Book Review: What Most Women Want, What Few Women Find (May 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Mitchell
May, 1993

F.LaGard Smith, What Most Women Want, What Few Women Find, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, June 1989. Reviewed by Lynn E. Mitchell, Jr., Resident Scholar in Religion, University of Houston.

One might begin by commending F. LaGard Smith for his courage. A bachelor who would venture to author a book telling us authoritatively “What Most Women Want” must be a man of exceptional self-confidence. (After this article was written, LaGard was married to Ruth Batey.)

The title of the book has been changed for the latest printing. Originally the title was Men of Strength for Women of God. Men of strength is what most women want but seldom get, according to Smith. A case can be made for this thesis, but one wonders whether the case can support all the baggage Dr. Smith wants it to bear. The assumption of the book is that “male spiritual leadership” is one of the foundational principles of the Faith, originated in creation, established in the Patriarchal Period and confirmed in both the Old and New Covenants.

This thesis is unexceptional, and it is also one which is seldom challenged except by the more enraged and unforgiving feminists. Biblical people of God, one assumes, have always understood that God wishes there to be strong men and that they responsibly exercise spiritual leadership.

What is surprising is that in Dr. Smith’s view, God seems to be very ambivalent, to say the least, about “female spiritual leadership.” It is hard to tell from the way Dr. Smith handles the subject, whether God feels positive, negative or merely resigned to the exercise of female spiritual leadership in various specific situations.

Alternatively, depending on the traditional view being buttressed, Dr. Smith considers female leadership to be
1) Excluded in principle (chapters 2 and 6).
2) The result of the Fall (chapter 3).
3) A sign of male weakness and female treachery (chapters 3 and 4).
4) Sometimes laudable in biblical exemplars of female spiritual leadership (chapters 5-7).
5) Sometimes illegitimately squelched by patriarchal or masculine boorishness (chapters 9 and 10).
6) Often the result of the influence of dark paganism or pagan feminism (chapter 8).
7) The unfortunate result of the greater propensity and talents women have for spiritual leadership (chapter 16).
8) But always the illegitimate outcome of the failure of men to fulfill their roles of exclusive spiritual leadership.

This is a striking complex of positions which are not easily analyzed or harmonized. Analysis is further complicated by the style of the writing, which is essentially a streamlet of consciousness spiked with anecdotes, flashes of intuition, scriptural allusions and jury summations.

The style is very readable and at times charming. The style is so charming, in fact, that it diverts the reader’s attention from the very subjective and idiosyncratic character of Dr. Smith’s view about women’s role in the church.

Indeed, the author’s original intention was to write a book about “the roles of women in the church” (p.9). His views on the subject, however, dictate that the better approach is to shift the argument to men’s role rather than to try to interpret the complex biblical picture of women’s role.

He sees the biblical picture as confusing, especially when the Bible student encounters the biblical examples of female spiritual leadership. These examples of female spiritual leadership (e.g. Deborah, Huldah, various prophetesses, wise women, teachers, and other women of God in both Testaments) might lead us to believe that God actually approves of female spiritual leadership in these noteworthy but exceptional cases.

However, Dr. Smith’s intuition tells him that these instances are not examples of divinely approved exceptions to general practice. They are, instead, an unfortunate and illegitimate usurpation of the exclusively male prerogative of public leadership. Why would the Bible recite these examples without disapproval? Because anyone but victims of modern feminist propaganda or “new hermeneutics” would immediately recognize them as improper states of affairs brought about by the corruption of God’s unchanging order and the repudiation of his clear and unquestionable wish.

Smith’s argument is as follows: The story of creation unequivocally asserts exclusive male public leadership, and the story of the Fall demonstrates the disastrous results of attempted female leadership. Any instance of public female leadership must be an historical example of pitifully corrupt males illegitimately forcing females to assume roles which God really finds odious in women. The women involved, like Eve, were really more sinned against than sinning. The gross sin was that the men of their generation were not men of strength, but pitiful, impotent, sniveling spiritual weaklings who allowed women to rule over them.

Women who dared to assume public leadership roles among God’s people were allowed to do so only because males had miserably failed to fill those roles. This ungodly state of affairs is made even more deceptively complex by another amazing “fact.” That is, that women are naturally (created?) more sensitive, spiritually minded, religiously oriented. To make matters worse, they make very intelligent and talented leaders during those times when allowed to usurp those roles by a generation of weak men. Further, males are generally inferior in their gifts in this area, which makes it even more imperative that we wrest the usurped prerogatives away from women. God wants public spiritual leadership to be exclusively male because they need the practice more than women do.

Now this is a remarkable line of reasoning, to say the least. A logician might be tempted to characterize it as “rhetorical coquetry.” Traditionalists should be amazed at its innovative and thoroughly modernistic character. A most amazing irony would be if people who hold the traditional view of women’s role should be content to accept this line of argument as a serious buttress for their traditional position.

Other lines of reasoning in the book are equally extraordinary. For instance: According to Smith, there is nothing inherently sinful or unbiblical about women waiting on the Lord’s table. It was likely the practice of the early church. It is, however, sinful at the present time and under present circumstances because it “makes the wrong statement,” and takes us over the edge of the “slippery slope” (chapter 18).

How would an admittedly scriptural, natural and common-sensical practice “make the wrong statement”? Dr. Smith’s implication is that the practice takes place now (and in the foreseeable future) only in those churches who are not serious about adherence to the Bible or obedience to God’s will with respect to the relations between males and females. The implication is that it occurs only in churches who covet contemporary relevance by acquiescing to the influence of paganism or to the agenda of radical feminism. Smith is of the opinion that elderships who change traditional practices in this area are seldom if ever motivated by scriptural considerations. He evidently finds it hard to imagine that an eldership might study long and prayerfully and then come to the conclusion that a change is warranted by Scripture and that it enhances the body life of the church. The fact is that this actually happens sometimes. What “message” it conveys depends upon the spiritual perceptiveness of the receiver of the message. Some would hear a message about courage to do what has been found to be scriptural and right even in the face of knee-jerk reaction or “slippery slope” bugbear.

Be that as it may, it is a somewhat dubious exercise to cavalierly dismiss as spurious the motives that people actually claim and to ascribe motives to them which are ascertained by means of some sort of intuitive knowledge. Furthermore, asserting such non-information in print and on the popular lecture circuit is not a spiritually helpful way of dealing with the painful struggles which living, breathing sisters and brothers are going through.

Historically, a number of writers in our brotherhood have held views different from brother Smith on the propriety of female public leadership. (For examples see C. R. Nichol, God’s Woman, pp. 26, 28 et passim; J. W. McGarvey and W. K. Pendleton, Standard Bible Commentary; I Corinthians, pp. 142ff; B. W. Johnson, Peoples New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 119.) Each of these commentators believed in male spiritual leadership and that women were not to “usurp authority over the man.” Each also believed that proper interpretation of Scripture did not preclude speaking and service roles for women before mixed church audiences. Their views were undoubtedly influenced by the feminism of their day and by the obvious advancement of women that Christianity had brought about by their time. But their motives, I assume, were not the pagan motives that are sometimes attributed to their spiritual descendants who allow women more public roles of service today.

It is conceivable that brother Smith might be correct in many of the exegetical conclusions to which he subscribes, even though a number of his scholarly brothers past and present would substantially disagree with him. He is not correct, however, in his appraisal of the theological seriousness or the spiritual motivation of those who argue and practice differently from him.

To be fairer to LaGard Smith than he sometimes appears to be to himself, he does not really mean to deny the legitimacy of female spiritual leadership in the church. What he does instead is to confuse the issue by using “female spiritual leadership” in different ways depending on the intent of his polemic. He seems at times to apply the expression to the mere act of a woman standing in front of men in a public meeting and saying or singing something spiritual. It is almost ludicrous to imply that such a simple event would have the effect of undermining “male spiritual leadership.” Such an anemic concept of the nature of male spiritual leadership would not be worthy of Smith’s valiant defense.

We need more teaching on male spiritual leadership. But we need teaching that exalts the principle without trivializing it for polemical purposes. Spiritual leadership is not equivalent to public officiating. That would be a slight to the great history of female spiritual leadership which did not involve public officiating, but without which the church would have surely died out everywhere and forever. There is no doubt that female religious officiating is exceptional in both the Old and New Testaments and in the history of the church. There is also no doubt that the absence of public female leadership throughout most of history is the result of “strong” men asserting their prerogative. The meaning of those facts can be understood differently than the way LaGard Smith understands them.

Finally, if I might venture to intuit what most women want, I would guess that most Christian women do want strong male leadership still, both in the home and in the church. But they also want to participate in a “shared leadership” to whatever extent that sharing is scriptural and a contribution to the advancement of the gospel. Many of them also want help in determining which among their traditional roles are really scripturally patterned and which are still unscripturally burdened by cultural patterns.

Among biblical scholars in Churches of Christ, serious research and writing on this subject is just beginning. We should eagerly anticipate publications that are examples of cautious, conservative scholarship and that are also sensitive to the real life concerns of brothers and sisters in our fellowship.

For Further reading and listening:

Atkins, Anne. Split Image: Male and Female After God’s Likeness. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

Bilezikian, Gilbert, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family. Baker Book House, 1985.

Bristow, John Temple, What Paul Really Said About Women. Harper and Row, 1988.

Engelsman. Joan Chamberlain. The Feminine Dimension of the Divine. Westminster Press, 1979.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986.

Gundry, Patricia. Neither Slave Nor Free: Helping Women Answer the Call to Church Leadership. Harper and Row, 1987.

Hassey, Janette. No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century. Academie Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.

Kroeger, Richard Clark and Kroeger, Catherine Clark. I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking I Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence. Baker Book House, 1992.

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. Crossroad, 1986.

Rowland, Robert H. “I permit not a woman…” To Remain Shackled. Lighthouse Publishing Company, 1991.

Sandifer, J. Stephen. Deacons: Male and Female? (A Study for Churches of Christ). Keystone Publishing, 1989.

Schmidt, Alvin John, Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Mercer University Press, 1989.

Tucker, Ruth A. Women in a Maze. InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Tucker, Ruth A. and Liefeld, Walter. Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present. Academie Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1987.

Cassette tapes of lectures and classes on this subject are available from several sources. Of particular interest are the classes taught by Oliver Howard at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Robert Randolph and Lynn Mitchell’s Forum presentations at Freed Hardeman University, and Carroll Osburn’s lectures given at Abilene Christian University in 1992 and at Pepperdine University in 1993. These tapes can be ordered from Riverside.Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Mitchell

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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