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Reinterpreting Church History: A Response to Mimi Haddad, “History Matters”

June 22, 2023
By Anne Kennedy

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future” (11). Thus, quoting George Orwell’s 1984, Mimi Haddad opens the inaugural chapter of the third edition of Discovering Biblical Equality. Women’s voices, she claims, have been silenced throughout Christian history by those “committed to male authority” (11). Their essential contributions for the advancement of the gospel have been “marginalized,” “omitted,” and “devalued,” particularly by modern-day complementarians, especially in theological institutions (11). Haddad leans on Beth Allison Barr’s analysis of courses and curricula offered by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to introduce her subject. “Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s biased curriculum,” she writes, “not only damages the credibility of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as a center of higher education, but it reinforces the Southern Baptist Convention’s sexism” (11–12). One of this sexism’s most iconic examples is Paige Patterson, who is reported to have expressed himself happy that an abused woman returned to her abusive husband and there endured yet more abuse (11).[1]

Rereading Church History

To redress this sexism, Haddad profiles prominent women in church history. Beginning with the early Church martyr, Perpetua, she sketches the biographies of Blandina, Crispina, Syncletica, Macrina the Younger, and St. Paula. She goes on to highlight the most prominent medieval mystics — Hildegard, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Sienna — and notes the remarkable stories of Reformation heroines Argula von Grumbach, Lady Jane Gray, and Margaret of Navarre. The real substance of the chapter, however, is Haddad’s turn to the stories of evangelical Conversionism, Evagelicalism’s Golden Era, and what she calls a period of Activism. The well-known names, to me, of Lottie Moon, Sarah Grimke, Amy Carmichael, and Sojourner Truth are joined by the less well-known Mary Prince, Phoebe Palmer, and Elizabeth Heyrick, among others. In all, Haddad discusses the lives and contributions of thirty-four women, if I have counted correctly.

Haddad’s list is an engaging journey through the well-rehearsed tumults of the modern era that finally settled into the entrenched “culture wars” still going on inside American Christianity. Women, of course, played critical roles in overturning the injustice of slavery, spreading the gospel abroad, and calling nominal believers to lives of holiness. Amanda Barry Smith, for example, “was the first African American woman to receive invitations to preach internationally” (22). Phoebe Palmer ignited the Third Great Awakening, and was, amongst all her other accomplishments, “certain that God had called her to preach” (21). Catherine Booth was instrumental in founding the Salvation Army. Amy Carmichael and Lottie Moon both died of ill health in the midst of their tireless work. Every single person Haddad names devoted her life to the work of the gospel. Each felt the call of the Holy Spirit to speak and write and many to preach.

How then, asks Haddad, did the church, corporately, not step into the fullness of egalitarianism? Why aren’t the pulpits of today full of women? “Women,” she writes, “opened new global centers of Christian faith in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but as their churches and organizations became institutionalized, women were pressed out of leadership” (27). This shift, she writes, resulted from the “fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the mid-twentieth century,” during which “mission organizations, Bible institutes, and denominations moved women into support roles to distinguish themselves from a growing secularization of feminism” (27). One might ask, at this point, what it was about secularization and feminism that caused such a shift.

Rather than delving into the explanations that these mission organizations, Bible institutes, and denominations provided, and still provide, for not placing women in leadership roles, Haddad asserts that “Early evangelical biblicism, which supported abolition, suffrage, and pressing humanitarian work worldwide, gave way to an anti-intellectualism that judged social activism and women’s leadership as liberal” (28). The withdrawal of “conservative” scholarship on this subject — which, one presumes Haddad means by the failure to accept women in pastoral and preaching roles in the church — meant that evangelicals “lost respected positions in the academy and culture.” “It would take,” Haddad appeals to Charles Malik’s 1980 speech opening the Billy Graham Center, “many decades to recover the intellectual and cultural leadership surrendered by fundamentalists and evangelicals after 1950” (28).

The fundamentalist-modernist debate regarding how the church should engage with encroaching modernity and secularism has been litigated effectively elsewhere.[2] What is most interesting to me is the variety of reasons the place of women in the church and the home was so contentiously debated during this time. Haddad unwittingly hints at one major factor without acknowledging the very great weight it held, and continues to hold, for so many Christians. “After WWII,” explains Haddad, “evangelicals celebrated women’s work in domestic spheres, a stereotype explored in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and declared biblical by Charles Ryrie’s The Place of Women” (29). Here, it would be beneficial for egalitarians like Haddad to pause and rest a while. Is that true? Did Ryrie merely take Friedan’s “stereotype” and “declare” it biblical? Is “stereotype” even a reasonable label for the kind of lives so many men and women of that period were trying to live?

What about the Pill?

This would have been the perfect point in the chapter to mention an invention that definitively altered the debate over what it means to be female, both in the home and the church: the Pill. The consequences and implications of this technology for women cannot be explored at too great a depth by modern people trying to understand why things are the way they are. It is true that before the advent of artificial birth control, and the accompanying inevitable rise in out-of-wedlock pregnancy — something blandly referred to by most of us as “the sexual revolution” — the place of women in the shifting cultural malaise brought about by the industrial revolution had not been a settled question.

Mary Harrington, in her new book Feminism Against Progress, frames this philosophical debate as a fight between what she calls Team Care and Team Freedom.[3] The Team Care strand of early feminism fought to preserve the essential biological characteristics of women, the bonds they naturally had with their children that undergirded the social fabric of life before the mechanization of every product and factor of daily life. Most of the women on Haddad’s list, I imagine, would have found themselves more at home on Team Care. Team Freedom, meanwhile, while initially redressing the intellectual and social dehumanization women suffered during the Industrial Revolution, ultimately championed sexual freedom over everything else. The loss of meaningful work and corresponding personhood for women was mitigated in a variety of ways, including the founding of guilds and the work of activists, but the debate “ended in the 1960s with a conclusive victory for Team Freedom, thanks to the mastery granted to women over our bodies via reproductive technology.”[4] The relationship between these two responses to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is too immense for a single chapter, of course, but it could be noted, perhaps, by someone so interested in the historical record.

Moreover, that this fundamental disagreement over the essentials of personhood, not to mention the position of women in public and private spheres, should have proven so protracted and bitter in Christian circles, should not surprise us for the simple reason that the question is not purely practical. It is theological. Haddad passes very lightly, with only a bare mention, over what she calls evangelical efforts to harmonize “women’s leadership” with “earlier evangelical traditions” (28). The debate eventually narrowed down to the Bible, as is fitting, and in particular to the meaning of the word “head,” in Greek kephalē.

Rather than recapitulating that disagreement, Haddad names various protracted arguments about the Trinity, sociological issues of gender, “ontological gender essentialists,” abuse, and the wage gap between men and women (29–30). She concludes with the following rather astonishing claim: “While complementarians rarely address abuse, biblically or socially, it remains paramount for egalitarians.” “Male headship,” she continues, “construed as control and dominance leads not only to marital dissatisfaction but also to violence; hence egalitarians . . . interpret headship as mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) and Christian service as shared authority (Genesis 1:26-29)” (31). Thus she tidies away over a century of one of the most thorny and bitter issues of modern history.

The Scriptures are Determinative

What then, of Haddad’s initial assertion? — Orwell’s potent insight that the person who controls the narrative controls everything, and that, therefore, the complementarian erasure of women from the historical record is illustrative of their abusive, sexist posture towards women in the church? Does she make her case?

Speaking as someone who lived through much of the debate about women firsthand, both as a child on the mission field and in ministry myself — from both ends of the theological spectrum — I must admit to being disappointed with Haddad’s case. An accumulation of facts does not constitute a theological, nor historically-reasoned argument. That women participated meaningfully in the life of the church is not a matter of debate. Of course they did, and do. Nor is it a shocking revelation that abuse exists — and has existed — both inside and outside of the church, in both complementarian and egalitarian spaces. No one’s mind is blown by this revelation. Haddad provides little in the way of evidence for her claim that complementarians rarely discuss abuse while egalitarians make it one of their main emphases. One might rather say that egalitarians often make the accusation that complementarianism fosters abuse.

Unhappily, the questions for which our own age beg for answers engender little curiosity for egalitarians like Haddad. Women today have not been meaningfully served by the sexual perversions of our day. The heartbreak of a century of sexual confusion and relational discord runs deep. What is the solution? How might men and women be restored to peace and joy in their Christian lives? Egalitarian efforts offer only one solution to feminine loss of identity and purpose: become the leader. Moreover, it is not simply a matter of trying harder to gain visibility for the “erased” experiences of women. The trouble isn’t awareness — in which even the Christian world is drowning — it is disagreement. Haddad’s predicament is that too many Southern Baptists, as well as other brands of complementarians, still do not agree with her interpretation of the data. They’ve heard her claims, and they still reject them for the simple reason that their own study of Scripture belies her assertions.

Her final point is enough to undo her own argument. Male headship is not, in complementarian circles, “construed as control and dominance,” whatever egalitarians may say about it. Rather, it is the biblical model that follows in the way of Jesus, who laid down his life for his friends. These friends he made by his shed blood into his Bride, the Church. Jesus doesn’t control and dominate the church, but he most certainly has authority over how believers order their common life. The authority and headship of Jesus, as revealed in the perspicacity of his own Word, is the measure of the church today, no matter what happened in the past.

Certainly, we ought to humbly learn from our forefathers and mothers. Though we ought not to read back in time our own novel ideas about men and women derived from a century of complicated social and philosophical upheaval. Neither the past nor the future are the measures of our obedience —the Scriptures are. Else how would any corrections ever be made to the behaviors and beliefs of Christians? Christians ought not “control” each other, nor the narrative. Rather, under the pure and bright light of the Scriptures, they ought to submit themselves to the very life of charity and service to which God calls men and women of every age.

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at and on her Substack, Demotivations With Anne.

[1] The judge in a lawsuit against Patterson alleging negligence in his time as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary recently dismissed all claims against him: Leah MarieAnn Klett, “Paige Patterson and the SWBTS dismissed from sexual abuse lawsuit involving former SBC member,” The Chrisitan Post, April 25, 2023,

[2] Phil Johnson’s talk on this subject is most informative: “Dead Right: The Failure of Fundamentalism,”

[3] Mary Harrington, Feminism Against Progress (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 2023) 16, Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., 16.

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