Book Review: “Beyond Authority and Submission” by Rachel Green Miller

“We will first look at biblical themes that will help us in our discussions about women and men. Then we will look at how various historical cultures and developments have influenced our beliefs. In the second half of the book we will look at prevalent teachings about the nature of women and men and how these views affect our interactions in marriage, church, and society.  We will also consider what the Bible teaches on these topics and how we can apply its truths to our lives.”[1]

Rachel Green Miller

With this paragraph, Mrs. Miller sets out her agenda in the recently published book “Beyond Authority and Submission.”  Her goal is to clear up the church’s witness on topics related to the roles of men and women[2].  She hopes to do this exclusively from the Bible.  In her attempt, she posits a need to clear away the detritus we have inherited from the Greeks, Romans, and Victorians.  With this heuristic, she hopes to sift out “unbiblical and extrabiblical” teaching in conservative churches on these topics.  Finally, her desire is to reexamine the Bible’s teaching on men and women and apply that teaching to the lives of Christians. 

Her thesis is that men and women should be co-laborers in all of life.[3]  On the surface this thesis is not controversial.  Everyone who holds the Bible as the Word of God agrees that men and women were created to work together.  The controversy does not lie here.  The controversy resides in how one defines “co-laboring.”  This, in turn depends on how one defines men and women.  It is evident that Mrs. Miller defines men and women as substantially equivalent and that the “co-laboring” she sees in Scripture is a partnership of ontological equals.  The only differentiation she allows is found in the stubborn realities of biology in the home and ordination in the church.  Biology plainly teaches that women are built to bear children, and one cannot contradict biology. Paul plainly teaches male only ordination, and one cannot contradict the apostle. 

But wisdom is found in knowing the causes of things.  Why did Paul teach what he did?  This is never addressed in Mrs. Miller’s book. The reason for this lacuna is a failure to wrestle with relevant ontology.  There is some ontological discussion in chapters 1 and 7, but none of it is relevant to the question of men and women, masculinity and femininity.  This is where Mrs. Miller’s book fails.  This is also where most of today’s voices who speak to this question are failing as well.

Seeing that Mrs. Miller wishes to avoid the traditional categories used in this debate, I will respect her wish and avoid labeling her with them.  The project of dogma is not advanced through a lack of civility.  I merely wish to elaborate the problems with Mrs. Miller’s argument as presented in “Beyond Authority and Submission” and to open up an avenue of discussion which I believe will bring a conclusion to these taxing debates over men and women.  The avenue of discussion for these questions is the avenue of relevant ontology. 

Mrs. Miller gives her view on the nature of authority and submission as being functions of relationships.  “As we have seen, authority and submission are a function of our rela­tionships. The nature of each relationship determines who should lead and who should submit.”[4]  While it is in the context of a relationship that authority and submission manifest themselves, authority and submission cannot be reduced to mere functions of how we relate.  In another place, Mrs. Miller refers to the 5th Commandment as expounded by the Westminster Larger Catechism (Beyond, 25.).  What Mrs. Miller misses is that the command is to honor “father and mother.”  That is, there is not merely a relation in view, but an ontological reality that grounds the relationship and furnishes the reason for the honor due.  Your father and mother are ontologically prior to you and ontologically necessary for your existence.  Therefore, honor them.  The honor that is due to them is due to their ontological priority which, in turn, grounds their relational position.  John the Baptist operates with relevant ontology as it bears on authority and submission when his testimony to the Christ is summarized by St. John, “John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me” ‘ “ (John 1:15).  John says that the Christ is more honorable than him (and thus has more authority than him) because the Christ is ontologically prior to him.  He is the Incarnate One.  What all this amounts to is that ontological priority confers relational authority.

Mrs. Miller seeks to bring forward biblical themes that bear upon her thesis.  She does this in chapter 2.  Using an illustration drawn from the “Magic Eye” fad of the 90’s, Mrs. Miller reduces interpreting Scripture to understanding the biblical theological themes of Scripture.  The trick to a Magic Eye poster was to let your eyes relax enough to perceive the overall pattern and then a 3D image would pop from the poster.  If you tried too hard and focused too much on the details, all you would see was a confusing jumble of colors and shapes.  This is Mrs. Miller’s metaphor for understanding Scripture. By using the ideas of “biblical themes” and the over all picture of Scripture, Mrs. Miller is trying to tap into the hermenutical discipline of biblical theology.  

Whereas biblical theology is a burgeoning trend in reformed circles, it is only half the story.  Biblical theology and systematic theology are both tools that the church employs to understand Scripture.  Biblical theology takes account of Scripture as literature and seeks to understand Scripture according to the literary tropes and biblical themes that biblical authors use to convey meaning.  This is far more than simply seeing Scripture as a grand story.  For narrative is but one trope an author can use to convey a message.  Biblical theology looks at literary devices and tropes in Scripture and seeks to understand how they bear upon and enrich the overall message.  This is taking account of the forest. 

But a forest is nothing without trees.  This is what systematic theology attempts to understand.  Individual elements of God’s revelation need to be understood and brought to bear upon other elements revealed in Scripture.  Systematic theology does this by deducing propositions from Scripture and connecting them logically with other revealed propositions.  Just as you cannot have forestry without an appreciation of the forest as an ecosystem and an appreciation of the individual trees as discrete biological elements that contribute to the forest, neither can we understand Scripture solely by focusing on biblical or systematic theology.  The church needs both.  But Mrs. Miller is focused on biblical theological themes to the neglect of a systematic framework within which her exegesis can be controlled. 

Another area of revelation that is neglected by Mrs. Miller is that known as natural. God has revealed his will in both natural and supernatural modes; creation/providence and Scripture. Natural revelation includes the created order itself, the providential government of that created order, and man’s own being. That which is revealed in the natural is either repeated by the supernatural or assumed. The existence of God is never argued for in Scripture. The reason for this is that He is sufficiently revealed in nature (Psalm 19, Romans 1, WCF 1.1). But the existence of God is stated and assumed in all of Scripture. I cite this one example of supernatural revelation incorporating the content of natural revelation to prove this point: in order to understand Scripture you must have an eye to nature. For it is nature as created and fallen that the revelation of the Gospel is directed at redeeming. Mrs. Miller neglects this portion of God’s revelation to the detriment of her argument.

This highlights the problem in modern discussions among the Reformed. Just as God has not limited himself to Scripture in revealing his will, so also modern debates within Reformed theology ought not to be limited to determining what is “biblical or extra biblical.” The Bible is not the only book God has given us. But, to elaborate this topic would require another paper for another time. Suffice it to say here that it is an unbiblical standard to restrict a discussion about the nature of men and women to the Bible. “Does not even nature itself teach you…” (1 Cor. 11:14)?

What this neglect of nature results in is skewed exegesis of relevant passages. Paul’s doctrine in 1 Tim. 2 is the oft cited example. But what of other passages that touch on this subject? The key to understanding what those passages mean is appreciating the underlying nature of men and women from which they arise. Passages like Genesis 18:11, Deuteronomy 22:5, 1 Peter 3:1-7, Isaiah 3:12, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 16:13, and Psalms 128:3 all either assume some aspect of natural revelation, as it relates to the nature of men and women, or repeat it in summary form. There are many more. Neglecting the category of nature as created and fallen results in skewed exegesis and ultimately a misappropriation of Scripture based upon a misapprehension of it. This is the state of the debate today as evidenced in Mrs. Miller’s recent book.

She next cites the Westminster Standards for a definition of what the Bible is supposed to teach us.  She uses Shorter Catechism Q & A 3 to do this.  “The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that the Scriptures teach what we are to “believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of [us].””[5]  There are several concerning elements in this quote.  First, changing the language of the Catechism is not an encouraging sign.  As most Presbyterians know, the third answer in the catechism reads “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.”  The intentional omission of the first reference to “man” and the alteration of the second to “[us]” is worrisome.  The question may legitimately be asked, why?  What is the purpose of this editorializing? 

This change also highlights the lacuna mentioned above.  In English, the term “man” can refer to humanity as a whole or to men in contrast to women.  In WSC Q & A 3, it is obvious that this term refers to humanity as a whole.  But why use the term “man” to refer to mankind?  The reason is ontological.  Humanity in general and in particular derives its identity from the male.  Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, but Eve was formed from the rib of Adam.  Her origin is from the male.  Individually, we all derive our identity from our male head.  Hence, the last name that you bear.  This is reflected in Scripture as well.  The daughters of Zelophehad were women, but their identity is derived from their father, Zelophehad.  Hence, the term “man” serves both as a term for humanity and for the male.  The use of this term is not merely a linguistic accident.  It is rooted in the relevant ontology of men and women.  Lacking this category, she cannot leave the term “man” in the Catechism but flattens it out to “[us].”  Finally, this edit tips Mrs. Miller’s hand to the fact that she will argue for the ontological equivalence of men and women such that there is no real difference between them. But it is the differences of ontology that make all the relevant difference.

Lacuna in the Wall

Chapter 7 is where Mrs. Miller brings up the exaggerated problem of the Eternal Subordination of the Son.  This topic is an ontological one since it is an explanation of how the Trinity exists in itself.  The doctrine itself is false, for the Son is equal with the Father in all things.  This is due to the doctrine of divine simplicity which teaches that God, in his essence, is simple and uncomposed.  Eternal subordination teaches that there is composition in the divine essence with two wills at work, that of the Father and of the Son.  For, submission is an act of the will and requires two separate wills to be proper.  But, if the Son submits to the Father, then there are two wills in God, the superior will of the Father and the inferior will of the Son.  But, if there are two wills in God, then God is no longer simple and hence no longer God.

Some complementarians have used this doctrine (ESS) to ground their teaching of the subordination of the wife to the husband in the ontological Trinity.  Some in that camp have altered the doctrine to the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son (EFS), but this is a distinction without a difference.  Anti-complementarians, like Mrs. Miller, have latched onto this error in theology proper to refute complementarian teaching on the relation between husbands and wives.  “If their teaching on wifely submission to her husband is based on a heretical Trinitarian scheme, then their teaching on wifely submission is false.”  So, the logic goes.  The implicit logic of Mrs. Miller’s position is that since the Son and the Father are God, equal in power and glory (that is, ontologically), then men and women are equal (ontologically). 

But all of this is irrelevant.  The question in hand is one dealing with created ontology, not uncreated ontology. 

Because Mrs. Miller has neglected to deal with the relevant ontology, the thesis of her book is unproven and hence fails.  However much we may agree on the equality of men and women as images of God, as fallen, and as redeemed in Christ, that does not remove the stubborn reality of ontological differences. At the most basic level, human ontology is composite of body and soul, biological and psychological. It is the intimate union and interpenetration of these two facets of being human that constitute the created ontology of “humanness.” The differences in our biology reflect differences in our souls.  Women are created to nurture life.  It is evident in their biology.  But this biological evidence is an expression of a spiritual reality.  Psychologically, women were made to nurture and relate to other people. 

Men were created to tame and rule.  Their biological make up is geared for this.  Hence, men are simply stronger, faster, tougher, and rougher than women on average.  But this biological evidence reflects a spiritual reality in men as well.  Men are much more likely to spar and debate ideas, with complete disregard for their interlocutor’s feelings, than women.  And after a knock-down, drag-out verbal or physical fight, they can shake hands and remain friends.  The reason for this is that it takes a certain level of objectivity and hardness in regards to others’ feelings to lead.  At some point, the boat needs to be shoved away from the dock, regardless of your hydrophobia. 

Regarding the historical sections of Mrs. Miller’s book, all I will say here is that in her account of the influences on the western church, she has neglected the entire middle period. From the fall of Rome in the 5th century to the Wars of Religion in the 17th century, the third leg of the cultural stool that formed the western tradition was a German one. Christianized after Charlemagne, this culture gave it’s own flavor to the West that is distinct from the Greek and Roman.  As recorded by Tacitus (De Origine et Situ Germanorum, 18-19), the pagan Germans honored monogamy and discouraged fornication. Their women were honored and valued. Now, Roman historians are not neutral witnesses. But, whether Tacitus is being completely honest or is playing things up to shame his fellow Romans, we have an ancient testimony, from a Roman, to the goodness of marital virtue. For his point to stick, his culture either had to value marital fidelity or the Germans were actually like this. But, on Mrs. Miller assumptions, all cultures prior to ours devalued women and saw them only as sexual objects to be abused or treated as children. But this was not the case with the ancient Germans. And it was this German influence, baptized by Boniface, that gave us the medieval picture of society. This exposes the chink in Mrs. Miller’s historical argument.

The best illustration of the German influence on the West as it relates to the roles of men and women is the story of King Alfred and the cakes.

Alfred was on the lam from the Danes and found refuge in the home of a Saxon matron. He was disguised when he came there so as to lay low. The matron tasked him with watching her cakes that were cooking in the oven. But the much tried king was distracted with the cares of his kingdom (at that time, overrun by the Danes). The cakes and the matron got burned. She chided him, not knowing he was her sovereign. But he, and this is the critical part, did not assert his authority nor an understandable excuse of his troubles as king. He took his tongue lashing and apologized.

What this story illustrates is the ideal, encased in the Middle Ages, of graded authority. Alfred was king in Wessex. The matron was queen in her kitchen. And Alfred, the Christian king, knew his place in both settings. Mrs. Miller’s historical analysis is skewed at best, misleading at worst. This is due to her neglect of the relevant ontology and the providential development of the West along with all the relevant influences contributing to that development.

The final element of the Medieval period that bears upon this question and is neglected by Mrs. Miller is the chivalric code. This can be summarized by the three “L’s.” It was said that a good knight fought for his Heavenly Lord, his earthly Lord, and his Lady, in that order. What this highlights is that in the Middle Ages, the ideal of masculine strength (the knight) was directed to using that strength in service of God, King, and Maiden. But this whole picture is neglected by Mrs. Miller, as it is by many moderns, and thus any help that this would have given to her thesis is lost.

The chivalric ideal, though, will never fit the modern world. The reason for this is that the Medieval mind was bred upon order and distinction. For the chivalric code to be an operative ethic, you must first accept the metaphysic undergirding it. Basic to that metaphysic was the ontological difference between men and women. If women are just the same as men, they do not need a knight to rescue them. They can rescue themselves.

But, if the knight has no dragon to slay and no maid to rescue, then there is no place for his strength. For crusades and conquests are rare. Being strong for your woman is a daily quest. Thus, if you reject the metaphysic of the Medieval period, you don’t elevate women. You degrade men and destroy women. For, dragons are real and women cannot slay them.

St. George and the Dragon

As this is a review of Mrs. Miller’s book and not the place to develop these thoughts further, I leave you with this. 

Men were created to be masculine.  Women were created to be feminine.  The grace of Christ redeems our fallen created natures to once again live as we were created to live; men as men and women as women.  The grace of Christ does not make men and women interchangeable entities that can perform the same disembodied acts of piety.  We are embodied from creation, through the fall, and unto redemption.  And it is the body that indicates what it means to be a man or a woman. 

Queen Victoria and her Family

The fear of the present writer is that the feminist air in which the modern Reformed live and breathe and have our theological being is harming our ladies. By constantly being told that they should make as much money as men, occupy the same law enforcement and military roles as men, serve in the same governmental offices as men, and perform the same functions in the church as men (save ordination, at least for now), women are being told that to be valuable they should strive to be men.

Ladies, God did not create you to be a man. He created you to be a woman. You do not need to be an inferior man. I would have you be a superior woman, fully living out, in Christ, your femininity where God has called you to live. The thesis of books like “Beyond Authority and Submission” undermines your God given nature as woman. For, if the body is ignored, then you are just the same as a man. But your body is a stubborn thing. Do not ignore it. If you do, where will the next generation of God’s people come from? If not you, then who? Without women acting as mothers, the church will die. Look at Europe.

Gnosticism is an old error; but it seems to be wearing new clothes. 


[1] Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission (Phillipsburg, NJ: Prebyterian and Reformed, 2019)., 17.

[2] Note that in the paragraph cited above Mrs. Miller alters the traditional word order of “men and women” to “women and men.”  This is a rhetorical device called fronting.  The fronted element of a phrase or clause is the emphasized element.  I will continue to use the traditional order of “men and women” because this is tradition and because the relevant ontology of men and women is the reason that this usage has become traditional.  I merely point this out here to call attention to a facet of these discussions that is often neglected, rhetoric.  Language matters.  Newspeak, in our society, is not as blatant as it was in EngSoc, but it serves the same function; to train the mind of the audience in thought patterns that ease the infusion of revolutionary ideas.  I do not believe that Mrs. Miller consciously seeks revolution with her ideas.  I do believe she is using rhetorical devices she has picked up from authors that do seek revolution. 

[3] Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission., 17. 

[4] Green Miller., 32.

[5] Green Miller., 36.  Mrs. Miller does not call attention to her change of the language of Westminster Q&A 3 on this page nor in her footnote.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: “Beyond Authority and Submission” by Rachel Green Miller

  1. Great post.

    The feminists in the Reformed camp, Miller et al, are deaf to criticism because other Aquila Report writers such as Bill Smith have offered similar criticisms to this Christian feminist movement and have been ignored.

    Nature speaks clearly in many places, which is why WLC 151 states that some sins are more heinous than others if they are against the light of nature. Feminism is a heinous sin because nature (Creation) is very clear about men and women and their roles and purpose. Nature is so clear that unbelievers understand the differences and roles without any special revelation to inform them. Suzanne Venker says many of the same things as you but is not a believer AFAIK. Louann Brizendine has written books on the congitive differences between men and women. The Dept of Defense studied the physical difference decades prior to our disastrous inclusion of women in combat roles. It’s even clear from observing boys and girls in Sunday school: they’re different and have different roles.

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  2. I have not read her book. I do think she is one of the “Theology Gals” from the podcast, and I have listened to that a few times, and they seem pretty solid. I’m pretty sure she knows her Reformed systematics, but you didn’t quote any text from a well thought of Reformed Systematic book that would have argued against her claims. That gets to the real issue that i see with your review. You spill a lot of words to say very little. You said a lot about how she just wrote from a biblical theology perspective, and that it needed a systematic theology perspective, and also you point out how she neglected to appeal to the extra Biblical understanding of nature, and so you claim that skewed her biblical exegesis. That claim alone has to be some kind of logic error by the way, because it’s a claim that the scriptures point us outside of the scripture to interpret nature, which we could only do subjectively, which you claim then gives us the proper interpretive principles to understand the scriptures. Can you name a well thought of theologian from history who taught us to do that? What these kinds of statements of yours amount to are just sweeping statements. Big claims with no support. You need to develop more evidence to support your premise, or else it’s just an unsupported claim.

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  3. Thank you for writing a Biblically thoughtful and tasteful review on this topic. It is a good service.

    I am an older Christian woman, married 30 years to the same man. I have looked long and hard at this seemingly faceted argument. It is a sorrowful temptation to grasp at that which God has made plain and then declare otherwise. Our intellect gets in the way, as it was the same with Eve. Ten years ago I wrestled with this unbiblical idea myself. The two camps could not both be right. I was unsettled, and God is not fickle.

    Only until I inquired of Him and landed on my knees before the face of a holy God was I able to settle the matter firm, the place where all arguments cease.

    To peer through the lattice of His magnificent Truth and see His perfect design, to understand “He created them male and female” for His glory and good purpose is to agree with God. Anything less is defiance.

    A Biblical and systematic theology informs, equips, and aids us in our ability to stand and defend that which has already been made plain in nature.

    In the end, after all the books and blog posts and debates have stated their case, His Word remains forever settled.

    This heated issue can be distilled into this one flaming fire reality: either one is living in holy submission to His Word or he is not.

    But

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