The essays in this volume were some of the papers presented at the 2005 Wheaton Theology Conference. The goal, according to the editors, “is to present new paradigms and fresh perspectives for evangelicals on an issue that often is prematurely settled with reference to well-entrenched, set-piece arguments” (p. 9). The authors and editors do not intend this collection of essays to be the final word on this subject, “but it is, we hope, a valuable counterpart to other works that take a more monolithic and predictable approach to this question” (ibid.). Although several of the essays are quite predictable, the book achieves its goal.
Several factors contribute to the value of this book. First, it adopts an interdisciplinary approach. The contributors include systematic and historical theologians, biblical scholars and exegetes, as well as a pastor and a psychologist. Women voices are well represented. Of the thirteen essays, six were written by women, including at least one in each of the five major divisions of the book.
The tone of the essays achieves the goal described by the editors. “Under the banner of Christ, we set out to listen to one another and to treat one another and to speak of one another with respect in a spirit of kindness, graciousness and love” (p. 12). It is refreshing to read essays that engage controversial topics with this respectful and gracious tone.
Several essays are particularly insightful and helpful, and it is likely not coincidental that these three are found in the final section of the book, “Beyond the Impasse: Toward New Paradigms.” It is here that this book makes its major contribution. In “Women, Ministry and the Gospel: Hints for a New Paradigm,” Henri Blocher brings an outsider’s perspective to the conversation. “As an onlooker from abroad,” Blocher observes that the paradigms of egalitarianism and complementarianism have “led American evangelicals into a deadlock” (p. 239). After expressing disapproval of “the way many so-called egalitarians handle biblical texts,” Blocher says that the term “complementarian” tends “to obscure and slightly to distort the nonsymmetrical model I find in Scripture” (p. 240; he notes that the terms “egalitarianism” and “gender” also are worthy of criticism). Blocher concludes, “The emphasis in the biblical text is not on complementarity but on similarity and commonality: man and woman are both created in God’s image” (p. 242). But Blocher does not mean this as a defense of egalitarianism, which he also criticizes. Rather he is pointing out the inadequacy of the standard categories.
Similarly Sarah Sumner, in “Forging a Middle Way between Complementarians and Egalitarians,” calls on these two groups of conservative evangelicals to strengthen relationships, reframe the debate, distinguish between divine and human choices, and work together as a team. “I believe it pleases God when Christian scholars come together for the purpose of strengthening our relationships and collectively attempting to discover the truth in dialogue and debate” (p. 256). Perhaps she is right when she concludes, “Too few working relationships have been forged between the complementarians and egalitarians. Too few venues for building trust between the two groups have been set up. There is simply not enough interdependence between those who invite and those who prohibit women from exercising ecclesial authority. Thus I am suggesting that together we make efforts to change that” (p. 258).
The final essay, by Timothy George, is worth the price of the book. It should be required reading for every evangelical leader, no matter which position one holds on this issue. In “Egalitarians and Complementarians Together? A Modest Proposal,” this senior evangelical scholar and churchman appeals to an even more senior evangelical statesman, who proposed a model for handling theological disagreement. George draws on Roger Nicole’s essay “Polemical Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us” (available at http://www.founders.org/FJ33/article3.html; accessed December 30, 2007) to provide support for his “modest proposal.” “Perhaps,” George writes, “the time is right for egalitarians and complementarians to come together, to work together, to stand together, precisely for the reasons stated clearly by both groups in their advocacy literatures—to further the cause of Christ and to advance the gospel of life in a culture increasingly marked by violence, decay and death” (p. 282). Nine specific and practical suggestions provide a good starting point for such an approach.
This book is highly recommended for a model of how to engage in theological dialogue. Beginners to the debate will find the essays informative and helpful. Experts will find some of the chapters more helpful than others. But all evangelicals who are concerned about the pursuit of truth and are committed to learning how to speak the truth in love will be aided by this book.
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