If Barr simply wanted to demonstrate that “biblical womanhood,” as some conservative Christians understand and practice it, has been shaped over the centuries by ideas and forces other than the Bible, that would likely be a convincing argument. But this would require Barr to admit that the current fervor against “biblical womanhood” is culturally situated as well, comfortably resembling the spirit of this age.
Beth Allison Barr’s influential book The Making of Biblical Womanhood sets out to demonstrate the historical roots of “biblical womanhood,” a system of Christian patriarchy that is not really Christian. This review article poses two key questions, both of which point to significant weaknesses in Barr’s argument. First, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the proponents of “biblical womanhood”? Second, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the historical evidence she cites in opposition to “biblical womanhood”? Specific examples of historical half-truths reveal a more comprehensive problem with Barr’s methodology, which reflects a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to history.
“Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian. It just shows us the historical (and very human) roots of biblical womanhood.”1 In two sentences, this is the central argument of Beth Allison Barr’s popular book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.
The idea of “biblical womanhood” is nothing other than Christian patriarchy, and the only reason it continues to flourish is because women and men blindly continue to support it (p. 216). For too long, Barr argues, the system of Christian patriarchy has “place[d] power in the hands of men and take[n] power out of the hands of women.” It has taught “men that women rank lower than they do.” It has taught “women that their voices are worth less than the voices of men” (p. 18). At bottom, Christian patriarchy is no different from pagan patriarchy. Both are rampant in the world. Both have been around for a long time. And it’s time for both to end.
Although in many ways a learned book with hundreds of endnotes and plenty of academic citations, The Making of Biblical Womanhood is anything but a dry, dispassionate work. From the first sentence of the Introduction (“I never meant to be an activist”) to the numerous references in the Acknowledgments to those who “believed in this project” and “stood by me” and “fought for me” and “gave me the courage I needed to be braver than I ever knew I could be,” this is a work of vigorous advocacy (pp. viii–x). Barr is not simply arguing for a theological or historical interpretation. The stakes are much higher than that. She is “fighting for a better a Christian world” (p. x). She is fighting for evangelical Christians to finally be free (p. 218).
1. A Work of History
The Making of Biblical Womanhood straddles several different genres. It is part personal history, with Barr’s own painful interactions with patriarchy (as she sees it) looming large in the background (and in the foreground). Woven throughout the book is the story of Barr’s husband being fired as a youth pastor for challenging his church’s leadership over the role of women in the church. We also hear of disrespectful male students in her classroom and of a scary relationship she had with a boyfriend years ago. Barr acknowledges that this experience with her boyfriend, along with the experience of her husband’s firing, “frames how I think about complementarianism today.” These “traumatic experiences” mean that she is “scarred” and “will always carry the scars” (p. 204). Those sympathetic to Barr’s perspective will likely resonate with the personal narrative, considering it one more reason to dismantle patriarchy once and for all. Others, however, might be curious to know if there is another side to these stories (Prov 18:17) and, more importantly, might wonder whether the author’s scars get in the way of giving complementarianism a fair hearing.
The book also contains elements of a typical egalitarian apologetic. As an exegetical work, there is little in The Making of Biblical Womanhood that hasn’t been said many times over the past 40 years. Anyone familiar with egalitarian arguments will not be surprised by the main exegetical claims: Paul’s commands are culturally bound; husbands and wives both submit to each other; Phoebe was a deaconess; Junia was a female apostle; Mary Magdalene preached the gospel; Galatians 3:28 obliterates gender-based hierarchy. I won’t repeat Barr’s arguments, nor will I attempt a point-by-point rejoinder. If anyone wants to look at the same issues from a different perspective, my new book Men and Women in the Church is meant to be a concise overview of complementarian convictions and conclusions.2
What makes Barr’s work unique is her work as a medieval historian. It’s this new angle that prompted so many rave (if sometimes cliched) reviews: “readers should be ready to have their worlds transformed” (Tisby); “absolute game changer” (Du Mez); “this book is a game changer” (Fea); “convincing and moving” (Jenkins); “I have waited my entire adult life for a book like this” (Merritt); “a brilliant, thunderous narrative” (McKnight). With a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now as an associate professor of history and associate dean at Baylor University, Barr has an impressive academic pedigree. No one can question that Barr writes as a well-trained historian, something she reminds the reader of often:
- “As a historian…” (p. 6)
- “Listen not just to my experiences but also to the evidence I present as a historian” (p. 9).
- “Even from my early years training as a historian…” (p. 12)
- “Here I was, a professor with a PhD from a major research university…” (p. 56)
- “Because I am a historian…” (p. 56)
- “So as a historian…” (p. 60)
- “Instead, I taught the narrative I had learned from my training as a historian…” (p. 107).
- “My training as a historian…” (p. 107)
- “My medieval history-trained eyes…” (p. 125)
- “But as a historian…” (p. 127)
- “As a medieval historian who specializes in English sermons…” (p. 132)
- “Yet, as a medieval historian…” (p. 133)
- “So let me tell you what I know as a historian…” (p. 133)
- “As a historian who studies manuscript tradition…” (p. 143)
- “To my women’s history-trained ears…” (p. 171)
- “As a medieval historian…” (p. 183)
- “As a church historian…” (p. 194)
- “At least to my historian’s mind…” (p. 197)
- “I am a historian…” (p. 205)
With this relentless emphasis on writing “as a historian,” we would do well to evaluate The Making of Biblical Womanhood first of all as a work of historical scholarship.
Along these lines, let me raise two questions, both of which point to significant weaknesses in Barr’s argument. First, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the proponents of “biblical womanhood”? Second, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the historical evidence she cites in opposition to “biblical womanhood”?
2. Dealing Fairly with Our Opponents
One of the difficulties in evaluating Barr’s arguments against “biblical womanhood” is that she never provides a definition of what exactly she means by that pejorative label or how she has determined who counts as authoritative spokesmen for the concept she rejects. The closest she comes to a definition of biblical womanhood is when she observes that she grew up learning that “women were called to secondary roles in church and family, with an emphasis on marriage and children” (p. 1). Along the same lines, she defines complementarianism as “the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders” (p. 5). The problem with both of these definitions is that they don’t come from anyone in the “biblical womanhood” or complementarian camp. That’s not automatically a problem. There’s a place for summarizing big, broad movements in our own words. But for a whole book against “biblical womanhood,” one would have expected a substantial and sophisticated analysis of the theological, exegetical, and cultural vision laid out in the book with biblical womanhood in its title, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.3 One would have hoped for a careful look at the Danvers Statement or an evaluation of the “Mission & Vision” of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Instead, Barr’s version of “biblical womanhood” relies heavily on her personal experience, broad generalizations, and bite-size quotations from people as diverse as Tim LaHaye, James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Russell Moore, Owen Strachan, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem.
I hope most history departments would insist that the best research tries to present historical subjects and ideas in ways that would be familiar to them. That is, before moving to critical evaluation, historians should try to make sense of what people in the past have believed, on their own terms, and why they came to the conclusions they did. While Barr demonstrates admirable sympathy for her medieval subjects (the women at least), she makes little effort to understand her “biblical womanhood” opponents or to look for much more than gotcha words and phrases. For example, Barr often mentions a 2006 article from Russell Moore where he talks favorably about the word “patriarchy.”4 (Incidentally, it’s ironic that Moore, because of an article 15 years ago, has become the chief culprit in advocating patriarchy when many would regard him as the type of complementarian most sympathetic to many of Barr’s complaints.) Barr also quotes Owen Strachan using the p-word (patriarchy). Citing Moore’s article, along with one line from Strachan, Barr insists, “Not long ago, evangelicals were talking a lot about patriarchy” (p. 12). Two examples hardly seem like a lot, especially considering the word complementarian was coined specifically to get away from words like patriarchy.
It should be stated that patriarchy, by itself, is not a bad word. If we have God as our heavenly Father, we all believe in some kind of patriarchy. Personally, I don’t tend to use the word because of all the negative connotations. But just because someone uses the word patriarchy doesn’t make them—or an entire movement—guilty of those negative connotations. In fact, as Barr points out, Moore is careful to distinguish Christian patriarchy from “pagan patriarchy” and “predatory patriarchy” (p. 16). Barr admits that Moore’s stance has been “women should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy)” (p. 17). That seems like a significant and helpful distinction. But in her next line, Barr takes away the distinction Moore tries to make: “Nice try, I thought. Tell that to my conservative male student.” Does one rude college student mean that all patriarchy is pagan patriarchy?
At times, Barr’s takedowns feel more like political oppo research than careful academic reasoning. For example, she tells her students “how easily a study of Paul overturns John Piper’s claim that Christianity has a ‘masculine feel.’” After all, she argues, Paul describes himself as a pregnant mother, a mother giving birth, and even a nursing mother (p. 52). I don’t expect Barr to like the phrase “masculine feel,” but Piper’s argument does not rest on whether Paul ever uses female imagery. Piper argues that God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. He argues that the Son of God came into the world as a man, that the priests in Israel were men, that the apostles were all men, that men are given the responsibility to lead, protect, and provide. Piper acknowledges that emphasizing a “masculine ministry” can be seriously misunderstood and misapplied. He also underscores several times that a “masculine ministry” is for the flourishing of women and that women contribute in fruitful partnership to the work of ministry. Again, Barr has every right to disagree with Piper’s vision for ministry, but that disagreement should deal with his specific arguments and proposals, not with one phrase she feels is particularly laughable.
Or to cite another example involving Piper, Barr claims, “Even John Piper admitted in 1984 that he can’t figure out what to do with Deborah and Huldah” (p. 36). But if you look up the citation, here is the totality of what Piper said:
I admit that Deborah and Huldah do not fit neatly into my view. I wish Berkeley and Alvera would do the same about 1 Timothy 2:8–15 (etc.!). Perhaps it is no fluke that Deborah and Huldah did not put themselves forward but were sought out because of their wisdom and revelation (Judges 4:5; 2 Kings 22:14). I argued in March (pp. 30–32) that the issue (in 1 Cor. 11:2–16) is how a woman should prophesy, not whether she should. Are Deborah and Huldah examples of how to “prophesy” and “judge” in a way that affirms and honors the normal headship of men?”5
That presents a different picture than Barr’s “he can’t figure out what to do with Deborah and Huldah”—not a befuddled complementarian, but someone trying to deal with the strongest arguments of the other side and provide a response. Surely, this is a good model for all of us to follow.
Similarly, Barr chides Capitol Hill Baptist Church for one of their Sunday school classes. “To this day,” she writes, “I grind my teeth over the church history series used by Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It paints a grim picture of a sordid, corrupt medieval church in which few people, except for a remnant of ‘scattered monks and nuns,’ found salvation” (p. 137). Barr is free to argue that the curriculum is too negative about the medieval church, but she ought to at least note the first two sentences of the lesson: “Common belief is that the Middle Ages was a truly horrible time period with no redeeming qualities. But the more we examine [we] realize just how rich some of the theology was, and how important many of the people and events are during this time period.”6