Michael Bird. Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.
By Griffin Gulledge
Michael Bird is one of the most entertaining theological writers I have read. Having reviewed a section of his systematic theology, Evangelical Theology, only weeks ago as well as having become a regular reader of his blog Euangelion, it is apparent to me that I will never read his writing and walk away bored. That holds true in his recent contribution to the gender roles debate. More of a pamphlet than a book, Bird’s Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry is a fun, honest, and concise presentation of “Biblical Egalitarianism.”
Except it isn’t. Bird’s book isn’t boilerplate egalitarianism. But neither is it complementarianism.[i] He writes:
My own position is either almost-complementarian or nearly-egalitarian, depending how you look at it. Yet I have changed my view on women and ministry, and some of my friends have shaken their head in disappointment, thinking that I have sold out to the cultural tide of feminism by adopting a fashionably left-leaning version of evangelicalism. My own perspective is that I have simply followed the testimony of biblical texts that affirm women can and should be involved in pastoral care and the church’s teaching ministry.[ii]
Neither Complementarian nor Feminist
Bird’s book has its merits. It’s true: Bird has not “sold out to the cultural tide of feminism.” Indeed, this book is incredibly respectable in that Bird has not said with many “so-called Christian feminists” or the recently en vogue “Jesus feminists” that Paul was just wrong, the Bible is irrelevant or outdated, or that we ought to ignore relevant passages about gender in the church. Likewise, Bird hasn’t manipulated texts beyond recognition. Instead, he addresses each relevant passage to the debate head on in order to show why he has become an egalitarian in regards to ministry in the church.
Bird’s view is not full-on feminism. I agree with him when he writes, “I think that it is somewhat anachronistic to suppose that Jesus and Paul were feminists in the modern sense of the term.” Rather, Bird argues for male headship in the home, which “as espoused in Ephesians and Colossians shows that husbandly headship has nothing to do with chauvinism and misogyny.” But he also deduces that “headship will mean bowing that head to the wife in many matters pertaining to marriage.” To the former, amen. To the latter, meh.
The Primary Scriptural Arguments
Bird’s central textual arguments are not new to the gender debate. Arguing by way of Phoebe and Junia(s) in Romans 16, Bird says “while there may be male headship in marriage and even restrictions on some forms of ministry for women, nonetheless it is clear to me that a cursory reading of Paul’s letters shows that women participated in the teaching ministry of the early church.” Of course, the question is far more complex than Bird’s short analysis and anything but settled. He presents nothing new here which the CBE crowd has not already presented. The question of Phoebe and Junia(s) has been handled at length by CMBW here and here.
Given that Bird affirms some form of gender hierarchy in the home, perhaps his most important argument comes from 1 Cor. 11:2-16. Here he writes that, “As long as creational gender distinctions are maintained and as long as women dress with modesty and decorum, then men and women are both free to engage in the same activities of prayer and prophecy in corporate worship.” Bird argues that headship in this case is merely what binds men and women together under Christ, the true head. The appeal to creation seems to tell us, however, about God’s ordained ordering of the creation under his headship. But Bird argues that man and woman are to honor God with identical functions in the church through distinct gender identification. Although Bird here defends gender as essential to a man or woman’s identity, he misses the mark by concluding that this is not of primary importance in this passage.
An Irenic Tone and a Few Good Reminders
Bird’s defense of exegetical egalitarianism offers much to think about. One of the most striking sentences of the book has to do with the manner of this debate. Bird writes, “I got the feeling that, in some circles, in order to be a complementarian-approved dude, you had to be willing not only to salute at the complementarian flagpole but also to impale your mother, wife, sister, or daughter on it every once in a while to demonstrate your loyalty.” This is very sad, if in fact it is the case.
In one sad anecdote, Bird tells of a church where he worshiped that was so complementarian that it “even forbade women ushers.” If we complementarians truly believe our position is biblically-derived and that our stance ultimately leads to the flourishing and empowering of women, then we need to guard against unnecessary restraints.[iii] As Bird rightly recognizes, “…complementarians are not deliberate oppressors of women.” He does not follow that with, “they are accidental oppressors.” He is right not to do so. Bird laments much of the anathematizing and back-biting that has taken place in the gender debate. I agree with him. It’s time more reasoned voices took their place in the debate.
In the end, Bird’s tone in this book is one of its most commendable features. Although I would hope readers would not follow Bird’s conclusions, I hope all can adopt his irenic spirit. I would recommend this book to none for its conclusions, but to all for its reasoned and well-intended opposition to biblical complementarity.
Griffin Gulledge lives in Birmingham, AL where he is a staff member at Valleydale Church (SBC) and a student at Beeson Divinity School. He is easily accessible at @griffingulledge on twitter.
[i]In the last edition of the JBMW, Andrew Wilson labeled Bird’s brand of egalitarianism as “exegetical egalitarianism.” See Wilson’s article, “Five Forms of Egalitarianism: With a Critique of David Instone-Brewer’s Household Codes,” JBMW 18.2 (Fall 2013): 18.
[ii]As this volume is an e-book, the pages have not been mentioned.
[iii]For a helpful discussion on this point, see an old CBMW article by Wayne Grudem, “But What Should Women Do in the Church?”
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