Two New Books (April, 2023) on Men and Women

One book advocates a soft complementarian reading of Scripture and the other an egalitarian reading of Scripture. The general editor of the former is Renèe Webb Sproles. It is entitled Male & Female: A Biblical Look at Gender (published by The author of the other is Philip B. Payne. It is entitled The Bible vs. Biblical Womanhood: How God’s Word Consistently Affirms Gender Equality (published by Zondervan). Sproles is the Director of Cultural Engagement for Payne is Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary Northwest.

Male & Female is more comprehensive in purpose than Payne’s book. Sproles had previously written a compact book entitled On Gender. The new book expands that brief work, though it is not dependent on it or intended as an update or revision of it. With this book, Sproles edits an anthology that addresses questions of gender identity, cultural movements (like LGBTQ+), and transgenderism as well as the common questions related to the husband/wife in the home and male/female in the church. As the general editor, Sproles authors several chapters but is most often in dialogue with others. Her editorship manages the contributions of a dozen or so people. It is a multi-author work, but focused on the importance of gender identity, gender differences, and gender roles within the biblical story. This cannot, Sproles writes, be left to the “category of opinion” because “[w]hat Scripture says about creation, sin, and salvation point to very important secondary truths that were once taken for granted” (p. 17).

In essence, as I read it, the book is an exposition and defense of the Renew Network’s “formal statement on gender” which seeks a path between  “ineffective traditionalism” and “culturally dominated progressivism” (p. 26). Renew’s statement on gender is provided twice in the book, once at the beginning (p. 27) and once at the end (p. 339). This inclusio confirms the book’s main interest to defend, explain, and elaborate Renew’s self-styled “soft complementarian” position.

We believe both men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered ways, the nature and character of God in the world. In marriage, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, yet there are gender-specific expressions: husbands model themselves in relationship with their wives after Jesus’s sacrificial love for the church; and wives model themselves in relationship with their husbands after the church’s willingness to follow Jesus. In the church, men and women serve as partners in the use of their gifts in ministry, while seeking to uphold New Testament norms, which teach that the lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church and the elder/overseer role are for qualified men. The vision of the Bible is an equal partnership of men and women in creation, in marriage, in salvation, in the gifts of the Spirit and in the mission of the church but exercised in ways that honor gender as described in the Bible.

Payne focuses on the differences between evangelical complementarianism and evangelical egalitarianism as he walks through the various biblical texts as an exegete and theological interpreter. Payne, who has authored numerous books, academic journal articles, and blogs on this topic, offers this book as an exegetical journey for a general audience. He intends to “explain how the text of Scripture itself affirms gender equality” (p. xiv). This book, he says, “simplifies [his] 511-page book on this topic, Man and Woman, One in Christ (p. xv).

Payne finds these three ultimate emphases in the biblical story (p. xiii):

  • the Holy Spirit gifts all believers for ministry
  • the oneness of the body of Christ (the church) and the priesthood of all believers
  • the humility, service, and mutual submission required of all believers

Male & Female

Sproles’ Male & Female expands a series of blog posts Renew published in 2021. You can see a list of those posts that interacted with my own book as well as my responses to each blog at this page. You can see all of Renew’s blogs “On Gender and the Bible” here. My blog responses contain my critique of Renew’s soft complementarianism. I will not repeat those points here; interested readers can read the blogs for themselves. The original blog posts often interacted with my book Women Serving God.However, this published edition of the blogs, while sometimes explicitly interacting with my book, do not focus there. Rather, the essays seek to make a case for their understanding through an exposition of Scripture without sustained explicit dialogue with an interlocutor or opposing viewpoints.

The one exception to the above characterization is the book’s chapter on 1 Timothy 2:8-15. The book, like the blog, is heavily focused on my own work on 1 Timothy 2 in Women Serving God. I was disappointed to discover the book essentially reproduced the original blog without directly interacting with my response to Renew’s blog (for an hour-long oral presentation of my view of 1 Timothy 2:8-15, click here), though the book expands the blog in some respects (more is said on 1 Timothy 2:15, for example). The book repeats the same mischaracterizations and misdirections that I corrected in my blog, and it does not acknowledge the many points of agreement between Renew and myself about this text which I emphasized in my blog. Readers can judge for themselves without me repeating the points here. I would direct readers to a couple other blogs on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 that would more fully explain my critique of soft complementarian interpretations of that text, raise questions about its difficulty (including its complicated nature), and specifically 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

I will, however, offer two examples of the sort of mishandling of what I wrote by the Renew blog and reproduced in this book. For example, Dr. Richard Oster suggests if the problematic women in Ephesus were idolaters, Paul would have spoken to them like he does idolaters in his Corinthian letters. He also thinks I have depicted them rather harshly as “the most sinister, evil women in the Ephesian church” (p. 135). Paul would not, Rick says, “be so kind to the women in 1 Timothy who . . . are participants in idolatry, sexual immorality, and (pagan) mythology” (p. 129). In response, Paul is talking to Timothy and it is unnecessary to use the rhetoric in Corinthians to make his point as a persuasive technique. But, more importantly, Paul tells us that “some [of these women] have already strayed after Satan” (1 Timothy 5:15). That sounds pretty serious to me.

Another example is the claim that I make “much of [the Artemis] cult in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:8-15” (p. 127). Actually, I only suggest an Artemis background as a possible historical reconstruction. I do not depend on it. My understanding is that Paul is dealing with deceived women, but I don’t know what the exact background to that deception is. It could have something to do with Artemis in terms of their dress, habits, and function in the worship of Artemis. I don’t know. For example, I write (p. 177) that “These women, deceived by false teachers, needed to learn and submit to the gospel rather than promote pagan myths and practices learned from the Artemis temple, Greco-Roman cults, and/or proto-Gnostic teachers.” I’m non-commital to the backdrop or historical reconstruction (I offer three suggestions in the italics above) because we simply can’t know what that is. But we do know some women were deceived as they are imitating Eve who was deceived. Though the book (and blog) quote a paragraph from my book as evidence of my Artemis projection, the previous paragraph had other suggestions, and the paragraph quoted simply uses Artemis as an example. It does not claim this is the fact. Perhaps I did not communicate that very well, but that was my intent based on the research of Hoag (you can see something of his claims here). Moreover, the assessment that 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a universal, timeless rule does not depend on which historical reconstruction is the correct one. Rather, the letter itself provides the evidence of false teaching, women captured by such teaching, and women promoting such teaching by words and actions.

Those are only two examples. If you read my blog response to Renew’s original blog, you will see other examples and my responses.

Male & Female includes those original blogs (or a version of them) with the addition of some other essays (a total of 16 chapters) with a concluding summary by Sproles and Bobby Harrington (essentially the last blog in the series at on “Gender and the Bible”). The additional essays are devoted to the cultural environment and issues surrounding gender identity and sexual morality. Some first appeared in some form on Renew’s blog.

The structure of the book places the discussion of complementarianism and egalitarianism in the framework of the culture war over gender identity and sexual morality. This sets up the appearance (perhaps the claim?) that a move toward egalitarianism regarding marriage and the church is a move toward (perhaps even logical entailment?) the embrace of cultural movements like LGBTQ+ and transgenderism.

While I think it is important and valuable to talk about those movements, I don’t think they are at the heart of the disagreement between complementarianism and egalitarianism. Nor is the hermeneutic the same among those committed to biblical theology. Consequently, that mix functions more like a red herring in relation to the complementarian-egalitarian discussion. It is mixing oranges and apples.

Male & Female affirms a form of gender essentialism where the differences between male and female entail different roles or functions in the home and church. I understand why gender identity is part of the point in this book on the topic of male and female and why it is important to address those questions. It intends to be comprehensive in terms of a theology of gender. Those topics need to be addressed, and it makes sense that the comprehensiveness intended by this book would address them. It appears to me that Renew is suggesting egalitarianism leads to the embrace of transgender ideology because egalitarianism represents a departure from and a breakdown of biblical gender differentiation. However, I don’t see the deep connection between those questions and the evangelical discussion between complementarians and egalitarians.

After reading the book, I am concerned that the kind of gender essentialism advocated in this book is problematic and has unintended consequences. It so strongly speaks of male authority, men taking on the function/role of Jesus, and women submitting to men like the church submits to Jesus that it is ultimately a hard complementarianism that allows women to speak in some spaces (including the assembly) as long as they are bounded by the male authority structure of lead teacher/preacher or elder/overseer. The “soft” dimension depends on where one draws the line for women speaking or not speaking, teaching or not teaching, what gifts they can use and where they can use them.

This version of complementarianism has the same problem all complementarians face (whether “hard or soft”). Where does one draw the line of authority as a boundary in terms of the practice of the church and home? Having grown up in congregations that practiced a hard complementarianism, we still had those debates (may a women teach an adult Bible class, may a women teach baptized twelve year old males, may girls pick up attendance cards, etc.). As the book notes, not all Renew Network churches have the same understanding of where that line lies. Some permit a women to preach in the gathered assembly while others reject this and only allow women in the “pulpit” for special topics or expertise as long as they are interviewed or accompanied by the lead minister or an elder (p. 141). Male authority in Male & Female must bound or give permission for the exercise of gifts by women in the assembly. And then some gifts (like teaching) are not permitted in the assembly at all, especially what moderns call “preaching.”

I do, however, appreciate the strong emphasis on transcending traditional practices that exclude women as well as the emphasis on mutual submission in marriage (even though the man is the authority figure in the relationship). I appreciate the call for husbands to be like Jesus and love their wives the way Jesus loved the church. I appreciate the call for a Jesus-like servant leadership. There is much to honor in this regard from the authors in Male & Female. Nevertheless, the sense that men are Jesus in their homes, and women are the followers of their husband’s authority creates, it seems to me, a problematic application of Ephesians 5 that lays the groundwork (unintended, to be sure) for abusive authoritarianism in marriage (and the church by extension).


If you have read Payne’s major work Man and Woman, One in Christ, there are only a few surprises in this new, popular version of his academic work. One significant development is the chapter where he argues that Titus 2:1-8 addresses church elders, including women. The word presbytidas in Titus 3:2 is the word used to forbid the appointment of women officers (female elders) at the Council of Laodicea in 363-364 C.E. Canon 11 says, “Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the Church.” I think this is a helpful chapter.

While I am not convinced by his advocacy that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation by an ancient scribe who moved a marginal notation into the text at an early period, he does offer some interesting evidence in a couple of appendices. They are worth consideration and should not be ignored. He also continues his advocacy of hair as the covering in 1 Corinthians rather than some kind of external covering. He may be right, though I am unconvinced. Nevertheless, the context he offers is important: hair—whether up or down, covered or uncovered—was a strong emotive cultural fixture in the Greco-Roman world. Uncovered hair or let-down hair signaled sexual availability (thus, married women were covered) or at least was broadly understood in that way. I think 1 Corinthians 11 and the covering (whatever it is) is about sexual propriety rather than male authority.

Payne concludes with “ten biblical principles that entail gender equality”:

  • male and female are equally created in God’s image
  • male and female equally received the creation mandate and blessing
  • redeemed men and women are equally “in Christ”
  • church leadership as service
  • mutual submission in the church and home
  • the oneness of the body of Christ
  • the priesthood of all believers
  • the Spirit gifts all believers
  • liberty in Christ
  • in Christ, male and female are equal

I recommend Payne’s work, with a few caveats, as a good popular presentation of his academic work. It deserves a careful reading as coming from an accomplished scholar who has written about this topic for decades and has engaged his critics at every turn.

My sympathies lie with Payne, though I have never called myself an egalitarian. Yet, fairness—at least in my context—demands that I read both. And I have.

Two books. Tolle Lege! Caveat Lector!

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