The Making of Biblical Womanhood, How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr

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Beth 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 literally 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 biblical at all, but a plot to suppress women. Biblical womanhood, Barr states has been built “stone by stone by stone throughout the centuries” (p. 205) and is a capitulation to culture and sin rather than a scriptural 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 church as pastors, elders, and deacons” (p. 2). It is this understanding of the roles of men and women that Barr rejects and makes every effort to deconstruct. She does so primarily by attempting to demonstrate that biblical womanhood does not stem from Scripture but “from the changing circumstances of history… [and] like racism, patriarchy is a shapeshifter” (p. 186). “Complementarianism”, she claims, “is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither has ever been about Jesus” (p. 218).

Growing up in the world of the Southern Baptists, Barr was on board with patriarchy for much of her life, but a number of factors began to unravel her views: her husband, a youth pastor, was fired from an SBC 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 writes that her present understandings are drawn from her study of Scripture, the reality is that she is leaning on her rather questionable interpretation of history (as this review will reveal). She insists however, that, “historical evidence about the origins of patriarchy can move the conversation forward” (p. 32).

The author often admits 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). Possibly 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 found in the Bible is because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world (p. 36). It “emerged,” she says, “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.

No wonder many of Barr’s students say, “I hate Paul” (p. 39). But, she suggests, “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 (pp. 46-52). “What if Paul never said any of this” (p. 56)? Barr assures her readers that, “because I am a historian, I know there is more to Paul’s letters than what his words reveal” (p. 56). The author will endeavor throughout the book to unveil her special, historian insights that will let her audience know what Paul “really meant.”

Barr’s contention runs something like this: 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. 171-172). And 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? Let’s follow the thread.

Women Leadership in Scripture

The initial game changer in Barr’s thinking was discovering 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 read the letter to the ,Romans out loud to her house church (for the record, the text does not mention Phoebe reading Paul’s Roman epistle out loud, 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 interprets this phrase to say Junia was a prominent apostle, but the Greek grammar of the text would indicate that she was well-known to the apostles. What Barr fails 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.

Barr lists 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. These would include Anna, Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman (p. 92), and Martha (p. 90). Barr’s methodology is to elevate any woman who spoke 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. Yet nowhere in Scripture are these women given the role of preaching or elder. It does not take much observation to conclude that all the apostles were men, as were the Old Testament patriarchs. All the books of the Bible are written by men. All elders in the New Testament church were men (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 played important roles in the church does not mean that she was an elder, preacher or apostle.

Distorted Translations

Barr searches in vain for biblical examples of women truly exercising authority in the church or the home. So, how does she process this fact? A number of ways, beginning with an accusation 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, 137-139, 141-143). In particular, Barr stakes out the ESV as a complementarian translation (p. 51) specifically designed to “keep women out of leadership” (p. 69) and was a reaction to the TNIV gender-neutral translation (p. 132), which “capitulates to non-Christian culture (patriarchy)” (p. 143). One of the reasons most Christians don’t know what Barr claims to know about women in Scripture is modern translations intentionally mask the truth. How she knows of the intention, and discussions among the ESV committee members is unknown, but she assures her readers that it is true. Barr follows up by arguing that Scripture passages concerning women have been misinterpreted apparently intentionally. She is here to set the theologians straight.

Denial of Inerrancy

Barr insists that “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 in implied throughout the book, but her full repudiation of inerrancy is crystal clear (pp. 187-191). Properly understand inerrancy not only champions the accuracy and reliability of Scripture, it also insists on plain and literal interpretation of the Bible – what is often called grammatical–historical hermeneutics. Yet is a result of evangelicals embracing inerrancy, Barr insists, that leads them to “baptize patriarchy” (p. 190), because a plain reading of the New Testament, the author admits, teaches complementarianism. For Barr “inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear” (p. 190) rather than a clear word from the Lord. But for good measure Barr accuses complementarian theologians of the heresy of Arianism (pp. 191-197). Her thoughts on this subject are not worthy of comment, as she has waded into doctrinal waters that are over her head. But her point is she believes evangelicals have “resurrected Arianism for the same reason that evangelicals turned to inerrancy” – to suppress women and prop up Christian patriarchy (pp. 195-196).

Women in Church History

Barr’s arguments rely heavily on anecdotal examples, myths, legends and stories. Such is not the methodology expected of a scholar and university professor. She often recites to unique illustrations and frames them as proof that patriarchy is harsh, unreasonable and oppressive (e.9. pp. 18, 40, 175, 207). Anecdotes make for interesting stories but do not serve as proof of anything. The author uses the same approach as she turns to her area of expertise – medieval church history. Since so much of Barr’s thesis rests on church history and, since she is a historical scholar, if she is going 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 served with authority, and taught men, in the past. 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). Then there was Saint Paula (4th century) who abandoned her children to follow God’s call – leaving all three alone crying on the shore and founded 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. At her final act the Holy Spirit ascended from heaven as a dove to anoint her (pp. 79-81).

Barr also regurgitates an ancient myth of Martha of Bethany who encounters her own dragon, which she calms by sprinkling holy water on it (p. 83). Her sister Mary is identified by Barr as Mary Magdalene, who 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 this historian. Many similar illustrations are used such as Clotilda, Genovefa, Brigit of Kildare, who according to legend was ordained a bishop, Hildegard of Bingen (German mystic and Benedictine abbess) (pp. 88-90). Of course, we cannot leave out the best-known Roman Catholic mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena (pp. 97, 168). Barr continues with such accounts throughout the book (see pp. 116, 168-169, 179, 183-185, 213-214). Her historical evidence 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 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 under the Roman Catholic system, the next move for Barr is 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 posts the idea that women in medieval times found their voice by in essence becoming men (p. 91). Women found holiness through virginity and moving away from the married state (pp. 152-153). “Medieval women gained spiritual authority by casting off their female roles and acting more like men” (p. 183). But when the Reformation reversed all of this by doing away with monasteries, rejecting mysticism, returning to Sola Scriptura and by honoring marriage over virginity (pp. 152-153), women lost their spiritual voice and authority. Women got pushed out of leadership and male headship became the norm (p. 91), and the family became more important (p. 153). “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 the worse for it. Barr laments that prior to the Reformation women sat on opposite sides of the church; now they had to sit with their families (pp. 125-126). She sees this as a move in the wrong direction and an evidence of pagan-influenced patriarchy.

Allegorization of Scripture

Barr spends little time exegeting Scripture in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, but when she attempts to do so she does not wrestle with the biblical text using a grammatical-historical hermeneutic; instead she twists the meaning of Scripture through allegorism. She admits, “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 was saying the exact opposite of what a literal/normal reading of his words imply (p. 55). What Paul was really doing is “refuting bad practices by quoting those bad practices and then correcting them” (p. 61). Even Barr is not sure that she is interpreting 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.

Historically she turns to medieval sermons, which relied on allegorization for more proof. For example, rejecting any attempt at a literal understanding of the text. One medieval preacher used 1 Timothy 2:15 “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). Barr finds a way around a normal, grammatical-historical interpretation of all the ‘household texts” and frames 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 position in Christ. In other words, Galatians 3:28 is a marvelous text explaining our position in Christ as believers, and our spiritual equalities as found in Him. But it has nothing to do with leadership roles as found in the church and the home.

Barr despises all forms of patriarchy. Evangelical complementarians promote patriarchy, but not a worldly, oppressive form. It teaches a biblical patriarchy; or “biblical womanhood.” But true biblical womanhood (or patriarchy) proclaims with the Scriptures that the husband leads with love, modeling after the love of Christ for the church. And 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 form and the biblical form of patriarchy but Barr refuses to see this difference 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 in the church. Despite Barr’s repeated claim that she is a historical scholar out to correct theologians who do not know church history, what she did was reveal just the opposite. As I began to read the book I was expecting some historical rocks to be overturned and out would craw evidences that proved patriarchy was manufactured by power-hungry men who wanted to “keep women in their place.” Instead some of the most inferior attempts at scholarship I have ever read emerged. Scholars don’t depend on anecdotes, unique stores, myths, fables, and conspiracy theories. They seek out verifiable facts. Barr did not produce such evidence because she cannot. Only the very gullible, or historically ignorant should be taken in by Barr’s arguments.

by Beth Allison Barr (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021) 245 pp. & xvii, paper $16.61

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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