

I can’t get where this is controversialI’m definitely not the kind of guy to say “in this day and age” when it comes to this kind of thing, so please don’t hear me saying that. In any day and age where someone’s thinking is shaped more by the Bible than it is by the surrounding culture (either of the moment or by some version of a historical point of view). I don’t get where this is controversial. Sadly, it is. But as long as that’s Rachel Green Miller’s controlling thought (and I firmly believe it is), I’m on board with this book.

So I should say at the outset, I’ve appreciated Miller’s writing for years now and am very sympathetic to Miller’s general perspective on the issues she tackles in the book. I came into it expecting a useful and beneficial book for those wading through issues relating to the relation of the sexes to each other from a Christian worldviewand I got it. I didn’t expect a book to settle arguments, or a panacea to problems churches/ministries/individuals are having on this frontwhich is good, because she doesn’t try.

After setting the stage for what she wants to discuss in the book, Miller goes on a brief historical survey of views of men and women in the Greco-Roman World and Victorian Era (which she posits have more of an influence on conservative Christianity than we realize), and then she looks at First, Second and Third-Wave Feminism and how the Church has reacted to each. I think her book would be better served if this section were expanded and depended less on secondary sourcesbut given space limitations, I can live with it. From there she explores Biblical teaching on the Nature of Men and Women, how the two should relate in marriage, the Church, and society. In these chapters, she tries to show how current understandings are (too) frequently largely molded by a reaction to a political movement or values imported from a historical context (that needed Biblical reform). Each section here could be a book unto itselfand maybe should bebut Miller’s treatment is a good starting point for discussion.

If you see the book as thata starting point for conversation, with a lot of very helpful things to bear in mind, this is a very commendable and worthwhile read. If you’re thinking of it as definitive in any sense of the word (and I think Miller would warn against that herself), the book will not come close to living up to expectations.

Miller critiques both the foundation of the worldviews she disagrees withancient pagan cultures or recent/contemporary naturalistic views. Latter feminism, as well as godless patriarchal views, are her targetsas are the ways those presuppositions or their expressions are imported into the Church.

Where I think this book stumbles is in the positive case for what she believes. Miller is very clear on what she’s not trying to say (though many aren’t paying attention to this), she’s also clear on what she disagrees with (no one would deny this)but she’s too unclear about what she’d like people to think. I think I just did the same thing hereso I’m going to resort to metaphor. Most of what I talk about here is fiction, so I’m going to employ that for a minute. If Andy Carpenter, Eddie Flynn and Mickey Haller (various fictional defense attorneys) have taught me anything, it’s that while it’s all well and good for a defense attorney to poke holes in a prosecution’s case, what will really turn a jury around is a good alternative suspect, someone to blame, to hold accountable for whatever crime is in question. Miller’s done a great job in showing problems with the prosecution’s case, and we know she doesn’t want us to find her client guiltybut I don’t have anyone else to hold accountable/punish for the crime.

Now, the problems with that metaphor are plain enough, but I think my point is clear (clearer than I could’ve made it earlier). For what it’s worth, I think she’s dead to rights on what she’s not wanting to say, and by and large, she’s right on what she’s critiquing. I just wish I had a clearer notion of what she wants readers to think in a positive sense. Also, while I agree that we need to do more than talk about the relationship between the sexes in terms other than “authority” and “submission” we still need to have clear ideas about how those roles should function (if we’re going to understand the Bible), and Miller should have addressed that.

This book has, regrettablyyet not at all unsurprisinglykicked up a hornet’s nest of controversy. Sadly, it seems that most of the reviewers have dug into two hard-and-fast camps: the “this is a load of drivel that Miller and P&R should be ashamed about” camp on the one hand, and the “this is the greatest thing since the Institutes” camp on the other. Neither is even close to right. This is a good book (with clear flaws) and deserves to have its good points, flaws, and pushes to conversation discussed without vitriol. Sadly, I can’t see that happening, which is probably why books like this are needed.

Honestly, if we can’t deal charitably with each other on this kind of thing, how can we expect a lost and dying world to listen to us at all?

I know that more than a few reviewers have taken issue with the way that Miller treats some of the sources she’s citing and critiquingand there were a couple of times I wondered if she and I had read the same article/chapter/book, because I didn’t come away from it with the same ideas she did. At timesand more often than should be acceptableshe comes across as saying that “Writer X is problematic on these issues and therefore everything they’ve ever said about them is wrong.” I don’t think that’s her intention, but I do think that she gives that impression. But on the whole, I think there’s a lot of straining at gnats by her critics when it comes to her treatment of sources.

I think I’ve lost the thread a bit here. Such is the nature of the tempest in the conservative Christian teapot, that I can’t really think about the content of the book without thinking about the reaction to it. I wish I’d found/made the time to write about this book before I read about it. That’s on me.

Let me try to get back on track. I liked this book. It made me re-examine a lotand will probably continue to do so as I mull on what she has to say (and I’ll probably find a lot to disagree with ultimately, and a lot to agree withas it ought to be). How much of what I think about how women and men should interact with each other (in the home, Church and society) comes from Scripture and how much from the culture? How much of what I think it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman has more to do with Ancient Greek culture or the Victorians? (more than it should). The core of the message should be heard and weighed, and hopefully, after the hubbub has died down a bit, we can start to deal with it.

The Bible testifies to our unity. We don’t have one Bible for men and a different one for women. The armor of God isn’t just for men, and the fruit of the spirit doesn’t apply only to women. No, we have one Bible for us all, and most of the Bible’s commands apply to all of usmale or female, old or young, rich or poor, servant or master.

It’s important to emphasize that when God made humanity in His image, He did so by making a man and a woman. Women are as much made in the image of God as men are. Men don’t have more of God’s image because of their masculinity. We are equal in worth, but we’re not the same. We are different, but we are also interdependent. We were created to complement each other, and we need each other.

Tolle Lege.

4 Stars

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