Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood belongs to a growing genre of (post)evangelical social scholarship. Using a combination of history, sociology, and political analysis, books like Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Whitehead and Perry’s Taking America Back for God, Tisby’s Color of Compromise, Butler’s White Evangelical Racism, and Jones’ White Too Long all aim to show that conservative evangelicalism has been built on the foundation of racism, or sexism, or nationalism such that it needs to be substantially reformed if not outright dismantled. Barr’s book fits into this familiar pattern, interleaving her own story with narratives from Medieval church history, the subject of Barr’s PhD.
Barr herself is a former Southern Baptist, who grew up in conservative churches with complementarian theology (more on terminology later). Her husband attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary while she earned her PhD at UNC – Chapel Hill, and they were both leaders in a local Southern Baptist congregation. In this context, Barr began rethinking her beliefs about gender and the role of women in the church.
Throughout the book she tells various stories about her negative experiences, from a struggle with Christian camp staff over arbitrary rules for girls’ clothing to frustrations over an obdurate student who demanded that Barr’s lesson plans be approved by her husband.
Two events in particular shaped Barr’s perspective. The first occurred earlier in Barr’s life, when she was in a relationship with an angry, violent boyfriend. Due to teaching that she had absorbed regarding feminine obedience and the nature of “courtship,” Barr submitted meekly to increasingly terrifying incidents until she cried out to God, and the boyfriend left her alone.
The second occurred much later, when Barr and her husband left their Southern Baptist church after an extended struggle over women’s roles, culminating in her husband’s firing. Not only did her church restrict church offices to men, it also forbade women to teach Sunday School classes to boys over the age of 13. On Barr’s account, the church forced her and her husband to stay silent about the real reason they were ousted. She credits this incident with motivating her to tell her story and to call the church to repent of its views on gender.
As a Medieval historian, Barr recognizes that the precise role of women throughout church history has not been static. At times, women exercised more or less influence in church, in the home, and in the public square. Female Catholic saints like St. Paula or St. Margaret certainly don’t fit the stereotype of nurturing, submissive helpmeets devoted to embroidery, cooking, and cleaning.
More relevant to modern evangelicals is the discussion of women’s roles in Scripture. Here, we find descriptions that should provoke reflection. For example, Priscilla helps explain “the way of God more accurately” to Apollos (Acts 18:26) and Paul refers to her as a “fellow [worker] in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 16:3). Paul sent his letter to the Romans via Phoebe who is described as a “deacon/servant of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1-2). He greets Tryphaena and Tryphosa as “workers in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12). Junia is “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7; meaning either that she was an apostle or was of great repute among the apostles). In Phil. 4:3, Paul says that Euodia and Syntyche “have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.”
Set aside, for a moment, the dispute over how Rom. 16:1-2 and Rom. 16:7 should be understood with respect to church offices. Should complementarians not ask themselves whether it is typical for women in our own churches to receive such acclamation? If we were writing an important letter to a neighboring church, would we single out only men? Or would we naturally list women as vital “co-laborers in the gospel”? If not, it is reasonable to ask whether our vision of female participation in the mission of the church has been shaped more by culture than by Scripture.
Likewise, like Barr, I am concerned that we can read our beliefs about gender back onto the Trinity, a serious danger on both the complementarian and egalitarian side of the debate (see Kevin DeYoung’s helpful article here).
That said, Barr makes it clear that her goal is not and never was a superficial correction of the kind of man-made rules that Jesus condemned (Matt. 15:9) or a reaffirmation of historic Trinitarian theology, but rather the wholesale rejection of complementarian theology. At the end of her book, she states her position plainly: “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus” (p. 218). For this reason, we need to dive deeper into her book and her methodology. For the sake of space, I’ll focus on two issues: definitions and the role of the Bible.
Barr’s main objective is to show that history 1) supports her views on female leadership within the church and 2) undermines a patriarchal vision of gender. However, the breadth of her conception of both “leadership” and “patriarchy” leads to immediate methodological difficulties.
First, nearly any time a female figure exercises any kind of agency, authority, or initiative, it is offered as an example of “female leadership.” For example, in her discussion of Jesus being anointed with oil, Barr writes “By allowing a woman to anoint him with oil, Jesus overturns male headship–allowing a woman to do what only men had been able to do until that moment: anoint the king” (p. 45). She then cites Blamires, who sees this act as “a stunning dislocation of the conventional gendering of body as feminine and head as masculine” (p. 45). To put it mildly, this seems like a significant overreading of this incident.
Conversely, Barr’s definition of complementarianism collapses a broad spectrum of views onto a single category that she labels “patriarchy.” Indeed, she simply rejects the idea that complementarianism is anything other than patriarchy: “Complementarianism is patriarchy. Owen Strachan is right (at least about this)” (p. 13).
The upshot of these definitions is that it’s questionable whether many of Barr’s historical examples challenge actual complementarian theology. The Danvers Statement is probably the most influential expression of complementarianism today, yet the only explicit statements it makes regarding gender roles pertain to male leadership within the family and within the church. Consequently, historical examples of female missionaries or miracle workers or saints or patrons or even teachers would not necessarily challenge complementarian theology. The question up for debate is not “did women ever exercise leadership in any capacity?” but rather “did women fill leadership roles that complementarians claim are reserved for men?” (I’ll pass over the equally important point that history is descriptive, not normative, telling us what people did but not what they ought to have done)
Historical evidence showing that women had been ordained as priests or bishops or presbyters prior to the 19th century would indeed challenge complementarian praxis. Yet Barr seems to recognize that such examples are rare. She explains this absence through statements like “The office of presbyter testifies loudly to how patriarchal prejudices of the ancient world had already crept into Christianity” (p. 68) and “women were kept out of leadership roles in my own congregation because Roman patriarchy had seeped back into the early church” (p. 69) and “Instead of following a clear and plain reading of the biblical text, the medieval world grafted their imported Roman patriarchy onto the gospel of Jesus” (p. 87) and “Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure” (p. 123). This reasoning amounts to a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument. Historical evidence for “female leadership” is taken as evidence of complementarianism’s recent origins. But historical evidence that “female leadership” was qualified along complementarian lines is taken as evidence of the church’s capitulation to patriarchy.
To put it another way, we could alternatively imagine adopting an excessively narrow definition that equated female leadership with “ordination as a priest, bishop, or presbyter,” thereby discovering that female leadership did not exist until recent times. Likewise, we could redefine “egalitarianism” to mean “the abolition of any distinctions between the genders” such that only radical feminist and queer theologians qualified as “egalitarian.” Neither approach really deals fairly with the central questions up for debate between complementarians and egalitarians.
Many conservative reviewers of Barr’s book noticed her ambivalence towards, if not outright hostility to, the term “inerrancy.” Barr recognizes that inerrancy is “the belief that the Bible is completely without error, including in areas of science and history” (p. 188). Yet she then states that “[Inerrancy teachings] buttressed male authority by diminishing female authority–transforming a literal reading of Paul’s verses about women into immutable truth” (p. 189) and that “The concept of inerrancy made it increasingly difficult to argue against a ‘plain and literal’ interpretation of ‘women be silent’ and ‘women shall not teach'” (p. 190) and that “Inerrancy introduced the ultimate justification for patriarchy–abandoning a plain and literal interpretation of Pauline texts about women would hurl Christians off the cliff of biblical orthodoxy” (p. 190) and that “The evangelical fight for inerrancy was inextricably linked with gender from the beginning… Inerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit” (p. 191).
Based on comments like these, it’s no surprise that several reviews assumed that Barr rejects inerrancy. In response, Barr insisted that she was “arguing in her book against inerrancy in practice, not the doctrine of inerrancy itself.” Yet her repeated comments on social media about how “inerrancy is about interpretation” and how “inerrancy was weaponized against me” still leave me perplexed about whether she thinks the Bible is “completely without error” (her own definition of inerrancy).
I think some light can be shed on this issue by considering other statements Barr makes throughout the book. For example, in Chapter 1 “The Beginning of Patriarchy,” she writes:
“[Clarice] Martin asks a provocative question: ‘How can black male preachers and theologians use a liberated hermeneutic while preaching and theologizing about slaves, but a literalist hermeneutic with reference to women?’ … Martin challenges African American interpreters of the Bible to stop using ‘a hierarchicalist hermeneutic with regard to biblical narratives about women.’ Only then can all Black people be free. She is right… Isn’t it time we stop ignoring the historical reality that patriarchy is part of an interwoven system of oppression that includes racism” (p. 33-34)
Barr later shares Beverly Roberts Gaventa’s lament that “evangelicals have spent so much time ‘parsing the lines of Paul’s letters for theological propositions and ethical guidelines that must be replicated narrowly’ that we have missed Paul’s bigger purpose” (p. 42).
It’s hard to read either of these comments as simple calls for a more careful application of a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Instead, both seem to argue that our hermeneutic itself needs to focus less on the actual words of the text and more on the broad, liberatory purposes of Scripture. This question actually goes far deeper than a mere affirmation that the Bible is without error. After all, we can –in theory– affirm that the Bible is without error and still insist that it’s only properly interpreted through the lens of feminism or liberation theology or class struggle.
The ambiguity and far-reaching implications of Barr’s stance towards Scripture is perhaps best illustrated by her church’s “What We Believe” page. On the one hand, it does cite the 1963 BFM, which states that the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” On the other hand, the page itself states that “We value the Bible as the divinely inspired record of God’s revelation of Godself to us. It serves as the authoritative guide for life and ministry” (see below) [UPDATE: the church has now replaced “Godself” with “Himself” and has affirmed that their statement of belief preceded the tenure of Barr’s husband as pastor].
The omission of the phrase “without any mixture of error” and the use of the gender-neutral pronoun “Godself” ought to jump out at us. While I agree that the term “inerrancy” can often be no more than a tribal shibboleth, something even more important than inerrancy seems to be at stake.
The Gospel and Liberation
My main concern with Barr’s book has less to do with her position on gender and far more to do with how she arrived at her position. She affirms, both explicitly and implicitly, that she came to believe that she and other women were being oppressed, subjugated, and victimized not merely by individual men, but by a diffuse system of patriarchal power buttressed by complementarian theology. Because Jesus’ message was one of liberation, the Bible then must be reinterpreted in a way that is consistent with his message of freedom and equality.
Yet I have to wonder how Barr can limit her approach to gender alone. Indeed, at times, she seems to recognize that her outlook has applications far beyond complementarianism. For example, she writes “Patriarchy and racism are ‘interlocking structures of oppression'” (p. 208) and “Isn’t it time that white Christians realize that the roots of biblical womanhood extent from white supremacy?” (p. 208). But why not extend this critique beyond racism and sexism to “structures of oppression” like heteronormativity, cisgenderism, ableism, adultism, and Christian privilege? What is the limiting principle by which we uphold a traditional sexual ethic, when so many contemporary social scientists see this ethic as a form of power intertwined with Eurocentric, colonialist, white supremacist patriarchy?
What we’re seeing in so many ex-vangelical circles is not a slippery slope, but the consistent outworking of people’s beliefs about freedom, identity, and oppression. To be clear, the gospel is liberatory. But the Bible makes it clear that God’s liberation frees us to embrace his design for us. I share Barr’s fear that the “tail is wagging the dog,” but in a very different way. The Bible invites us to start with God’s vision for humanity and then to define love, equality, and justice in light of it. If we start with our own definitions of these terms and then impose them on the Bible, the result will be enslavement not freedom.
- Cowboy Christianity: A Short Review of Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne
- Compromised? A Long Review of Tisby’s Color of Compromise
- God and Country: A Short Review of Whitehead’s and Perry’s Taking America Back for God
- Quotes from Sensoy and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal?
- Short Review of Adams’ Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice