(Not Quite) The making of Biblical Womanhood

The most recent contribution to the conversation about the role of men and women in the church and in the home is The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. Barr argues against complementarianism and claims that it is in fact a modern attempt to re-impose patriarchy. Furthermore she argues that complementarianism is a significant cause of abuse.  The basis for her argument is rooted in three things:

  • Personal Experience
  • Her interpretation of Scripture
  • Historical evidence

The third is perhaps her most significant contribution because she writes as a scholar in medieval history.  I want to have a look at each of her arguments in turn.

Personal Experience

Towards the end of the book, Barr writes:

“I have told you my second darkest story about my experiences inside complementarianism. I have told you how my husband was fired after questioning the role of women in our church. I have let you glimpse the pain and trauma that that experience caused my family. I have told you how it pushed me to stop being silent, to speak the historical truth about complementarianism.” **

In fact, she opens the book by telling this story of how she and her husband had pushed hard for a change in the church’s doctrinal position and practice regarding women teaching in touch.  This creates an early problem. Barr is setting out her stall as the victim. Her husband’s dismissal caused her anger and pain. How are we to respond to that? Do we even have permission to respond legitimately?

As she comments, this is only her “second darkest story” the darkest is far worse. The darkest story is that a boyfriend took on board teaching from a preacher called  Bill Gothard who argued that girlfriends were in courtship and therefore subject to their boyfriend as to a husband. This led to her boyfriend acting abusively towards her.[1] She goes on to widen out from her experience to describe it as the experience of others as part of the #MeToo movement.  She picks up on Rachel Denhollander’s comments the Southern Baptist Convention on this.

“…when Rachael Denhollander spoke at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention, her words captured my experience: “I think it is very telling that I have heard hundreds, literally hundreds, of sermons directed on the quiet and submissive sphere that a woman should have,” she said. “I have heard not one on how to value a woman’s voice. I have heard not one on the issue of sexual assault.”5 Not one time during those years did I hear a preacher speak out against abusive relationships; not one time did a pastor speak about the dangers inherent in patriarchal power hierarchies. What I did hear was what Rachael Denhollander heard—women are called to be wives and mothers, submissive and silent.”[2]

  So, are we able to respond to this? Does Barr’s personal testimony here count as count evidence against complementarianism? I want to suggest that it does not. Barr’s experience of abuse was horrific, wrong and sinful.  And, if her book does one thing, then it should add to the voices challenging us about our church cultures.  However, what she describes is something that goes against the very teaching about how men and women are to relate in Scripture that complementarians hold to. Sadly also, abuse including domestic violence, emotional abuse, manipulation and bullying and sadly sexual abuse happens in egalitarian contexts too. Those testimonies are not used as evidence against egalitarianism.

It is sad whenever someone loses their job. I recently experienced redundancy and to lose your job within a church context is particularly painful not just for you but for your wife and family too. For us, as with Barr, it meat that we did not just lose my job, we lost a church, a community, a family.  I can understand the anger and frustration particularly if the dismissal was handled badly -although I cannot say if that was the case from merely reading the account given in her book.

Yet the reality is this. Pastors do lose their jobs. Sometimes it is because of failing on their part, sometimes it is simply the harsh reality of the economic situation, sometimes it just doesn’t work out and sometimes there are doctrinal differences that lead to a parting of ways. In fact, it must be to the credit of a church that it was willing to stick to its guns on what it believed Scripture taught, the loss of a well- loved member of pastoral staff is painful and costly for the church too.

Sadly, again, I know of pastors and staff workers pushed out of churches or attempts to push them out by bullying and by slanders. This should not happen at all but it does happen in complementarian churches and yes it happens in egalitarian churches too with pastors coming under pressure to change their position and that of the church on women elders or to leave.  So whilst Barr’s personal story in this situation is sad, it Is irrelevant to her argument. There is a contemporary focus on the use of personal story beyond the illustrative and whilst I’m sure unintentional it does give an unhelpful feel of manipulation.

What does Scripture say?

Most of Barr’s engagement with Scripture is through the lens of a historian and so we’ll give more attention to that section.  Furthermore, her understanding of Scripture falls in line with the classic egalitarian position.  There has been plenty of interaction with Scripture  from an egalitarian perspective over the years and I would encourage readers to interact with this. A helpful starting point would be Discovering Biblical Womanhood (edited by Pierce, Groothius and Fee). I have also interacted with egalitarian writing and thought in previous articles as well as in my publications on marriage and church leadership which you can download here.

Barr does offer a piece of intriguing speculation that in 1 Corinthians 14, the command to women to be silent in church comes in fact from the Corinthians and not from Paul, so that when he says that the tradition of the church did not originate with them and they must conform with the wider church he is countering their point. It is intriguing speculation but it is only speculation. It is true that scholars do encourage us to distinguish Paul’s own teaching in 1 Corinthians from the church’s own faulty comments as well as questions quoted back. However the context of 1 Corinthians 11 and the concern for women in someway to submit to authority when speaking does not seem to fit well with Barr’s suggestion.

What about history?

This is Barr’s main focus. She is arguing that complementarianism is a modern phenomena with roots in the Reformation refocusing Christian piety on the home.

“Women have always been wives and mothers, but it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that being a wife and a mother became the “ideological touchstone of holiness” for women.6 Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them. Women became nuns and took religious vows, and some, like Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen, found their voices rang with the authority of men. Indeed, the further removed medieval women were from the married state, the closer they were to God. After the Reformation, the opposite became true for Protestant women. The more closely they identified with being wives and mothers, the godlier they became.”[3]

Barr argues that medieval sermons about marriage had very little concern with Paul’s teaching on the matter and when they did use Paul, they had different concerns rather than the role of women in the church and the home. She writes:

“As I revealed in my presidential address to the Conference on Faith and History in 2018, I have found that the usual-suspect Pauline texts (1 Corinthians 11:3; 14; Ephesians 5; Colossians 3; 1 Timothy 2; Titus 2) appear in only a handful of the 120 late medieval English sermon manuscripts I have studied.29 On the few occasions when these Pauline texts are used in medieval sermons, their focus is mostly not on female roles.”[4]

When she does find a sermon using Paul’s teaching on women to Timothy, she observes:

“Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing.” In one of the only two medieval sermons to discuss this verse, the sermon casts the woman (the “she” in the verse) as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself). In other words, the sermon interprets Paul’s claim that women “will be saved through childbearing” not as a way to enforce strict gender roles or to emphasize women’s domestic responsibilities or even to highlight women as mothers.[5]

In other words, prior to the reformation and even more so to the contemporary Biblical manhood and womanhood movement the focus of preachers was on something different.

“Medieval preachers preached Paul, but their primary focus was to teach parishioners how to find redemption through involvement in the sacraments and practices of the medieval Catholic Church.”[6]

She goes on to argue that women were increasingly silenced in church life as part of a medieval purity purge and that prior to late medieval times women had been much more engaged even in preaching and teaching as well as having the means to follow vocational callings as nuns. Women were even ordained but that went too as ordination became a much more formal matter in medieval times.

She gives an intriguing example of this:

“To help my students better understand how these reforms affected women, I often use a visual example from Durham Cathedral. A line, made from marble and marked with a center cross, stretches across the westernmost part of the cathedral’s nave. Local guides proclaim that the misogyny of the cathedral’s seventh-century patron, Saint Cuthbert, led him to institute the line to bar women from the sacred space of clergy. Unlike men, women were forbidden to enter either the nave or the cemetery.”[7]

The problem with this picture is as follows:

“Yet the historical Cuthbert didn’t have a problem with women. Evidence suggests he worked well and closely with women during his lifetime. He didn’t become a misogynist until four hundred years after his death. The stories blaming him for forbidding women from entering Durham Cathedral stem from the eleventh- and twelfth-century church reforms. In 1083, after the Norman conquest in England, the married clergy at Durham were forced out and replaced with celibate Benedictine monks.”[8]

She provides three examples of women who did preach and how they defended themselves against controversy.

“Medieval women had to transcend their sex to gain authority in the medieval church. But Protestant women didn’t have to do this—their bodies were not a spiritual problem. Indeed, Protestant women were celebrated for their roles as wives and mothers. So couldn’t women now preach and teach just like men? Didn’t the priesthood of all believers apply to women just as it applied to men? Some women thought so. They insisted that Reformation teaching made their rooms bigger. For example, Katherine Zell, wife of the Strasbourg reformer Matthew Zell, demanded that she be judged “not according to the standards of a woman, but according to the standards ofone whom God has filled with the Holy Spirit.”[9]

“Argula von Grumbach, a German woman who converted to Protestantism despite her husband remaining Catholic and who became one of the most outspoken supporters of the Reformation (even publishing eight works between 1523 and 1524 in defense of Lutheranism), certainly thought that she had the God-given right to teach and preach. In a letter to the University of Ingolstadt defending the Lutheranism of a young teacher, she proclaimed, “What I have written to you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and [I write] as a member of the Christian Church against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.”22 She knew the writings of Paul, but she did not believe they applied to her. “I am not unfamiliar with Paul’s words that women should be silent in church,” she announced, “but when I see that no man will or can speak, I am driven by the word of God when he said, ‘He who confesses me on earth’”[10]

“Anne Askew, an English reformer, likewise believed women had the authority to speak. Accused of heresy, she argued back when Paul’s directive for women to “be silent” was quoted at her. Preaching only took place behind a pulpit, and since she wasn’t behind a pulpit, she wasn’t preaching. As she explained, after the bishop of London Edmund Bonner’s chancellor (1539–49 and 1553–59) quoted Paul at her, “I answered him, that I knew Paul’s meaning so well as he, which is, 1 Cor. xiv. that a woman ought not to speak in the congregation by the way of teaching. And then I asked him, how many women he had seen go into the pulpit and preach? He said he had never seen any. Then I said, he ought to find no fault in poor women, unless they had offended against the law.”[11]

I must admit to being rather disappointed here because the historical argument should be Barr’s strongest suit but I fear that it falls short of being persuasive here. First of all, I’m sure as a historian she’ll be familiar with the point that an absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence. So, it may be that she can show how the 120 sermons she refers to should be treated as a representative sample. However, it does sound on the face of things like a pitifully small sample.  To give you a feel for things, I would have preached over 500 times. 

Secondly I’m not convinced by her interaction with the historical data she cites. It is fascinating and of relevance to our wider consideration of the treatment of women that the medieval church distorted Cuthbert’s view of women but to argue that ordination was not such a formal or serious matter until medieval times seems questionable to me. Ordination was such a serious matter as to cause prominent bishops to notably resist it and the Donatist controversy shows how seriously the early church took the calling of presbyters and bishops.

Barr cites a sermon that shows no interest in the implications for women of Paul’s teaching focusing instead on an allegorical interest in salvation.  However, such allegorical applications do not take away from the meaning of a text. Furthermore, the point is this. For the church after the Reformation, there is a renewed interest in the calling of presbyters as elders in the church and therefore the need for a focus on their qualifications both in terms of their ability to lead in the household and their teaching gifts.  The Medieval church would have had less interest in such matters, authority clearly resided with the magisterium.  Meanwhile the primary focus on the role of the priest was on his ability to stand in the place of Christ and fulfil a priestly function offering sacraments. It is well worth remembering that this remains the basis for the contemporary stance of Catholicism including Anglo-Catholicism on the possibility or otherwise of women’s ordination.

This has relevance to the examples she cites of women preachers and teachers in medieval times. Their whole argument is that they do not undermine Scripture’s teaching or the position of the church because they are not seeking to step into the shoes of the elders/presbyters and carry out authoritative teaching from the pulpit. Rather, they are aligning themselves (and in some cases because they see a failure of men to step up to the mark) with the position that women can proclaim and prophecy  through occasional preaching that a significant element within the complementarian movement would align with today.

Response

Unfortunately, I cannot commend Barr’s book. There are two reasons for this. First of all, you will be unsurprised to know that I disagree with her position.  However, I do consider it important for us to read people that we disagree with. The problem is that Barr simply does not provide a strong case for egalitarianism and there are better alternatives to read out there.

However, I want to note two things. First of all, I believe that as she is writing from a US perspective that there are significant cultural and even theological differences between how these questions are handled Stateside to how they are handled in a British culture. Additionally, I believe that she is right to challenge the presumptions, arguments and practices of the hard-line patriarchal approach. I simply do not consider this representative of all complementarianism or of the historical reformed approach. As I argued in Marriage at Work, there is at times a confusion between what the Bible does teach about marriage, headship and submission and an idealised and localised culture expression of that in the mid 20th Century United States. Furthermore, the assumption tha mutual submission or that women must submit to all men does seem to me to be a recent innovation out of line with the views of reformers such as John Calvin.[12]

Barr does raise some helpful challenges about our failure to rightly honour women in history and to see their value, worth and calling including in vocations and as single women today. We do need to hear those challenges and they have also been raised from within complementarianism by people including Aimee Byrd, Elyse Fitzpatrick and EM Schumacher.

I am not convinced that some of the portrayals of Biblical manhood and womanhood are Scripturally sound. However sadly, this book does not helpfully trace the roots of the making of Biblical Womanhood. 


** Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 201). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[1] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (pp. 201-202). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (pp. 202-203). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (pp. 102-103). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 119). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 119). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[6] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 119). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 94). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (pp. 94-95). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[9] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 115). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[10] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (pp. 115-116). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[11] Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 116). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[12] See David Williams, Marriage at Wor, 26 -31. Available at Marriage at Work (wordpress.com)

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