Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood has been making quite a splash among the people who care deeply about women’s issues in Christianity, whether egalitarian or complementarian, which of course means that not everyone approves. Barr herself does not present the book as a neutral examination of the history of women in the Church. It is passionate, it is personal, and it is written on a popular rather than an academic level; this is a book on a mission and it has certainly reached the masses. What is that mission? Essentially, Barr wants to show how complementarian theologians, pastors, and institutions (specifically in the United States) largely rewrite history to show that their ideas about gender have always been validated in the past and have always been a part of the Christian message. Even more essentially, Barr seeks to demonstrate nothing more or less than why complementarianism exists in the Church—and, because this book is not neutral, why it shouldn’t exist at all.
I am not in the demographic that would be convinced by Barr’s arguments, for the simple reason that I don’t need convincing; I’m already on her side. There were some things I learned, and interesting historical figures I was introduced to, but the book’s great value for me was that it brought together various points and ideas I’d already realized, weaving them into a cohesive narrative whole. That narrative moves more or less chronologically from the Greco-Roman era of house churches; to the Medieval era of episcopal authority (Barr’s own specialty as a historian); to the Reformation and the impact of Protestantism on women’s lives; to modern North American evangelicalism and its culture war. It arrives finally at the point when, echoing the subtitle, the subjugation of women in virtually every area of life became (for complementarians) linked to ‘gospel truth’. While the narrative is cohesive, it’s also layered and multifaceted; women have always faced challenges, but there were also those who challenged the status quo and became accepted as spiritual and theological teachers. Ultimately I gleaned the view that historical periods can’t be easily summed up by stereotypes and categorizations; the Middle Ages in particular comes across as surprisingly similar to our own in terms of women’s position within the Church: some see them as valued ministers of the gospel, others think they should be silent and submissive to their husbands.
Key to Barr’s entire thesis is a very simple proposal: To think that there is a gender hierarchy—whether in the home, at school, at work, or in ministry—is to think like a pagan, not like a Christian. Patriarchy originated in the unbelieving culture, not in Scripture. It was how the Romans ordered their households and their society, a way of thinking that the apostle Paul was constantly challenging rather than endorsing. Barr is not a professional Biblical scholar, so in discussing the controversial texts in 1 Corinthians or Ephesians she relies on the commentary of people like Lucy Peppiatt, Scot McKnight, and Sarah Pomeroy; wise guides to reading Paul’s letters in context. And definitely suggested reading for anyone who has more questions about exegeting those passages.
The narrative is more than historical, however. It’s also personal. Throughout the book Barr tells us her own story of leaving her complementarian background and church, living through the painful effects of bad theology, and discovering how a study of history and remembering the past helps us build a better future. As she narrated that journey, I realized that writing this book must have been difficult for her. It was probably exhausting at times, recalling those memories of difficult encounters and traumas. And the criticism levelled at her from some quarters in response to the book likely takes its own toll. Bravery is certainly the word that comes to mind.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood is ultimately not the final word for egalitarianism that some people might be expecting or hoping for. The fact that it’s written at a popular level rather than an academic one means that there simply isn’t space for that complex argument; and the argument requires more than just history, it also requires Biblical study and theology at the very least. This is not a criticism of Barr’s work. It’s simply the nature of the beast. What the book succeeds in (and the buzz it’s generated is evidence enough of this) is giving new life to the discussion of an issue that is vital to the Church, that ultimately encompasses more than just experts—and more than just women.
If I have any serious contention with Barr’s book, it is with how she ends it: supremely and passionately exhorting the freedom of women. I have no problem with women’s freedom as such, but I see the struggle somewhat differently. It is about freeing all of us. Power not only harms those abused and oppressed, it also corrupts those who exercise it. Men, though in a decidedly different way, are also victims of patriarchy; it turns us into overlords and tyrants, something we are not designed to be. It distorts the truth about the human condition and binds men to a false narrative where power is ultimately all that matters to us.
The struggle against patriarchy is crucial to our gospel ethics, a primary issue not a secondary one, because it fundamentally concerns how we treat human beings. And any preacher worth his or her salt will tell you that love is a core gospel truth. The gospel of Jesus Christ frees us from our sin, frees us from lies, but it also frees us for an end and that end is love: love of God, love of creation, love of neighbour, love of enemy. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you love one another.” It’s also the verb Paul uses in Ephesians when teaching husbands that they are to love their wives as they love themselves, as they love their neighbours and enemies—and as they love God Himself. This went against every instinct of Roman society. It is hard to love someone while also telling them they belong in a hierarchy, and that you’re a step above them. Paul also makes it clear throughout the letter that, with Christ on the throne, no hierarchy among humans can be suffered to stand. All are under Him, and He even chooses to stand among us as an equal; He is Lord, but He does not lord it over us. As He loves us, so we love each other.
Beth Allison Barr has done so many things admirably well in this book, even if they aren’t done perfectly or if there could have been more depth at times. But the fact that it leaves work for us to do is also what makes hers a voice we can’t afford to be without in a discussion we can’t afford to avoid.