File Name: The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth
Author : Beth Allison Barr
ISBN : 9781587434709
Format : Paperback 256 pages
Genre : Nonfiction, History, Christian, Feminism, Religion, Womens, Christianity, Theology, Faith, Church,
Rating: it was amazing
This is a searing indictment of the church as it pertains to how religious leaders have misused Scripture to subordinate women. Barr's historical expertise coupled with the many examples of women who served as leaders/teachers in the 1st century church expose the misogyny that fuels rigid complementarianism and broken patriarchy. It's a bold book and one that makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, we might move toward creating a church where men and women are truly equal.
Rating: it was amazing
The Making of Biblical Womanhood will kill Christian evangelical patriarchy, if we let it. Unfortunately, the very premise of Beth Allison Barr’s incisive work is that we won’t—or, at least, we haven’t—in nearly two thousand years of New Testament church history. Barr goes beyond a theological discussion of complementarianism vs. egalitarianism and instead regales readers with a compelling historical blow-by-blow account of the creation of Christian patriarchy and how it stands counter to the Gospel. Intertwining history, theology, and present-day reality, Barr pulls back the curtain to lay bare the damage that patriarchal thinking has done throughout history.
Barr writes with an intimate knowledge of the evangelical patriarchy. She works in academia at a Baptist university. She grew up in a church system of complementarianism. Her husband attended seminary at Southeastern Baptist. Barr has lived and worked within the Southern Baptist Church, the most well-known, palatable home of Christian evangelical conservatism and complementarianism. This personal experience combines with her own faith journey that led her out of those unhealthy beliefs (even as she remains somewhat tethered to the system), makes her uniquely positioned to understand complementarian beliefs and the unhealthy systems that result from it.
And, if you are a complementarian, you’re already attacking the book on the basis of its egalitarian theological interpretations. I know you are. And I know that there is little chance of successfully making this argument on theological grounds because it’s so entrenched that many patriarchal systems have made it a make-or-break litmus test for orthodoxy. Saying that women can preach or lead is akin to saying Jesus rots in his tomb. In such a vitriolic debate, it’s difficult to maintain an objective perspective. But if you just could…just for a bit…I think you’d find Barr’s theological arguments compelling.
This isn’t the place for a full theological critique, but let me say that although Barr is a historian, she writes with theological passion and precision. On balance, I find her arguments for egalitarianism more convincing than the arguments for complementarianism—which, she notes, we ought just to call patriarchy. The second chapter “What If Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come From Paul?” is The Making of Biblical Womanhood’s theological lynchpin. The usual argument is that, to believe that women can lead churches is to disbelieve Paul. Barr boldly leads us into a different reading of Paul: one that interprets him in light of his cultural situation and context. Paul’s purpose isn’t to emphasize male authority or female submission, instead Barr writes that they are a “resistance narrative to Roman patriarchy.”
The most prominent example of this contextual reading of Paul comes in the classic “women are to be silent” passage. Barr writes how her church resisted her as a last-minute youth Sunday School substitute. Not because she was unqualified—she was a university professor who taught high school through graduate students—but because she was a woman. Women don’t teach men, even if those “men” are aged thirteen. After discussion, Barr is allowed to act as a “facilitator”—she can go through the sermon questions from the week before—but isn’t allowed to teach. Why not? 1 Cor. 14:33-36.
After telling her personal experience, Barr attacks that interpretation with fervor. She dives into the history of Rome to give historical context. She then suggests that Paul isn’t admonishing the believers to adhere to this practice, but is stating what the common practice is before refuting it. Paul does this elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, perhaps taking from Jesus who employed the technique in his Sermon on the Mount. Her conclusion: Far from saying that women should be silent, Paul is telling men that, in the world of Jesus, women are allowed to speak:
“‘It is shameful for a woman to speak in church.’ [Paul quotes] What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” – 1 Cor 14:35-36, RSV
With the theological case put to rest—at least, as strongly and convincingly as she can, which, to me seems pretty darn convincing—Barr moves onward toward a history of women in leadership from the medieval age onward. Interweaving these accounts from history with her own story, Barr inexorably shows how little we have progressed—and, indeed, perhaps regressed—from those ancient times. It was particularly eye-opening to see how the Protestant Reformation was, in many ways, a net negative for the inclusion of women in ministry.
The closing chapters of The Making of Biblical Womanhood are a clarion call for change. Barr brings the historical discussion into modern focus as she shows what affect patriarchal thinking has on Christian homes and institutions, particularly as it relates to the #ChuchToo movement and the cover-up of sexual abuse within the church. It’s a powerful call that, given Christian patriarchy’s bad fruit, we must seriously consider if it is part of the true vine.
For me, there can be no doubt: Jesus presents women as ministry leaders. I am writing this article one week before Christmas—an event in which the central characters are women. Elizabeth and Mary preach the Gospel as Zechariah and Joseph are silent. At Easter, it is the women who preach the Good News to the men. Bookending Jesus’s earthly ministry is incontrovertible proof that women can preach and teach and lead. The Making of Biblical Womanhood deconstructs patriarchal thinking and portrays it as the harmful system it is.
Rating: it was amazing
Beth Allison Barr masterfully synthesizes the stories of women throughout church history to show how the Evangelical idea of "Biblical Womanhood" was born. She mainly focuses on three time periods: the early church, the medieval era (her area of expertise), and the 20th century to the present.
Barr's examples of women in ministry in the early church (and modern attempts to minimize, dismiss, or deflect from that work) will not be news to those who have been studying the debate over complementarianism. However, the work of these women in the biblical texts is so marginalized in conservative evangelicalism that Barr's treatment of the texts is vital to the conversation.
Barr often gives examples of medieval perceptions of Biblical figures and saints, demonstrating the comfortability of medieval thinkers relative to modern evangelicals regarding women's roles. However, she does not offer sufficient commentary on the veracity of legendary accounts or the validity of conflating Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene, for example.
Barr's argument is bolstered by her explanation of how the Protestant Reformation created a "cult of domesticity", leading the removal of women from ministry roles and public work and shoehorning them into wifehood and motherhood. Barr's examples of women in ministry post-Reformation (despite consistent efforts to suppress them) show how remarkably new the "orthodox" teaching of complementarity is to church history. By shedding light on how conservative evangelicals created the doctrine of inerrancy and resurrected Arianism in order to suppress the status of women in the church, Barr effectively hammers the final nail in the coffin of 'biblical womanhood'.
This book should be required reading for anyone in the evangelical sphere who has been led to believe that complementarianism is biblically faithful and has been the dominant teaching through church history. Patriarchy by any other name is still sin, and Christ's people should not lag behind the world in eradicating it.
Rating: it was amazing
Patriarchy and the subjugation of women have become part and parcel of evangelical Christianity in America. Beth Allison Barr analyzes this close relationship through an historical and theological context and reveals that, rather than uphold a centuries-old tradition of womanhood, strict gender roles and complementarianism are actually the result of specific cultural and economic moments in history.
Not only through questioning the translation and interpretation of specific biblical passages, but also through analyzing the writings and lives of specific women throughout church history, Barr illustrates the rich inheritance and influence women have in Christianity. I learned a lot about medieval women and was both fascinated and not surprised by the negative impact the Reformation and Enlightenment had on women (while simultaneously elevating men). In her words, we have a great cloud of female witnesses throughout the history of Christianity, and we would do well to remember these women. (Also I would love an anthology of some of the greatest women preachers, teachers, and writers of various denominations. Perhaps an idea for another book?)
I blew through this book in less than 24 hours because I could not put it down. It was everything I needed to read in this moment, and I will certainly be buying a physical copy and will forever reference it.
Thank you to Netgalley, the author, and Brazos Press for the eARC in exchange for my review.
Rating: really liked it
There are quite a number of topics that Christians disagree about, but one that generates far more heat than light is the subject of "biblical womanhood." Lines in the sand have been drawn, and people have taken sides. There is more talking past one another than dialogue and reading for the sake of owning one's opponents rather than respectful engagement. So I give a lot of credit to Baylor history professor, Beth Allison Barr, for entering into the fray with her book, "The Making of Biblical Womanhood."
As a specialist in medieval and woman's history, Barr approaches this topic as a historian primarily but also as a Christian and Baptist pastor's wife. Thus the book traces the history of how the world and the church have treated women down through the ages. This is to demonstrate:
- Although the subordination of women is historical, it may not necessarily be biblical.
- Historically the church has not uniformly nor consistently forbade women in leadership.
- We may be influenced by our culture more than we realize or want to admit, and we may have imported those ideals and preferences into our views of women and men. We may have called "biblical" that which is secular in origin.
The book begins with ancient near East history, looks at Paul's writings on household codes, the life of women in the church during the Medieval period, the Reformation's effect on women, how translation of the Bible has shaped our understanding regarding the place of women in the church, a brief history of women preachers and teachers in the early 20th century, the sanctification of modesty and domesticity, and the recent controversy over tweaking the Trinity to support a particular view of marriage. Quite a bit of ground is covered for a relatively short book, but it's not just a history text. The author weaves the story of her journey out of Christian patriarchy into the chapters.
Although, this book has not convinced me to change my position on female ordination (a 2nd tier issue IMO), I learned quite a bit. My knowledge of Medieval history is next to nil so it was fascinating to learn about Margery Kempe and other godly women in that era. It was also interesting to read the stories of female evangelists during the early 20th century in Baptist and black denominations. It was also more than a little disconcerting to read that Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's view of women could have come verbatim from the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Incidentally, Barr's take on the Apostle Paul's household codes is very similar to my pastor's view that these were radical compared to the Greco-Roman culture.
I do wish the book was a bit longer, though. I would have loved greater exploration of how the Enlightenment influenced gender and the stereotyping of emotion as feminine and rationality as masculine. It would have also been interesting to get a historical perspective that was non-European. Maybe the author will favor us with a 2nd book.
However, my main takeaways are the questions that this book has raised about historical and cultural biases and misperceptions that have been baptized as biblical. If we are to be people of the truth, we should be challenged if we are making our cultural preferences transcendent for the global church. We should be willing to learn from those who have gone before us and learn from fellow believers who we may disagree with in some areas. And I think you will learn from "The Making of Biblical Womanhood."
Rating: it was amazing
Writers read. We read for pleasure, for learning, and to understand the world. We read new ideas, old ideas, innovative ideas. We read to understand ourselves and others. We read to unplug from our own writing. We read to see different styles of writing, to read analytically and critically. We read to educate ourselves and grow. We read to investigate. We read with a keen eye for different perspectives. We read.
Nothing else has shifted my perspective on who God made women to be, like The Making of Biblical Womanhood. I became a believer 36 years ago, at age 18, during the height of the evangelical movement. Evangelical is all I’ve ever known. For a long time, I questioned why women, who were the ones to bear the Son of God and preach that Jesus was risen, were at the same time quieted in churches, quieted in marriages. It never really settled right with me. But, like a good Christian, I accepted what the churches taught about Paul’s direction for women, but “could we have missed Paul’s point (again)?” I also accepted when the church taught that slavery, while we see it in the Word as ancient cultural custom, obviously wasn’t acceptable for our time. But not so with women. And I always wondered, isn’t there something different about how we see women now? But the church said no, women are the same as they’ve always been, subjugated. But it always made me wonder.
When I had an opportunity to receive an ARC of this book, I jumped at it, because, writers read.
Dr. Beth Allison Barr, a full professor at Baylor University, is a medieval historian, a Baptist, and a pastor’s wife. Her extensive research of the medieval church and post-Reformation era lays the foundation for her conclusions.
One thing has never changed, the Word has always shown us to be separated from the world, to not be conformed to the thinking of the world, to be in the world, but not of it. This isn’t new thinking. It’s the same thinking Paul had when he exhorted people who were off track. In typical Paul fashion, he was addressing them in the same method of debating that they were used to hearing in Rome. Remember, he’s the guy who said “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b-23) He was pointing out the way the Romans lived, and exhorting this body of believers to stand apart, to be separated, and not be conformed to the Roman way of thinking. A message that continues today. And in fact, during Medieval times, women historically held positions as leaders and pastors in the church.
So, what happened between then and now? Dr. Barr provides strong evidence to support that biblical womanhood is not actually biblical at all. “As a historian, I knew that women were kept out of leadership roles in my own congregation because Roman patriarchy had seeped back into the early church. Instead of ditching pagan Rome and embracing Jesus, we had done the opposite – ditching the freedom of Christ and embracing the oppression of the ancient world.” It was purely about control to keep women in their “place.” Rather than the church being separate, the church became conformed to the Roman world, which subjugated women. And as the evangelical movement grew, these ideas became doctrine, but they were never actually biblical. “Jesus set women free a long time ago.” Because, Jesus gave women freedom. And this is where we find ourselves now. Highly recommend!! Go, be free, friend!
There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
Rating: really liked it
A compelling read with a message I thoroughly endorse. After reading this, I am convinced that complementarianism is patriarchy and I can no longer make distinctions between the two.
Barr's main premise is that evangelicals think that by holding onto traditional gender roles, they are not conforming to the secular world--that they are "in the world but not of it". Barr's background as a historian of the Medieval time period informs her argument that traditional gender roles are rooted in secular culture, not theology. The Bible paints a different picture of female church leaders, teachers, and preachers in history than what we hear in contemporary evangelical theology.
The book takes a historical rather than theological perspective since its written by a historian. At times, I got bored and skimmed through large sections of Medieval church history, wanting to get to the theological implications of that history. The book is strongest when Barr focuses on how the roles of women have changed and evolved over time and how our theological interpretations and understandings of women's roles have evolved over time. It was less interesting to me when it focused on people throughout history, yet I understand that this is Barr's expertise.
Many books have been written about this issue from both sides of theology, and the uniqueness of this author's voice and perspective does lie in her background as a historian. Her exposition of history supports her thesis that the subordination of women is not evangelical, but secular, and was appropriated by evangelicals, who claimed that it was "gospel truth" rather than just historial and cultural. The insistence that patriarchy is biblical maintains the power differential between men and women in the Church. The subjugation of women continues to give complementarians their power.
This book has a powerful message with the potential to shatter evangelical's tightly-held beliefs in "biblical womanhood". I hope it succeeds.
Rating: it was amazing
"Biblical Womanhood" is not, in fact, biblical.
This is the key message that flows throughout Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr's informative and engaging "The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth," due to be released by Baker Academic & Brazos Press in April 2021.
If you know me, you won't be surprised that I embrace this key message.
It's a key message that acknowledges historical truths, truths of which Barr is well aware, and yet it's also a key message that faces passionate rejection to this day by many within conservative evangelical circles.
The simple truth is that "Biblical Womanhood," or the belief that God designed women to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers, is less about biblical adherence and far more about the ways that human civilization creeps its way into church teachings and church polity and church practice.
To read "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" is to take a journey through not only biblical history, but also Beth Allison Barr's own journey. She weaves together beautifully historical truths and personal testimony, taking us through precise historical moments that perpetuated the continuation of biblical womanhood while also giving us glimpses, at times quite painful ones, of her own journey within evangelical complementarianism and the moments that finally made it all fall apart for her.
I certainly do not understand what it feels like to be a woman in ministry. However, as a person with a disability who has served in ministry I do have some understanding of the societal blinders that cause the gifts of many to be rejected or minimized. Because of a body that seldom acts like I wish it would act, I have a very clear understanding of what it feels like to have my ability questioned.
Over and over and over again.
I suppose I'm glad that, somehow, I grew up differently. It's weird, really. I grew up a Jehovah's Witness, a denomination that certainly did not embrace women in leadership roles. Yet, I also grew up with spina bifida, a disability that caused me to have well over 50 surgeries before I was 18-years-old and to be told repeatedly that I could never survive and never thrive. Quite honestly, I survived because of the skill and the strength and the passion and the tenderness of women. While I certainly had males who treated me, much of my childhood was spent around female nurses and aides who believed in me when no one else did.
I thrived because they refused to allow me not to thrive.
Once I was away from the Jehovah's Witnesses, though I should say kicked out for the first of what would be two experiences with churches telling me to leave, I began to realize there was a different kind of God I'd never experienced. By my early 20's, I joined a small interfaith church led by a former nun who would mentor me and whose church would eventually ordain me.
It was the first of several experiences of women in ministry that made me study and learn and seek to understand. Just this past year, as I entered a hospital for what would be my third amputation, I recall the steady presence of Rev. Anastassia, an incredible minister whose presence stays with me even as she has departed for a pastoral position on the East Coast.
"The Making of Biblical Womanhood" made me shout. It made me ache. Like Barr, I understand what it's like to stay someplace because it's familiar and safe and family and the alternative is scary.
I also understand what it's like to kick myself for doing so.
"The Making of Biblical Womanhood" is extraordinarily researched, yet it's equally as remarkable in its transparency and vulnerability and absolute presence. Barr refuses to hide behind her choices, acknowledging all those little difficult places in her journey that helped her finally reach this point of say "No more."
She shares the journey of her life, her college days and her marital journey including a journey with her husband that is best experienced through her own words but is quite revealing and memorable.
There are very few writers, Kate Bowler perhaps being one of the best, who can so expertly weave together such precise and comprehensive research along with rich, emotionally resonant personal testimony. The beauty and the power of "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" is that it does both in abundance.
"The Making of Biblical Womanhood" goes beyond the exploration of Greek grammar into the realms of ancient, medieval, and modern history to explore the cultural influences that created and continue to foster biblical womanhood. She weaves in stories from her own experiences as a Baptist pastor's wife and, appropriately so, explores the #ChurchToo movement and the abuse controversies that have plagued Southern Baptist circles and the broader evangelical movement.
Beth Allison Barr theologically smashes the patriarchy, yet she does so in a way that is far from malicious and, in fact, is quite loving. She's simultaneously someone you'd love to sit down to have coffee with, yet you're acutely aware she's so intelligent that you'd probably not understand a good majority of what she's saying.
Until it clicks. And it will. It will because even in her writing she works to make things accessible and understandable. You can feel it in her teaching, as well. She knows what she knows, but she truly wants you to understand it. It's really quite extraordinary.
In all likelihood, "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" is my final book in what has been an active year of reading. It is a book I was excited to read and it's a book that not only lived up to my expectations but surpassed them. From beginning to end, I found myself engaged and informed, emotionally involved and even a little entertained. At times, I set the book aside so I could chew on her words for a bit. Likewise, at times I set the book aside so I could look things up and understand even more.
I already embraced women in ministry and leadership prior to reading "The Making of Biblical Womanhood," but Barr helped me develop a stronger academic and theological argument to support my beliefs and to inform others. She also challenged me to become an even better and more outspoken Christian, a Christian who not only believes in ministry and leadership for women and others but someone who actively engages and empowers those with gifts who are often left on the sideline by the Church.
There's so much that I loved about "The Making of Biblical Womanhood" and I look forward to sharing it with my circle and following Barr's teachings and writings for years to come.
Rating: it was amazing
The Making of Biblical Womanhood bridges a gap in works about women’s place in the evangelical church. Beth Allison Barr concisely outlines the history of women in the church in Western/European/American history, and raises the question: is complementarianism/Christian patriarchy biblical, or capitulation to culture?
One of my favorite things about being a Christian is the endless rediscovery of just how countercultural my religion is. Belief in the virgin birth of Jesus depends on people trusting the word of a young woman (who do you think told Luke the story?). The resurrection was first reported to the disciples by women whose word was not viable in court. Married Jewish couples would not even speak to each other in public for propriety’s sake, yet Jesus frequently spoke with women in public, even alone. Barr applies this countercultural method of Christianity to complementarianism, which many card-carrying members have called Christian patriarchy.
The “biblical womanhood” that Barr attacks here is not simply being female and living a godly life. Instead, it’s the argument that patriarchy is biblical, that subjugation of women is divinely ordained, and that sexual roles (wife/mother) are the only appropriate routes for women to take. Barr argues that patriarchal mandates are read into Scripture rather than read out of Scripture. History (not to say orthodox theology) simply doesn’t support the complementarianism of Piper, Grudem, and their compatriots.
Barr is a medieval historian, and makes copious references to medieval history in each chapter. Her view, stretching past the Reformation (where church history begins and ends for too many Protestants) to the medieval era, provides a helpful corrective. I would love to see a similar book from an antiquities scholar, too. Along the way, she banishes a few myths about the medieval era, and pushes Christine de Pizan way up in my reading priorities.
I really appreciated how Barr connects the Protestant banishment of monasticism to the development of patriarchy. Monasteries, for centuries, have given Catholic and Orthodox women a chance to live spiritual lives in many different ways--scholarly, missional, contemplative, active--without having to marry and bear children. Virginity is prized, not because of purity culture, but because of its identification with Christ. The Protestant church has been missing something valuable all this time: a third space, outside parish ministry and the family as such, for unwed Christians to live in an intentional, deeply spiritual community. I’ve heard of a few places that do this in different ways, but they’re centered on ephemeral experiences like retreats, conferences, and education, and encourage romantic relationships. Imagine being a single Christian artist, not having to starve because you work in a community that supports you, as your work supports them. Imagine being a single Christian who doesn’t fit a “normal” vocation, and your service, which others might consider demeaning, is your ora et labora. Imagine being a social, single Christian who could consistently find a wealth of conversation partners without having to schedule coffee dates or juggle roommate preferences. I’m way off topic here, and I’m married, but still--dream a little here. Things can be better than they are.
I just really like this book. I’m really excited for the conversations I’ll have stemming from it. It’s already enriching my life and faith, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Of course, it’s not perfect. Barr doesn’t offer a well-defined alternative vision for the church. Yet, that’s where the conversation should begin. “What if we’re wrong?” she asks at the beginning. And where do we go from here?
“Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.” (36)
“Doesn’t the world of Galatians 3 seem more like the world of Jesus? Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian. It just shows us the historical (and very human) roots of biblical womanhood.” (37)
“Gender-inclusive language is restoring Scripture from the influence of certain English Bible translations.” (148)
“It should also not surprise us that evangelicals resurrected Arianism for the same reason that evangelicals turned to inerrancy: if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify. Arianism, like inerrancy, proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality, the perfect prop for Christian patriarchy. Except it is still heresy. Arianism repackaged.” (195-196)
“Evangelicals believe that biblical womanhood is the only option because we have been taught that it is tied to our trust in the reliability of God’s Word as well as embedded in the Godhead itself.” (197)
“What if our Sunday school and Bible study curriculum correctly reflected Junia as an apostle, Priscilla as a coworker, and women like Hildegard of Bingen as preachers? What if we recognized women’s leadership in the same way Paul did throughout his letters--even entrusting the Letter to the Romans to the deacon Phoebe? What if we listened to women in our evangelical churches the way Jesus listened to women?” (214)
Rating: it was amazing
For countless women, complementarian theology is what we know (especially for those of us raised in complementarian environments). Our entire lives, we’ve learned about male/female roles, authority/submission, headship and homemaking. We’ve seen the theology carried out within our churches from the completely male-led leadership (including pastors, elders, deacons, worship leaders, tithe collectors, scripture readers, homegroup leaders, etc). And we’ve seen the theology exhibited in the home: male (husband/father) headship, making all of the decisions, “leading” the family, and the submissive wife (quiet, servant-hearted, homemaker, child-rearer). These views, this theology, seems antiquated. But countless men and women continue to believe male headship, female submission is God’s design.
In this incredible book, Beth Allison Barr presents a personal and well-researched argument that Christian patriarchy is in fact, sin. Christian and pagan patriarchy is one in the same, existing to silence women and elevate powerful men (which is one of the things Christianity dismantles). “Shouldn’t the historical continuity of a practice that has caused women to fare much worse than men for thousands of years cause concern?” she questions. “Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but the result of human sin?”
Barr begins the book with her personal story. Raised in complementarian churches for most of her life, she also accepted much of the theology and practice as “God’s design.” As a historian she began questioning some of the teaching and ideology of her complementarian church, but she was scared to voice questions or concern because of her husband’s paid position as a youth minister. Little things began to add up, making it harder and harder to go along with the deeply-rooted patriarchal views of their church. The elder’s abhorrence for women serving or teaching in any type of capacity (even the youth group) led to a reckoning with this warped theology and the history of modern churches subjugating women.
Barr takes us back to the beginning, introducing us to the many women mentioned in Paul’s letters that *male* translators, writers, preachers, etc., attempted to erase from any historical importance later on. But these women in the early church served in various leadership roles, from apostles to deacons, servants, ministers, and missionaries. The early church, in fact, was not a bleak place for women to shut up like the pagan culture dictated. The early church provided women a seat at the table. Paul writes “there is neither male or female,” dismantling the hierarchy that existed in the Roman culture. Barr addresses the Pauline verses complementarian churches cling to today in defense of women’s subordination, making the compelling argument Paul is actually quoting from well-known pagan writers and turning it on its head.
From the early church through the Middle Ages, women were preaching, teaching, evangelizing, singing, performing miracles. Many women were choosing singleness and celibacy, embracing the call to ministry over any obligation to marry and bear children. Barr writes there’s no lack of women leading in church history, rather an erasure of their existence. Countless women have been forgotten and covered up “or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were.” Though the Reformation brought with it many good things, including easier access to the English Bible, it also “ushered in a ‘renewed patriarchalism’ that place married women firmly under the headship of their husbands.”
The Reformation brought with it an elevation of marriage and child-rearing. Women were relegated to the home, housework, and childcare, while the men began taking over every role within the church and outside of it. Women were exhorted to be gentle, quiet, submissive, obedient to their husbands. Men were the heads, the protectors and providers. “As the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank,” she writes. “The family became not only the center of a woman’s world but her primary identity as a good Christian.”
And it’s not much different today. Modern complementarian churches continue to silence women, preaching God’s design is male authority and female submission. Men are called to be pastors, leaders, heads of households, women are called to quietly serve their husbands and families. Not only have women been scrubbed from history but they’ve been scrubbed from church responsibility and ministry opportunities. Marriage continues to be exalted as one of highest ends, motherhood one of the greatest callings.
Complementarian theology not only teaches the role of pastor exists only for men, but every other position of leadership within the church, creating completely male-dominated churches that push women to the margins. Barr argues that complementarianism/patriarchy can often lead to abuse, whether it’s dismissal, or actual cover-up and culpability. From purity culture, to issues of modesty, to militant masculinity, and white supremacy, complementarianism has caused immense harm to those on the outer edges. This book calls it out and also shows another way, a way for more inclusivity, a way for the re-valuing of women.
Rating: really liked it
This is one of the first books that I have anticipated it's release, and Barr did not disappoint. In this book, Barr tells her story and her reasoning for coming out of the complementarian mindset, driven by her historical research. Barr holds a Ph.D. in Medieval History from UNC, and she has specialized in the lives and roles that medieval female Christians played in society. Though she had been immersed in this literature, teaching at the college level, for many years she remained in a complementarian southern baptist church where her husband was the youth minister, even when she started questioning the teaching about the roles women were supposed to play in the church. Eventually, their position on women would get her husband fired from his position.
It was this firing that leads Barr to write this book. Her story is intertwined with her historical research as she makes the case against complementarianism. Her basic thesis is that "biblical womanhood" is simply another name for Christian patriarchy, and that patriarchy is not sanctioned by the bible, but rather it has been brought in from the culture around us. In almost every society before the present (and many would argue the present as well), patriarchy has been the norm. Thus, contrary to influential leaders' cries that "gender-inclusive" bible translations are a capitulation to the feminist culture we live in today, it is actually biblical manhood and womanhood that capitulated to the culture.
Barr demonstrates that instead of Paul upholding the Roman culture of the man being the pater familias, his household codes are actually written to subvert this patriarchal ideal. Women held leadership roles in the early church, and even though patriarchy had been brought back into early Christianity, medieval women, especially those who were single and "rose above" their femininity, had greater power to participate in the kingdom. Barr then demonstrates how the protestant reformation, with its positive theological reforms, actually limited the roles of women and confined them to marriage with the elevation of the status of wife and mother. Ironically, this elevation actually took away power from women, as the highest ideal now was not serving Christ in a celibate life, but being a wife under the submission of her husband.
Barr then traces how modern complementarianism seems to be a direct outworking of the cult of domesticity in the 1800s that emphasized four virtues that all proper white women should aspire to: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. The rhetoric from this cultural movement finds echoes and direct parallels in the modern complementarian movement. Finally, Barr notes how the modern culture of complementarianism has been shown to foster a domain of abuse, both physical and spiritual, with its emphasis on strict masculine authority.
In essence, one of Barr's points throughout the book is that we have forgotten our history and tried to write the influential and powerful roles that women have played in the kingdom in years past. Even just over the past 200 years within evangelicalism, there is a long line of women preaching and teaching that modern complementarians seem to have forgotten or ignored.
I enjoyed this book, though I thought it would have more exegesis from scripture. But that was my own mistake, as Barr's argument and development come from history. She does speak to scriptural passages and shows how women have used them throughout the past two millennia to show their authority to preach and teach, but her emphasis is on what women have actually done in history. And I believe she does a good job at highlighting this forgotten history. I would recommend this as a resource in studying women's roles as it fills in a part of the discussion that is often overlooked.
Rating: it was amazing
I can’t write about The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr without telling part of my story. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name of Jesus. My family and I attended a Baptist church off and on until I was around 10 years old. I knew the Bible stories and I went to Vacation Bible School most summers.
Very early in my marriage, I was told by a well-meaning church leader that I showed too much leadership when I hired someone to pressure wash my and my husband’s home, and that if I wanted my husband to lead I needed to stop. I tried desperately to squelch my natural tendency to take care of things. After all, husbands lead, wives follow. Husbands rule, wives submit. Our pastors said it, my Bible studies said it, and all the other resources I read confirmed it.
I didn’t know it then, but that is patriarchy. The counsel, that belief, the mindset; it’s patriarchy. Some call it complementarianism. It would take me years of submission, wrestling, doubting, and crying out to God before I asked Him to let me read the Bible without presuppositions. “God let me read the Bible like it’s brand new to me. Without my Baptist lens. Holy Spirit, teach me.” God did it. And He showed Beth Allison Barr the truth, too.
What Beth Allison Barr does so brilliantly in her book is weave together her story, the story of the evangelical church, and the stories of women in the medieval church and the reformation to make this point: “Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian. It just shows us the historical (and very human) roots of biblical womanhood.”
Biblical womanhood is a modern cultural construct, not based on the Bible. Barr writes about the same disconnect I experienced – the disconnect between what her church was telling her, what women have always done in history, and how Jesus treated women.
Barr gives us a fascinating overview of the history of patriarchy beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh. She keeps the reader reading with stories of her students at Baylor University. She tells medieval history in the way she teaches it to her students, and made me want to learn more. It was through her own study she came to know the truth about patriarchy.
She gets right into the Pauline texts in chapter 2 and asks these questions, “What if we have been reading Paul wrong? What if evangelicals have been understanding Paul through the lens of modern culture instead of the way Paul intended to be understood?” Her explanation of Bible translations and how the ones we use most came to be was enlightening. I was shocked to read how easy it is for a group of men to write a new Bible translation.
Barr continues to make her point by giving us insight into the Reformation. She states in a Gravity Leadership podcast that “Reformation theology should have set women free. Instead the reformers carried the gender hierarchy of the early modern world to the Bible.” She proves her point about patriarchy in the book. This system is dangerous. It’s wrong and it doesn’t look like Jesus at all.
No matter where you land on the issue, it will serve you well to read The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. I’ll end this review as she ended her book and how she ends her classes: Go, be free!
Rating: really liked it
Biblical (adjective) 1. of, relating to, being in accordance with the Bible 2. suggestive of the Bible or Bible times (Merriam-Webster)
If you are a Christian woman who was ever made to feel that the most godly occupation for you was to be a stay at home wife and mother, or that you should be ashamed for pursuing higher education, a career or leadership in a church or ministry, please read this book. I was someone who was shown where the Bible “clearly” stated (in English) that women were to be under male headship, and that egalitarianism was unbiblical and “liberal” while complementarianism was God’s best. In my late 20s, through my own study of the Bible, biblical scholarship and church history, I’d become less convinced of complementarianism’s validity and am now thoroughly unconvinced.
In this book, Dr. Barr makes it clear that the notions associated with “biblical womanhood” are far from biblical in origin. As a professor who specializes in medieval women’s history, she writes with the research integrity of an academic but with the language of a lay audience. Her research is supplemented by her own experiences as a pastor’s wife and youth leader in the Baptist denomination.
While the book as a whole is excellent, the strongest parts focus on the politics of English Bible translation, the legacy of medieval Christian women, and the negative impacts of the Protestant Reformation on women in church leadership. As a medieval history and lit nerd, I appreciated the attention given to women whose works I have studied, such as Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.
A critique would be that the book skews heavily on the experiences of white Protestants and the influence of medieval western Europeans. Chapter 7 does include some excellent examples of evangelical Black women in leadership from the 20th century. However, I understand that medieval European history is Barr’s area of focus, so it makes sense that she draws on what she thoroughly has studied. And indeed, white evangelical Protestants are the ones who came up with these oppressive ideologies in the first place and are the ones who perpetuate them still in the larger Protestant denominations. It would be nice though to have compared this with what medieval church history looked in Africa or the Middle East. Did regions besides Europe face similar issues in manuscript translation? What did the role of medieval women in non-European churches look like? While these questions may have been outside the scope of the book, at the very least a bibliography for further reading would have been welcome.
Christians need not be afraid of studying the history of our religion, the translation of our Holy Scriptures or the languages in which they were originally written. “Complementarianism” needs to be exposed for what it is--secular patriarchy disguised in spiritual language. It is the result of sin; it is not God’s best for humanity. I particularly recommend this to men and women in church leadership and ministry….emphasis on the men. Unfortunately, I doubt many (white) men I know will ever pick this book, or others like it, up--and that makes me incredibly sad. I would truly love to engage in a meaningful discussion of Barr’s arguments with brothers in Christ.
Rating: it was amazing
This book is a must read. Beth Allison Barr addresses patriarchy in the church from a historical, personal and theological approach, highlighting both the history of women preachers as well as the damage done to women in the name of Jesus through "Christian" patriarchy.
Patriarchy is defined as "a society that promotes male authority and female submission" (page 13). Regarding pagan patriarchy versus Christian patriarchy on page 17, she writes, "Both systems place power in the hands of men and take power away from women. Both systems teach men that women rank lower than they do. Both systems teach women that their voices are worth less than the voices of men."
From page 212:
"Ideas matter. Ideas that depict women as less than men influence men to treat women as less than men. Ideas that objectify women result in women being treated like objects (sex objects, mostly)."
I agree with her that there's most definitely a link between complementarianism and abuse (page 206). Complementarianism teaches men to believe their gender entitles them to power and authority over women, that men are entitled to women's submission, that men's voices are more valuable than women's voices. Women are seen as having less personal autonomy than men, less spiritual authority than men, less decision making power than men. And where an entire people group is just a little less than, objectification and abuse are the natural next steps.
It was fascinating to read how the history of women preaching has been obscured, though not surprising. Scot McKnight's "Junia Is Not Alone," reveals the same historical pattern of the patriarchal suppression of women's ministry and voices. I wonder if many of our churches today would be places that Jesus would come overturn the tables and drive people out because of the silencing of his daughters who are equally called and gifted by the Holy Spirit to lead, teach and preach. Women, after all, are people too.
From the introduction on page 7:
"Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression. I can’t think of anything less Christlike than hierarchies like these."
I cannot agree with this more. Jesus himself condemned hierarchal, supposedly benevolent relationships among his disciples, which included women and men, when he said that “The kings of the Gentiles Lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (Luke 22:25-26 NIV)
I love this quote from the conclusion:
"Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus. I don’t remember when I started it, but for a long time now, I have been dismissing my students from class with this phrase: Go, be free! I think that is a fitting way to end this book as well."
Rating: it was amazing
What happens when a historian walks out of the patriarchy? What happens when stories are told? What happens when a narrative of oppression begins to unravel? What happens when the other stories are told? Something like this book.
In The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr attacks the historical narratives the Christian patriarchy tells to validates its existence. That it is biblical. That it is the way to be holy. That it is essential to the Gospel. While there are exegetical claims made and challenged in this work, Barr gives the reader a gift. She does not squander precious pages to myopic arguments that change nothing without a changed context for the reader. She reveals a different story. A story that has always existed. A story of of the shapeshifting of the patriarchy to specific contexts and cultures. A story of how that patriarchy has been baptized into the Gospel rather than be transformed by it.
Barr deals with Paul, with Bible translations, with medieval women, and post-reformation transformations of female piety. Her argument isn't a rescuing or baptizing of any of the past as a model for "biblical womanhood." Rather, historically, the concept of biblical womanhood is not a static point. The current definitions by CBMW are modern constructions, contextualized through a historical process, and not part of the Gospel.
Faithful women have existed within the Church from the beginning. There were female apostles and deacons. Female evangelists. But through the adoption of cultural values within Christianity, the church slowly shifted the roles allowed to women, or at least what was required of women to receive those roles. Soon, women had to exceed their sex, become like a man, to preach, to have authority, to be taken seriously. Yet these women existed. They persisted. Their expressions have varied through cultural allowances. But the wholesale refusal to allow holy women to preach, have authority, or piety beyond motherhood and domestic duties is not biblical. And it is far from a constant in history. But what is historical, according to Barr, is the Christian adoption of the Aristotelian concept of woman as deformed man. That adoption is at the root of the Christian patriarchy.
It is time, argues Barr, that this concept and the patriarchy built upon it be taken down. It is time to let women free. It is time to let them live into the Spirit-enabled capacities given to them by God.
Barr's work is powerful and challenging. Her expertise as a historian is juxtaposed by her experience within complementarian circles. Her vulnerability of her story is set next to careful scholarship. There is perhaps no better way of putting it than to say that this work is a vital part of the conversation surrounding the Christian patriarchy. I recommend it without reservation.
Disclaimer: I received an electronic ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.