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Published Date: July 31, 2020

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Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts

Andrew Bartlett’s Men and Women in Christ is a tremendously helpful contribution to the debate that rages in evangelicalism over the “roles” of women. Bartlett is concerned that the sharp divide between complementarian and egalitarian viewpoints has harmed the unity and witness of the church. He has a degree in theology, but his career has been in the field of law and his specialty has become arbitration. A judge or arbitrator is different from a lawyer. A lawyer represents one side, but an arbitrator seeks to be neutral, listens to both sides, and must go where the evidence leads. Most books are written more like a lawyer defending one side, but Bartlett has stepped back, assessed both sides as neutrally or objectively as possible, and shared his conclusions. That is what makes the book unique.

Bartlett interacts a lot with the writings of Wayne Grudem on the complementarian side and those of Philip Payne on the egalitarian side, since these individuals are prominent representatives of their respective positions. However, Bartlett focuses less on their disagreements with each other and more on whether their proposed interpretations accurately reflect Scripture. He uses what he calls seven tools to properly interpret Scripture: primacy of Scripture over tradition, paying appropriate attention to culture, going back to the source language in context, coherence, a Christ-centered canonical approach, spiritual openness, and practical wisdom (see Appendix 1).

No one should accuse Bartlett of not being thorough. Some key passages (1 Cor. 11, 1 Cor. 14, Eph. 5) receive two chapters or even three (1 Tim. 2). Whereas a lawyer approach would tend to gloss over certain evidence, his arbitrator approach leaves no stone unturned. For example, in ch. 2 he notes: “Despite the prominence of 1 Corinthians 7 as the longest discussion of marriage in the New Testament . . . complementarian analyses have tended to overlook it or downplay it” (29). A deserved criticism! Maybe complementarians tend to do so because “the hammer of 1 Corinthians 7 breaks into pieces the rock of marital hierarchy” (28). Bartlett is not willing to overlook or downplay passages.

Neither should anyone accuse Bartlett of not being clear. He is a careful thinker and writer. The end of every chapter has a succinct, numbered summary of the key points of the chapter. He explains the direction he is headed and his reasoning as he unpacks a passage.

Because of the clear writing and explanations, this book is accessible to the interested lay person, but I think it would be overwhelming to someone new to the debate. I have read exceptional books on this issue (such as titles by Payne, Craig Keener, and Cynthia Westfall) but Bartlett will now be the book I most highly recommend for a combination of reasons, such as its readability, thoroughness—both mentioned above—and also its diplomacy.

Regarding diplomacy, the beginning of the book emphasizes that Bartlett wants to help bridge the divide between complementarians and egalitarians, that both sides must be open to critique, and that he would indeed critique both sides as the book progresses. I believe Bartlett has lived up to this claim of fairness. When he critiques a certain position or interpretation, you cannot accuse him of unfairly doing so. He is not nitpicking, but is demonstrating the validity or significance of his concern about a certain interpretation. Sometimes Bartlett finds problems with both complementarian and egalitarian arguments and provides fresh insight or takes a new approach—in particular with 1 Tim. 2. He also implores both sides to stop certain unfair representations of the other side’s positions or motives, and instead to work to move closer together. Indeed, certain people on both sides can be guilty of polarizing distortions.

Bartlett says that some of his own opinions changed as he researched and wrote this book, as he followed the evidence wherever it led him. In ch. 1, he forecasts that the conclusion of the book “will be that the complementarian and egalitarian positions are each partly correct and partly mistaken” (16). In a general sense this is accurate, as he occasionally points out strengths and weaknesses in the arguments of both sides. However, I would instead describe the book’s conclusions this way: The complementarian position is a little correct and mostly mistaken, and the egalitarian position is mostly correct and a little mistaken.

At this point, I will shift from a general description of the book to specific comments on two topics I found particularly valuable—Priscilla’s authority and the word “helper” (ezer) in Gen. 2:18.

Priscilla’s Authority

A number of books rightly point out that we can overlook Priscilla’s important position in the early church. Bartlett, however, powerfully brought this home for me, particularly in regard to authority. (Some draw a line between authoritative and non-authoritative teaching in the church by women, forbidding them from so-called authoritative teaching.) Here are two excerpts from Bartlett:

With her husband, Priscilla corrected Apollos, a prominent male preacher, and taught him the way of God more accurately . . . (Acts 18:26). Paul commends Priscilla as one of his co-workers (Rom. 16:3–4). Luke considered Priscilla’s correction of Apollos sufficiently important to include it in his short history. Teaching Apollos was no minor task. He was a forceful public exponent of the gospel, with an expansive ministry (Acts 18:24–28). When he moved on to Corinth, his ministry there was more influential with some believers even than Paul’s (1 Cor. 1:12). Calvin admits: “we see that one of the chief teachers of the Church was instructed by a woman.” (207)

The example of Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos is about as authoritative as one may imagine. As we have seen, with her husband, as co-host of the local congregation in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8, 19), she corrects the doctrinal understanding of one of the chief teachers of the church. If authoritative teaching is a special category, Priscilla is doing it. (227)

In a culture where patriarchy was pronounced, Priscilla did not disappear into the shadows behind her husband. To make this personal to our own day, think of a prominent and respected man in your own denomination or circle of Christianity, and now think of a woman teaching him, even correcting him. How would this go? Sadly, I know too many evangelicals who would have a multitude of concerns about this scenario.

Genesis 2:18

Genesis 2:18 refers to Eve as a helper (ezer) to Adam, and unfortunately “helper” has certain connotations in the English language that create misunderstanding. The woman is perceived as the assistant to the man, who is the leader or boss. Yet in Hebrew, ezer does not require this meaning or implication. I love the phrase Bartlett uses for the meaning of ezer: powerful ally! “Powerful ally” comes across rather differently than “helper.” Here is an excerpt from the book:

In English we commonly think of a helper as a subordinate or junior assistant. This connotation is lacking from the Hebrew word ezer, which carries the idea of strength and is here [Gen. 2:18] translated as helper. It refers to a military protector in Isaiah 30:5. . . . It refers to God as strength and help in numerous texts. For example, Deuteronomy 33:26 refers to God riding across the heavens to help, and . . . in Deuteronomy 33:29 God is Israel’s shield and help and glorious sword; in Psalms 121 and 124 Israel’s help comes from the Maker of heaven and earth. In these Scriptures God is depicted as a powerfully ally for needy Israel; in none of them is there any sense of God adopting a subordinate role, such that Israel is God’s leader. The natural reading of Genesis 2 in Hebrew is therefore that woman is made to be man’s powerful ally. There is no implication that she is his junior assistant. (76, bold added)

It would be absurd to think, because God is a helper to Israel, that Israel is the boss of God or that God falls under the authority of Israel! Neither should we make such a conclusion about the male/female relationship.

Some go to great lengths to find gender hierarchy (evidence that the man is the leader) in Gen 1 and 2. But it is not there! It is forced upon the text. Bartlett carefully looks at the arguments some complementarians offer for male headship in Gen 1 and 2. As he does this, he repeats comments such as:

“But this is mere assertion, with no basis in the text.”
“The text does not say this.”
“But this again lacks a basis in the text.”

In order to understand Gen. 1–2 as establishing gender hierarchy, one must begin with the idea that men are leaders and then force it upon the text, seeing what is not there, making false or unprovable assumptions. Bartlett’s hypothetical inversion of this tendency is creative and powerful:

Let us suppose someone were wanting to establish that women are ordained by God to be the leaders of men. They could easily use the same kinds of arguments from implications that complementarians use, proceeding as follows:

  • In Genesis 2 the woman is described as the man’s ezer.
  • Even some complementarian scholars accept that to be an ezer (strength or helper) does not imply subordination. God is Israel’s ezer. The usual implication is that the ezer is more powerful than the needy one who receives the help.
  • We see in the narrative that the woman is made for the man because of his inadequacy and need, that is, he is alone and needs help.
  • Genesis 2 is adding further detail to the order of creation presented in Genesis 1 in which mankind is created last; it presents the woman as formed last of all, the pinnacle of God’s beautiful creation.
  • Therefore it is implied that the woman was originally intended to be the strong leader of the man.
  • This understanding also sheds light on Genesis 3:16; in the Fall, woman misuses her leadership; therefore it is taken away from her and given to the man instead.

But no-one would be convinced. The argument would not persuade anyone who did not have a prior commitment to women’s leadership of men. (83–84, bold added)

In this brilliant and even comical hypothetical trajectory, Bartlett demonstrates how baseless the complementarian arguments are by using their same approach, but adjusted to insert female rule into Gen. 1 and 2.

In the end, Bartlett’s final position is fully egalitarian in the church setting, and partly egalitarian and partly complementarian in the marriage setting.

Some will claim that Bartlett was an egalitarian in disguise and tricked his readers by this so-called arbitrator approach. If you actually read the book, however, I do not see how you could possibly come to that conclusion. My recommendation is that Men and Women in Christ is worth your time and effort.

Editor’s Note: Andrew Bartlett explores five puzzling features of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 in his article for Mutuality, “Was Love the Motive for Women’s Silence in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35? A Lawyer’s Study.”

Andrew Bartlett is a keynote speaker at “Men, Women, and God: Theology and Its Impact,” CBE’s international conference in London, scheduled for August 11–14, 2021. Learn more here.