I’m a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to a lot of things. I don’t like Summer because its too hot. I don’t like Winter because it’s too cold. I like Spring because it’s juuuust right. I’m like this with films and books too. It’s a classic but it’s too long. It’s entertaining but it’s too fluffy.
Well, I read a lot of books about women, about Christianity and about christian women. I struggle sometimes because they are too academic, or they are written by someone who is well meaning and learned, but not with an eye to the realities of some of the chaos of life, or the reality of being a woman that is less than Utopian. But I also wince when they are too light-weight and not biblically grounded enough. It’s hard to find books that are just right.
I am always on the hunt for books about being a Christian woman in the real world that help me wrangle with how to be a Christian mum, how to process issues of the day, how to be a Christian (and a complementarian) in a secular workplace and how to exercise complementarianism as a single mum.
If you haven’t had to grapple with the complementarian and egalitarian issues as yet, here’s a quick overview: These are the two primary positions on male-female relationships. Egalitarians say that men and women are equal in value and equal in function. We are the same in every way, holding and exercising equal authority and with no barrier to any activity, including preaching. Complementarians say that men and women are equal in value and different in function. This stance says that men are tasked with primary authority and that we are made for, and (should) exercise, different functions. And while there are degrees within this position, this includes a restriction on some things, most notably holding positions of authority over men.
That’s a very thumbnail sketch but we’re talking the gist of things here.
Personally, I am a complementarian. In all my Bible and commentary reading, it still seems to me to be the most biblically correct position. This is different to my egalitarian sisters and I would just say that this difference of opinion does not define my relationship with them, as there is far more fundamentals that we agree on than issues that we don’t. There are many areas we can respectfully disagree and still rejoice in Christ together.
Where my complementarian belief leaves me personally though, is working through what is the biblical application in my real and (very) messy life.
I have read a lot of books that have been helpful. Notably Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, Courtney Reissig’s Accidental Feminist, Carrie Sandom’s Different by Design and Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design.
Kathleen Nielson’s book Women of God however, is an absolute cracker.
The tag line of the book is “Hard questions. Beautiful truth.” and it certainly lives up to this. Throughout the book, Nielson raises, and tackles, questions that have been in the forefront of my mind, and those of some of my Christian sisters, for a long time. Her style is to pose a question, answer it from the Bible, but then keep asking “But what about….”
This is the great encouragement in this book. She recognises that shallow or trite answers might be true, but as women’s lived experience is deeper, so must be the answers. So she keeps asking until she bottoms out each issue.
Sometimes they are not necessarily easy truths. For example, there is an order of creation and that can be a difficult truth to reconcile and live out when our inclinations might strain against it. But what Nielson does is help to put the question into context and, because she keeps asking questions, she can help us to understand the nuance and beauty of the truth as it is meant to be – not what we might immediately assume it to be.
As an example, she tackles the order of creation and how historically, church elders have assumed that meant that women were in some way inferior to men, or “limited in the way they bear the image of God – in comparison to the way men do.” What she then shows is that God’s creation of women revealed man’s great need (man’s alone-ness is the only thing in creation that is “not good”) and then reveals woman as God’s great gift to complete creation so that it was good.
But then she keeps going – how woman’s role as “helper” is in no way demeaning; how it is wrong to apply order of creation theology to a secular workplace, to which this Scripture does not speak; how the intentionality of order of creation places a burden on man as the teacher and leader – not because woman is incapable, but because that is what God has tasked man to do. “This makes sense:” says Nielson “to lead means to go out before, so that others follow. Eve cannot bear that leadership responsibility because she wasn’t there before.” That might seem like an accident of circumstance, but with God, there are no accidents – so we must look into what this order of creation means.
She notes strongly that man is cursed because he failed to perform his primary responsibility to lead. This doesn’t cancel out Eve’s sin, but Adam’s sin is equally bad. Her sin is giving in to temptation. His sin was that, as the first created, he was to obey God and lead his wife (which includes leading her in the one law of Eden about the tree, which was given to him before Eve was created). He failed. And he was cursed.
This starts putting things into perspective. Order is not about inferiority. Its actually much bigger. Its about God’s plan for all of creation. This is hard for us because we can’t conceptualise that big. And “we often live in a way that assigns value according to roles” and God didn’t ascribe value to each role – our value is completely equal. It is us who ascribes value to the different roles of men and women and that’s what we strain against.
That is not to say that our differing roles haven’t resulted in terrible realities for some women and Nielson acknowledges this terrible sinfulness in our clumsy and sometimes wicked application of Scripture. But her aim is to get back to what God intended. She does this in an engaging and accessible way and at the same time really excavating through layers of questions that we all have about difficult passages of the Bible in the Old and New Testaments, and how they are applied.
This is a great book for avid readers and newcomers to the subject alike. It is a great read and by the time I got to the end, I felt so much more informed about what complementarianism means in practical application – in real life. I would also say it is a worthwhile read whatever your position is as there is helpful biblical wisdom in here. Most of all though, this book left me feeling so much more informed on reading and applying biblical wisdom from God’s revelation on women and so much more confident about the person God created me to be.