In The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, Beth Allison Barr shares her personal story of rejecting complementarian views on male headship and female submission. Growing up, Barr had internalized the complementarian notions of “biblical” womanhood from the teaching of evangelical influencers such as Bill Gothard, James Dobson, Pat Roberston, the LaHayes, and others. A variety of disturbing and hurtful interactions faced by Barr and her husband prompted a deep examination of the topic. A history professor at Baylor University, Barr weaves her personal story with church history and current events, using women’s history as the mooring for her work investigating patriarchy. Barr examines attitudes about the female gender originating in ancient cultures (Israel’s and others), Paul’s writings on the topic, and the evolution of attitudes about women within the Church from medieval to modern times. Although her examination isn’t exclusively theological, the central question of her work is, “What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin?” (25)
Her expertise in medieval history brings insight from the likes of Margery Kempe, an apologist who challenged the English archbishop, which suggests that the historical stories told about women in the Church are far from the domesticated, devoted, doting homemaker which is often upheld as ideal in current complementarian settings. “The medieval church was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire,” writes Barr (88).
As she traces church history, she identifies places where power struggles, economic advantage, and gender issues intersect: the rise of the priesthood and sacramental theology in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a shift in the view of marriage during the Protestant Reformation (sixteenth century) (which elevated being a wife and mother to the height of holiness), and the conservative religious resurgence of the 1980s and 90s against progressive secular culture. Barr argues that the current evangelical understanding of womanhood stems not from a lengthy biblical tradition modeled by Jesus or early Christians but from the last five hundred years:
The emphasis on Pauline texts by early modern reformers was born into a secular world already supported by a gender hierarchy. Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure. Instead of Scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world (123).
Observing that sixteenth-century ideals contribute more to the modern version of biblical womanhood than all the centuries before, Barr explores the “cult of domesticity”—ideas from middle-class European culture that “emphasized piety, domesticity, submission, and purity as characteristics of the ideal Christian woman” (155). The benefit of Barr’s writing is that she helps the reader to understand both the origin of this mindset and the implication it continues to have within contemporary evangelical thought (e.g., purity culture and sexual abuse dynamics). Finally, Barr explores how both the Industrial Revolution and the aftermath of World Wars I and II created economic reasons to reinforce the subordination of women. Post-WWII,
These laws put women under the household authority of their husbands, rewarded women for getting married and having children … and even restricted women from working outside the home and filing for divorce (192).
For readers seeking to understand the main issues in the egalitarian/complementarian debate, Barr’s work gives a view that is more historical than theological, yet substantial in covering the main issues. The highlights of Barr’s book include a review of historical texts and stories representing women in the Church and issues of gender, a discussion of gendered language in Bible translation, how the Reformation flipped the Church Fathers’ perception of the sexuality of women, and the Trinitarian heresy of eternal subordination of the Son in relationship to gender hierarchy. If a reader is new to the debate at hand, Barr’s book is very readable, yet the in-depth history lesson may feel overwhelming or the lack of intense theological dissection frustrating. However, if the reader is aware of the primary talking points of the conversation yet is unaware of the historical and social migration of gender roles within the Church throughout history, Barr’s work is an excellent primer, especially concerning the influence of the Reformation.
As seems vogue of late, this book carries the perspective of a woman raised in complementarian culture who breaks with that culture after scriptural, historical, cultural, and personal reflection. Thus, for a reader who already holds an egalitarian viewpoint, it might be less helpful in introducing new perspectives on the topic. However, Barr sticks the landing on articulating the implications that flow from a strong complementarian viewpoint and why they are so troubling: female submission and subordination has shifted from being a minor theological difference (such as the forms of baptism or communion) to an issue that is central to the validity of Scripture and the truth of the Gospel. Therefore, from the complementarian point of view, those who do not ascribe to women’s subordination to men are branded as heretical.
Barr concludes her work with this observation:
Evidence shows me how Christian patriarchy was built, stone by stone, throughout the centuries. Evidence shows me how, century after century, arguments for women’s subordination reflect historical circumstances more than the face of God. Evidence shows me that just because complementarianism uses biblical texts doesn’t mean it reflects biblical truth. Evidence shows me the trail of sin and destruction left in the wake of teachings that place women under the power of men (205).
The power of her work is that she invites the reader to consider the evidence as well.
Read an excerpt from Beth Allison Barr’s book here: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth for Many Evangelical Christians