Beyond Authority and Submission: A Review
Beyond Authority and Submission: A Review
Although I do not know Rachel Green Miller personally and I am not on social media, I have been able to follow some of the debate surrounding her writing for a number of years. In my work for ACE, I have published her articles in the past, and have defended her in various ways both publicly and privately, while also voicing what I hope were fair and constructive criticisms. Miller's recent book, Beyond Authority and Submission, published by our friends at P&R, was endorsed by some close personal friends of mine, people whose expertise and acumen I greatly admire. In addition, several positive endorsements of the book have appeared on ACE sites. All of these things contributed to my interest in reading and reviewing the book for myself, though, because of the constraints of time, this will be less than a full academic review.
Miller's argument in the book involves three key parts. The first is essentially historical. Miller surveys Greco-Roman and Victorian views of women, and also briefly surveys modern feminism. She argues that the Greco-Roman and Victorian view of women has clouded modern conservative biblical interpretation. In her discussion of feminism, she seeks to show that the development of modern feminism is not an unalloyed evil, but rather contains both good and bad elements.
The second part of the book (which she also surveys at the book's outset) attempts to address some of the key biblical texts to give both a big-picture perspective and to respond to teaching on specific passages. Finally, she critically engages with what she considers to be dangerous views found within the church - views which result in heresy, confusion, or abuse.
While some of her historical analysis of the Greco-Roman view on men and women lacks nuance (hinging, at key points, on a tendentious etymological analysis of the word "hysterical"), Miller is correct to remind readers about the ways in which Christian teaching gave greater dignity to the role of wives and women than that which was on offer in the Roman world. In making her case, she relies heavily on substantial summative scholarship. This strengthens her case in some regard - her analysis is based on more than simply stringing together a handful of quotes - but it also does cause her conclusions to rest on the work of a few specific scholars. Nonetheless, the overall contrast that she draws between the Bible and culture of the Roman Empire is worthy of emphasis.
Miller is far less convincing in her analysis of the Victorian era. Here she does not offer enough evidence to sustain her conclusions. For instance, she argues that "The Victorian era is a significant link between the Greco-Roman world and our own." But why? The significance of the link is never stated or substantiated.
When undertaking her actual analysis of the Victorian era, Miller relies on isolated quotations from individuals who, she argues, speak for the whole. But broad historical analysis of the kind in which she is engaging requires more than a few lines from 19th century authors. For instance, she states that "[t]he authors of Victorian literature and magazines took Bible verses out of context to reinforce their beliefs about the nature of women and men and their proper spheres." This is a significant claim. To prove it, Miller cites a passage from Arthur Freeling and a sentence from William A. Alcott. While this is hardly the place to debate the whole of either Freeling or Alcott's writing, it is not clear that Miller accurately represents their teaching in full. But even if she does, this still does not prove her thesis about the Victorian authors in general, nor her broader point about the direct connection between the Greco-Roman world and our own day, refracted through the lens of Victorian England. This kind of sweeping claim about the history of ideas requires more work if it is to be persuasive.
Her summary of the waves of feminism is helpful, though again, it lacks some context. For instance, first-wave feminism is praised because of its advanced views on marriage. Miller writes, "First-wave feminists believed that marriage should be about more than economics or procreation. Marriage should be about partnership, love, friendship, and companionship as well." This may be the case, but it was not unique in that. The Book of Common Prayer said the same thing. Arthur Freeling and William A. Alcott both did as well. (Alcott's book devotes an entire chapter to the subject.) Nevertheless, Miller does provide a helpful guide to the differing emphases found within phases of the feminist movement. She is right to criticize some Christians for imputing to the entire feminist movement only its worst features. This is a healthy corrective in a time when slander and stereotyping are unfortunately common in Christian circles.
Miller's section analyzing the biblical data is similarly mixed. She affirms the absolute authority of scripture, and she helpfully describes some possible interpretations of various biblical passages. She is right to show that the positive examples of men and women in the Bible are more textured than some might assume. Scripture contains examples of women who protect, for instance, as well as examples of men who quietly submit. Because the nature of Miller's argument is defensive - pushing back against what she sees as faulty complementarian exegesis - she is quite selective in her analysis. You would never know, for instance, that for every one Deborah, a female judge who protects and commands, there are more than ten male judges. This selectivity in choosing examples could lead the reader to miss the overarching trends that we see in scripture with respect to male and female roles. It is worth asking the question: When giving positive examples of men and women, which qualities are typically emphasized in the Bible? Miller's analysis seems to give a flattened-out answer to this question. Further, her conclusions regarding certain key passages, while sometimes plausible, do not always reflect the traditional or best interpretation, which leaves her open to the charge of special pleading.
The result of all this is that Miller presents the Bible's teaching in such a way so as to suggest that the significant distinctions between males and females - apart from how the bodies of each are constructed - lie only in the roles they are given within marriage and especially the church. Even with respect to the family, Miller takes passages which hold up the goodness of the wife's special responsibilities and privileges and minimizes their distinctive home-ward orientation. The instruction in Titus 2:4, which points young women toward the end of loving their husbands and children, is placed next to the ideal of 1 Tim 3:4, which states that elders must "manage their households well." Miller's point in this close juxtaposition is to show, "the Scriptures indicate that both women and men should be inclined 'toward the home.'" In one sense, this is true, but it serves to obscure the proportionality of the instruction to each. Additionally, in this case, the fact remains that the word translated, "manage", given with respect to man's home-ward orientation, simply means, "to lead."
At a broader level, throughout the section on scripture, Miller does not engage with any notion of nature itself as it relates to ontology. In fact, she spends much of the book responding to the notion that there are actual ontological differences between men and women (beyond bodily composition). To be fair, she never promised to engage in natural theology in this book; and perhaps she is opposed to doing so. While it is tedious to criticize an author for failing to write the book she never set out to write, the Bible does appeal to nature at certain key junctures with respect to men and women. Scripture cites pre-Fall created realities when answering fundamental questions about the differences between males and females. These created differences are connected directly and explicitly to questions of authority and submission. Since this plays such a central role in Christian teaching on authority and submission, this might be an area where it would be good for Miller to write further and more clearly.
One final concern: Beyond Authority and Submission spends a great deal of time explaining what, in the author's judgement, authority and submission does not entail. This is to be expected given the title. But almost no effort is given to explaining with any clarity what these biblical concepts actually do mean and what they ought to look like in practice. Once again, this is not to suggest that the author deserves to be criticized for writing a different kind of book. Rather it is to suggest that in failing to offer anything like a positive explanation for the biblical notions of authority and submission - the broad understanding of which she has termed Greco-Roman and Victorian - Miller's book fails to deliver on the promise of the project she did undertake. It would seem that getting beyond authority and submission leaves us with little guidance in our present age.
Miller does deserve a great deal of credit for calling out certain gross errors within evangelical complementarian circles. In this area she has done sterling service to the church. Chief among these are the ESS doctrine with respect to the Trinity, and the various instances of abuse and neglect masking as forms of patriarchy. There can also be confusion or unnecessary guilt caused by shallow portrayals of traditional men and women. One gets the sense, in reading Miller's book, that these types of errors are the animating concerns behind what she writes. We should all share her concern, and Miller is to be commended for continuing to press for clearer, more biblical, thinking and action. The problems we face do not appear to be diminishing.
Authority and submission are notable biblical themes and their meaning is obviously contested in our day. Now more than ever we need clarity on the nature and role of men and women, clarity which I am persuaded God has given us in his Word. While I disagree with many of the key contentions of Miller's book, I appreciate her love for the scripture, and her conviction, stated at the outset, that the scriptural teaching on men and women is both beautiful and constructive. Reading her book was a good reminder of the relevance of this topic and the broad reach of its implications - ones which extend beyond what Christians of other eras might ever have imagined.
Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He will will assume the presidency of Greenville Seminary in July of 2020. Dr. Master also serves as the Alliance's editorial director, as well as co-host of the Theology on the Go podcast.
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