Author: Michael F. Bird is an Australian New Testament scholar and author of many books. His books and teachings mainly pertain to core Christian doctrines such as justification, Jesus’ divinity, and Jesus’ messiahship.
Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, & Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Equality in Ministry (2012) is Michael F. Bird’s defense of women in ministry, including a brief account of how he changed his mind on this issue.
In describing why he changed his mind, Bird cites two growing concerns he had: 1) Paul’s co-workers in the gospel included many women; 2) Prohibitions on women in Bird’s church far exceeded those of Scripture, and women were forbidden even from leading songs at co-ed small group meetings.
Then Bird breaks the false dichotomy by showing that there is a spectrum of opinions involving women in leadership.
Though the back cover uses the phrase “taking a stand”, Bird’s position in this debate is stubbornly moderate—I was going to say, annoyingly moderate. His exposition of key texts will not satisfy complementarians or thoroughgoing egalitarians. (Bird opts for the more conventional terminology here, though I prefer the more transparent terms, hierarchicalist and mutualist.)
Like complementarians, Bird allows that men hold authority in households, since “man is the head of the woman”. He tempers this by stating that the New Testament household codes are all framed by commands involving mutual submission. In Bird’s view, this transforms—but does not negate—male headship.
Like egalitarians, Bird allows that many women ministered, taught, and preached alongside Paul, and the two key prohibitions (1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:13) are not transcultural. Though he considers himself a moderate egalitarian, I’ll discuss ways that his position on these passages differs from many or most egalitarians.
Bird states that passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 (on veiling women during worship), 1 Corinthians 14:34–36 (on women remaining silent in church), and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 (on women “teaching or exerting authority”) relate to local social and spiritual conditions, and are not mandates for all churches in all time. But that does not make them irrelevant.
1 Corinthians 11:2–16
In 1 Corinthians 11, a number of befuddling statements are made involving women wearing (or not wearing) veils during Christian worship. Bird points out that this passage cannot be used to silence women in church, since it states that women may “pray and prophesy” publicly, if they meet the conditions of appropriateness and modesty.
He argues throughout the booklet that, though Paul appeals to the creation order, veils were clearly related to local customs regarding modesty. This connection between the creation order and local custom is an important one for Bird, because this can determine how we treat both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.
Bird does not require any special pleading or wrangling of the text. He simply states that in this passage “Paul intends to correct male behavior just as much as female behavior” (p. 25). Paul mentions Christ as the head of man and then the husband as head of the wife, but he is not setting a “chain of command” according to Bird:
There is indeed a hierarchy of relations between the persons mentions in the various couplets [1 Cor. 11:3], but one that must also be understood in light of the gospel, where Paul affirms mutuality, reciprocity, and the value of others in the relationships that characterize the new creation.Michael F. Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts, p. 25
1 Corinthians 14:34–36
On 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, Bird does not adopt either the “interpolation” argument or the “quotation” argument, often appealed to by egalitarians. But he points out that 1 Corinthians 14:34 blatantly contradicts 1 Corinthians 11:5, in which women can pray and prophesy. The weight of evidence seems to show that women can pray and prophesy (and teach) in public worship. But Bird (p. 29) writes that this passage relates to the relation of husbands and wives during public worship. (Incidentally, Tyndale translates 1 Corinthians 14:34 this way, but no other major English translation has done so.)
1 Timothy 2:11–15
Bird is not satisfied by the most common arguments on either extreme concerning this passage. Complementarians would say that it is transcultural and women cannot teach or lead men in spiritual ministry. Egalitarians frequently appeal to the local Artemis cult, which was led by women, as a source of false teaching and social issues in the Ephesian church where Timothy led. This second argument was popularized by the Kroegers’ book I Suffer Not a Woman (1994), but Bird writes that it was disproven by Steven Baugh. (He does not elaborate.)
Instead, Bird writes that women were involved in some heresy that involved a deviant view of creation. In my opinion, Bird is taking the same scheme as the Kroegers’ book but omitting all reference to Artemis. He chooses this stance, however, as a way of privileging the text over speculation about historical context.
Firmly choosing the middle of the road, Bird tempers all this by stating that Paul still prohibited women from ministry in Ephesus, and so there is a transcultural principle that must be gleaned from that. We cannot simply dismiss passages that are transcultural.
How Important Is It?
In his conclusion, Bird states that this is a second-order issue, not a first-order issue. Affirming women in ministry should not bar us from fellowship with those who reject them. In their 1991 edited volume, Grudem and Piper disagree, stating this is a first-order issue (meaning that they would not hold fellowship with those who disagree!).
It is strange to me that Grudem puts not preparing women for leadership on the level of Jesus’ messiahship, the Trinity, the gospel of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the forgiveness of sins.
Finally, I would like to mention the difficulties of the position chosen by Bird.
There are logical difficulties attached to a moderate position, which is perhaps why it is seldom defended. What does it mean to affirm husband’s headship and women as leaders? Are the church and the home to be treated as totally separate spheres? If women are creationally unfit to lead the home, how are they fit to lead the church? Conversely, they can make decisions for the church, which is made up of many families, why can’t they make decisions for their own family?
Bird handles the biblical text quite well and covers quite a bit of the contemporary textual arguments found in the academy—and that in a very short space. He brings up some fantastic points about 1 Corinthians 11, but that section did leave me wanting more, since the passage is so obfuscated. Personally, I admire Lucy Peppiatt’s treatment of this passage; in my opinion, Bird does not have adequate space in this small book to address its manifold difficulties.
I’m also a tad annoyed at the typos that appeared in this staple-bound booklet from Zondervan. It was originally only an ebook.
It would be great to hear Bird again on these issues. He is an engaging and persuasive writer, and this is an impressively tactful treatment of a moderate egalitarian position.