Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts
By Andrew Bartlett
Published by Inter-Varsity Press, London, in 2019, 464 pages.
Unlike many other books on the topic of men and women in Christ, this new book was not written by a biblical scholar or by a pastor, but by a barrister, a QC in fact. Andrew Bartlett, the author of Men and Women in Christ, works as a judge and international arbitrator. And he has brought his practiced impartiality to evangelical discussions on the “roles” of men and women in Christian marriage and in the church.
Andrew is not a biblical scholar—though he does have a BA in theology—but he has read widely, very widely. He has an excellent understanding of the arguments put forward by complementarians and egalitarians, including the finer details such as Greek keywords.
There were very few things I disagreed within his book. I especially loved the discussions on Genesis 1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Unlike Andrew, however, I don’t believe that when the apostle Paul directed his instructions in Ephesians 5:25ff to husbands, he meant that Christian wives had a lesser responsibility to love their husbands sacrificially (cf. Eph. 5:1-2). Rather, I suspect that Paul wrote Ephesians 5:25ff because he recognised that some first-century men would benefit from extra information and extra motivation to help them to love their wives in helpful ways. There are a few other things in Ephesians 5 that I see differently to Andrew. [Marg’s articles on Ephesians 5 are here.]
Still, Andrew has written an important book. It’s an excellent resource because it thoroughly covers complementarian and egalitarian interpretations, and it does so in a dispassionate and peaceful manner. His book is accessible to novices and useful to scholars, and I recommend it.
I am delighted that Andrew has written the following guest post specially to tell my readers and visitors about his book.
Looking for Fresh Light on Men and Women
A guest post by Andrew Bartlett
What does the Bible really teach about men and women? Among Christians who want to follow the Bible, there’s still a lot of disagreement about this.
I’ve tried to make a contribution to the ongoing discussion by writing a book which closely examines the debated texts. It seems to have stirred the pot. It’s already in its first reprint and has received both some warm commendations and some negative feedback from each side.
I’ve been a Christian believer for many years and have studied theology at first degree level. But my professional working life has been spent in the law. You may wonder how someone who is neither an academic theologian nor a pastor came to write such a book.
First, I need to explain that over the last few decades I’ve had two very different jobs in legal disputes. When acting as a barrister or advocate, my job has been to argue for one side, to try to secure a pre-selected result – obviously, the result that favours my client. But when acting at home as a judge or around the world as an international arbitrator, my job has been to be impartial, to listen carefully and dispassionately, and to go wherever the evidence and reasoned arguments lead, without any preconceptions about which side ought to win.
Most books on the complementarian/egalitarian debate take the first approach. The author knows the desired answer at the start and advances reasons which are designed to lead to that answer. Someone new to my church asked me for recommendations for things to read on each side of the debate. Her reaction to what I sent her was: “But they are so partisan – isn’t there something more balanced which I could read?” So I decided to have a go at writing something which would help her, and others like her. As I am not in church leadership, or in a seminary with a particular ethos, I was not committed to supporting a particular viewpoint. I was free to try to be impartial and see where I ended up.
I found it a fascinating voyage of discovery. From previous knowledge of the debate, I thought I might arrive at a fully egalitarian position on marriage. As regards women’s ministry, I thought I might find reasonably strong and finely balanced arguments on both sides, meaning that any conclusion on that issue could only be tentative. It turned out that I was wrong on both points.
I can’t identify myself as an egalitarian in this debate, because I found Paul in Ephesians 5 using one-way-only images (head/body, Christ/church) to call husbands to a special responsibility of loving self-sacrifice for their wives. And I can’t identify myself as a complementarian, because I didn’t find any convincing reason for interpreting 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2-3 as a general ban on women’s leadership in churches. (Aren’t the usual labels rather unhelpful, anyway? Most complementarians hold that women and men are equal. Most egalitarians hold that women and men are complementary.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
A big practical theme in my book is the importance of context when trying to understand the Bible. This means paying attention to the full words, to the historical situation, and to the culture, which was different from our own culture.
In theory, everyone agrees that attention to context is vital for understanding what someone has written. In practice, it is not so easy. The people who wrote the Bible are not on hand to offer corrections. This is different from my experience in legal disputes, where I get to interact with the people who wrote the letters that are being interpreted, and who therefore correct my misunderstandings. Time after time this provides sobering lessons in seeing how radically the context can affect the meaning of what is written, and also how important it is to attend to the exact words. My involvement in international arbitration has also impressed on me the importance of understanding the culture of the person who is writing, and the pitfalls of interpreting correspondence from a cultural viewpoint which is different from the writer’s.
MAKING SENSE OF THE EXACT WORDS
For an example of the importance of paying attention to the exact words, consider Ephesians 5:23-24. In the KJV we have: ‘ the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.  Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.’
But this translation is radically different from what Paul actually wrote. In Paul’s text, v 24 starts with ‘But’ (Greek, alla). ‘Therefore’ (in KJV) introduces something that evidently follows. ‘But’ (in Paul) introduces something that does not evidently follow.
In the England of 1611, in Christian society, the exact words didn’t seem to make sense. Husbands were authority figures. It seemed natural to understand ‘head’ in v 23 as meaning the person in authority. If the husband was in authority, it was logical that his wife should be subject to him. To make sense, v 24 had to be introduced with ‘Therefore’.
But Paul meant what he wrote. The reason why v 24 does not evidently follow from v 23 is that Paul is not thinking here of Christ being head in the sense of ‘Lord’. For Paul there are two aspects to Christ being head: he is Lord over all (Ephesians 1:22) and he is the Saviour of his ‘body’, the church, which means that he is its source of life and growth (Ephesians 4:15-16). Paul actually tells us in v 23 that it is the second aspect that he has in mind, and this is confirmed in 5:25-28, where husbands are told to give themselves up for their wives. It is only the idea of saviourhood which Paul uses in 5:23 to describe a husband’s responsibility towards his wife. [My articles on Ephesians 5 are here.]
So, in v 23 the husband should be to the wife like a saviour, not a lord, but, nonetheless, in v 24 Paul instructs the wife to submit to him. This is an application of the mutual submission of believers to one another which Paul urges in Ephesians 5:21 and elsewhere. Understood in this way, Paul’s use of ‘But’ makes perfect sense. (See chapters 3-4 of my book.)
THE INFLUENCE OF CULTURE ON INTERPRETATION
When I started writing, I was vaguely aware of the influence of culture on past English translations of the Bible. But I was surprised to find how many doubtful translations still remain uncorrected, even in quite recent versions.
1 Timothy 5 provides a vivid example. In the church in Ephesus there was a problem of misbehaving women, about which Paul gives some instructions. The ESV of 1 Timothy 5:13 says: ‘they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not’. This translation follows a long tradition in English versions, produced in a cultural context where the double description ‘gossips and busybodies’ was a classic denigration of women.
But what about the cultural context in first-century Ephesus? In Paul’s text the words used for the women are phluaros and periergos. The translation ‘gossips’ for phluaros lacks any sound basis. There is not even one clear instance in surviving ancient Greek literature where phluaros means ‘gossips’ or ‘gossipy’. It normally refers to talking nonsense. And what about periergos? The only other use of this word in the New Testament is in Acts 19:19, again in relation to Ephesus, where some of those who practised periergos brought their expensive books of magic and superstitions to be burned. It refers to the practice of magic arts (sorcery). So, the problem of the misbehaving women was not that they were gossips and busybodies, but that they were talkers of nonsense and magicians, saying what they should not, including their magical incantations. This helps to shed light on what Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul has in view certain women whose conduct must be restricted. (See chapters 11-13 of my book.)
Perhaps the passage where cultural differences have made English translators struggle the most is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. In most English versions this passage is a jumble of thoughts about head coverings and hair, with obscure and impenetrable reasoning. But when we look closely at the words, and read them in their historical and cultural context, we find that Paul is presenting a coherent, logical and consistent argument. (See chapters 7-8 of my book).
Sometimes people extend the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture beyond its proper sphere, which makes them worry about using cultural knowledge to interpret the Bible. But there is really no way of avoiding this. The question is: which cultural knowledge are we using? Our own culture, or the cultures of the writer and of the original readers?
Mike Edsall wrote: ‘I was discussing this issue with a young scholar who was interpreting the scripture in light of cultural assumptions surrounding the Corinthian church. I chided him for importing a lot of culture into this understanding of the passage. His response was, “And so are you. At least I have the right century.“’
(If you are in the UK, you may like to know that the author will be speaking at Moorlands College on 14 March 2020. See the College website, here, for details.)
Commendations of “Men and Women in Christ”
“This is a superb, cogent, precisely written and enjoyable book. Whether you consider yourself egalitarian or complementarian, this book will challenge, provoke and deepen your understanding of Scripture.”
Paul Woodbridge, former Tutor in New Testament at Oak Hill College, London, Secretary of the Tyndale Fellowship.
“If, like me, you thought there was very little new to say on this topic, here’s a book to make us think again. If, like me, you’ve become somewhat jaded by the sterile trading of arguments back and forth between the two main sides, here’s a book which invites both parties to reassess where they stand, and why. If, like me, you thought you’d pretty much settled your views on the main biblical passages, here’s a book to remind us that the Lord always has ‘fresh light to break forth’ from his word. As befitting a scholar and writer who is concerned for unity in our witness to the good news of Jesus, Andrew Bartlett’s treatment of this most crucial of issues is elegant, clear, winsome, and gracious. Even where I disagree with him, I’m profoundly grateful for the challenge to look more closely at the Scriptures. I’d encourage you to do the same. Read it. Read it with an open Bible. Read it with others. Read it with a Berean-like curiosity to see if these things are so.”
Antony Billington, Theology Advisor, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and Senior Pastor, Beacon Church, Ashton-in-Makerfield, UK.
“In this remarkable book, Bartlett begins where any scholar and thinker should begin: in humility. He wisely stresses the biblical importance of unity amongst believers. He then follows the path of sound biblical exegesis, appropriate attention to the existing literature, and a fresh non-biased perspective to arrive at sound conclusions with strong supporting evidence. The summaries and guiding questions at the end of each chapter make the text accessible to the average reader, as well as a great resource for group or academic discussion.”
The Rt Revd Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, Bishop of the Episcopal / Anglican Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
“Many dedicated and talented Christian women look for creative and honest ways to follow their calling in a way that is consistent with the teaching of the Bible. This can be a painful and confusing struggle. Some go to work in secular fields because they feel they are not welcome to use their gifts in the church. This book is analytical, dialogical and honest. It helps spiritually gifted women to find their place. But the issues which it addresses are not important only for individual women. They have to do with the presence of God’s kingdom, missional effectiveness, and – last but not least – godly attitudes among all believers.”
Dr Einike Pilli, Principal, Tartu Theological Seminary, Estonia.
“I predict this will become THE textbook used in colleges and seminaries that want to discuss women in ministry afresh. He provides both sides, cuts through nonsense, and works his way to reasonable, sound conclusions.”
Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA.