Film and Book Reviews

Liberating impulse of the gospel comes to the fore in lucid critique of complementarianism

BookWhat the Bible Actually Teaches on Women, by Kevin Giles (Cascade Books, 2018)

By Dorothy Lee

February 6 2020 

This book by Kevin Giles is a biblically based and systematically argued exposure of the theological inadequacies of the so-called “complementarian” position on male headship in the home and the Christian community. In particular, the author singles out as representative of this view the 2014 volume by Andreas J. and Margaret E. Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey, which argues in an uncompromising way for the submission of wives in marriage and women in the church.

Dr Giles argues his position from his perspective as an Anglican priest in the evangelical tradition, a well-published New Testament scholar, a theologian who has long endorsed the Cappadocian view of the equality of Persons within the Trinity and a happily married man in a fully egalitarian relationship with his wife. He allows these perspectives to intermingle in his writing, although his emphasis throughout in the book is on Scripture.

The first three chapters deal directly with complementarianism in its modern guise, outlining its basic presuppositions and the subsequent crisis among evangelicals because of their divergent readings of Scripture on gender issues. Giles’ view, though sharing a similarly high view of Scripture as the complementarians, sees egalitarianism as grounded in the biblical vision of gender relations.

The rise of complementarianism represents a move away from an older view of women’s inferiority to men and is focussed on differences of “roles” between men and women, as supposedly ordained by God. Giles points out that the word “role” is used in this discourse in an inflexible and unbiblical way that obscures the real agenda, which is the refusal of those with power (men) to surrender it in order to empower others (women): “The complementarian use of the word ‘role’ is a disingenuous and deliberately obfuscating way of saying men and women are differentiated on the basis that men rule, women obey.” (p. 119).

Giles’ biblical position is carefully argued. Beginning with creation, he demonstrates that the subordination of women to men is a direct consequence of the Fall and not part of God’s intrinsic design for women and men; the story “is descriptive of life in a fallen world; not prescriptive” (p. 65). It is, in other words, a manifestation of sin and thus displeasing to God. This view stands in stark contrast to that of the Köstenbergers, who explicitly condone and sacralise the patriarchal rule of men over women.

Turning to the New Testament, Giles articulates the remarkable attitude of Jesus towards women, as attested to in the Gospels. Jesus had women as disciples, including Mary Magdalene as “the apostle of the apostles”, treating them as equal to men, and never regarding men as having special privileges within marriage. Again and again, Giles reminds the reader that leadership, according to Jesus himself, is about humility and costly, self-giving service, not about domination and subjection.

From Jesus to Paul is but a small step for Giles: he sees Paul following Jesus on gender as on all other questions. Far from being a misogynist, Paul was “revolutionary in his teaching and practice” (p. 64) in relation to women and their ministry. In the list of 10 women named in Romans chapter 16, Paul demonstrates that he has no problems working alongside women in leadership for the sake of the gospel. He names and commends women who are house church leaders, deacons, patrons of churches, apostles and missionaries.

In discussing Paul, Giles also addresses some of the problem texts from the Pauline corpus, arguing, for example, that the Greek word kephalê in 1 Corinthians 11:16 means “source” rather than “head”, and showing that women possess a God-given authority to prophecy and preach in the Christian assembly. In the light of the contradiction between this text and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-34, which seeks to silence women’s voice in the assembly, Giles accepts the view that these verses are a later interpolation that do not belong within Paul’s argument.

Discussing another problematical text, 1 Timothy 2:12, Giles argues that the difficult Greek verb, authentein, refers to usurped rather than divinely-sanctioned authority. What is being criticised here is the behaviour of certain women in the community, in a context of heretical ideas, attempting to dominate men with their [false] teaching. This does not reflect a denial of women’s capacity to lead and teach, which is affirmed elsewhere in the Pauline writings.

One of the best sections of the book is the extended discussion of Ephesians 5:21-33 (pp. 154-168). Appealing to the social context of the biblical world in which “husbands had rights, privileges, and freedoms denied to wives” (p. 156), Giles argues that this passage reflects in one sense its ancient context where women were poorly educated, entirely dependent on the men of their families and fitted for life within the home; thus lacking in the training needed for leadership. Egalitarian marriage is inconceivable in such a context.

At the same time, Giles argues that the same text provides the resources for undermining patriarchal marriage, particularly in confirming mutual submission at the beginning of the passage (verse 21) and challenging Greco-Roman understandings of power. Here the aim of the text is to “ask the husband, the leader, to become a servant to his wife” (p. 158). This does not, for Giles, authorise male leadership in the home, but it does reflect an attitude that ultimately leads towards an egalitarian perspective on marriage in which submission is mutual and headship can be seen as unnecessary and irrelevant.

A useful parallel is drawn between women’s submission and the endorsement of slavery. Giles points out that there were evangelicals who supported slavery in the 19th Century (as well as female subordination) and evangelicals who vigorously opposed slavery and worked hard to overcome it. The same was true of apartheid in South Africa, where some Christians argued for it on biblical grounds (mainly quoting odd verses) while others vehemently opposed it as being inimical to the core message of the gospel itself.

Finally, Giles underscores the truly appalling figures around the abuse of women across the contemporary world. From the abortion of female foetuses to female genital mutilation, the enforcement of marriage on young girls, the frequent and widespread occurrences of rape and violence against women in the home, including among Christians, Giles argues that complementarianism, while not responsible for these social ills, creates an environment in which abuse can thrive. In his conclusion, Giles assures his readers that complementarianism – which, for him, is full of “euphemistic and obfuscating language” (p. 179) – remains a minority Christian view, even among evangelicals, and confirms that “women’s liberation is good news for men and women”. (p. 230).

This book is written with lucidity and reason by someone who knows and loves the Bible, and who believes in the liberating impulse of the gospel, as grounded in the teaching and example of Jesus himself. It is a pleasure to read such coherent and cogent prose, and to perceive the power of biblical teaching when it is rightly understood and clearly expounded. We owe Kevin Giles a great debt of gratitude for this eloquent book and its exposure of the theological anomalies and incongruities of complementarianism.

The Revd Professor Dorothy A. Lee FAHA is Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity