Is the Bible Good for Women? (book review & personal recommendation)

When I was pregnant with my daughter, sometime in that second half when we already knew she was a girl, we heard a culmination of flippant, derogatory comments about women from a church community. The teaching wasn’t just “unpopular” or politically incorrect while remaining faithful to God’s word – it was wrong. It painful and embarrassing to hear: that girls should be raised to have “wife and mother” as their sole vocational aim; that a woman who earns money is a shame to her husband; that a wife should only read books pre-approved by her pastor or husband; that it is not appropriate to leave an abusive marriage. (Every single one of these things takes marriage for granted, subversively shaming single women as well.) Beyond the turmoil it caused us to hear those things, my pregnancy made this rhetoric stand up in a new sense. I sighed to Aaron that I was afraid about how hard church might be for our baby when she grew up. As time went on (in other churches, obviously, and not that one), this was a concern I didn’t quickly shake.

We’re Christians and we’re raising our kids in a definitively Christian home. They may or may not become Christians themselves, but there is none of this “feel your own way to your spirit leader when you’re old enough to want something religious” business happening here. Part of this means that some of our values aren’t going to reflect culture, and there will be things we hope to instill in our kids that will seem weird or offensive to others. As a Christian, I read the Bible that esteems women in cultures that demean them, inherently values them as God’s image-bearers instead of as child-bearers, and establishes churches and families to most fully celebrate the God-given dignity of each person. But brokenness is pervasive, and navigating theologically conservative churches as a, um, “woman with thoughts” has been harder than it should be. Though we’re in a wonderful church now, no one can deny how much harm poor theology can inflict on women and families. Some teachers I have known and loved otherwise become pharisaical and legalistic on this topic, placing restrictive guidelines for women that mimic affluent white families in 1950’s America more than any family the Bible talked about. 

In this I felt a heavy burden: conflict between what I saw in the Bible and how that could be twisted into derogative rhetoric wasn’t just a personal issue now. It was a maternal one, too. It’s one thing to set some of my own cognitive dissonance aside, but it’s another to assume my child could be quick to do the same.  Could I expect her to trust me when I teach her God’s word is good but then quickly excuse some of the inappropriate teaching we’ve heard? How would I talk her through some of these hateful or dismissive comments in a way that wouldn’t shake her understanding of a Savior who repeatedly demonstrated his personal love for and engagement with women, even to the shock of religious leaders around him? What was I going to tell her about the straightforward stuff that I still find hard to swallow sometimes?

And beyond this, how on earth would I deal with the really nasty stuff in there? You know, that the Hall-of-Faith father-of-nations Abraham and the man-after-God’s-own-heart King David start looking like sexual predators when you read their stories as an adult? Or the horrendous story of the concubine ripped in twelve pieces from the book of Judges? (And maybe the fact that concubines are even a thing? Hello, King Solomon. I mean, the Old Testament stories are really not lining up with ANY talks I heard at youth group about Christian sexual ethics.)

These are all good questions, and they are things any pastor or scholar should expect a thoughtful Christian to confront. I want to take my bible study seriously, and I generally find the teachings on the liberal end of the theological spectrum seem to be more serious about various agendas than about the scripture or about God Himself, which I cannot share. (This is not to say that my friends who align there are flippant about their faith.) But even though we give lip service to “being good Bereans” and wrestling with scripture ourselves, my more conservative evangelical circles tend to consider these questions more antagonistic than anything else. This is not how it should be. (And as we settle in to a new church, I’m glad to see it is not always this way!) In this turmoil, I found myself extremely grateful for the wise work from Wendy Alsup, “Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture.”

is the bible good for max

see? even Max likes it.

 

 This book isn’t specifically about parenting, but if I’m honest, I can’t even say it was primarily about women, either. It’s about Jesus and how God’s plan for salvation is evident on every page of Scripture. Alsup shows how turning just to those “feminine” passages in the Bible (the ones that show up if you search “women” in a concordance) perpetuates a disjointed and hurtful view of the human race. Reducing problems so often to “gender role differences” damages men and women alike, though it usually hits women more immediately. Upholding the Bible as the greatest commentary on itself, she tackles the hard questions about faith and femininity using the lens of Christ to understand God’s goodness to women.

“Is the Bible Good for Women?” is not just written to theologians and church leaders, it’s for skeptics, too. The answers aren’t always easy. She says, for instance, that the highest levels of church leadership are still reserved for men and my progressive friends probably wouldn’t change their minds here. I sensed in a few spots that my renewed parenting-induced panic meant I was the skeptic she wrote for, but I suspect this book would not make them immediately want to punch someone. I have loved enough people on both “sides” of Christian gender discussions to recognize this is a significant accomplishment. From the initial charge to read the Bible as commentary on itself through to the fascinating concluding analysis of the apostle Peter’s character development as a study in leadership and maturity, Wendy Alsup demonstrates a firm faithfulness to God’s good word and humility in these difficult topics. This is a gracious entry into a deeply divided discussion, and I hope to see further conversations on this topic continue in the Christ-oriented and compassionate direction she leads with this book. 

There’s a fascinating relationship between math and formal logic, and the author’s formal training in mathematics education is evident in the systematic flow of argument and the careful presentation of facts. But it’s still personal, and the discussion often touches deep nerves. From Dinah’s rape (Genesis 34) and the Levite’s dismembered concubine (Judges 19), she shows God’s faithfulness to avenge those who abuse women. From the Law’s description of capital punishment for adultery (Deuteronomy 22), she points to the perfect fulfillment Jesus made to protect women where the Law was insufficient (particularly in John 8). From confusing and seemingly oppressive passages in the New Testament epistles, she demonstrates God’s extravagant goodness, too. Where women are forbidden to teach (1 Timothy 2), we see God equipping all women with gifts for the good of all people. Where Paul discusses head covering (1 Corinthians 11), we see God’s disgust for slavery and sexual oppression. Where wives are commanded to be subject to their husbands (Ephesians 5), we see more of the God who laid down his life and all earthly power for the sake of his bride, the Church. All this exalts the God who created all humans bearing his image, called us “good” then, and has given us his Word and Himself only for our good ever since then.


This book was a blessing to me and I expect it would be encouraging to most other readers! If I haven’t exactly convinced you to read this yet, you can also read an excerpt published in Christianity Today, listen to the  Mortification of Spin podcast with Wendy here , or consider this shorter review from the Gospel Coalition. And then you can buy it for yourself!

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