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 bizarre 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 bizarre 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, bizarre 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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