Book Review: Beyond Authority and Submission
We live in a world of extremes. Everything from theological and political views to chicken sandwiches has an “us vs. them” dynamic, and that plays out in the church, as well. As our secular culture reaps the whirlwind of postmodern sexual ethics and gender politics, it is a temptation to play into this already polarized world by reacting into an opposing error rather than by staying the path of faithfulness. Rachel Miller's inaugural book Beyond Authority and Submission guides conservative Christians down that narrow, biblical way by examining both ditches of error, and re-directing our focus to the center line of truth.
Rachel has been a conservative reformed voice online both through her blog, formerly titled “Daughter of the Reformation” and through her long time contributions to the Aquila Report. Anyone familiar with her work in those two places will be unsurprised at the careful research and solid theology underpinning this larger work. Also in keeping with Rachel's past work, there is a lot of information presented. Two introductory chapters define the primary lens of misinterpretation that exist within modern conservative Christendom regarding men and women and how they are to relate to one another. This is followed by four chapters examining the history of current patriarchal and complementarian thought, along with all three waves of feminism. Finally, Miller explores how these contemporary and cultural ideas are being taught in modern conservative churches while answering them with historic orthodoxy.
Rachel's primary thesis is laid out in the title of the book and fleshed out in the first two chapters. Should Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, and 1 Peter 3:5 be the entire shape of our understanding of how the two sexes should interact in all things? As the daughter of a PCA minister, and a member of an OPC church, Rachel Miller affirms the scriptural imperative that women submit to their own husbands. She also argues repeatedly that the role of minister and elder is only to be held by qualified men. In asking us to move beyond submission Miller isn’t setting aside the clear teaching of scripture. Instead, she is calling us to see those teachings as part of a much larger framework, rather than the frame upon which our entire theology is built. Rachel reminds us that biblically, men and women are more alike than different. She reminds us that most commands in scripture are to all of us, and that both men and women are primarily called to glorify and enjoy God through unity in Christ, and in the church.
In her study of history, Rachel makes two primary points. First, she amply proves that much of what is being sold as “biblical womanhood” is actually Greco-Roman pagan culture. Secondly, she illustrates that the New Testament church was at odds with its Roman culture—not in agreement with it. These two points are the hinge upon which the rest of the chapters turn. If Christians within Roman culture were not upholding their cultural views of the roles of women within society then later Christian cultures trying to revive Greco-Roman cultural ideals were not biblical in doing so. Coming from that historical understanding, Miller’s histories of complementarianism and the three waves of feminism look not only to the issues contemporary to them, but the greater pagan influences often overlooked in similar discussion. Despite the more volatile subject matter, they are presented in a respectful and moderated tone, and reflect her commitment to presenting truth over personal soapbox.
It is in the final section of the book that Rachel draws us most clearly toward that center path of truth.She addresses the specific errors being currently taught in conservative Christian circles, and answers them with sound, historically orthodox biblical teaching. A quick perusal of her impressive footnotes reveals quotes from The Westminster Larger Catechism, both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic confession, John Calvin, John Owen, Matthew Henry and other great fathers. It could be said, and I mean this as the highest compliment, that Rachel brings nothing new to the discussion. Instead, she answers what is new by reminding us of the old truth.
There are a lot of debates and discussions happening within confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches centered on gender and sexuality. In some cases, the confessions to which these churches hold are being questioned, re-defined, or even ignored. Beyond Authority and Submission does not entertain or create such a controversy. As Christians venture into the gender and sexuality anarchy our culture threatens, we have to avoid the ditches of reaction. We need more sober, balanced, truth rooted books like Rachel Miller's to help us navigate, and to keep us from backing into one error as we flee from a different one.