A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Speck
In this opening section, Aimee Byrd acknowledges that she has finally arrived at a place where she understands “how rejection, neglect, betrayal, and even spiritual abuse drove me to seek the presence of Christ,” during which experience she turned to the Song of Songs for comfort and conceived this book (p. ix). Besides the catalyst of her trials, she acknowledges certain people who helped her with this book: Anna Anderson, Rachel Miller, Valerie Hobbs, Katya Covrett, and Matt Byrd.
Introduction: Reformation Looks Forward
Contrary to John Lennon’s song, “Imagine” (calling us to imagine a world without heaven), Byrd calls upon her readers instead to use “eschatological imagination” as the “solution for peace” (p. xi). Byrd states her thesis: “With the Song of Songs guiding us, we will explore the theological meaning behind our sexes, helping Christians to better understand our sexuality as a gift and to grasp the eschatological story our bodies tell of Christ’s love for his church” (p. xiv). Byrd hopes “that the biggest takeaway for the reader is the awe of beholding our God” (p. xv).
Chapter 1: Do We Really Need Reformation?
“Let’s just admit it. Even the church is still confused about what it means to be a man or a woman” (p. 1). In fact, “Our concept of man and woman has been spurious throughout world history” (p. 17). For, according to Byrd, our concept of man and woman has always centered around rights, equalities, and roles (or lack thereof). To prove this statement, Byrd cites Aristotle, Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Knox, William Gouge, Betty Friedan, Marabel Morgan, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), the Council for Biblical Equity (CBE), George Knight III, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, and Pope John Paul II. Byrd claims that “we’ve missed what Pope John Paul II called the very ‘glory of the human body before God’ and the ‘glory of God in the human body, through which masculinity and femininity are manifested’” (p. 16). Therefore, “Our concept of man and woman has been spurious throughout world history” (p. 17).
The church should no longer simply react to the culture out of fear, which leads to cover-ups and legalism (pp. 12, 16). Rather: “The church needs to wake up and see that we need a sexual reformation, one that isn’t teaching from the other side of the cultural coin that reduces our sexuality and robs us of our personhood. We need to direct our eyes to Christ and his exclusive love for his bride” (p. 19). Byrd calls for the church to reform age-old, spurious views by learning from the Song of Songs with her.
Chapter 2: We Are Singing the Wrong Song
In this chapter, Byrd encourages us to find comfort in this glorious Song, as she did during her trials (but most don’t today): “The church is singing a song of worn-out lines that denies men and women the richness of their sexuality. . . . I propose that the Song of Songs is a sexual reformation call for the church” (p. 21). Byrd maintains: “the Song is not an epistle, narrative, or how-to manual” (p. 24). Rather, it is “the holy of holies,” “the superlative Song” that teaches us “how Jesus is the ultimate Lover” (pp. 24-27, 35). Byrd calls us to interpret the Song of Songs literally, both according to the intent of its human author, as well as its divine Author. Yet, who is that human author? Byrd concludes that we cannot know with certainty. However, citing various scholars, she finds intriguing the view that the author of the Song is a woman. Certainly, according to Byrd, “the woman’s is the dominant voice,” and she is “‘the teacher’” (pp. 39-40). Thus, Byrd concludes: “My approach is not a line-by-line commentary, but a theological look at what the bride is teaching men and women in her Song” (p. 41).
Chapter 3: Our Bodies Speak
In this chapter, Byrd argues that a woman’s body (p. 45) is typological in a variety of ways. When God made woman, “She was the crown of creation” and man’s “telos” (p. 44). Wells of water “symbolize a woman’s fertility and her female sexuality” (pp. 46, 49), which connects to the living water of John 4 (p. 49). Likewise, Psalm 46’s description of a fortress, towers, and water explains the description of the woman in the Song of Songs (e.g., Song 8:7, 10 on pp. 51-56). The scent of the woman in the Song of Songs is the perfume of the Temple (p. 54, compare Lev. 2:2 and Song 4:6). Likewise, the female disciples in John 20 correlate to the searching bride in the Song of Songs (pp. 56-61). Byrd is “seeing the Song of Songs everywhere” (p. 56). Byrd concludes, “We see woman’s distinct glory from man in dynamic, synergetic, fructifying of the Word. . . . In her we see the responsibility of laymen and laywomen, as the bride of Christ, to hear and speak the testimony of Jesus, spurring one another to wakefulness and perseverance” (pp. 64-65).
Chapter 4: The Woman’s Desire and the Desirous Woman
Byrd rejects what she views as the modern, novel interpretation that the woman’s “desire” in Genesis 3:16 towards man describes something negative, namely, the desire to dominate him (pp. 70-73). Rather, Byrd interprets the woman’s desire as pure—the desire that every believer should have for Christ. Whereas, the description of the man ruling over the woman in Genesis 3:16 prophesies something negative, namely, “that male dominance and violence as the result of sin would be a key factor in thwarting the woman’s desire” (p. 98). In other words, Byrd interprets the woman’s desire as exemplary, but the man’s rule will thwart the woman’s good desire. In addition, Byrd claims that Eve did not legalistically add to God’s Word in Genesis 3:3. Rather, Eve was “saying something prophetic” and “filling out the story with her extra words” (p. 100).
Chapter 5: Sexuality as Gift
In this chapter, Byrd repeats points she made in her previous book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Namely, “I don’t have to act like a woman to be actualized—I am a woman in all my actions” (p. 107). Likewise, “Men don’t need to act a certain way to affirm their masculinity. Their actions are masculine because they are men” (pp. 111-12). Rather, we are to view sexuality as a gift (as the chapter title states). A man is authorized to welcome a woman’s gift, but “[h]is authorization is not to tell her what to do or to rule over her. That robs her dignity. That is a description of the fall” (p. 119). Rather, man is authorized “to give power to other persons, not to exercise power over them” (pp. 119-120). According to Byrd, we must follow the Song of Songs to avoid “dualistic breakdowns that we love to make of all the ways men and women are different” (p. 130). For, in the Song of Songs: “We don’t get assigned roles or hierarchy. We get dignity, eroticism, and freedom told within a grand story of spousal love” (p. 130).
Chapter 6: Sometimes the Last Man Standing Is a Woman
After both Byrd and Beth Moore were labeled “feminists” in a YouTube video, Moore wrote the following to encourage Byrd: “‘Sometimes, by the grace and power of Jesus, the last man standing is a woman’” (p. 139). Byrd found these words prophetic. For, “The last ‘man’ standing when Christ returns will be his collective bride” (p. 142). Further, noting many “echoes” of the language of the Song found throughout Scripture, Byrd explains the description of the woman in the Song: “Her neck is a tower in this world. It holds the head and sets the eyes in the direction in which they will see. Her nose is a tower of Lebanon, for the church. It has the best vantage position—others have to align themselves with her to secure peace. And her breasts are towers. She has found peace in the eyes of her Beloved and is sharing her strength with her brothers and sisters, feeding them with the Word. This is the church. Zion. The last woman standing” (p. 161). Therefore, when churches are composed predominately of women who “rise in leadership over the men” (p. 161), we do not face a danger that the church might become “feminized.” In fact, since women hosted home churches, as Osiek and MacDonald wrote, “‘to step into a Christian house church was to step into women’s world’” (p. 166).
Chapter 7: Male and Female Voice
“Radical biblical feminists like to say that the Bible is a patriarchal construction put together by the most powerful men. It’s the male voice. Male power. We can’t argue with some of this charge—the Bible is androcentric in its authorship. However, given the patriarchal historical context in which it is written, it is quite amazing to look at the female voice in Scripture. It often, as Richard Bauckham notes, interrupts and dominates the male voice, making visible the invisible, telling the story behind the story. Not only is the female voice there, but it sheds light. It teaches” (p. 171). Thus, Byrd laments, “Unlike laymen’s voices, laywomen’s voices are often limited in the intellectual/theological circles they can contribute to, whom they can teach, and even their capabilities to speak truth as victims of abuse” (p. 189).
Byrd uses her voice, next, to explain that the woman represents the second order (p. 179), that the woman’s body represents “Levitical sacred space,” culminating in Mary’s womb (p. 182), that the sinner who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair points to the binding of Jesus at His arrest (p. 185), and that the description of Mary turning around twice in John 20:14, 16 was “almost like a dance of joy” (p. 187). As among those “marginalized” because of her sex (p. 188), and calling herself “a victim of spiritual abuse,” Byrd challenges the church not to silence the voice of women, but to provide opportunities for women to teach formally and informally (p. 191). For, “the whole reason” Byrd became a victim of spiritual abuse was “because I tried to use my voice theologically to help the church” (p. 192).
Outro: Eschatological Imagination
Returning to the theme of John Lennon’s non-imaginative song, Byrd calls her readers to turn to the Song of Songs instead: “With a swig of this new wine, we see how reductive and earthly our views about ourselves and others are, even in the church” (p. 197). For, “The church has incorporated an Aristotelian anthropology with an unmoored pietism that misses what Pope John Paul II called the very ‘glory of the human body before God’ . . .” (p. 204). We must jettison “this classical Christian piety” in favor of understanding that “our sexuality is anchored in eschatology” (p. 204). Byrd concludes this book by exhorting us to sing the lyrics of the Song of Songs until the consummation.
The main lesson of The Sexual Reformation is essentially the same lesson of Byrd’s previous book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Namely, women must have a leading role of teaching in the Church. This is seen in each chapter. In Chapters 1-2, Byrd declares the church has got it wrong and must listen to the dominant voice of women in order to get it right. In Chapter 3, the body of the woman teaches us to listen to laypeople (such as Byrd herself). In Chapter 4, man is the problem, not woman. In Chapter 5, a man should not exercise power over a woman. In Chapter 6, women should be prominent in leading the church, and that prominence poses no danger of feminizing the Church. In Chapter 7, women must have power to use their voice to teach the Church. While she claims the goal of reading her book is that we would leave in awe of God, whatever insights and devotional statements she provides along the way are overwhelmed by her consistent, driving agenda. With a preponderance of confusing arguments, questionable exegesis, and tenuous connections that often conclude with non-sequiturs, Byrd insists upon the primacy of the woman’s voice in teaching the church. Her book might be considered self-defeating, then.
For example, Byrd rejects the idea of “roles” and even any prescribed masculine and feminine character—in favor of vague statements related to discipleship, mutuality, and reciprocity. In other words, Byrd insists upon a false dilemma between specific roles assigned to the sexes and general discipleship and ministry. Yet, sexuality informs discipleship and ministry; they are not mutually exclusive. Men and women must faithfully follow Christ according to the Scriptural roles He assigns to us. Men should lead in the church and home, and women should follow. Yet, Byrd rejects such orthodox roles and categories, which are based on the Scriptures (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:23), in favor of the vague notions of mutuality and reciprocity. Why? Byrd’s views simply do not fit into orthodox roles and categories, found in the Scriptures. She is, indeed, rejecting “classical Christian piety” (p. 204). Rather, her “reformation” is based upon vague and confusing statements that she uses to undermine Biblical truth.
To read this book is to enter into a realm of imprecision and studied ambiguity. For example, Byrd writes (p. 9): “Our ‘sexuate installations,’ as Julia,n Mari,as calls it, as men and women should move us toward communion of persons as we have our eyes on Christ, where we are not actualized by what roles we play, but in fostering mutual knowledge of one another that results in dynamic, fruitful reciprocity through the giving of ourselves through our difference.” So, forget about (Biblical) roles, look to Christ (but not His specific commands), foster mutual knowledge, and achieve dynamic reciprocity? Not quite the Solas of the Reformation.
Rather, Byrd wants us narrowly to focus upon how the Song of Songs gives us (undefined) freedom, not upon “assigned roles and hierarchy” (p. 130). In other words, she takes us to the notoriously difficult book of the Song of Songs, interprets it according to her bias, and insists her understanding should correct “classical Christian piety” and the view held by the Church throughout the entirety of world history (pp. 17, 204). This seems to me the height of hubris. And, what about other Scripture passages that assign clear gender roles and provide specific commands for men and women? Must we jettison portions of God’s Word to comply with Byrd’s “reformation”?
In fact, one of the great ironies of this “reformation” is Byrd’s consistent appeal to Roman Catholicism, specifically to Pope John Paul II (e.g., pp. xv, 16, 28, 36, 62, 64, 65, 111-17, 120, 123-24, 137, 147, 184, 204). Yet, the Reformation rejected Roman Catholic doctrines that had wandered from Biblical and ecclesiastical orthodoxy, while Byrd embraces the modern Roman Catholic doctrine of sexuality that she says conflicts with what the Church has always believed (pp. 16-17, 204). The Reformation led Protestants to declare Roman Catholicism to be no church at all (e.g., the PCUSA in 1835), while Byrd includes it among “the church universal” (pp. xv-xvi). The spiritual heirs of the Reformation at the Westminster Assembly declared the Pope to be the Antichrist, while Byrd calls us to follow him in understanding sexuality. If, indeed, reformed Protestants are correct, and Rome is no true church, contradicts orthodoxy, and is led by the Antichrist, appealing to Pope John Paul II is equivalent to calling her audience to follow her outside of the truth, even outside of the Church. This is a reformation?
Furthermore, even as Byrd emphasizes the beautiful truth that marriage is an analogy of Christ and the Church, she corrupts that analogy with her agenda, marring this beautiful Gospel picture. For, she tells us that the bride in the Song of Songs has the dominant voice and is “the teacher.” If the Church (pictured by the bride) is the primary teacher and has the dominant voice, Who is Christ (pictured by the husband)—the student who has a lesser voice? Likewise, if the woman is the “crown of creation” above man (p. 44), then is the Church the crown of creation above Christ (cf., 1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 1:15-18)? If the woman is the telos (p. 48) of the man (contrary to 1 Cor. 11:9), then is the Church the telos of Christ—not His own glory (e.g., Rom. 9:21-23)? If the man sees his ultimate purpose in joining the woman (p. 48), not the other way around, then does Christ see His ultimate purpose in joining the Church? If the man represents earth and the woman heaven (p. 108), is the church heavenly, while Christ is earthly?
Likewise, Byrd maintains that, in John 4, Jesus told the woman at the well “about living water—the very thing her embodiment as a woman pictures” (p. 49). She pictures the living waters? She, apart from Christ—simply as a woman—pictures the living water? In John 4:10, however, our Lord Jesus specifically tells the woman that this living water is a gift (something she does not have merely by being a woman), and the One standing before her—Jesus Christ Himself (and He alone)—could give her that water! Christ is the living water, not the woman. Further, if a husband is not authorized to “tell [his wife] what to do or to rule over her” (p. 119), is Christ not authorized to tell the Church what to do and to rule over Her?
Byrd is so intent upon arguing her view that women should have a leading voice in the Church that she misinterprets and misapplies Scripture (e.g., Genesis 2:7, 22; Genesis 3:16; John 4:10), dishonoring Christ in the process. If Byrd truly values this beautiful analogy between the marriage union and the union of Christ to His Church, then she must cease insisting upon a leading role of teaching for women in the Church. For, that demand is an insult to Christ, the Husband, the Teacher, the all-glorious Lord of creation, and the Savior—the true living waters. Byrd has fulfilled what she called “quite a claim” by CBMW (p. 16). For, she has managed to undermine the faithfulness of the Gospel by confusing, even reversing, the roles of men and women. Women should not have a dominant voice, leading and teaching the Church. God has called men to lead the Church (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:11-15; 1 Tim. 3:1-14; 1 Cor. 14:34-35).
Likewise, the Gospel role for wives is to represent the Church by submitting to the God-given authority of their husbands over them (e.g., Eph. 5:22-24). By gladly submitting to their husbands, wives represent the Church gladly submitting to the authority of Christ over Her. Likewise, the Church does not give power to Christ by submitting to Him. Christ has power over the Church (e.g., Mt. 28:18-20; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:8), and He commands the Church to submit to Him. So, wives do not grant power to their husbands by submitting to them. Husbands have God-given power over their wives, and wives are called to submit to their husbands. These are the Gospel roles God has assigned to us. By fulfilling these specific, concrete, Biblical roles, we picture the Gospel—we picture Christ and the Church. By reversing or confusing those roles, we dishonor Christ and confuse the Gospel. Some may not like these divinely assigned roles, but that does not alter the Biblical fact or the Gospel picture our Lord commands.
Throughout this book, Byrd delivers a number of insights, covers some interesting history, uses certain engaging analogies and anecdotes, and powerfully strikes against pornography. Sadly, in my estimation, the good of this book is overwhelmed by her blatant, driving agenda that conflicts with Scripture.
Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Columbia, MO, and is Review Editor for Theology here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
THE SEXUAL REFORMATION: RESTORING THE DIGNITY AND PERSONHOOD OF MAN AND WOMAN, by Aimee Byrd