Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
Dorothy A. Lee. The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021.
The title is inviting: The Ministry of Women in the New Testament. One would welcome a comprehensive, evenhanded pursuit of what the New Testament reveals about women in service to God and others. It is the subtitle, however, that hints at the actual contents of the book: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership. The true “Biblical Vision” must be reclaimed, having been hijacked by a misogynic (3, 11, 188), racist (3), abusive (11, 187, 188), idolatrous (182, 185), deceitful (“guise,” 1; “misleading,” 11), “domineering,” and “scummy” (182) theological splinter-group (“a reactionary movement,” 3; led by “Reactionary scholarship,”(122) who are misleading the faithful. The book thus touts itself as something of a “myth” buster (191), streaming the light of truth into the descending darkness of a complementarian night.
The book is divided into two unequal parts, a review of women’s ministry in the New Testament (15-150) and a briefer review of women’s ministry in the tradition of the church (151-184).
The seven chapters of the first section discuss each book of the New Testament except 2 Peter and Jude, with Luke and Paul each receiving two chapters.
The second, shorter section explores some of the tradition of the church, mostly in the first five hundred years after Pentecost. Chapter eight (“History and Texts”) searches post-canonical writings, arts and artifacts, and the “Early Church Mothers” for support of an egalitarian position. Chapter nine (“Theology”) makes several women equal to “the Twelve,” explores “Women and the Divine Image,” the place and role of the Virgin Mary, and the matter of “Gender and the Trinity.”
The conclusion (185-191) summarizes points already made and makes demands for their application today.
The intent is clear: “The purpose of this study is to revisit the arguments against women’s full participation in ministry and leadership within the church” (10). Wishing to dub complementarians as “reactionary” (3, 122), the author defines herself right into that category. By stating “this study on women is about presenting ways of interpreting the New Testament text in all its diversity, ways other than those we have always held” (8); the author admits her goal is to achieve something novel in church history.
The title suggests a project of gargantuan scope. However, the volume’s size (191 pages plus bibliography and indices) impedes the author from plowing much new ground with the actual text of the New Testament.
The chapters are generally more subdued in rhetoric than the introduction (1-12) and conclusion (185–191), where the verbiage turns incendiary. The language is that of warfare (“the battle,” 3). In Lee’s estimation, the “aftermath” of the Reformation (169) must be cleaned up. The term “complementarian” cannot even be intoned without placing it in quotation marks (11, 123). Lee calls out “claims to be ‘complementarian’” (11), demands “the term is misleading” (11), and is a cover for “a hidden misogyny” (11). She pits herself and Jesus over against complementarians as “neither belittling nor patronizing” women (7). Those who disagree are deceitful (“old antiwomen arguments have reemerged in contemporary guise,” 1; “a hidden misogyny,” 11) and obstructionist (“those who wish to hold back the full working out of the gospel,” 135). History cannot be trusted, for it is a “male historiography” (170). Yet history is used to support full inclusion of women in the authority and titles of ministry (151-184). The author weds gender and race, tying “male dominance” to “white dominance” (3).
The goal of The Ministry of Women in the New Testament from the beginning was not a comprehensive theology, but an egalitarian manifesto. Sadly, where the faith and ministry of countless women could have been celebrated, they are too often used to prop up an agenda.
Consider three areas which reveal the author’s general approach: hermeneutics, methodology, and conclusions
In terms of her hermeneutical approach, Lee’s favorite word seems to be “trajectory” (9, 72, 95 [2x], 156 [2x], 157), hinting at both her view of Scripture and her hermeneutic. Scripture, it would seem, is not a fully sufficient guide for the people of faith. Each Scriptural text is “capable of more than one meaning” (9). The text does not mean one thing that then may find a variety of applications in daily life but might mean something different to a subsequent age than it did to the Apostles, Luther, Wesley, or the Puritans. This allows women in our day “to read and reread the biblical texts from their own perspective . . . to discern meanings for today” (9). The Scriptures have not been inspired in any definitive sense, but we look for “the continuous, inspiring work of the Holy Spirit” in our time (9). The goal is not faithful application of the original meaning of the text of Scripture to each successive age but the discovery of new truth in our own. Faithfulness to the text of Scripture and its ultimate Author must give way to “a new imagination to reread” the Bible (60). Through “fresh readings,” “new research,” and “New insights” (2) undertaken in “New settings,” “new contexts” (9), and “a new world” (94) we allow Scripture “to speak in unimagined ways” (9). Ways that, apparently, not even the apostles and authors of Scripture could have anticipated.
In Lee’s methodology, skepticism reigns over what the New Testament says. Large portions are swept into the bin of doubt. The authorship of nearly every epistle is questioned (98-102, 137-140, 142, 144, 146). Galatians 3:28 is her go-to passage, but other Pauline passages are declared “ambiguous” (115, 116, 118). Regarding 1 Timothy 2:11-15, “almost every word has been disputed in recent years” (121). But disputation does not negate authority. Otherwise, we must eliminate the record of the Old Testament prophets. Doubt-casting clears the way and “allows the biblical text to be understood in new ways” (150).
Gold is found in what the New Testament does not say. Arguing from the silence of the text, we must assume women’s presence in many scenes (33). In these silences is evidence that “their ministry exceeds that of the apostles” (35). In Acts, “not many women have explicit leadership roles” (37). Yet the author concludes, “We have seen something of the place and role that women have in Acts as disciples of Jesus and leaders in the early church” (72). Admitting “Revelation has little to say about women’s ministry or gender in relation to ministry” (146), she deduces that the book holds forth “symbols of the life-giving way authority can be wielded in female as well as male hands” (149).
The text must submit to things imagined. We must “recognize the contextual nature of Paul’s teaching and . . . question whether it is normative” (122). Local, time-bound issues of the first century limit the text’s authority. But these remain unverified and unproven, only assumed to have existed: “What is clear [regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34-36] is that . . . some level of contextual practice is at stake, a practice that is local and now lost to us” (121). Without evidence she declares “the particularity of the mores assumed in 1 Peter (just as is the case with Ephesians) cannot be binding on future generations” (144).
Finally, in Lee’s conclusions, God’s self-revelation is reworked. This is one of the “real issues” (10) upon which the case for egalitarianism hangs. She designates all male language (Father/Son) in the fourth Gospel as “patriarchal” language and captive to a bygone culture. In her words, “the nomenclature is not about a masculine God . . . but . . . ‘in order to evoke a new world in which intimate, loving relations with God and with one another are possible’” (94). Furthermore, she writes, “The Spirit is presented in maternal metaphors” (94) and “The maternal images . . . imply a trajectory of language and symbol that” hold truth yet unseen (95).
Lee also seems to deny Christ’s eternal sonship, limiting Father/Son language to Jesus’ earthly life (94). And in a peculiar statement, Jesus’ “humanity is dependent solely on his mother” (23). Had the Father and Spirit no part in the formation of the “holy thing” (Luke 1:35, KJV) in Mary’s womb? Was Jesus truly male? Did He merely appear to be male for cultural and contextual reasons?
In the end, God’s sovereignty is downgraded, making Him captive to culture and language. By setting aside large swaths of the New Testament as too situationally specific to be imagined, Lee conceives of the text in terms of unverifiable cultural particulars from the first century. In the end, then, the author leaves us with a holy book that possesses little enduring authority.
The volume declares itself a polemic against complementarianism. As such it sets out, not to build a New Testament theology, but to deconstruct someone else’s. Both its aim and size limit the author. One could wish for less citation of other egalitarian authors and more work in the text of Scripture. In the end the book serves as a diorama of the thought patterns, assumptions, methodologies, hermeneutics, and conclusions drawn by those of an egalitarian persuasion.
John Kitchen (D.Min., M.Div.) is the author of a dozen books, including Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary (Christian Focus Publications, 2006, 2012) and the “for Pastors” New Testament commentary series (Kress Biblical Resources).
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.