Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Reasonable Doubt

T. Scott WOMBLE. Beyond Reasonable Doubt: 95 Theses Which Dispute the Church’s Conviction Against Women. [No City] Xulon Press, 2008.

This review appears in Stone-Campbell Journal 12 [2009]: 142-144 and is reproduced here with permission. Visit Stone-Campbell Journal at

At least for two branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement (the so-called independent” Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Churches of Christ), the role of women in the life of the church continues to be a live and controversial topic. (The wing of the Movement known as the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ] made its peace with the women’s issue long ago.) Among those churches where the issue still looms large, this book takes on special importance as one voice in the current debate. There is no uncertainty where the author stands: “There is no doubt that the church which embraces the ministry of women will be a more complete church which more accurately shows forth the image of God and is also better equipped to fulfill the mission of God” (p. 38).

Womble joins the debate by invoking the imagery of a courtroom. Women have been wrongly convicted in the past and need a new trial. The first section of the book introduces the “parties and facts of the case”: the plaintiffs (complementarians), who restrict leadership roles in the church to men, versus the defendants (egalitarians), who believe that women can and should be ministers and leaders in the church. The author executes his role as defense attorney by taking up the egalitarian cause and presenting ninety-five theses that, in his view, cast reasonable doubt on the church’s prior conviction against women and force a new trial. For Womble, professor of biblical studies at the “independent” Christian Church-related Saint Louis Christian College, this book is a gutsy and admirable move, one certainly not without its risks.

The second section of the book presents the “opening statement,” which lays the theological and hermeneutical foundations for the kind of inclusive ministry the author envisions. Here the ninety-five theses begin, though they function more as subject titles than propositional statements. Of foundational importance is the first: looking at the larger picture that the Bible presents rather than focusing on isolated proof-texts to decide the case. Part of that bigger picture is a relational understanding of the Trinity that posits mutuality in the Godhead rather than hierarchy. Womble is keen here to remove a key foundational plank from the argument of the complementarians by arguing for the temporary (incarnational) rather than eternal (ontological) subordination of the Son to the Father. Rather than establishing gender hierarchy within the created order, God’s trinitarian nature actually sponsors a partnership of mutuality between the sexes who bear the same relational image.

Section three “cross-examines” the complementarian position and exposes a number of its vulnerabilities. The author continues his line of theses by bringing to the surface a number of statements and excuses that ministry-minded women often hear that preclude them from reaching their full potential in the church. The inconsistencies that Womble uncovers (women can “speak,” but not “preach”; women can write Sunday School curriculum but not teach a Sunday School class; women can teach vulnerable children but not self-actualized adult males) offer a glimpse into the mindset of the average church and constitute “the driving force behind the entire book” (p. 97). The author uses this section to address three ecclesiastical functions usually denied to women: ordination, eldership, and the office of pastor. Womble admits the lack of a clear biblical example of female elders but leaves open the possibility that they did exist.

Key texts in the biblical debate about women appear in the fourth section of the book under “presentation of the evidence.” Here Womble tackles the crucial texts in question: Genesis 1-3, Galatians 3:28, 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, along with the related texts Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. His investigation touched on all the key exegetical issues but, overall, was lacking in critical perspective. Womble assumes, for example, that Paul is the author of all the texts bearing his name, though much of mainstream biblical scholarship questions Paul’s authorship of Ephesians and the Pastorals, which changes the nature and scope of the argument in significant ways. Womble also fills in the gaps in the historical record by too easy of an appeal to Acts without taking Luke’s own literary and theological agenda into account. Most important perhaps is Womble’s assumption that the same historical occasion lies behind all three of the Pastoral letters, which aids his case considerably in dealing with the troubling 1 Timothy 2 text.

“Additional evidence” supporting the author’s biblical case appears in the fifth section of the book. Womble divides this section into two—one dealing with women of the Old Testament and other with women of the New Testament. The latter is clearly more relevant to the author’s case as he surveys a number of significant examples of women who exercised notable ministries in the early church, including Priscilla, Phoebe, and the interesting case of Junia, “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7).

The author reserves his “closing statements,” the sixth section of the book, for a look at Jesus’ treatment of women, lamenting “how often our Lord is left out of this debate” (p. 305). Even a passage like the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), not often at play in the complementarian-egalitarian courtroom drama, assumes particular importance here since the discipling activities of baptizing and teaching are clearly not restricted to men! The verdict? Women should be released into ministry.

This book will achieve its best result in the specific context in which it was written—the conservative evangelical wing of the church. Churches struggling with the role of women in their midst will find in this book a thorough, well-documented, challenge to some longstanding beliefs and practices. The subject matter, of course, could prove controversial, but the author evinces a winsome hermeneutical humility throughout that greatly minimizes the risk. The inconsistencies that Womble exposes are sure to generate lively Sunday School class discussion, such as when the author asks: “How many times have elders and deacons mulled over issues for hours in a meeting, only to go home and consult their wives who have a better handle on some areas of church life?” (p. 327).

At the end of the trial, however, both complementarians and egalitarians fall prey to the same legal strategy—assuming a unanimity in Scripture without sufficiently appreciating its diversity. That both sides can garner scriptural arguments for their respective positions is telling. Is it possible, for example, that a later author of the Pauline school modifies Paul’s earlier egalitarian teaching about women to address a new socio-cultural situation? How we deal with such diversity is an invitation to do theology and to render a verdict that is just and compassionate to all.

Review by David Lertis Matson, Ph.D.

Dr. David Lertis Matson is Professor of Biblical Studies at Hope International University.

The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.

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