Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Dallas Morning News on January 17, 2021, as part of an ongoing opinion commentary on faith called Living Our Faith. It is re-printed with permission.
“Are you calling me sexist?” the pastor asked.
“No,” my husband said cautiously. “I am saying these policies and actions appear to be sexist.” The unequal treatment of women wasn’t the only concern my husband raised in this meeting, but it was the trigger for the chain of events leading to this moment.
Their meeting was short, only an hour allotted for my husband to walk the tightrope of conveying our concerns without being trapped by his words. He failed. The deliberations of the elder board were short, too. My husband was to be fired as youth pastor.
The speed of these final events contrasted sharply with the length of time it had taken for us to reach this point: the point at which my husband and I were willing to risk our ministry by challenging pastoral authority, especially over the unequal treatment of women in our church.
Unfortunately, the unequal treatment of women was background noise in our evangelical world. The belief that men were designed to lead and women were designed to follow suffused our Southern Baptist upbringing. It permeated the seminary that my husband attended, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which, at the time, Paige Patterson ruled as president. And it dominated the evangelical world that we, as married adults, entered as a ministry team: my husband as a youth pastor and me as a college professor who also taught youth Bible study (for girls) and mentored high school girls.
The belief is called complementarianism, and it teaches that men are divinely called to preach, teach and lead in church and serve as spiritual leaders of the home while women are divinely called to support male leaders, nurture the children, and obey their husbands. Elisabeth Elliot’s Let Me Be a Woman rested comfortably on the library shelves of my childhood church just as John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood rested on a shelf in the pastor’s office of our (then) current church.
Complementarianism framed our world, even before we knew what it was called.
Yet the practice of complementarianism troubled us, with our discomfort increasing over time.
It troubled us when we learned that, in our not-too-distant church past, a woman had been asked to step down from her role team-teaching youth Sunday school. She was a missionary kid, a missionary herself, and a college professor. Her husband, who taught along with her, could continue to teach, the pastor informed him, provided the wife did not. The couple chose to resign their teaching position instead.
It troubled us when we realized a pattern in the treatment of female staff at our church. From our understanding at the time, women were part-time without benefits while men were mostly full-time with benefits. When women were hired to lead the children’s ministry, they were called directors and not invited to the pastor meetings. But when a man was hired to lead the children’s ministry, he was called pastor and (subsequently) invited to the pastor meetings.
It troubled us when we recognized how the strict limits placed on female authority (they could only teach boys 13 and under or all-female classes) seemed connected to the restrictive hierarchy of pastors, elders and teachers that concentrated church power in the hands of a small group of men.
Indeed, the practice of complementarianism troubled us so much that we finally decided to challenge it. The Making of Biblical Womanhood tells this story. It was born in the tangled middle of my profession as a historian and the trauma of my husband’s firing. It tells the story of my husband, a Southern Baptist-raised evangelical youth pastor who dared to ask his complementarian church for a woman to teach youth Sunday school.
But, mostly, it tells my story—a Southern Baptist-raised pastor’s wife who, through earning a Ph.D. in medieval, women’s and religious history, realized that historical evidence exposes the truth of complementarianism: that it is rooted much more deeply in human history than the Bible. Doesn’t it seem ironic that biblical womanhood isn’t actually biblical?
The following excerpt from The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth captures the moment I realized I no longer believed the complementarian narrative.
The Women of Romans 16
It was Paul’s women in Romans 16 who finally changed my mind.
I still remember the Sunday it clicked. I was upset after the sermon. So upset that I was doing the dishes. The running water soothed my mind as I scrubbed lunch plates. My husband knew something was wrong (the dishes were a dead giveaway). He walked into the kitchen. He didn’t say anything.
Finally, I spoke. “I don’t believe in male headship.”
He leaned against the counter. I couldn’t look at him. More time passed, and then he asked, “You don’t believe that men are called to be the spiritual leaders of the home?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He stood there for another minute, and then he just said “okay” and walked away.
I knew he didn’t agree with me then—he had been raised in a complementarian church and attended a complementarian seminary. Yet he was willing to listen and consider a different theological perspective. I am forever grateful for the trust he showed me that day.
It wasn’t actually the sermon that pushed me over the edge, although I do remember it had been about male leadership. What pushed me over the edge was a recent lecture I had given in my women’s history class. We were talking about women in the early church, as we moved chronologically from the ancient world to the medieval world. On a whim, I asked one of the students to open their Bible and read Romans 16 out loud. I asked the class to listen and to write down every female name they heard.
It was a powerful teaching moment—for the students and for me. I knew women filled those verses, but I had never listened to their names read aloud, one after the other.
Phoebe, the deacon who carried the letter from Paul and read it aloud to her house church.
Prisca (Priscilla), whose name is mentioned before her husband’s name (something rather notable in the Roman world) as a co-worker with Paul.
Mary, a hard worker for the gospel in Asia.
Junia, prominent among the apostles.
Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Paul’s fellow workers in the Lord.
The beloved Persis, who also worked hard for the Lord.
Rufu’s mother, Julia, and Nereus’s sister.
Did you know, I asked my students, that more women than men are identified by their ministry in Romans 16? We sat there, looking at the names of those women.
“Why?” a student suddenly interjected, so involved in the lecture she didn’t even raise her hand. “Why have I not noticed this before?” Probably because the English Bible translation you use obscures women’s activity, I told her, launching into another explanation.
Translating Romans 16
I listened to myself lecturing that day. I listened to myself laying out evidence for how English Bible translations obscure women’s leadership in the early church. I listened to myself as I talked the class through different translations of Romans 16.
Take, for example, The Ryrie Study Bible, published by Moody Press in 1986. My grandfather owned this Bible, and I have his copy on my shelf. Instead of recognizing Phoebe as a deacon, it translates her role as “servant.”
Listen to the study note: “The word here translated ‘servant’ is often translated ‘deacon,’ which leads some to believe that Phoebe was a deaconess. However, the word is more likely used here in an unofficial sense of helper.”
Did you catch that? I asked my students. No evidence is given for why Phoebe’s role should be translated as “servant” rather than as “deacon.” No evidence is given to explain why the word is more likely used in “an unofficial sense of helper.”
We can guess the reason for the translation choice: It is because Phoebe was a woman, and so it is assumed that she could not have been a deacon. If the phrase “a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” had followed a masculine name, I seriously doubt that the meaning of “deacon” would ever have been questioned.
As I taught, I thought about my own church. About how women rarely appeared on stage other than to sing or play an instrument. I thought about how women ran our children’s ministry and men ran our adult ministry. I thought about the time I had been asked to teach an adult Sunday school class, and the pastor had come to look through my material. Since I was just teaching on church history, he let me do it. If I had been discussing the biblical text, though, it would have been a different story.
I remember feeling like such a hypocrite, standing before my college classroom.
Here I was, walking my students through compelling historical evidence that the problem with women in leadership wasn’t Paul; the problem was with how we misunderstood and obscured Paul. Here I was, showing my students how women really did lead and teach in the early church, even as deacons and apostles.
Junia, I showed them, was accepted as an apostle until nearly modern times, when her name began to be translated as a man’s name: Junias. New Testament scholar Eldon Jay Epp compiled two tables surveying Greek New Testaments from Erasmus through the twentieth century, when the name suddenly began to be translated as the masculine Junias. Why? Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle.
As a historian, I knew why the women in Paul’s letters did not match the so-called limitations that contemporary church leaders place on women. I knew it was because we have read Paul wrong. Paul isn’t inconsistent in his approach to women; we have made him inconsistent through how we have interpreted him. As Romans 16 makes clear, the reality is that biblical women contradict modern ideas of biblical womanhood.
Why I Remained Silent
I knew all this. Yet I still allowed the leaders of my church to go uncontested in their claim that women could not teach boys older than 13 at our church. I knew the truth, and still I stayed silent at my church.
I stayed silent because I was afraid of my husband losing his job. I was afraid of losing our friends. I was afraid of losing our ministry.
Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life.
Except I knew the truth about Paul’s women. I knew the reality that women who are praised in the Bible, like Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia, challenge the confines of modern biblical womanhood. As a historian, I knew that women were kept out of leadership roles in my own congregation because Roman patriarchy has 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.
I turned the water off in the sink and stacked the dishes.
It was time for me to stop being silent.
This column is an excerpt from Beth Allison Barr’s book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, Brazos Press, which will be published this year. It is available to pre-order through CBE bookstore.