Editor’s Note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Eikon.
Alice Matthews. Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught about Men and Women in the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.
In Gender Roles and the People of God, Mathews considers modern evangelicalism’s “third rail” issue—the role of women in the church. Her aim is to challenge traditional complementarian theology and advocate for an egalitarian reading of Scripture. Based on teaching notes that developed over decades as a professor at Gordon-Conwell, Mathews’s book surveys the relevant texts on women in the history of redemption and in the church, the theological underpinnings of complementarian theology, as well as how the church’s perception of women has changed throughout its history — often in ways that oppress or demean women.
While Mathews’s work has some significant problems, I do want to express appreciation for her clear commitment to the authority of Scripture (18) and I would commend much of what she says about hermeneutics in her book’s introductory chapter. We may not share the same convictions on gender or church polity, but clearly Mathews attempts to uncover the Bible’s teaching on gender, which is a noble aspiration.
Nevertheless, Mathews seems unwilling to extend this same charity to those on the other side of this debate. Her book continues a troubling pattern among many recent egalitarian books and articles which either accuse complementarians of the worst types of sinister intent or at least insinuate complementarians are largely responsible for any oppression or abuse women have suffered.
For instance, Mathews repeatedly juxtaposes complementarian theology with anti-abolitionists who supported slavery. She writes, “Whenever our interpretation leads to injustice, oppression, or structural violence, then the very heart of the Bible is repudiated. Such views are anti-biblical, no matter what texts they cite” (30). In fact, at the end of the book she essentially designates complementarianism as a tool of Satan: “If gender-based hierarchy is allowed to continue destroying lives and disrupting God’s work of redeeming a broken world, it plays into Satan’s hand. . . . We cannot shrug off church history as if the millions of women’s blighted lives didn’t matter” (238). This type of rhetoric unfairly characterizes complementarianism. Complementarians have always condemned abuse, and first-generation complementarians labeled themselves “complementarian” to distinguish their convictions from traditional patriarchy.
Furthermore, Mathews misrepresents complementarian theology. She repeatedly refers to complementarianism as “gender-based hierarchy” — a name complementarians would not ascribe to themselves. She also asserts that the complementarian interpretation of Genesis 2:20 (Eve made as Adam’s “helper”) relegates women to a role of unintelligent, passive servitude — “like a plumber’s assistant handing the man the right wrench” (50). Anyone familiar with complementarian literature will find her representation of complementarian readings of Genesis 1–3 woefully reductionistic.
AFFIRMING WHAT NO ONE DENIES
One of the most helpful parts of Mathews’s book is her survey of the meaningful role women have played in the history of redemption and in the early church. What is baffling, however, is her assumption that any complementarian would be surprised, disconcerted, or threatened by these data. Juxtaposing complementarian convictions with her survey of women in redemptive history, she writes “how are we to understand what looks like a clear contradiction? Some Christians choose to ignore one set of data and accept only the other set. Others may find this seeming contradiction enough to shatter their confidence in the Bible” (90). But the significant role women play in the history of redemption does not overturn complementarian theology, let alone confidence in Scripture. After all, complementarians have produced articles highlighting these same themes.
The problem with Mathews’s conclusion from her survey is that she assumes too much. Identifying women in the early church who labored for the gospel in particularly noteworthy ways does not actually say anything about whether these women served as elders or preached in the corporate assembly. Complementarians affirm that women are essential and indispensable in the mission of the church — we witness this fact in our own local churches week by week. Yes, many women in the New Testament were engaged in meaningful, significant, and even notable ministries, but none of those features undermine complementarian principles or a commitment to male-only eldership.
IS NEW TESTAMENT ECCLESIOLOGY NORMATIVE?
Behind these misguided assumptions is a more fundamental flaw with Mathews’s reasoning. She asserts that the New Testament does not present a consistent church polity. Instead, she argues that “in Paul’s letters, we find diversity in how churches were led. It is not ‘one size fits all’ — with gender-based hierarchical structure in place that is permanent and applies to all people in all places at all times” (157). Instead, Mathews argues that ministry was restricted to those “who have a high level of maturity and spiritual discernment” in times of church crisis (157). Thus, Paul restricted ministry in Ephesus to a select few (“the elders”) because of the threat of false teaching — particularly teaching that was spreading among women.
I’ll not repeat here the many arguments from Baptists, Presbyterians, and other Protestant denominations demonstrating that New Testament polity is consistent and prescriptive. Even still, Mathews’s case is simply unconvincing. She assumes Paul’s admonitions to congregations necessarily preclude any unique role for elders (152). Most of her arguments rely on historical reconstructions of controversies in these early churches — reconstructions which force biblical texts to say more than they actually affirm. Finally, her conclusions do not cohere with the facts of the New Testament. She asserts that Paul encouraged churches that had lost their way to restrict ministry to “carefully screened individuals” (157) — hence the need for elders at the church at Ephesus. Are we really to assume that the church at Ephesus was in more turmoil than the church in Corinth? Yet, Paul spent far more time admonishing the congregation in Corinth than its leaders (1 Cor 5:4; 12:1–26). By Mathews’s reasoning, shouldn’t he have spent more time limiting congregational participation in ministry in the Corinthian church?
IS THERE A PLACE FOR AUTHORITY?
Gender Roles and the People of God has a number of additional significant problems. Mathews’s treatment of the so-called complementarian “clobber texts” (1 Tim 2:12; 1 Cor. 14:34–35) largely repeats traditional egalitarian explanations of these texts. Complementarian scholars have already responded to these arguments in a number of resources.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Mathews’s book is her dismissive attitude toward the very notion of authority in the church and the home. She writes, “in short, sin requires some form of hierarchy” (46); “Jesus had no patience for establishing hierarchies among his followers” (70); “Why ask who’s in charge? Does someone have to be in charge? Why not let God be in charge as we humbly work together for his kingdom?” (235).
Scripture never speaks about authority so dismissively. Yes, authority can be abused, and abusing authority is a heinous sin — one of the most disturbing ways we distort the image of God. But authority that mirrors God’s own gracious and life-giving authority both glorifies God and blesses those under it. Consider David’s words in 2 Samuel 23:3–4:
The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.
Ultimately, even egalitarians should find Mathews’s caricature of complementarian theology frustrating. Complementarians will not identify anything they believe in Mathews’s description of “gender-based hierarchy.” Whatever Mathews may be arguing against, it is not complementarianism.
Sam Emadi is a member at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He serves as the Senior Editor at 9Marks.
 Though I would register some disagreement with her presentation of some of the women in this survey, for instance, her argument that Junia was an apostle in the early church.
 See James M. Hamilton, Jr., “A Biblical Theology of Motherhood,” in Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 2.2 (2012): 6-13; Jonathan Leeman, “Essential and Indispensable: Women and the Mission of the Church,” in 9Marks Journal (December 2019), 29–34. See also The Village Church’s, “The Role of Women at the Village Church,” found at https://d1nwfrzxhi18dp.cloudfront.net/uploads/resource_library/attachment/file/937/Institute_-_2017_-_The_Role_of_Women_at_The_Village_Church-Long-Paper.pdf.
 See for instance Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, 3rd. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).
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