Biblical womanhood, medieval Christianity and a question about child abandonment

Beth Allision Barr’s “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” became one of the biggest sellers of 2021. You can read my original review here. It also became one of the most controversial books.  Barr’s argument is that complementarian understandings of womanhood are a recent/novel imposition, a result of reformed and evangelical desires to promote a patriarchal hierarchy where women find their place, subservient to men in the family.

So, the book has proved controversial because it has drawn fire from complementarians and because Barr and her supporters have fought back hard arguing that the critiques she has received have been unfair and in fact have further demonstrated that there is a patriarchal agenda to silence truth speakers like her by denying her voice, questioning her orthodoxy and belittling her academic credentials.

A recent example of this happened when one reviewer picked up on an example that Barr uses. Her area of expertise is medieval history and she describes an example of where a complementarian woman’s teaching at a ladies conference was at sharp odds with the experience of medieval women.  Here is what Barr says in the book.

As I sat on the front porch of the cabin, reading essays about women who broke free from marriage to serve God, whose preaching brought thousands to salvation, and whose words openly defied the patriarchy around them, I couldn’t escape the irony. Not far from me, a roomful of women were being told that their highest calling as Christian women was to be wives and mothers—which implied that women who found meaning or calling apart from being wives and mothers. were defying God’s call for them. Yet I knew medieval women who were told the exact opposite—women’s primary calling was to serve God first, which for some meant eschewing traditional family life and for others meant working around it.

Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (pp. 78-79). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

She goes on:

I wondered what the speaker would think of women like Saint Paula, who abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life. Paula’s story tells of how she set sail for Jerusalem—after the death of her husband—on a pilgrimage, leaving three of her children alone, crying on the shore. Maybe the speaker would have claimed that Paula was not following biblical womanhood, as she did not exemplify Titus 2. But Paula seemed to believe she was practicing biblical womanhood, drawing strength from Jesus’s statement that “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Saint Jerome, her biographer, tells us that as the ship drew away from the shore, Paula “held her eyes to heaven . . . ignoring her children and putting her trust in God. . . . In that rejoicing, her courage coveted the love of her children as the greatest of its kind, yet she left them all for the love of God.”13 Paula founded a monastery in Bethlehem and worked alongside Jerome to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The Bible she helped translate became the Vulgate, the first major translation of the Bible into an everyday language outside of Greek and Hebrew. It became the most commonly used Bible throughout the medieval era.

Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood (p. 79). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It was the part where Paula leaves her children behind that was picked up by Barr’s critics. Here is Colin Smothers, Executive Director of the CBMW. 

Denny Burk, president of CBMW added:

Barr’s response has been to claim that she has been wronged, slandered here.  The question being whether she really had endorsed child abandonment.  A lot of people have been quick to criticise Burk and Smothers for poor comprehension here.  How could they assume that Barr was taking such a position.  Well, I guess some people reading her book would simply read the positive description of Paula in contrast with the contemporary complementarian speaker and assume that this was an endorsement of everything Paula did.

However, careful readers, treating Barr’s argument in context should be able to do better than that. We should recognise that when using people as examples, we are not necessarily asking people to identify with and affirm everything they did.  That’s not to say that Barr couldn’t also have presented her argument more carefully at this point with perhaps a little more attention to the detail of the story and the potential stumbling blocks it might create. There’s a lesson here for preachers, teachers and writers. Sometimes we have to stop to spell out the negative in terms of what we are not saying or affirming as well as the positives about what we are.

However, I think we can see that Barr’s point is merely that we cannot assume that the highest calling for women is marriage and motherhood. There is evidence from history that it has not always been that way.

It was crass to assume the worst of Barr, with no evidence in terms of her own personal life to suggest that she supports parents abandoning their children. However, I suspect that some people might feel that this is how the CBMW approach views the decisions of women generally.  Does a woman who goes out to work in effect abandon her children whether real and present now or hypothetical and potentially future? 

For the record, I don’t believe that to be a true understanding of Scriptural teaching on men, women, marriage and families. This is a theme that Marriage at Work picks up on.  Further, I don’t think that the current obsession with the image of woman only finding their calling as housewives, both from the extreme end of hierarchialism and from feminists and egalitarians is a fair presentation of the historical complementarian position.  There is in fact a long tradition of celebrating women being called into mission as single people. Admittedly there is some confusion and inconsistency there as we’ve done better at understanding the role of single women in overseas mission contexts to seeing their role in the home church/community. Yet that aspect of life and calling is not absent.

So I would urge Burk and Smothers to reconsider their words. However before we move away from the discussion, I am concerned that we’ve missed something crucial here and in fact Burk and Smothers’ intervention may well have distracted us from it. We must return again to the concerns raised recently by Jonathan Leeman about attempts to deconstruct evangelicalism and evangelical culture.

Barr offers us a historical description to show that the later reformed and the contemporary complementarian understanding of Biblical womanhood isn’t the only historical narrative and that the medieval church took a different view. Yet, that doesn’t really get us very far. All it shows us is that there have been differences throughout history.  I suspect that the speaker whose seminar Barr had ducked out of would have responded to the question “What do you make of St Paula” with a “so what?” The real question remains “What does God say?” 

This is important because when you begin to trawl through the social media interaction on this, there does seem to be some confusion. I’ve noticed for example that people have been quick to talk about how the disciples abandoned their parents and how Jesus talks about the need to forsake family.  Yet is leaving behind your parents and the family business comparable to leaving behind your children?  I suspect it depends upon age.  My parents left home to serve God in China, I was left at home. That would be shocking news if they had done it when I was 8, 12 or even 16 but I wasn’t, I was 21.  Mind you, some families have chosen to send their children to boarding schools whilst heading off on to the mission field -so perhaps there is a discussion to open up there.

The point is that radical discipleship may involve some challenging choices, choices that may be offensive to the world around us and even shocking to the church. However, this doesn’t absolve us from God given responsibilities.  Christian parents (mums and dads, male and female) cannot absolve themselves from their responsibility to their children.  Indeed, and again both for dads and mums, I’m concerned that we don’t have a high enough view of that calling to be parents. Once again, we see it from both ends. When the feminist is dismissive of the value and status in being a mother then they are down valuing the calling just as much as when the complementarian thinks of raising children as subservient women’s work.

But to return to the central issue.  Barr’s medieval examples unfortunately tell us very little about he rights and wrongs of complementarianism.  They don’t tell us if the reformers were right or wrong, they don’t tell us whether or not contemporary complementarians are Biblical or merely cultural. They don’t tell us what Biblical manhood and womanhood looks like. All we can glean from her examples is what life looked like for some medieval women.

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