Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church and Society by Rachel Green Miller. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019. 273 pages, paperback. $17.99 [Reviewed by Brenda Hoekstra, wife and mother in Hudsonville (Michigan) PRC ].

Rachel Green Miller has done her research!

A phenomenon surfaced around 1980 known then in more fundamentalist Christian groups as “Christian Patriarchy,” “Quiverfull Movement,” and “submissive lifestyle.” As it moved into more mainstream conservative churches, it acquired the more palatable name of “complementarianism,” which also varies by degrees as to how it is executed in daily life. These teachings were, after all, an answer to what women’s liberation had pushed into the churches regarding an unbiblical equality of men and women in the church. This form of equality was leading to women officebearers and their ordination to the ministry. Anything that answered that seemed to be a good idea. Complementarianism got increasingly promoted and organized in part by the work of interdenominational groups such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which proselytizes evangelical churches to adopt their doctrines on gender, promoting them as conservative and biblical. This theology of submission and headship has garnered the support of the second largest denomination in the U.S., the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention. It was also behind the parachurch Promise Keepers movement.

The trouble with such reactionary theology is that it usually ends up causing the pendulum to swing too far the other way. Formerly a simple lifestyle choice, now it has become a belief system that redefines the message of the Bible concerning salvation for men and women. The framework for this new theology is built on a paper written by Susan Foh in 1974, and furthered by the Danvers Statement published by the CBMW in 1988. Susan Foh took a novel approach and interpreted the woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16 to be a desire to usurp or control her husband. Foh is quoted by Miller: “These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes…. The woman’s desire is…to usurp his divinely appointed headship, and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination” (p. 113). Note that the implication of Foh’s interpretation is that it is God’s own words that brings this radical change away from His original design. Foh’s interpretation has become the default position in many complementarian resources, including the ESV Bible, which, to further establish the idea, now has different wording in Genesis 3:16 than the KJV. Many from the CBMW consider these roles to be part of who men and women are, and were from the beginning, and some believe that it will still apply in the new world to come. Because of this thinking, authority and submission gets applied to all aspects of life, even where it should not.

The CBMW and its teachings have also become the grassroots power behind the political arm of reconstructionism. For a more in-depth look into the life of full-blown headship and submission theology, an interesting read is Quiverfull by Kathrine Joyce. This is an objective look at that movement from the inside. As I read Joyce’s book, I was left wondering why such a supposedly ‘correct and biblical’ answer could have failed so completely even to address abuse in marriage and the home. Why did it not at least stem the rise of abuse? Why did it not push abuse to near extinction? Instead, most of its brightest and best fell publicly by the very things it supposedly does not have: cheating and abuse.

Then I read Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church and Society by Rachel Green Miller. Rachel very adeptly sorts through and correctly separates what is actually biblical and what is not. Rachel identifies and correctly answers the error made by Foh; and, where it is perpetuated by many authors after her. Based on H. Hoeksema’s brief treatment of God’s judgment on Eve, and Calvin’s explanation of the word desire in Genesis 3 and 4, I find Miller is right and Foh is very wrong. Having come from an era when this ‘headship/submission in all spheres’ theology did not exist, I have always been wary about it, it seemed foreign. In fact, it is extra-biblical.

The error built by the CBMW has been expanded on, and grown into various degrees of Christian Patriarchy and complementarianism; it was expressed in the lifestyle of the popular Duggar Family program with its extra-biblical idea of the “umbrellas of protection.” The theology is intertwined with an ever-growing number of books on the subject, especially of the marriage-help genre, the girlhood/womanhood genre, but also of the inspirational fiction, love-story genre. Some of these books on marriage and girlhood/womanhood have found their way even into PRC study groups. It finds acceptance in Calvinistic circles since it is built around conservative teachings. This is ironic, since Calvin taught the equality of women as humans and coheirs of the kingdom, taught doctrine to women as well as men, and even worked toward a development for some diaconal work by women.

We, as Reformed people should reevaluate these teachings and be willing to step back from them. These teachings are leading women and men away from Jesus Christ. For women, Christ is our only Mediator and spiritual covering, not our husbands; and mothers are not the ‘covering’ for their children; that is not ‘the covenant.’ The outworking of the Christian life for believers cannot be narrowed to mere observing or filling of roles supposedly prescribed by the Bible. Symbolism, such as purity rings for teen daughters, cannot define obedience to Christ and does not do the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching. The only reliable symbols God gave us are the two sacraments.

Marriage was instituted in Paradise where Adam and Eve were already holy, so marriage may not be viewed strictly as a means of sanctification. It is time to see submission for what it really is according to Scripture and not simply as a form of permission to be sought by the ‘weaker’ gender. ‘Womanly submission’ is certainly not a prescription for spiritual passivity in sanctification, much less a passivity of faith. It is also time to stop seeing women as ‘the problem’ in a misguided reaction to feminism, remembering that believing women are freed in Christ from curses and judgments just as much as the men are. It is time to stop short-changing ourselves as women by purposefully choosing not to learn doctrine, believing that doctrine is for the men. It is certainly time to stop lending our hand to the reconstructionist efforts by embracing these ideas.

This new theology of headship and submission has caused much difficulty in how to counsel and teach submission and headship in marriages where spiritual immaturity is present, and especially where abuse is also present; the ‘roles’ idea simply does not fit or help. To avoid such troubles in our churches, Miller’s book would help in re-examining what the Bible really teaches about authority and submission in marriage, church, and society.

Godly women embrace what Christ has given them: the office of believer and all the responsibilities that go with that. We should remember that we are daughters of King Jesus, even if our men forget. Sometimes the wife might well be the spiritually stronger one, respectfully and lovingly encouraging her husband in his headship. The teachings held as biblical manhood and womanhood are erroneous interpretations of the Bible as viewed through the lens of culture. Instead, we are to judge our cultural ideas through the lens of Scripture.

I believe that for the most part we in the PRC are properly defining headship and submission. But even as parents, we must be careful in our presentation of what submission and authority are within the context of Christianity as a whole. Spouses learning doctrine together strengthens marriages so much more than living out some roles. Living according to dictated roles is the lazy way out, a ‘cop-out’ of our spiritual responsibility and calling to do the hard work of living out of our faith, of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and of the hard work of applying the preaching to our own life every day. We need to remember to be Christians first.

I highly recommend this book for pastors, elders, and parents who want to rescue our sons and daughters and fortify them against an age of troubled marriages, divorce, and abuse. As Rachel states,

Authority and submission are important aspects of our relationships, but they shouldn’t be the lens through which we view all of life. There is so much more to who we are and how we should relate to each other. By moving beyond an exclusive focus on authority and submission, we can incorporate the biblical themes of unity, interdependence, and service into our teachings on how women and men should live and work together as co-laborers in marriage, church, and society.