Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood released on 20 April 2021. It provides a historical argument for egalitarianism and it has taken the evangelical world by storm. Many are not pleased. On 30 April 2021, one Twitter user who sports an avatar of John Calvin in a suit asked, “Why do all the anti-patriarchy chicks seem to cut their own hair?” James White liked the tweet.
The same day, Desiring God sallied forth with an article arguing that a man is a prophet, priest and king to his wife.
On Mother’s Day 2021, three Southern Baptist seminary presidents felt compelled to tweet about women preachers by quoting various 19th century theologians who supported slavery. Adam Greenway cited B.H. Carroll, who served in the Confederate Army for two years. Danny Akin replied to Greenway and declared, “He is correct my friend. 100%. The Bible is crystal clear.” Al Mohler quoted John Broadus, who was a Confederate Army chaplain. Beth Moore replied, “Happy Mother’s Day, Al.”
Barr’s book released not long after Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, and together they offer a formidable scholarly critique of complementarian theology.
Barr takes a risk by not making her book cold and formal. It is academic, but colored throughout by her very personal story. Early on she declares “my husband was fired after he challenged church leadership over the issue of women in ministry,” (p. 3). She lays her cards in the table and states “Complementarianism is at its root misogynistic … based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog …” (pp. 5, 6).
She recounts her years of quiet frustration as her own views on women in the church shifted. “I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available,” (p. 5).
Barr is not an angry “feminist” with a “radical agenda.” She is an evangelical Baptist who is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Baylor University. She holds both the MA and PhD in Medieval History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Barr spends little time exegeting biblical texts; there are many resources which fight that battle. But, she is impeccably credentialed to speak to this issue from a historical perspective and that is her unique contribution to the discussion. “It was historical evidence that showed me how biblical womanhood was constructed—brick by brick, century by century,” (p. 10).
Barr uses the term “patriarchy” throughout her book, rather than “complementarianism.” Patriarchy is “a general system that values men and their contributions more than it values women and their contributions,” (p. 16). She observes that Russell Moore claims Christian patriarchy is different, in that women only submit to their own husbands. But, Barr says, this is a distinction without a difference―patriarchy is still patriarchy. “It cannot be peeled off suit coats like a name tag as evangelical men move from denying women’s leadership at church to accepting the authority of women at work or women in the classroom,” (p. 18).
What if, Barr suggests, we ought to flip the narrative? “Instead of assuming that patriarchy is instituted by God, we must ask whether patriarchy is a product of sinful human hands,” (p. 25). This is not a new question. Is female submission an original aspect of creation, or is it result of the Fall? But how to move this conversation forward? Both sides are well-entrenched. Barr declares, “Historical evidence about the origins of patriarchy can move the conversation forward,” (p. 32). She then spends the rest of her book doing just that.
Patriarchy is not part of God’s good creation. The fact that some flavor of patriarchy has always existed is a clue for the Church. “Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t it be the other way around,” (p. 37)?
In her second chapter, Barr suggests we misread Paul if we see him upholding patriarchy. Rather, Paul pushes against that construct from within that world. “[W]hat if Paul was teaching Christians to live differently within their Roman context? Rather than New Testament ‘texts of terror’ for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy,” (p. 46)? She offers numerous quotations from medieval sermons to suggest modern evangelicals read Paul as they do because their ecclesiastical culture blinds them. She especially takes issue with attempts to interpret Ephesians 5:22ff as a separate paragraph from Ephesians 5:21 (p. 50f).
Barr’s third chapter is perhaps her most powerful, because here she is in her element as a medieval historian. She introduces the reader to several women preachers and their “cloud of witnesses.” Her argument is not, “See, women have preached before, so it must be ok!” Rather, she argues, “You’re interpreting the bible wrong. See, look at all the other voices from the Church that have seen it differently. Grudem doesn’t have the last word!” She observed,
I knew the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were (p. 84).
Patriarchal tendencies have always led church authorities to push back. “The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence,” (p. 87). She then follows with a delightful chapter on the Reformation’s impact on women, and how the role of “being a wife” was redefined as the highest ideal. “As the household became more firmly established as a woman’s space, professional work became more firmly identified as a man’s space,” (p. 109).
Her fifth chapter tackles the issue of gender-inclusive bible translations. She notes the ESV had its genesis in a kerfuffle about “changes” to the NIV. “The uproar among evangelicals was instantaneous. Gender-inclusive language was no longer just an argument over proper translation; it was the slippery slope of feminism destroying biblical truth,” (p. 131). Barr writes:
The ESV was a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God.
As a medieval historian who specializes in English sermons, the debate over gender-inclusive translations amuses me. It amuses me because the accusers depict gender-inclusive Bible translations as a modern, secular trend fueled by the feminist movement. Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement (pp. 132-133).
She then chronicles the rise of the cult of domesticity and its emphasis on saving men from sexual immorality by emphasizing female purity. Barr draws on work by other historians and summarizes this mindset as consisting of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity (pp. 165-166). Women are naturally more religious than men and are thus ideally suited to pass these values on to children. Women are not sexual creatures and must be protected from predators. Real women are not emotionally or temperamentally suited to be leaders and will want to follow a strong man. Women are not meant to work outside the home, so women’s education should focus on domestic skills (e.g. home economics).
“Indeed,” Barr argues, “doesn’t biblical womanhood just seem like an updated version of the cult of domesticity? Instead of biblical womanhood stemming from the Bible, it stems from a gender hierarchy developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to deal with the social and economic changes wrought by work moving outside the home,” (p. 166).
Instead of just being something that women usually did, domestic prowess in the home (centered on the family) now became something that good Christian women should do because it is what we are designed to do. It is our primary calling in this world. Domesticity, for evangelical women, is sanctified (p. 159).
In that vein, Owen Strachan, a theologian at Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, recently tweeted this:
Christian women: God loves the vocation of homemaking.— Owen Strachan (@ostrachan) May 10, 2021
—Preparing meal after meal
—Helping & supporting your husband
—Sewing, knitting, etc
The world scoffs, but all this work will be rewarded by God.
I do not believe Barr would argue domesticity is bad. But, I do believe she would insist it does not have to be the only sphere in which women can meaningfully contribute to Christ’s coming kingdom.
Patriarchy, Barr argues, adapts to changing circumstances. “Like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter—conforming to each new era, looking as if it has always belonged,” (p. 186).
She identifies eternal functional subordination as heresy. “Arianism, like inerrancy, proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality, the perfect prop for Christian patriarchy. Except it is still heresy. Arianism repackaged,” (p. 196).
This is an extremely well-researched book. Each chapter is replete with copious footnotes and historical examples. Indeed, perhaps her book’s greatest strength is its role as a tour guide to a world of scholarly historical monographs on gender roles in the West. Populist readers may dismiss Barr out of hand. More careful readers will see her arguments deserve careful consideration.
We all know pre-understanding clouds interpretation. I once had a woman tell me she believed someone who did not believe in the pre-tribulational rapture could be a Christian. This woman did not know other eschatological frameworks existed. Has our cultural heritage blinded our interpretation on the role of women in the Church?
I have two critiques. Barr’s definition of “patriarchy” is abstract, and thus I believe she erred by not using the “Danvers Statement” to better define her target. It would have been helpful if Barr had aligned herself with some mile marker in this debate. Perhaps CBE International’s “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality Statement” would have been appropriate. Also, her attempt to tie the fundamentalist-modernist controversy to patriarchy is an unfortunate misstep, and Barr seems out of her element here.
Should you read the book?
If you are a conservative, theological populist, then you will probably not like this book. If you follow and enjoy Tom Buck, Denny Burk, Tom Ascol, Owen Strachan, and self-proclaimed “1689 Baptists” on social media, you will probably not like this book. This is why you ought to read it anyway.
If you want to hear a scholarly, reasoned, and formidable historical argument for egalitarianism, read this book.
If you want to explore a path less traveled than arguments about the grammar of 1 Timothy 2:12-14, read this book.
If you want to read some of the best of what the other side has to offer, read this book.
If you enjoy reading substantive arguments that challenge you, read this book.
If you believe women are called to do more than work in the nursery, teach elementary-age children, and teach younger women in the church, then read this book.
1 See (1) Ronald Price (ed.), Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005) and (2) John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021).
2 For context to this issue, see Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordinationist Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).
3 “… the early twentieth-century emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women. As we have seen, preaching women peppered the landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America: they flooded the mission field as evangelists and leaders, and they achieved popular acclaim as preachers among Pentecostal and even fundamentalist denominations. As these women rose in prominence, so too rose inerrancy teachings. And these teachings buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority—transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth,” (p. 189).
4 Barr admits she knew little about the fundamentalist-modernist battles and had to receive a crash course from a colleague at a conference (p. 187).