January 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 1 · pp. 36–40 

What the Books Say: A Bibliographic Essay

Rebekah Burch Basinger

The role of women in the church has been brought into question more in the past two decades than at any time since Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and other outstanding women of the 19th century passed from the scene. As a result of this renewed interest in the “women’s problem,” books about women, the Bible and the church abound.

Sorting through the barrage of books which yearly comes off the press can be a difficult task at best. Book jackets and publisher’s blurbs are not always reliable sources of information. A common complaint of persons seeking books on the changing roles of women in the church is that they are often fooled by the words “woman” or “liberation” in titles of books that have nothing to do with change.

In an effort to identify books which truly and meaningfully speak to the question of women’s place in the church, this essay will survey some of the books issued or reissued in the past few years whose reflections on this topic have influenced thought in religious circles. I have included books in this survey that should be of interest to a variety of persons for a variety of reasons. Inclusion does not necessarily signify my agreement with the views they advocate.


In order to understand what is being said today about women in the church, we need at least a nodding acquaintance with what has been said in the past. Philosophy of Women: Classical to Current Concepts, edited by Mary Briody Mahowald (Hackett), provides the reader with an opportunity to look at some important primary sources. The book covers a wide range of philosophical influences and draws from opposing approaches to the topic.

For a broad overview of the religious history of women, Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Rosemary Ruether (Simon and Schuster), Women in Christian Tradition by George H. Tavard (University of Notre Dame), “Whither Womankind?” The Humanity of Woman by Robert Kress {37} (Abbey), and the recently released, Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, also edited by Rosemarv Ruether along with Eleanor McLaughlin (Simon and Schuster), are all excellent historical summaries. Along similar lines, Women and World Religions by Denise Lardner Carmody (Abingdon), and Beyond Androcentrism, edited by Rita Gross (Scholars), review the historical role of women in the world’s major religions.

There are also books available which cover specific time periods such as Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy and Women of the Reformation in France and England, both by the Yale church historian, Roland Bainton (Augsburg), and Women’s Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present by Shiela Rothman (Basic). Such books are helpful in that they bring to light the lives of individual women.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible (1895, reissued by the Seattle Coalition Task Force on Women and Religion, 1974), is considered by many to be one of the important documents in the religious history of women. God’s Word to Women: 100 Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Divine Economy by Katherine C. Bushnell (reprinted by Ray B. Munson) is a classic attempt by a woman to defend feminism through a careful analysis of Scripture.

The need by women of more personalized histories seems to be evident in the appearance of three recent books: Full Circle: Stories of Mennonite Women, edited by Mary Lou Cummings (Faith and Life); Our Struggle to Serve: The Stories of 15 Evangelical Women, edited by Virginia Hearn (Word) and the very recently released, Women Among the Brethren: Stories of 15 Mennonite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Women, edited by Katie Funk Wiebe (Mennonite Brethren Board of Christian Literature). These new books join older collections of biographies such as Wisdom from Women in the Bible and Great Women of the Christian Faith by Edith Deen (Harper), Thirteen Americans: Their Spiritual Autobiographies edited by Finkelstein (Harper) and Daughters of the Promised Land, by Page Smith (Little, Brown & Co.) in providing, in print, much needed mentors for the young women of today.


The question of how much leadership women should assume in the church is ultimately a matter of hermeneutics. Evangelicals deal with the “women passages” in three basic ways. The first method has been to apply the passages, particularly those attributed to Paul, in a very literal way to today’s situation. This method is perhaps most clearly set down in The Role of Women in the Church, by C.C. Ryrie (Moody). Ryrie interprets {38} the Pauline passages to mean that women may assume leadership in the church only when there are no men available to lead. Ryrie defines the role of women as “subordination and honor in the home, silence and helpfulness in the church, according to the teaching and pattern in the New Testament” (p. 146). This hermeneutical approach is also the basis for Richard DeHaan’s Male, Female, Unisex (Radio Bible Class Booklet).

Although most of the books written especially for women do not deal with the ordination of women, they speak to this issue by the roles which they assign to women. A Woman’s Personal Workbook: Growing, Sharing, Serving, by Jo Berry (David C. Cook), lists women’s service opportunities under such headings as nursery, tutoring and preparing food. What Every Woman Still Knows, by Mildren Cooper and Martha Fanning (Bantam), You Can Be the Wife of a Happy Husband by Darien Cooper (Victor), and The Fulfilled Woman by Lou Beardsley and Toni Spry (Harvest House), a few of the recent books for women, are all based on the premise that most women are wives and mothers and that being in the home is the choice role which God has given to women. That women are subordinate to men and that men should hold all positions of authority both in the home and the church is clearly the underlying assumption of these books.

Women Liberated by Lois Gunden Clemens (Herald Press) should not be omitted. This sensitively written book, which was first presented in lecture form as a part of the Conrad Grebel Lecture Series, explores the results of applying this hermeneutic approach to passages dealing with women. In her conclusions Ms. Clemens gently calls men and women to join together to fulfill the purposes of the church in the world.

A second hermeneutical method has been to read the problem passages in the light of their historical context. This is the approach taken by Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty in All We’re Meant to Be (Word), Krister Stendahl in The Bible and The Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics (Fortress Press), Dennis R. Kuhns in Women in the Church (Herald Press), and Richard and Joyce Boldrey in Chauvinist or Feminist? Paul’s View of Women (Baker).

The authors who approach the Scripture from this point of view assert that although the men who wrote the Bible at times spoke to a specific cultural situation, what they wrote is based on timeless truths and is in many respects countercultural. This approach seems to hold that Paul would have given women equal status in the church if he could have, but his times would not allow it.

A third method of interpretation emphasizes the humanness of the biblical authors. Thus Paul and other New Testament writers were not just confined by their culture, but rather were products of their culture. {39} This is the view presented by Virginia Mollenkott in Women, Men and the Bible (Abingdon) and Paul Jewett in Man as Male and Female (Eerdmans). These authors feel that Paul thought of women as subordinate to men. They emphasize the tension present in Paul’s writings between spiritual equality of the sexes and male headship.


Many good books are available for use in discussion groups. To Be Free by Frieda Armstrong (Fortress) and Christian Freedom for Women* (*and Other Human Beings) by Harry N. Hollis (Broadman) are both good for young adult groups, while the Shalom Woman by Margaret Wold (Augsburg) is especially suited to women over forty. Alan Graebner’s After Eve (Augsburg) will meet the need of women who need a man to say it’s okay for them to be liberated. And Elizabeth and Perry Yoder’s New Men, New Roles (Faith and Life) tells men they, too, can be liberated. Woman in a Man’s Church by Arlene Swidler (Paulist Press) brings men and women together in a study of the church. Although this book is written for Catholics, it is easily adapted to Protestant groups. The paperback edition of All We’re Meant to Be also includes a study guide.


Although most of the books already mentioned include chapters concerning the ordination of women, several books look at this topic in greater detail. Margaret Ermarth’s Adam’s Fractured Rib (Fortress Press) provides an excellent overview of the status of women’s ordination in most major denominations. Women and Orders by Robert J. Heyer (Paulist Press) is a collection of essays which present both sides of the argument.

When the Minister is a Woman by Elsie Gibson (Holt, Rinehart & Winston) and Women is a Strange Land edited by Clare Benedicks Fischer, Betsy Brenneman and Anne McGrew Bennett (Fortress) both contain the personal experiences of women ministers. Womanpriest by Alla Bozarth-Campbell (Paulist) is the autobiography of one of the first women ordained as a priest by the Episcopal Church. Breathrough: Women in Religion by Betsy Covington Smith (Walker) tells the stories of four ordained women—two Episcopal priests, a Jewish rabbi, and a black Methodist minister.


A few books defy classification, so I conclude with these titles. Women in Church and Society by Georgia Harkness (Abingdon) aims {40} to be both descriptive and constructive, both historical and theological. It is well worth the reader’s time. The Apostle Paul and Women in the Church by Don Williams (Regal) includes an exposition of every text in the Pauline epistles referring to women. Williams seems to come down somewhere between the first and second hermeneutical approaches. A final book is In Search of God’s Ideal Women by Dorothy Pape (Inter Varsity). This book is a result of Mrs. Pape’s personal struggle to find her place in the church. It covers much territory and is based on extensive research. At times the text wanders and is a little vague, but for the most part, this book is an excellent contribution to literature about women’s role in the church.

Rebekah Burch Basinger is director of information services at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, and teaches the course “Women in Church and Society.”