Published by Brazos Press on April 20, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology, Marriage
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Biblical womanhood--the belief that God designed women to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers--pervades North American Christianity. From choices about careers to roles in local churches to relationship dynamics, this belief shapes the everyday lives of evangelical women. Yet biblical womanhood isn't biblical, says Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr. It arose from a series of clearly definable historical moments.
This book moves the conversation about biblical womanhood beyond Greek grammar and into the realm of church history--ancient, medieval, and modern--to show that this belief is not divinely ordained but a product of human civilization that continues to creep into the church. Barr's historical insights provide context for contemporary teachings about women's roles in the church and help move the conversation forward.
Interweaving her story as a Baptist pastor's wife, Barr sheds light on the #ChurchToo movement and abuse scandals in Southern Baptist circles and the broader evangelical world, helping readers understand why biblical womanhood is more about human power structures than the message of Christ.
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.