Review: Rachel Miller’s ‘Beyond Authority and Submission’

In her new book, ‘Beyond Authority and Submission,’ Rachel Green Miller evaluates the Complementarian doctrine of men and women through the lenses of both history and Scripture.

I highly recommend that you add this book to your home library. It is faithful to historic Reformed teaching on Scripture while simultaneously clearing away so much false teaching that entangles the issue which prevents Christians from getting a straight answer. Misrepresenting the gospel is a gospel issue, and this book is a helpful guide in avoiding Complementarian misrepresentations.

 

Overview: Rachel Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission

In her new book, Beyond Authority and Submission, Rachel Green Miller evaluates the Complementarian doctrine of men and women through the lenses of both history and Scripture. Her motivation for writing this book comes from the general discussion on human sexuality, gender identity, masculinity and femininity, and what social norms we should advocate as Christians. She lists four broad categories that attempt to address these topics. They are Feminism, Egalitarianism, Complementarianism, and Patriarchy. These categories are typically conceptualized on a spectrum.

Miller is writing primarily to a conservative Reformed Christian audience, and she holds certain basic beliefs about men and women that, on the surface, appear Complementarian.

  • God made man: male and female in the image of God
  • In Christ, male and female are equal before God
  • Husbands are called to sacrificial, servant leadership of their wives, loving them as Christ loves the church
  • Wives are called to voluntary submission to their husbands, submitting to them as the church submits to Christ
  • Ordination is restricted to qualified men in the church
  • Marriage is between one man and one woman, ideally for life
  • Men and women need each other and depend on each other

In practice, it seems, that conservative Christians use the term “complementarian” as a catch-all for holding to these basic beliefs. But Complementarianism is an ideology that goes beyond these basic beliefs. As a result, Miller rejects Complementarian doctrine since it goes beyond by claiming: 

  • women were created to be submissive, responsive, soft
  • men were created to be leaders, providers, strong
  • men are supposed to be priests for their families
  • women are supposed to be at home and not in the workforce
  • divorce is wrong even when there is biblical justification for it
  • the eternal subordination of the Son, especially as it is applied to men and women
  • all women are rebellious feminists at heart and men must put down that rebellion (based on an erroneous interpretation of Genesis 3:16)

Miller explains this in the introduction to her book, and you can read about these distinctions in her article, The Definition of Complementarianism.

Since many self-described complementarians may (and do) object to how Miller defines Complementarianism, it’s important to be absolutely clear: Miller derives her definition of Complementarianism directly from the architects of the doctrine, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mary Kassian, Dorthy Patterson, and other vocal advocates including Douglas Wilson. She cites her sources clearly in her article (linked above) and in the book.

Miller is one of a growing number of women and men in Reformed circles questioning and objecting to the teachings of Complementarianism. At the same time, however, there also appears to be a growing interest in so-called “Biblical patriarchy” in Reformed circles. Both Complementarianism and “Biblical patriarchy” are reactionary teachings to Feminism and its influence on Christian orthodoxy.

Miller’s concern is that forming doctrine in reaction to the culture, rather than simply holding to explicit Scriptural truths, is giving way to some harmful syncretism between true doctrine and unbiblical and extrabiblical ideas. She invites equally concerned readers to suspend judgement on their own self-labeling in order to allow an honest reevaluation of what it is that the Word of God says about men and women.

In what follows, I present a synopsis of Miller’s book and then offer some of my own commentary at the end.

PART 1: A LENS FOR OUR RELATIONSHIPS

Part 1 of the book serves as a starting point for defining ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ from Scripture.

“Authority and submission aren’t bad things in themselves. What bothers us, rightly, are the ways they have been abused. It’s crucial that we separate out misuses of authority and submission from the biblical picture of godly authority and appropriate submission. How do we do that?” (pg.22)

Miller explains how God is the source of all authority and submission and that Christ is our model for both. And she points out that only God’s authority is unlimited, but whatever authority human beings have, is limited. 

“… because we are created beings, our authority must be limited … [this] is essential for us to grasp. Submission—voluntarily yielding to the authority of another—isn’t feminine or masculine; it’s characteristic of our human nature. Each of us has authority in some relationships and owes submission in others.” (pg. 23)

Rachel Miller also uses the Westminster Larger Catechism on the 5th commandment to discuss the various ways we can relate to one another in authority and submission. She then illustrates what this looks like between husbands and wives, parents and children, in the church, and then in society. She states,“The nature of each relationship determines who should lead and who should submit,” (pg 32) and that it’s not on the basis of gender.

According to Miller, while authority and submission are important elements in human relationships, they aren’t the most important. By hyper-emphasizing authority and submission as the basis for human relationships, we miss the broader theme of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Men and women are both created to be co-laborers, called to work in unity, interdependence, and service in diverse ways. While these have been frustrated because of sin and the curse in the fall, there is a fundamental restoration through Christ’s Spirit in the life of redeemed people.

Part 1 prepares the reader for Part 2, where she “peels back” the historical-cultural layers influencing the “traditional” view of men and women.

PART 2: WOMEN AND MEN IN HISTORY

Women and Men in Greco-Roman Society & the link to the Victorian Era

Part 2 may be the most eye-opening. Here, Miller provides the historical backdrop, not just for how Complementarianism came to be, but the origins of many commonly held “traditional” ideas about men and women. Miller is quick to point out the difference between what is biblical and what is traditional, noting that what is traditional is not necessarily biblical.

If Part 1 serves to illustrate what God created man and woman to be, then Part 2 shows the overlap of the Fall; a distortion of the nature of men and women through the eyes of Greco-Roman pagans and Victorian idealists. This distortion leads to the manifest frustration the Fall brings on relationships, as modern feminist movements bring to the surface a myriad of problems women have faced in society which reaches into every corner of the culture.

“[In ancient Greco-Roman society], the family was “the basic unit of social organization and moral authority” and was central to the well-being of the state. The Roman government attempted, at times, to recover “family values.” Since family was the foundation of society, and since marriage and children were necessary for the continuation of the state, the government made laws to encourage marriage and childbearing. However, these laws were considered an intrusion of the public sphere into the private sphere of the family and were hard to enforce. (pg. 53)

Sound familiar? Miller spends an entire chapter illustrating for us the life of a Greco-Roman pagan woman. From education and work, to religious life, to politics (and denial) of the rights of women. By contrast, Miller also explains the effect Christianity had on this culture. The way Jesus treated women, and what Paul taught on women1, was comparatively radical. “Women were treated with greater respect and honor because of Christian teachings. Christian women also had more freedom than pagan Greek and Roman women.” (pg. 59)

These Greco-Roman ideas had a lasting effect on humanity for centuries even up through the Protestant Reformation. The Enlightenment period and the American Experiment opened the door for a twist on these ancient conceptions of men and women with the Victorian Era.

The influence of ancient Greece and Rome appeared everywhere—in artwork, literature, mythology, philosophy, and even medicine. Old, pagan themes about women, men, and gender resurfaced … Victorians combined the Greco-Roman philosophy of the Renaissance, the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, and the evolutionary science of Darwinism. All of this they added to existing Christian religious and moral beliefs. (pg 62-63) The Victorian era is a significant link between ancient Greece and Rome and our society today … After the Victorian era, ancient Greek and Roman beliefs about women and men were taught as if they were biblical. (pg 65)

First and Second Wave Feminism and the Conservative Christian Response

We now have the historical context for the Women’s Rights Movement and the subsequent formation of Feminism. Miller cites Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman often referred to as the “mother of feminism” because she wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.2 Miller further points out that first-wave feminists were responding directly to the treatment of women in Victorian culture which included not just the denial of women’s rights, but added a double-standard of morality to women. (This would later become the basis for modern day “purity culture”).

There’s a great deal of history that Miller sorts through here, but the most shocking is learning how the Sexual Revolution not only hijacked the Women’s Rights Movement to form modern day Feminism, but that this aspect of the movement was led by men.

“Larry Lader, founder of … the National Abortion Rights Action League … convinced Betty Friedan to add abortion as a platform of the National Organization for Women. ‘That’s right. The 1960s’ women’s movement was hijacked largely due to the tireless efforts of one man, whose greatest passion was to make abortion legal.’ You may think it’s odd that men would be so interested in abortion. But abortion freed men more than it ever helped women. Men led the legal push for abortion because it allowed them to have sex with fewer responsibilities.” (pg. 94)3

But it’s particularly in response to Second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution that Complementarianism took shape.4 Complementarianism was first articulated in the Danvers Statement, soon to become a sort of test of “orthodoxy” among many conservative Evangelicals, with the establishment of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) in 1987.

From this point forward in the book, Miller carefully examines Complementarian doctrine in light of God’s design for men, women, and our relationships. She presents the prevailing Complementarian teaching on the nature of women, and their activity in marriage, church, and society. Miller continues the pattern of measuring the prevailing teaching against Scripture while continually peeling back layers of extra-biblical ideas, to reveal a genuine Biblical idea beneath.

  1. Probably the toughest thing for us to grasp, is reading Paul through the lens of Christ and not through the lens of Greco-Roman and/or Victorian ideals. Our tendency is to do the former.
  2. She also wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man.
  3. This is important to distinguish, because often times the Christian derision of “women’s rights” is that it’s all about abortion, sexual liberation, and irresponsibility in relationships. But this is NOT what first and second wave feminists were seeking. There was indeed a split, and some feminist embraced the ideas of the sexual revolution, but it was never the driving force of early efforts to recognize the rights of women.
  4. “CBMW has been in operation since 1987, when a meeting in Dallas, Texas, brought together a number of evangelical leaders and scholars, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Wayne House, Dorothy Patterson, James Borland, Susan Foh, and Ken Sarles. These figures were concerned by the spread of unbiblical teaching. Under Piper’s leadership, the group drafted a statement outlining what would become the definitive theological articulation of “complementarianism,” the biblically derived view that men and women are complementary, possessing equal dignity and worth as the image of God, and called to different roles that each glorify him.”  https://cbmw.org/about/history/ 

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