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Book Review: Beyond Authority and Submission by Rachel Green Miller

October 2nd, 2019 | 8 min read

By Mark Jones

Radical feminism and toxic masculinity each constitute a real plague upon the church today. Those who write against one of these errors usually find themselves in a position where their opponents will react harshly. Taking a stand against both errors requires considerable courage. In her book, Beyond Authority and Submission (P&R Publishing, 2019), Rachel Green Miller attempts to address real problems in the church concerning toxic masculinity in particular. She believes that in conservative circles unbiblical teachings have emerged regarding the topics of authority and submission (p. 14). On this point she is not wrong.

In part one she offers a “lens” for relationships between men and women, arguing that submission is voluntarily entered into among equals. She discusses various realms where submission may happen, including in marriage, church, and the parent-child relationship. Submission is only “one aspect” of the husband-wife relationship (p. 27). She also claims church leaders don’t have authority to tell their congregants “how to dress, how to vote, how to eat…” (p. 31) and suggests these matters fall under Christian liberty.

However, Christian liberty considers “things indifferent,” not practices that may be a matter of sin. Surely ministers have authority in matters related to sinful practices? This is part of her “thesis” in part one: to remove authority-submission from as many realms as possible, especially if it involves male authority. 

Part two looks at history, specifically the Greeks, Romans, and Victorians, and then also the first-wave feminists who were eventually opposed by complementarians. Miller seems somewhat sympathetic to the first-wave feminists. She argues that the patriarchal views of the Greeks, Romans, and Victorians have infected many complementarians and we need to return to the revolutionary teaching of the New Testament (p. 58). 

In parts three through six, Miller shows how complementarians have reacted to types of feminism. Miller responds to this and has little good to say about so-called complementarian reactions, since in her mind they are more “Victorian” than biblical. The reader will note that she generally avoids speaking of men and women in unique ways based on their inherent nature because that could lead to certain emotional, physical, and spiritual traits that are unique to each sex – a problem found in pagan literature, according to Miller, but not in the Bible.

For Miller, a man is masculine simply because he is a man, not necessarily because of how he may act in certain situations; and the same for women (p. 149). These views, however, are certainly distinct from many of the Church’s greatest theologians, such as Augustine and Herman Bavinck, who noted (sometimes appealing to Pagan authors) the significant (emotional and physical) differences between the sexes. Some may perhaps overstate the differences between men and women, but Miller seems to understate these differences as the pendulum swings the other direction. As one reads the book a number of concerns begin to emerge.

The biblical-theological case in Miller’s book is strangely limited. For a book on submission and authority, one wonders why Ephesians 5:24 doesn’t get discussed in any detail (pp. 27-28 was the perfect occasion for Miller to do so). The text plainly reads, “Wives are to submit in everything to their husbands.” What does that mean? It is odd that a book so titled would not discuss the meaning of this verse and its positive application.

Similarly, Miller never addresses 1 Corinthians 11:7. Paul says that, “A man is the glory of God and a woman is the glory of a man.” Surely this warrants discussion since this verse seems to suggest unequal glories, with a view to ontology? Christ’s glory, as God-man, is not equal to the divine glory that is proper to God’s essence. Does ontology explain the differing glories? Moreover, very little is done with Genesis 2:15 and theological anthropology. The book’s major shortcoming is the lack of a clearly articulated creation design for the sexes (i.e., ontology). Thus all of her questions and concerns about roles outside of marriage are a result of what appears to be a completely different ontology of the sexes compared to classical Reformed thought.

There is too much reliance on secondary sources and not enough exegetical work. Certainly not all Christian books require in-depth exegetical work. But her stated aim is to show how the New Testament radically altered Greco-Roman views on male-female relationships (p. 58). Yet the book gives the impression that she really doesn’t want to discuss the positive aspect of what it means, for example, for a woman to submit to her husband in everything, as Paul commands in Ephesians. We are told what “subjection” passages don’t mean, but the reader is left wondering what they do mean. The book, ironically enough, lives up to its title. 

Methodologically, the book suffers from serious problems in terms of her analysis of history. The Greeks, Romans, and Victorians are the bad guys (p. 232). Complementarianism in America today often reflects “Victorian” ideals than biblical ones, according to Miller (16). I suspect that it is not so neat. Her references to the Reformers are basically positive, but has she read what they said about authority and submission between men and women? Consider, for example, Calvin on 1 Corinthians 11:7-8, “…but of the distinction, which God has conferred upon the man, so as to have superiority over the woman. In this superior order of dignity the glory of God is seen, as it shines forth in every kind of superiority...The first is, that as the woman derives her origin from the man, she is therefore inferior in rank. The second is, that as the woman was created for the sake of the man, she is therefore subject to him…”

Or, has she considered the Puritans and their views on authority and submission? William Gouge’s work, Of Domesticall Duties (1620), would cause a riot on Twitter if critics of Patriarchy took time to read him. In one place, working with a natural law argument, Gouge says, “Nature has placed an eminency in the male over the female: so as where they are linked together in one yoke, it is given by nature that he should govern, she obey. This did the Heathen by light of nature observe” (Treatise 3, p. 158). What Miller finds so objectionable in her book is really the norm in the church before the rise of feminism. 

Why are the “Patriarchal” men today in conservative circles reflecting Greco-Roman or Victorian views and not Reformation, Puritan, or Early Church views on men and women? It is convenient for Miller to locate a few bad “groups” at certain stages in history, but what if the “problems” she finds in the church today are “problems” that were very much present throughout all of church history? It harms her thesis if the church has typically gotten these things wrong because it places a massive burden on her to overcome ecclesiastical history. 

In terms of how she analyses certain people, Miller has trouble reading sources in an even-handed, careful manner. In one case, she claims that some believe “companionship is a downgrade in marriage” and cites an article I wrote for Reformation 21. In the article, I nowhere say or hint at such a thing. In fact, the intention of my article is to say the opposite of what she attributes to me. My main concern was with the terminology of calling my wife “my best friend,” as if there’s a comparison between her and my male friends. As I said, “my wife belongs in a category that goes beyond friendship.” Yet Miller feels at liberty to claim, “people” (e.g., Mark Jones) “who say this have failed to understand the importance of companionship.” Odd; and, quite frankly, a little annoying that she was able to come to such an obviously disingenuous conclusion. I’m actually endorsing a type of companionship with my wife that is better than what a “best friend” can offer me. Sadly, I am not the only one she does this to in the book. There are many examples where she has blatantly misread someone in order to score a point. 

The book also has very little work on ontology and natural theology (see her chapter on submission, pp. 22-33). A strong ontology helps us to deal with various texts. On page 117, she claims, “submission in marriage and in the church is an example of equals agreeing to submit to the authority of leaders they have chosen for themselves. There is order, but not subordination.” This is simply wrong. The woman submits in everything to her husband, as Paul says (Eph. 5:24), precisely because of the creational order (i.e., ontology). There is subordination of Christ, as God-man, to the Father (1 Cor. 11). This subordination is grounded in ontology and is not purely voluntary. I doubt any Reformed theologian before the twentieth century would agree with Miller’s view (on p. 117).

In another place where she makes a mistake on ontology, she writes: “Some conservative Christians teach that women are inherently weaker than men. They apply Peter’s command for husbands to treat their wives as the ‘weaker vessel’ (1 Peter 3:7) to being a statement of women’s nature. Women’s weakness is simply part of God’s design— a God-ordained difference between women and men.” I don’t actually know what she is trying to argue here. She claims this is wrong but – as is often the case in the book – she doesn’t explain why, which gives the reader the impression that it is supposed to be obvious. What does Peter actually mean? Miller doesn’t really tell us, as long as it doesn’t mean what many complementarian Christians think it means. Surely for all of the information she offers on other less important matters she could have explained how women are weaker and, more importantly why they are weaker. 

As noted, her under-developed creational anthropology hurts her reading of other key texts as well as her treatment of general biblical themes. She will argue that Adam and Eve both received authority, which ends up with Adam using his authority to basically serve Eve. What is the actual reason for submission/subordination? Is it simply because God says so (positive law) or is it also because God has made it so (creational, fixed)? 

In addition, littered throughout the book is the phrase, “some conservative Christians…” (which is never said as a compliment it seems). In one instance she says, “…some conservative Christians define being a helper as a subordinate role” (p. 111). To the best of my knowledge, this is the view of every Reformed theologian from the Reformation onward. There’s a reason Adam is not Eve’s helper (he was first formed). But, again, she simply leaves many of these statements hanging as if they are self-evidently false when in fact she’s critiquing long-held Reformed views. A lack of analysis at strategic points in the book is a major shortcoming in her approach, and I think a careful read of this book will show she’s actually abandoning a lot of classical Reformed thought on male-female anthropology. Other than Miller affirming male ordination, the book comes across as arguing for a form of egalitarianism. 

In the end, it may well be there are areas where prominent conservative reformed writers may need some pushback regarding their views of male-female relations. So her instinct is not without merit. We all need pushback, even when we are correct, but especially if we are wrong. Yet I fear she has been far too unsympathetic towards certain theologians and the complementarian position. This has caused her to misread them to the point of being disingenuous at times. There are many sane complementarian views that have been necessary in a culture of radical feminism, but one would never know that from reading this book. 

Given the plethora of warm endorsements from well-respected people in broadly Reformed circles, the book has a lot to live up to. Sadly, the arguments, research, and methodology not only fail to live up to the hype, but the book actually harms our critique of unbiblical views of male-female relationships. The idea of the book has some merit, but Miller has not proven her case well.

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Mark Jones

Mark Jones serves as the pastor of Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA) in British Columbia, Canada, and research associate at the University of the Free State in South Africa. He has authored several books and speaks all over the world on Christology and the Christian life.