Book Review: Equality is Biblical

I should note at the outset that this book is published by SPCK, for whom I work for IVP. Hopefully that doesn’t cloud my reading or reviewing. I’ll let you be the judge of that!

Equality is Biblical Pen Wilcock

I’d been intrigued to get my hands on a copy of this little book since I first heard about it. Mostly, this was because the title ‘Equality is biblical’ is a statement that I personally firmly endorse. Indeed, I’ve arguably broken with aspects of the tradition I grew up in by asserting theologically that all offices of church leadership are open to both women and men. It’s worth noting, though, that the right conclusion (equality is biblical) can be undermined by the wrong working, the wrong route. Indeed, when that happens, that throws doubt upon the wider set of conclusions and theological issues.

Unfortunately, this book is one of these. A bit like Sharon James’ Gender Ideology (By a conservative author on issues of gender identity, whose broad conclusions I agree with), Pen Wilcock’s Equality is Biblical is a great conclusion marred by a blend of sloppy exegesis, downright bizarre theological approaches, and overall does more to harm the cause of biblical equality than advance it. If that sounds too harsh, then let’s walk through this book and see why I suggest it is so problematic.

Firstly, the good. Wilcock opens with an interesting story, which is perhaps worth reflecting on in another way:

even though the book is short, I felt it had to be written – it came out of an experience that momentarily caused my jaw to drop.

I thought, you see, that all Christians were searchers and seekers – tracking the wild Lion through paths sometimes hard to follow. I used to write Bible notes for a publisher who resources the faith community with daily devotional study, and they asked me for a set of notes about women in the New Testament. The copy I sent them included (in the merest of brief paragraphs – Bible notes aren’t long) allusion to the thesis of this book: that the healing work of the Cross includes

the restoration of gender equality, and that Church history shows we have ignored this aspect of Christ’s work for far too long. To my astonishment, the publisher took issue with my assertion. ‘But I can demonstrate it is true,’ I said. And then came the death blow to our professional relationship. They replied that it might be true but that, regardless of what is true, my job as a writer and theirs as a publisher was to reassure their readers by supplying them with what they already believed. We were not in the business of challenging established understanding. We were patching the greenhouse, not going out into the mountains to look for wildflowers.

This is what can be thought of as marketplace-led theology, and it stinks. That publisher and I parted company, but I still wanted to share with you what they wouldn’t let me say in those Bible notes. So here is my little book, which proposes to you an understanding about gender equality rooted in the Scripture but flowering and fruiting in the living practice of our everyday faith

So far, so good. I agree that publishers of Bible notes should be open to fresh insights from Scripture – even if they are uncomfortable. I heartily agree that ‘marketplace-led theology’ is wrong, and bad. But I wonder if the fact this little book (and the introduction of this book repeatedly reminds the reader that it is ‘short’ or ‘little’, which eventually becomes quite noticeable) came from a place of disagreement explains some of the stranger angles it takes. You see, this book is one that, as I said, has a conclusion I broadly agree with, and also a starting point that I regularly voice in my own life:

Resist spoon-fed Christianity. Ask questions. Go and look. Go and see. Be courageous. If you find out it’s not the way they always told you, well, be glad!

Come with me, then, and let’s explore the living way of the Scriptures.

Amen!

The problem is, though, that the author’s assertions about spiritual authority (which then do a lot of legwork) are weak at best and downright disingenous at worst. There is a strange allusion to the idea that the Archbishop of Canterbury has authority (he isn’t a Pope!) in ‘the Anglican Church’, without noting that if he does have any authority, it is limited to the Church of England (Which of course isn’t even the only ‘Anglican’ Church in these British Isles!). There is then a jump to the idea of ‘The Ancestor’. At first glance, this seems reasonable – every human tradition has “dead held in especial reverence whose influence and authority persists” – but that doesn’t mean that a) such an approach is good and beautiful and true, or b) that such is the case for Christianity, let alone ‘biblical’ Christianity.

At this point in this review it is worth noting that the word ‘biblical’ is a complex one. It seems to me to be used in a wide variety of contexts – and so it really needs to be understood and explained. Pete Phillips, a bible scholar and digital theologian (Follow him on Twitter, he’s awesome) has written a great book about the Bible, on which I based a blog post, where I concluded that “Being truly biblical means recognising our own weakness, rejoicing in our invitation into God’s story, and pointing towards the author, rather than towards ourselves“. Wilcock’s writing seems to almost recognise this, and seems to me to make much of the not-that-novel-idea that previous generations of Christians got things wrong. There are digs at ‘Ancestor-worship’ in all of the Western traditions (which as ever ignores Eastern traditions of Christianity), as well as slightly odd side-swipe at Tom Wright, to which I snorted so loud my daughter woke up, alarmed: “And among Evangelicals, the wisdom of Scripture is received through the lens of revered individuals – Wycliffe, Luther, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Graham, Stott, Watson, Pawson and so on – and perhaps today Tom Wright is added to the list as a yet living Ancestor, thus establishing authority not by Scripture so much as by Evangelical tradition“. This observation seems to me to be divorced from reality – Wright (whose work I love and respect!) is hardly an arbiter of evangelical thought and practice – and it is slightly sloppy observations like that which characterise this book.

The notion of authority is where this book starts to diverge from a recognisable defintion of ‘biblical’, and where I occasionally grimaced whilst reading it. Having dabbled with the Wesleyan quadrilateral, Wilcock goes on to write “Likewise the Book, though the canon of Scripture is fixed, continues to unfold. The living word is still being written in our hearts and lives… the lived gospel of our day-to-day discipleship is sacred and has the power to transform“. I must admit to being bemused by this. Attempting to use Scripture to argue against what Scripture says seems to me to be a misguided task, and I found this idea in particular concerning: “the revelation is not accomplished until we have recieved it” – this seems to me to be a very human-centric view of the Gospel, at odds to the universal invitation of Jesus. You can probably tell by this point that Wilcock’s understanding of ‘biblical’ is quite at odds to my own – which suggests this review should move on. I’ve spent time on this ‘authority’ stuff because it is so important to understand what is ‘upstream’ of your ideas and beliefs. Is the water pure, or are you drinking from multiple streams? The great cry of the reformers, ‘ad fontes’ included within it the possibility of individuals being wrong – the point was to lean towards Jesus, away from human tradition.

Human tradition, then, is both a useful guide and a set of finite distractions. In this book, this is painfully obvious. Chapter 2 draws heavily on the work of Matthew Fox, who is a relatively controversial figure (To say the least!) and seems to me to be unaware of contemporary work on the Image of God – the idea that humans are created good, yet are totally fallen, with the image enduring. There is something slightly ironic in the way that Wilcock then appears to appeal to church fathers (as sources of authority?) to try and make a case for Fox’s bizarre theological program. It read to me like a typical over-reaction upon discovering something, a throwing of the baby (original sin) out with the bathwater (over-emphasis on original sin, particularly to the detriment of the glorious truth that humanity is made in the Image of God). This then comes to the fore in the entirely-unsupported statement that “It is entirely possible without forcing the text to see this creation story as understanding the whole diversity of male and female in all its expressions and combinations as incorporated into one diversity-within-unity image of God, none of it aberrant or creationally inauthentic. People are as they are, and Elohim made them so, and blessed them.” Assertions do not an argument make – again, just because the author of this book has seen and experienced abusive ideal of ‘biblical’ ‘manhood’ or ‘womanhood’, for example, does not mean that there is not something true in the mist. And, indeed, Wilcock does conclude this section by noting that “in establishing biblical Christianity from the text, we would have to conclude that equality between men and women is their creation (i.e. pre-Fall status. Nothing else is credible“. Amen! But, again, the word ‘biblical’ is doing a lot of different things here. Wilcock’s treatment of the fall is novel, but bizarre – seeing it as the ‘story’ of the human condition rather than the ‘origin’ – this reviewer wondered why it can’t be both?

The ironic binary that emerges in this book means that, as I am hoping to demonstrate, it is possible to get to an opinion that is good by a way that is crooked. In this case, I agree wholeheartedly with Wilcock’s assertion that “We can trace in the writings of Paul so much that affirms and advocates for gender equality, but that can be conveniently ignored once we have these verses to use as proof texts“, and there is a sobering section of quotes from church history that makes for difficult reading. Christians do need to acknowledge the shameful way in which the biblical view of equality has been overshadowed by human sin – with one particularly good book on this being Fitzpatrick and Schumacher’s Worthy. Wilcock’s basic observation that the way through this shadow is a holistic reading of Scripture – however from my perspective there is an over-reliance on extra-biblical and non-Christian religious texts in order to make the argument.

By and large, the 6th chapter of this book is a helpful overview of the ministry of Jesus and what that means for men and women. There were a few things I might quibble with, but by and large this emphasised the radical nature of Jesus’ relationships, as he inaugurated and demonstrated the Kingdom of God. The 7th chapter, however, returns to what I can only observe are some of the author’s axes to grind. Saying things like “A religion establishes a priesthood and tethers those who are in it to the institution by linking housing and financial remuneration to credal orthodoxy” seems to me to be reacting against present abuses and misrepresentations of Christianity rather than, for example, a biblical image. I think Paul’s ministry, let alone that of Jesus, looks quite the opposite to that! Statements like “the minute it begins to organize, it starts to die seem even more bizarre when we remember that Jesus commissioned disciples, Paul organised churches, and Phoebe is commended for her diaconal service even as Paul organises others to serve her and the mission of God. Just because something makes a pithy quote, doesn’t make it true.

The same is also true of complexity. In moving towards the conclusion of the book, Wilcock takes a genuinely puzzling segway through ‘sword energy’ and ‘cauldron energy’, which I think it is fair to say has more to do with various non-Christian traditions than any understanding of ‘biblical’ I’ve come across! This means that you get a great observation and challenge: “Making church a safe space for women and making wider society a safe space for women should be high on our agenda. Rape culture has prevailed for far too long” followed by an impractical and vague suggestion: “Cauldron energy can help us turn the ship“. I’m not at all sure what that means, let alone this: “Looking at our models of faith community to notice where we can see sword energy and where cauldron energy, in our vocabulary and ways of being together, will help us move towards a communion that feels safe and affirming for everyone in it. Cauldron energy resists oppression.

You can probably tell that I would not recommend this book to anyone! The mix of extra-Biblical religious sources, somewhat scatter-gun approach to biblical interpretation, eccentric articulation of authority and tradition, and the constant assertions about things without evidence or clarification make this an exhausting book to read. As I said at the outset (and hopeully alluded to where appropriate throughout this review) I agree with the broad sense of Wilcock’s conclusion, but I think that when I say ‘equality is biblical’, the two longer words in that statement mean radically different things than what Wilcock means in Equality is Biblical. If you’ve made it to the end of this review, you might want to read some other things…


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5 Responses

  1. Mr Paul A Williams

    Equality is hardly biblical. The various books of the bible are more usually seen to articulate a hierarchical view of human relationships. Just one instance: ‘I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.’ So the hierarchy is: God, then Christ, then man, then woman.

    In that order.

    1 Corinthians 11.

  2. Tony Collins

    Hi Tom, and thank you for taking the trouble to read and post about Pen Wilcock’s book. I hope you will not mind if I take issue with a few points. For clarity, and in a spirit of openness, I should point out that I am married to the lady in question. We all have our points of view.

    – You query Pen’s assertion that the Archbishop of Canterbury has authority. He does not rule by fiat, but by virtue of both position and person Justin Welby’s voice is listened to around the world. A foreword by the Archbishop will multiply book sales, as I am sure you know. A statement by the Archbishop is likely to be reported in the media. Because of his business experience he was invited to join the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. He is profoundly respected by those who do not share his faith. Surely this constitutes authority?

    – You suggest Pen is taking a ‘side-swipe’ at Tom Wright by including him as an authority within the evangelical tradition. We can dispute the definition of ‘evangelical’ of course, but this is not a side-swipe: Tom Wright is trusted as a scholar and man of faith, and as a gifted author, within many strands of evangelicalism. To describe him as an ‘ancestor’, in the sense of ‘respected elder’, seems perfectly fair.

    – You take issue with Pen for citing non-Christian sources. This puzzles me: the implication is that if a non-Christian (or, heaven forfend, a Christian from a different tradition) says something of merit, it should be ignored. I very much doubt you actually hold this position, so why not allow Pen to quote judiciously from a wide spectrum of authors? All truth is God’s truth.

    – You object to Pen’s criticism of organised religion, observing that Jesus commissioned disciples and Paul organised churches. To suggest that Jesus created the church, and by implication its hierarchy, is to stretch the biblical narrative to breaking point. Paul certainly started churches, but he was meticulous not to take a salary, and as Roland Allen argued a century ago in Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours?, Paul sowed the seed but trusted the Holy Spirit to carry the work forward. It is not difficult to make the case that organised religion, with its creaking structures and manifest insecurities, is an old wineskin. Once you have a salaried priesthood, with appropriate promotion structures, you have created the context for public display, ambition and insecurity. I rejoice that there are men and women of integrity within every church tradition, and Justin Welby and Tom Wright are shining examples, but let us not pretend the system is satisfactory: once your salary and your children’s housing depend on your embracing of a fixed body of doctrine, what space is there for thinking freely? For following where the Spirit leads? This, I believe, is what Pen has in mind when she observes that ‘the minute it begins to organise, it starts to die.’ Pen draws a clear distinction between the community of faith, and the hierarchy. I am aware that such views, a few centuries back, would have had the prosecutors calling for firewood.

    – You clearly struggle with the concepts of sword energy and cauldron energy. For those who have not yet read Pen’s book, ‘Sword energy is dominating and hierarchical — a top-down energy, seeking a leader, a chain of authority, and a set of rules … Cauldron energy groups everyone in equidistance around the central empty negotiating space. Each one is important, none more than any other — the grandmother, the baby, the breadwinner, the teenager, the pregnant woman; all are of equal importance.’ This seems to me a felicitous distinction. The women leading protests in Belarus, handing out white flowers to glowering policemen, are employing cauldron energy. What is unclear?

    I would urge anyone interested to read Pen’s book for themselves.

    • Tom Creedy

      Hi, Tony, thanks for the comment!

      I take your point about describing Welby as authoritative – but his authority rests in that interesting web of relationships, rather than it’s actual consistution like, e.g. the Pope. This distinction is important, I think.

      I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen more than enough ‘evangelical’ criticism of Wright to think that my point is fair. There is of course debate about the word, but I’d argue that to claim he’s an ‘ancestor’ for the evangelical tradition in an undefined sense is a little strange.

      On the point about non-Christian sources I perhaps could have worded it better. I’m not arguing for a minute that non-Christians have nothing valuable to say – I’m merely observing that in book framed by the very Christian word ‘biblical’, to then use ‘extra-biblical’ stuff is to somewhat dilute and confuse that.

      On the organisation of religion, I think we are probably coming at this from very different angles.

      Thanks again for the comment, Tony, I do appreciate you taking the time and apologise for taking so long to approve the comment (for context, to anyone that isn’t Tony or I reading this comment, I’d been somewhat tardy in publishing comments on my blog. No malice intended!)

  3. Pen Wilcock

    Well, that stung. Dear me, what can I salvage? I note the sub-title of your blog, and it made me smile. Well said! I certainly understand why you thought my work sloppy if you mistook this instance of it for exegesis, which is a very different, much closer way of working with the biblical text, but we could discuss that another time. This was more an over-view of a direction of travel, to identify a true destination. Besides, as I made clear in my introduction, I am no great theologian; but of course I did have the manuscript carefully read by very good scholars, and applied the observations they made to the text.
    Tom, I wanted to say, you maybe could use editorial help with your writing, because you’ve used the word ‘bizarre’ 6 times in this short piece. A quick look into a thesaurus could furnish some alternatives; maybe ‘eccentric’, ‘outré’, ‘off-beat’ — or simply ‘a different perspective from the way I see things myself’. It seemed a little unfair, anyway, to hammer me for using the word ‘short’ three times in a paragraph about the book being short. But I take your point; to substitute ‘brief’ for one of them would have been better.
    And to any writers who read this blog, I wanted to say — take note and beware. If you go with SPCK, this is the support and teamwork you can expect from your publisher, and obviously such reviews will affect your sales (and by association, theirs). As for Tom’s critical evaluation, well, some serious thinkers assessed it differently; perhaps you might like to read my book for yourself and then weigh up his remarks.
    Thank you, Tom, and no hard feelings; but everything one puts into this world affects the balance of the whole. What you have said here will make a difference, and I hope you will be pleased with the harvest of the seeds you sow.

    • Tom Creedy

      Hi, Pen, thank you so much for commenting.

      On the usage of the word bizarre, fair point, and I’ve changed it in a few places.

      I am still a little puzzled by your working method of ‘biblical’ here – are you locating the book within the wider discipline of ‘biblical theology’, or is this something else entirely? Again, because I agree with the premise ‘Equality is Biblical’, I think it is of vital importance to understand what that means!

      I was relatively careful to note the distinction between SPCK and IVP in my introduction, and as ever would observe that my employment by such does not therefore mean I have to agree with everything either publisher publishes! In fact, I think none of my colleagues would, if pushed, think that way, and so I wonder if perhaps I am just a little more self-aware in my blundering than some.

      I appreciate your words in the comment, Pen, particularly the challenge about balance and harvest/fruit. I stand by what I’ve written – I agree that ‘Equality is Biblical’, but I don’t think this book is going to be of benefit to some readers, hence the suggestions of other books.

      Thanks again for commenting!

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