Note: This post contains affiliate links.Is the Bible Good for Women? by Wendy Alsup
Published by Multnomah on March 21, 2017
Genres: Nonfiction, Christian
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Is the Bible good for women? This question has been raised time and time again, and with good reason. Some Bible verses are–at first glance at least–pretty disturbing and should prompt any humane person to ask some tough questions. Hence, the need for a book to thoroughly examine those passages with a keen eye for linguistic and cultural context.
I was hoping Is the Bible Good for Women? would be that book. Alas, it does far more harm than good. My goal in this review is not to critique Alsup’s thesis–that the Bible is good for women–but to evaluate the logic and implications of some of the arguments she presents in pursuit of that conclusion.
Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism: A Primer
For those of you who are not familiar with the terminology of Christian theology, there are two primary theological camps that hold different beliefs about gender roles.
Egalitarianism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities in the home, church, society at large. I.e., women should be allowed to fill any church leadership positions we feel called to and should have equal standing in marriage.
Complementarianism is the belief that men and women have “equal” (this is the word most complementarians use, though I write it with no small degree of sarcasm) but differing roles. Women in complementarian churches are usually forbidden from being pastors or elders, and from holding positions of authority over men. Many complementarian churches also preach that women should submit to their husbands in marriage and emphasize the roles of wife and mother.
Perhaps I should have known better than to assume a book like this would take an egalitarian stance. Maybe I’m out of touch with Evangelical culture or maybe I’m just too optimistic for my own good. Either way, I was dismayed to find that the author is a complementarian, and, like many complementarians before her, believes this theology is actually good for women.
A Note from the Author (5-25-17)
Wendy Alsup, the author of this book, commented on this review saying:
I actually do not consider myself a complementarian, never name or endorse complementarianism in the book, and have written for years on my blog about my concerns about complementarianism as defined by those who coined the term.
I replied with the following:
What you describe in your book is virtually indistinguishable from complementarian theology. You specify submission of wives to their husbands and men as sole leaders of the church. These two positions are the core of complementarianism. I realize there is some disagreement on the finer points (i.e. soft complementarians vs. hardline complementarians) but having read numerous articles and books written by both complementarians and egalitarians, I fail to see how the theology you espouse is demonstrably different from complementarianism.
You can read more about Wendy’s views on complementarianism at her website, TheologyforWomen.com, and draw your own conclusions.
Patriarchy Is as Patriarchy Does
Establishing the virtue of complementarianism is central to the author’s argument that the Bible is good for women, which is extremely disappointing for two reasons:
- Complementarianism is, in fact, not good for women and it can lead to and be used to justify abuse.
- If whether or not the Bible is good for women is predicated upon the goodness of complementarianism, then the entire argument falls apart, which is exactly what happens here.
Let’s take a look at a passage in chapter eight, in which Alsup defends what she considers to be a biblical understanding of complementarian theology.
The problems we see in modern culture that have also infiltrated the church are not primarily from husbands who have learned to love, care, and sacrifice for their wives as Christ’s example teaches. There is, however, a massive issue in Christian and non-Christian cultures that calls for women to submit to men everywhere apart from the covenant relationship of marriage. The only thing that makes marital submission work as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 is that it exists in an established covenant in which there are clear expectations and responsibilities for both parties.
A few pages later, Alsup states that she doesn’t “want to undermine the value of the authoritative role of pastors or husbands because some men have abused their authority.” And here again we have that tired refrain that just won’t die–some men. I’m getting really sick of hearing it.
It’s true that only some men abuse, but we must ask the question, how do those “some men” get away with abuse? How do they justify it to themselves and their church communities? I contend that they often justify it with complementarian (i.e. patriarchal) theology. I contend that they get away with it at least in part because complementarian theology creates an environment in which abuse can more easily thrive. As Natalie Collins writes in a 2015 CBE article, “If our mission is to end the abuse and oppression of women, it becomes clear that we can’t just saw off individual branches of oppression, leaving the tree rooted in the sin of patriarchy.”
Complementarians can dress up their theology in pretty phrases like “benevolent headship” and “sacrificial love” all they want. It doesn’t change the fact that complementarianism robs women of agency and places it in the hands of men.
When in Doubt, Stereotype
Another problem I often see in complementarian circles is the tendency to stereotype both women and men. This often involves assigning individual personality traits to an entire gender. In chapter four, Alsup writes, “The man’s root of the problem from the Fall leads to a frustrated idolatry of work, while the woman’s leads to a frustrated idolatry of man.”
So, if I’m understanding this correctly, men idolize work (never mind the vast number of men who would rather not work at all, or work less, or maybe just stay home with the kids) and women idolize men. I mean, have you ever heard a group of women talking about the men in their lives? I don’t hear much idolization going on there. The point is, people don’t fit into neat little boxes and these claims are, at best, colored by cultural experience, and at worst, downright sexist.'Is the Bible Good for Women?' Is Not Good for WomenClick To Tweet
Anatomy of the Hymen 101
The Old Testament is where we run into the Bible’s most disturbing passages on women and how they were to be treated in Hebrew culture–laws that were purportedly given to the Israelites by God himself. This book is not my first encounter with these passages and the various interpretations of them that exist. Some of these interpretations are satisfying, some are not, and Alsup generally sticks to the most common ones I’ve heard from Reformed Protestant folk.
And then we come to her analysis of Deuteronomy 22:13-21. If you’re unfamiliar with that passage, here is the abridged version:
If any man takes a wife and goes into her and then hates her and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find evidence of virginity,’ then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate…And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. If the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death…
Alsup writes, “Note that God does not say that the woman’s virginity matters and man’s does not. The simple fact is there was no way to confirm physically whether the man was a virgin.” The implication here is that it is possible to confirm physically whether a woman is a virgin.
Lets’ go back to anatomy 101, kids. It is possible to positively prove virginity by the presence of a fully intact hymen. It is not possible to prove the absence of virginity. Many hymens break or stretch to the point of undetectability because of reasons other than sex. Also, bleeding during sex does not prove virginity (women may bleed during sex for other reasons), nor do all women bleed the first time they have sex.
Maybe this is just poor wording on the author’s part. Maybe she means that in ancient times, people believed a woman’s virginity could be proved or disproved, even though we know that’s not true today. But it doesn’t read that way. Anyway, I’d bet twenty bucks that at least half of those newlywed Hebrew brides surreptitiously poured animal blood on the sheets to avoid any awkward questions. Just saying.
Calling Good Evil and Evil Good
In chapter five Alsup writes, “I submit to you that the Bible is very good for women, but we have to be precise in how we define good. To be consistent with Scripture, we have to face a ‘lose your life to find it’ kind of good.” It is statements like this that made me have to continually resist the urge to throw Is the Bible Good for Women? across the room. Yes, Jesus did say, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This is an important verse for Christians, a reminder that the pursuit of things like material comfort, fame, and success as our culture defines it should not be our primary goals in life. Clearly, this verse is not saying women should surrender their agency and hope for equality in this lifetime.
I’m not one to throw Bible verses at people, but this does remind me of Isaiah 5:20, which says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” The consequences of patriarchy, of systems that give men a greater voice than women and subjugate women under men’s control, are evil and just because women help perpetuate such systems doesn’t make them less so.
Finally, the End
My original outline for this review would have resulted in a much longer, in-depth analysis of some of Alsup’s finer points. I shortened it in part to save my aching wrist and in part because her finer points are lost in the mire of the capital P problems I have outlined here.
In the end, Is the Bible Good for Women? will probably only serve to discourage and/or enrage women who want true equality. Skip this one and read Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist instead.
Have you read Is the Bible Good for Women? What are your thoughts?