Beth Allison Barr’s Distortion of Biblical Womanhood
Volume 28, Issue 3, April 2022
Recently we published a book review of Beth Allison Barr’s book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood. Since then a revised form of that review was published in The Journal of Dispensational Theology, and given the significance of the subject matter, and its challenge to the biblical concept of men and women, we thought it prudent to send it out as a Think on These Things article. Accordingly, it will read a bit differently than most articles, following more carefully the format of a book review.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021. 245 pp. + xvii, paper, $19.99.
Beth Allison Barr is a history professor at Baylor University who specializes in medieval studies. Admitting she is not a theologian, but rather a historian (p. 205) (a fact mentioned dozens of times and virtually in every chapter), nevertheless, Barr believes her background in history places her in a position to clearly see what most Bible scholars and theologians have not, which is that biblical womanhood is not scriptural at all, but a plot to suppress women. Biblical womanhood, Barr stated, has been built “stone by stone by stone throughout the centuries” (p. 205) and is a capitulation to culture and sin rather than a biblical truth. Complementarianism is an interpretation of Scripture “that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression” (p. 7), or so is Barr’s contention.
Some definitions are in order. As Barr uses the terms, biblical womanhood, patriarchy, and complementarianism are synonymous, all proclaiming that “God designed women primarily to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers. God designed men to lead in the home as husbands and fathers, as well as in the church as pastors, elders, and deacons” (p. 2). The submissive relationship of women to men is what Barr rejects and makes every effort to deconstruct. She did so primarily by attempting to demonstrate that biblical womanhood does not arise from Scripture but “from the changing circumstances of history . . . [and] like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter” (p. 186). “Complementarianism,” she claimed, “is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither has ever been about Jesus” (p. 218).
Reared in the world of the Southern Baptists, Barr agreed with patriarchy for much of her life, but several factors began to unravel her views: her husband, a youth pastor, was fired from a Southern Baptist church for his non-complementarian stance (p. 3). Additionally, scandals among Christian leaders, such as Paige Patterson (pp. 7-8, 26-27), Mark Driscoll (pp. 7-8), and Bill Gothard (p. 11), combined with her studies of medieval history, led her to believe that patriarchy is a human construct, not a biblical teaching, built “brick by brick, century by century” (p. 10). While Barr wrote that her present understandings were drawn from her study of Scripture, the reality is that she leaned on her rather questionable interpretation of history (as this review will reveal). She insists that “historical evidence about the origins of patriarchy can move the conversation forward” (p. 32).
The author often admitted that patriarchy is ancient (pp. 21-25), but it is nevertheless the result of sin (pp. 25, 28) and paganism (p. 28). She rejects the idea that complementarianism precedes the Fall. As a matter of fact, Eve’s rebellion was not in disobeying God but in “submitting to Adam in the place of God” (p. 30). Apparently, her sin was loving her husband too much (p. 44). Barr recognizes that patriarchy is found in Scripture but claims it is descriptive, not prescriptive (p. 35). The only reason patriarchy is taught in the Bible is that Scripture was written in a patriarchal world (p. 36); it “emerged,” she said, “alongside the emergence of agricultural communities” and is of human origin: the result of civilization itself (p. 35). God’s people adopted this pagan construct in Old Testament times and Paul canonized it.
Given such a presupposition it is no wonder many of Barr’s students say, “I hate Paul” (p. 39), yet she questioned, “What if we have been reading Paul wrong” (pp. 41-42, 55). What if, instead of Paul sanctifying the Roman household codes found in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 3, these “texts of terror” were mentioned by Paul only to reject them. What if all of these passages were interpreted through the lens of Galatians 3:28 (pp. 36-37) and patriarchy is now to be opposed by Christians. After all, Jesus treated women with respect, allowing them to anoint Him and setting them free from cultural restrictions (pp. 46-52). “What if Paul never said any of this” (p. 56)? Barr assured her readers, “because I am a historian, I know there is more to Paul’s letters than what his words reveal” (p. 56). From this platform, the author endeavored throughout the book to unveil her special, historian insights that would let her audience know what Paul “really meant.”
Barr’s argument is as follows: patriarchy is the result of the Fall and did not exist in the Garden. Cultural patriarchy has often been adopted by God’s people and has now been elevated by evangelicals since the Reformation to gospel truth. Christian patriarchy is no different from pagan patriarchy regardless of protests to the contrary by complementarians (pp. 32, 207). In addition, Scripture, rightly understood, does not endorse any form of patriarchy; its presence in the church today is not due to biblical exegesis but has been constructed throughout the centuries by men who want to suppress women (pp. 171-72). Moreover, patriarchy is akin to racism (pp. 33-34, 45, 186, 208), as well as white supremacy (p. 208). How does Barr draw these conclusions? What is her line of argument? The remainder of this review will consider her reasoning.
Women Leadership in Scripture
Barr’s thinking shifted concerning biblical womanhood when she discovered in Romans 16 a list of ten women who were recognized by Paul as prominent in the early church (pp. 64-65). Among the women listed was Phoebe who was a deacon (in the Greek the word could be translated either as a servant or deacon), and who read the letter to the Romans to her house church (for the record, the text does not mention Phoebe reading Romans, nor that she had a church in her house). Most New Testament scholarship rejects Phoebe as being an official deacon of the church at Cenchrea and would view her as a faithful helper. Junia is also mentioned in Romans 16 as outstanding among the apostles. Barr interpreted this phrase to mean Junia was a prominent apostle, but the Greek grammar of the text would indicate that she was simply well-known to the apostles. What Barr failed to recognize is that these women were honored as faithful servants of the Lord but never described as leaders, pastors, elders, or preachers within the church. Even if Phoebe was an official deacon, deacon means servant, not leader; and the idea that Junia was an apostle rests on little, if any, evidence.
Found within The Making of Biblical Womanhood are lists referencing many other outstanding women in Scripture as proof that the Bible supports women in spiritual authority over men and with the approval of God to preach. Examples would include Anna, Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman (p. 92), and Martha (p. 90). Barr’s methodology is to elevate any woman who is quoted in Scripture to the status of a preacher. For example, that Mary Magdalene announced the resurrection to the apostles apparently proves she was a preacher with authority; and that Jesus taught and interacted with women, such as Mary of Bethany and the Samaritan woman, proves the same. However, nowhere in Scripture are these women given the role of elder or the ministry of preaching, and it does not take much observation to conclude that all the apostles were men, as were the Old Testament patriarchs. Men wrote all the books of the Bible. All elders in the New Testament church were men (cf. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). Men throughout Scripture led with spiritual authority and taught the Word. Because a woman was granted an audience with Jesus or testified to others about Christ, or had important roles in the church does not mean that she was an elder, preacher, or apostle. Barr’s attempts to prove her bias do not align with Scripture.
The author searched in vain for biblical examples of women truly exercising authority in the church or the home. Consequently, to support her egalitarian thesis she had to turn to other means beginning with unsubstantiated accusations that most translations of Scriptures have conspired to hide the truth (which she as a historian has discovered) from the general public (pp. 50, 65, 69, 132, 137-39, 141-43). In particular, Barr identified the English Standard Version as a complementarian translation (p. 51) specifically designed to “keep women out of leadership” (p. 69). She claims the ESV was primarily a reaction to the Today’s New International Version’s gender-neutral translation (p. 132), and “capitulates to non-Christian culture (patriarchy)” (p. 143). One of the reasons most Christians do not accept egalitarianism is because translators conspired together to obscure the truth. How she knows the intention of the ESV translators and/or the discussions within the English Standard Version committee is never revealed, but she assured her readers that it is true. Barr is adamant that Scripture passages concerning women have been misinterpreted intentionally, and she is confident in her ability to correct these misguided translators.
Denial of Inerrancy
Barr insisted, “patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world” (p. 36). Evidence of Barr’s rejection of inspiration of Scripture is implied throughout the book, but her complete repudiation of inerrancy is undeniable (pp. 187-91). Properly understood inerrancy not only champions the accuracy and reliability of Scripture, but it also insists on a plain and literal interpretation of the Bible – what is often called grammatical-historical hermeneutics. It is because evangelicals embrace inerrancy, Barr insisted, that they have “baptize patriarchy” (p. 190). Because a plain reading of the New Testament, the author admitted, teaches complementarianism, Barr must reject inerrancy for, “inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear” (p. 190) rather than a clear word from the Lord. And to add insult to injury Barr accused complementarian theologians of the heresy of Arianism (pp. 191-97). Her thoughts on this subject are not worthy of comment, as she has waded into doctrinal considerations beyond her “pay-grade,” but her point is that she believes evangelicals have “resurrected Arianism for the same reason that evangelicals turned to inerrancy:” to suppress women and support Christian patriarchy (pp. 195-96).
Women in Church History
Barr’s arguments rely heavily on anecdotal examples, myths, legends, and unbelievable stories, which is not the methodology expected of a scholar and university professor. She often recited unique illustrations and offered them as proof that patriarchy is harsh, unreasonable, and oppressive (e.g. pp. 9, 18, 40, 175, 207). Anecdotes make for interesting accounts but do not serve as proof of anything. The author used the same approach as she turned to her area of expertise: medieval church history.
Since so much of Barr’s thesis is dependent upon church history and, since she is a historical scholar, if she were to win her case it should be here. After all, she is not a theologian, a translator, or a biblical exegete, but she is a historian, who promises to show complementarians that they have misunderstood the Bible because they do not know history. So, what is the reader given? Primarily, fanciful, unreliable examples and stories of women in church history serve as Barr’s proof that women have ministered with authority, and taught men, in the past. For example, there was Margery Kempe (15th century), who explained how Scripture did not apply to her, refused the “conjugal debt” to her husband, and followed supposed mystical promises of God (pp. 72-76). There was Saint Paula (4th century) who abandoned her children to follow God’s call – leaving all three alone crying on the shore as she marched off to found a monastery (p. 79). Saint Margaret of Antioch (4th century) had a devilish creature – a dragon – eat her, but when she made the sign of the cross the dragon burst apart and set her free. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit ascended from heaven like a dove to anoint her (pp. 79-81).
Barr also regurgitated an ancient myth of Martha of Bethany who encountered her own dragon, which she calmed by sprinkling holy water on it (p. 83). Her sister Mary who is identified by Barr as Mary Magdalene was declared an apostle, preached openly, and performed miracles (pp. 82, 85-86). While these adventures of Mary and Martha are not recorded in Scripture and are discounted by most Christian scholars today, they were believed by some medieval Christians, and that is good enough for Barr. Many similar illustrations are used such as Clotilda, Genovefa, Brigit of Kildare (who according to legend was ordained a bishop), and Hildegard of Bingen (German mystic and Benedictine abbess) (pp. 88-90). Of course, one cannot ignore the best-known Roman Catholic mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena (pp. 97, 168). Barr continued with similar accounts throughout the book (see pp. 116, 168-69, 179, 183-85, 213-14). Her historical evidence consistently relies on unverifiable stories and obvious myths emanating from the corrupt Roman Catholic medieval church. All the accounts involve extrabiblical events and women to whom are attributed fanciful miracles and visions that are purely legendary and mythical. This is the kind of historical evidence upon which Barr relies. The logic used by Barr is that if the medieval church believed these stories to be true and, in the process, adopted women leadership in the church, only stubborn patriarchy would deny such leadership now!
Superiority of Medieval Church
Having staked her case on the stories of medieval Christian women who supposedly had a voice equal to men within the Roman Catholic system, the next objective for Barr was to show the superiority of that system. While she claims to appreciate many of the theological changes the Reformers brought (p. 107), she believes the Reformation returned the church to patriarchy. Barr posited the idea that women in medieval times found their voice – in essence – by becoming men (p. 91), and women found holiness through virginity and abstaining from the married state (pp. 152-53): “Medieval women gained spiritual authority by casting off their female roles and acting more like men” (p. 183). However, when the Reformation reversed all this by eradicating monasteries, rejecting mysticism, returning to sola Scriptura, and by honoring marriage above self-chosen lifetime virginity (pp. 152-53), women lost their spiritual voice and authority. Women were removed from leadership and male headship became the norm (p. 91), and the family became more important (p. 153). The author laments the result: “Historically, women have always been subordinated to men, but now their subordination became embedded in the heart of evangelical faith” (p. 154)… “Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them” (p. 103)… [but] “the Reformation . . . ushered in a ‘renewed patriarchalism'” (p. 105), and women were once again oppressed. Barr even finds it regrettable that before the Reformation women sat on opposite sides of the church; now they had to sit with their families (pp. 125-26). She regards this as a move in the wrong direction and evidence of pagan-influenced patriarchy.
Allegorization of Scripture
Barr expended little time exegeting Scripture in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, but when she attempted to do so she did not wrestle with the biblical text using a grammatical-historical hermeneutic; instead, she twisted the meaning of Scripture through the use of allegorical interpretation. She admitted, “Taken at face value, (a ‘plain and literal interpretation’), the household codes seem to sanctify the Roman patriarchal structure: the authority of the paterfamilias (husband/father) over women, children, and slaves” (p. 46). But “when read rightly . . . Paul wasn’t imposing Roman patriarchy on Christians; Paul was using a Jesus remix to tell Christians how the gospel set them free” (p. 47). In other words, Paul said the exact opposite of what a literal/normal reading of his words imply (p. 55). In fact, Paul engaged in “refuting bad practices by quoting those bad practices and then correcting them” (p. 61). Yet, even Barr is not certain that she interprets the writing of Paul correctly: “While I cannot guarantee this is what Paul was doing, it makes a lot of (historical) sense” (p. 62). To Barr, history determines the meaning of Scripture but, given her examples of history, her understandings are suspect at every point.
For additional proof, Barr turns to medieval sermons which rely heavily on allegoricalism. For example, rejecting any attempt at a literal understanding of the text, one medieval preacher used 1 Timothy 2:15 (‘But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint”) to “encourage all Christians to face the pain of repentance and penance so that they might be reborn into the joy of salvation” (p. 119). It is through such clever manipulation Barr found a means to discount a normal, grammatical-historical interpretation of all the “household texts” and framed all instructions regarding women around Galatians 3:28 (pp. 36-37), which in context has nothing to do with ecclesiology or patriarchy and everything to do with soteriology and the Christian’s standing in Christ. In other words, Galatians 3:28 is a marvelous text explaining one’s position in Christ as believers and the spiritual equalities as found in Him, yet it has nothing to do with leadership roles in the church and the home.
Beth Allison Barr despises all forms of patriarchy. In truth, evangelical complementarians promote patriarchy, but not a worldly, oppressive form. They, in fact, teach a biblical patriarchy/womanhood. However, it is a biblical womanhood (or patriarchy) that proclaims, with the Scriptures, that the husband leads his wife with love, modeling after the love of Christ for the church. Furthermore, biblical patriarchy teaches that men shepherd the church of Christ, modeling once again Christ’s shepherding of his people. There is a vast difference between the world’s pattern and the biblical form of patriarchy but Barr refuses to see these differences and insists that biblical patriarchy is Satan’s greatest trick (p. 173).
The Making of Biblical Womanhood is one of the most recent attempts to circumvent the clear teaching of Scriptures concerning the roles of men and women in the home and the church. Despite Barr’s repeated claim that she is a historical scholar capable of correcting theologians who do not know church history, what she did was reveal just the opposite. As this reviewer began to read the book, he expected the author to attempt to expose some historical mistakes and biases in an attempt to provide evidence that would prove power-hungry men who wanted to “keep women in their place” manufactured patriarchy. Instead some of the most inferior attempts at scholarship he has ever read emerged. Scholars do not depend on anecdotes, legends, myths, fables, and conspiracy theories. They seek verifiable facts. Barr did not produce such evidence because she could not. Only the very gullible, or historically ignorant, should be persuaded by Barr’s arguments.
by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel