Book review: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry

womenBourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry.  By Michael F. Bird.  Zondervan, 2012. $4.22 (On Kindle here).

Michael Bird often splits the pack with much of his theology.  In this readable and brief book Bird claims to do the same by seeking to find a middle ground between the often polarised perspectives of women in ministry.  This book is suitable for lay people who are seeking to understand how one might defensibly hold a somewhat egalitarian position.  However, this book is also useful for pastors and ministers that have assumed a position without thinking through the other side’s point of view.

The thesis of the book is that Paul not only endorsed women teaching in churches, but ‘Paul specifically encouraged it!’  In other words, Paul’s clear use of women in teaching roles must be integrated into any Pauline perspective of women in ministry.

After laying out his own journey from a complimentarian view towards a more egalitarian view Bird defines the terms and the spectrum on which they are found. This is a concise and helpful summary of the main players and their perspective of the debate.

In chapter 2, Bird presents the complimentarian reader with a conundrum, which is that Paul used a woman to deliver, read and expound his theological masterpiece – Romans – to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2).  This cameo by Phoebe is the ground-breaker that Bird uses to open the door to engage the idea that perhaps women can play a more substantial teaching role than complimentarians might suggest.

Bird then engages with the primary Pauline texts in this debate.  In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Bird argues that Paul is not creating a hierarchy, but rather couplets, in which the head is honored.  Because Paul is not articulating a hierarchy (God at the top and women at the bottom), Bird contends that this passage cannot be used to limit the role that women might play in ministry.  On the contrary, women and men alike are permitted and able to engage in the same ministries by maintaining their God-given gender identity according to the cultural norms and by ministering according to their gifts in an orderly fashion.

Regarding I Corinthians 14:33-36 the issue of the interpolation stands out.  Even though this might solve Bird’s issue, he simply but effectively plays away the notion that the difficult verses of 33b-35 are an inserted interpolation by calling upon textual and internal evidence.  He treats the difficult verses in another way.  By drawing upon the reason behind Paul’s instruction for women on how to carry themselves in public worship, Bird mounts his case.  Women must honor their husband in their public use of speech.  Bird states: ‘It is the type of speaking and not the possibility of wives speaking that Paul prohibits.’

The third text that Bird deals with is Ephesians 5:21-24.  Whereas this passage is often called upon to explicate the submission of women to their husbands, Bird calls the readers’ attention to verse 21, which calls for mutual submission.  He defends this notion of mutual submission by referring to other passages like 1 Corinthians 7:4 and 11:11.  Bird also draws upon some anecdotal evidence to show how submission to the head of the house often meant submitting to a woman.  If the church was lead by the head of the house (i.e. Chloe in 1 Corinthians 1, 7 and 11) then it is no surprise to learn that there were sanctioned woman leaders in the early churches.

Before Bird moves on to Galatians 3:26-29, he makes note of Paul’s female co-workers who had teaching roles in the church, where he returns to more fully deal with Phoebe’s role in the delivery of Romans to the church in Rome.  When Bird turns his attention to Galatians, he argues that this passage is primarily dealing with soteriology.  What determines if one is in Christ or not?  Not race, gender or societal position.  But while this text has soteriological emphasis, Bird claims it also has ecclesiological implications.  If men and women are one in Christ then gender cannot be the quality that dictates ministry roles.

Finally, Bird looks at the 1 Timothy 2:11-15 text that at first glance is a knockout blow to the egalitarian cause.  Bird begins his defence by looking at the perspective that God’s created order was the driving argument in this text, instead of one that was culturally confined.  This appeal to creation, however, is not in line with 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and the command for women to cover their heads on the grounds of the created order.  The command in this instance is obviously culturally driven and therefore not universally applicable, and so Bird argues that an appeal to the creation principle does not necessarily imply a universal application.

Bird’s second defence is somewhat logical.  He says that a decision to restrict women from teaching should be consistent at all levels and all contexts, both religious and secular.  If this is a divine principle embedded in creation then it should translate to all spheres of existence.  In the end, Bird denies that the driving argument in this text is one that appeals to creation, but rather is one that is embedded in the cultural issues of the time.  Women may not teach men if they are teaching false doctrine with a view to gain superiority over men as was the custom in Ephesus at the time.

This book argues against a simple reading of the relevant texts.  Bird’s persistent calling for consistency with regard to the use of the created order to defend a complimentarian perspective is convincing, as is his call for consistency in implementing this divine order.  While these arguments dent the complimentarian view, Bird’s own argument is weakened by the speculative nature of having to depend on cultural reconstructions.  While he aims at a middle ground between the egalitarian and the complimentarian perspectives, Bird does not demonstrate why the lead pastor, bishop or other such figure should be male, even though this is his preference.  If one was to take his arguments at face value one might well have to argue for equal opportunity in these roles too.


5 comments on “Book review: Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry

  1. Adrian Fry says:

    Reviewing Dickson’s book soon?

  2. Hi Adrian,
    Yep, I’m reading it now. They are both fascinating books and they courageously buck a certain trend.
    Happy New Year mate:)

  3. […] Dan Patterson at Otherness […]

  4. John Thomson says:

    ‘In chapter 2, Bird presents the complimentarian reader with a conundrum, which is that Paul used a woman to deliver, read and expound his theological masterpiece – Romans – to the church in Rome (Romans 16:1-2). ‘

    NT Wright produces the same argument believing apparently it is strongly persuasive. I confess to being somewhat dumbfounded. Surely intelligent men do not find Phoebe a slam dunk. It is an argument shot through with reading into the text. We are not actually told that Phoebe carried the letter. There is no suggestion that she read the letter and no suggestion that she expounded the letter. All this is assumption. Yet we are encouraged to suppose that such assumptions create a strong case for women preaching.

    My problem is, if such reasoning persuades then what hope has the opposing case of dissuading. I am disappointed in M Bird here. Your summary of his other arguments suggests they are scarcely convincing either (and not so fresh).

    I believe I am genuinely open to persuasion; I have no compellingly innate desire to debar women from public preaching that blinds me to seeing the egalitarian case, it would in fact make life much easier if I did. Yet, however willing I may be, I come up against the stubborn texts of Scripture that Mike Bird tackles and I find his and other attempts to read them in a way different from the traditional interpretation extremely weak, even desperate. I wish it were not so.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment and sensitive tone.

      I’m not sure that Bird intends the Phoebe incident to be a ‘slam-dunk’ but rather a strong possibility that triggers a certain line of questioning, and a potential answer to the very questions being posed. Furthermore, I don’t think Bird’s thesis is solely reliant on the validity of the Phoebe argument. So even if you take out Phoebe from his argument there is still much to be dealt with. While the intended audience is the layperson, the content is not lightweight.

      I really appreciated Bird’s emphasis that an appeal to creation in 2 Timothy 2:12 when compared to 1 Corinthians 11 does not necessarily imply a universal application. Of course this does not mean that the divine creation principle cannot be the driving notion behind Paul’s argument in 2 Timothy, and that there is indeed an intended universal principle, but this identification does, however, at least slow one down from drawing a hasty conclusion based upon it.

      So I wouldn’t call his arguments weak or desperate. I think he has tried to engage with the historical groundings of the original contexts. As I said in my book review, I think that whenever anyone appeals to the historical context in any great way they necessarily (and unfortunately) open themselves up to being labeled as speculative, and thus liable to be charged with avoiding the ‘plain reading’ of the text, which may or may not be warranted.

      Let me know if you think I’ve missed the mark on this one.



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