The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr (Review)

Who Should Read this Book – Christian men and women who were taught that women should be submissive to men .

What is the Big Take Away from this book – Rather than being rooted in any sort of counter-cultural narrative of scripture, Biblical womanhood (complementarianism) is a recent invention more in line with the patriarchy of the ancient Roman world than anything close to what Jesus desires.

And a quote – “Biblical womanhood is Christian patriarchy. The only reason it continues to flourish is because women and men – just like you and me – continue to support it. What if we all stopped supporting it? What if, instead of letting denominational difvides and peripheral theological beliefs continue to separate us, we stood together as people of faith who believe that God has called us to change this world? . . .

What if we stopped forgetting our past and remembered that women – just like us – preached their way through the landscape of Christian history? WHat if we remembered that we are surrounded by a cloud of female witnesses and that we will never stand alone. . . What if we realized that God has never stopped calling women to do his work – as preachers, teachers, missionaries, evangelists and authors? What if we realized when we look at the whole of the global world, it simply doesn’t make sense to define occupations by gender? . . .

Complementarianism is patriarchy and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus” (216-218)

Beth Allison Barr mixes her own experience with her expertise in medieval history to deliver a brilliant and necessary book. Like many women in the evangelical Christian world, she grew up believing she had a role as a woman that was different from that of a man. Even after receiving high academic honors and securing a teaching position at a university, she still was unable to teach in her own church.

How absurd is that? Why would eminently qualified women be able to use their gifts and knowledge to teach in secular spaces, but they cannot share with their fellow Christians.

Because patriarchy. Barr traces the history of patriarchy through the ancient world (starting with the Gilgamesh epic!) and early church, on through the medieval church and Reformation and up to present day. At some point in there, quite recently actually, it was rebranded as “complementarianism”, but its just patriarchy. Millions of Christian men and women think it is God’s ideal for both home and church. It is neither. Instead, it stands on a shoddy scriptural basis and though patriarchy never goes away, the form it has now is quite new.

What does Barr mean when she writes, “Christian patriarchy mimics the patriarchy of the non-Christian world” (12). One of the oldest stories in existence, the Gilgamesh Epic, includes women just as helpers. This system of male authority and female submission is found here and is the historical practice of the world. Patriarchy’s continuity throughout time should cause Christian proponents of it to question:

Instead of being a point of pride for Christians, shouldn’t the historical continuity of a practice that has caused women to fare much worse than men for thousands of years cause concern? Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from teh world, treat women differently?” (25).

That’s the point – Christians should be different. Patriarchy is not what God wanted, its a result of the first sin in Genesis 3. From this point on, the scripture story accepts patriarchy as the reality while also undermining it over and over. Barr demonstrates this by showing how to read Paul differently, and not just differently but better, than the patriarchal view. For example, there is nothing shocking in his day for Paul to tell women to submit. What is shocking is that he tells the husbands to love their wives and begins the whole section (in Ephesians 5) with a call for mutual submission. That’s not reinforcing patriarchy but subverting it.

Barr especially excels when telling stories from medieval church history. She shines light on stories that have been erased and are unknown, stories of women preaching and leading the church. In the medieval world women had to transcend their sex to gain authority, becoming seen as less feminine. This shifts during the Reformation, as women are more celebrated for their roles as wives and mothers. In this she makes the stunning point that “Reformation theology might have removed the priest but it replaced him with the husband” (117). In other words, during the medieval era there was more of an emphasis on the spiritual sameness between men and women. Most men, Barr points out, would never be priests so the spiritual headship of a husband didn’t matter. Medieval sermons would lift up women as exemplars of faith, examples for all women. Both men and women had to go to the priest for the sacraments.

During the Reformation, sexual difference came to the forefront. Paul’s words were used to reinforce gender submission both in church and in the household. Priesthood of all believers lifted all men above all women as men became priests of a sort within their own household.

As she discusses the Reformation, she moves into a discussion of Bible translations in what may be the most stunning, and important, chapter of the book. Barr disproves some commonly held myths, such as that medieval people did not know scripture. Through this, she shows that patriarchy was written into English translations, especially the ESV:

The ESV was a direct response to the gender-inclusive language debate. It was born to secure readings of Scripture that preserved male headship. It was born to fight against liberal feminism and secular culture challenging the Word of God” (132).

Gender-inclusive language is restoring scripture from the influence of certain English Bible translations” (148).

Wait, did I say that was the most stunning chapter? It is even more stunning to see how evangelicals, so intent on propping up patriarchy, have even built it into their understanding of God through something called “the eternal subordination of the Son.” This is just a return to the early church heresy Arianism which taught Jesus was a second, lesser deity. Barr writes:

What early Christians were so adamant about teaching, that no hierarchy existed within the Triune God, modern evangelicals seem adamant about forgetting. . . It should also not surprise us that evangelicals resurrected Arianism for the same reason that evangelicals turned to inerrancy: if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify” (195-196)

Boom.

This may be a top-ten book of the year for me. Like with Jesus and John Wayne, as I read I both saw things she was describing as familiar and I was also grateful that I was never as immersed in this world as I could have been. But I know plenty of Christians, men and women, who think complementarianism is what God wants. Barr not only shows it does not fit scripture but that its actually more in line with broken human history. Believing women should be subordinate is as counter-cultural as believing violence solves problems. Jesus demonstrated a different way.

Of course, plenty of Christians still love violence! I guess that’s the challenge. We have a gospel, a Jesus, a story of scripture, that present a counter culture way of life in regards to EVERYTHING! Yet we keep going back to violence and consumption and racism and materialism and the rest.

That cynical point made, I hope people read Barr’s book. If the scripture points alone are not enough, the points on theology (patriarchy supports Arianism), translation (they write it into English Bibles) and church history paint a picture that is as clear as it is distressing: patriarchy is not God’s dream for the world. Its a new idea that corrupts women, men and the church as a whole.

One note that stuck out to me from that quote at the beginning – she refers to God as “he” which seemed odd in a book about patriarchy. I didn’t notice it throughout, but the masculine pronoun would seem to reinforce patriarchy, if anything does. I’d be curious if that was intentional.

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