Gender Roles and the People of God

Rethinking What We Were Taught about Men and Women in the Church

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Alice Matthews
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , May
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $19.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310529392.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How should men and women interact? This question is at the heart of contemporary debates not only among Christians, but within broader American culture. The contemporary #metoo movement demonstrates that ideas about men’s and women’s roles have real consequences in the workplace as in the church. In her book Gender Roles and the People of God, Dr. Alice Mathews challenges the hierarchical gender constructs taught by many evangelical churches, presenting biblical, theological, and historical arguments for egalitarianism.

As expected from a Zondervan author who serves as professor emerita at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Mathews writes from an evangelical perspective, stating on the book’s first page that “God’s Word was and remains the first and last word beyond which I could not step” (11). Arguments about correctly interpreting the Bible make up the majority of her book. Mathews’s opening chapter compares the hermeneutics of nineteenth-century Christian defenses of slavery with contemporary complementarian theologies, though without acknowledging that some Christians would extend this critique to support same-sex relationships. She also concludes that proponents of hierarchical gender roles are “complicit in the devil’s warfare against God” (237), an idea with which some mainline scholars would be uncomfortable.

Mathews’s writing is clearly directed toward an evangelical audience—and against such complementarian evangelical leaders as John Piper and Wayne Grudem. She frequently counters arguments from Piper and Grudem’s book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway, 2012), which she calls “the ongoing magnum opus” of complementarianism (220). Though Mathews is not presenting groundbreaking insights in support of egalitarianism, her book clearly and accessibly outlines evangelical arguments for gender equality. It provides a helpful overview of egalitarian ideas that would be useful for individual study, small groups, book clubs, and undergraduate or graduate courses. Questions “for personal reflection or group discussion” at the end of each chapter enhance the book and its potential for engagement.

The first two sections of Gender Roles and the People of God analyze biblical texts related to women, asserting that “errors in biblical interpretation have led to support for gender-based hierarchy in both the church and at home” (159). Part 1 provides an overview of noteworthy women in the Bible, including discussions of their roles in patriarchal societies and of Hebrew and Greek words related to the ministries of women. Part 2 focuses on debated New Testament texts and theologies related to women’s roles. Mathews fairly critiques the contemporary controversy over the eternal subordination of the Son, acknowledging that “this is a current debate among complementarians, and many do not hold to this position” (95). In her writing, Mathews aptly summarizes and at times augments arguments from scholars such as Lynn Cohick, Philip Payne, and especially Gilbert Bilezikian.

Part 3 of Gender Roles and the People of God incorporates material from authors such as Barbara MacHaffie and Karen Jo Torjesen to present “historical realities that still challenge women” (159). At times Mathews oversimplifies the historical narrative to make her desired point, claiming, for example, that the medieval church was “almost completely politicized” (171), or that the 1950s in North America “replayed the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres” (214). Mathews’s attempts to describe the intellectual history of gender have mixed success. She discusses male church leaders but misses the opportunity to highlight key women from Christian history. Students will likely find more helpful writing on this topic elsewhere.

Mathews comments that at the book’s writing, she is 86 years old (234) and has compiled “several decades” of lecture notes into this volume (11). It is remarkable to read the cogent reflections of a seasoned scholar who has guided generations of women and men in the classroom. However, at times Mathews’s ideas rely on outdated scholarship. For example, The Story of Civilization, narrated in 1953 differs from contemporary historiographical understandings (188); a source about women and the family written in 1980 needs updating (212); and even Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology has been revised since its 1983 edition (134). More evenly incorporating current scholarship would strengthen the book’s argument.

Overall, Gender Roles and the People of God provides a useful overview of the evangelical case for egalitarianism. Mathews is to be commended for presenting biblical and theological material to non-scholars in an understandable and informative way. As an evangelical introduction to egalitarianism and a challenge to complementarianism, the book serves its purpose.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melody Maxwell is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alice Mathews is the Lois W. Bennett Distinguished Professor Emerita and former academic dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The author of several books, including Preaching that Speaks to Women and Marriage Made in Eden, she was co-host for many years of the national radio program Discover the Wordand also served until recently as academic dean of Christian University GlobalNet.

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