Editors note: the following book review appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.
Beth Allison Barr. The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021.
I was driving one day and turned on NPR. I was clearly tuning in part way through an interview. My ears perked up when I heard something about the Apostle Paul, then something about inerrancy. I thought, “what in the world is this?” Then I heard something about misogyny (or the like), and I thought, “Oh, okay.” I arrived at my destination, turned off the car, and headed in.
Subsequently, I worked out that the interview was with Beth Allison Barr, an Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University. I am a Baylor alum (Ph.D., 2000), so I was intrigued. The interview was related to her book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.
The book is a mix between (1) an attempt at historical scholarship and (2) an impassioned personal narrative. While the book certainly is an impassioned personal narrative, I wonder if it succeeds as a work of historical scholarship. We might put these two emphases slightly differently and say that this book is more of (1) popular-level historical scholarship in the service of (2) an impassioned personal narrative. To be less charitable (perhaps), what we really have is a kind of emotionally-charged, high-octane attempt to write against complementarianism, with certain soundings in history.
The book is not subtle in its rather highly pitched rhetoric and denunciation of “patriarchy” and all things complementarian. Christians and non-Christians would have benefitted from a less-heated examination of how women have been treated in history, how the Church has attempted to apply a myriad of biblical passages, and how Christianity — across history — has succeeded or not succeeded in offering a vision of a truly Christian culture, including how women ought to be treated. But Barr has not written that book. So, we must review what was actually written.
To her credit, Barr is quite clear that at least part of Making is a kind of heart-driven reaction to personal experience (4–11; then wait for the closing chapter). She recounts being raised in a conservative evangelical church culture, and she recounts the painful firing of her husband from a church ministry position. In the introduction (ten pages) we quickly get a sense of what lies ahead in the book. We realize from the start that we should be on the lookout for an ideological ride. She speaks of her “upper-middle-class, white church,” a “hard-line complementarian speaker,” “hierarchies of power and oppression,” “misogyny and toxic masculinity,” and oppressive “gender hierarchies.”
It is, accordingly, difficult to review this book. In chapter one, “The Beginning of Patriarchy,” we are not really given a historical survey of “patriarchy,” or of the beginning of patriarchy. Rather, the chapter is essentially a series of generally journalistic snapshots of “patriarchy.” So, Russell Moore at least at one time thought the word “patriarchy” was worth retrieving. Others (Denny Burk) prefer “complementarianism.” Historian Judith Bennet has a three-fold summary or definition of patriarchy. We see patriarchal themes in works of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Barr provides a few statistics to show that there is a (presumedly immoral) “wage gap” between men and women. The logic of part of this chapter is that “patriarchy” is self-evidently bad. For Barr, “patriarchy” is a more honest term than “complementarianism.” Complementarians should therefore own up to the fact that they are really simply advocates of patriarchy, which is a bad thing. Barr laments that while Christians should look different from the world (27–28), complementarianism amongst Christians is simply a mimicking or following of the world. But as I read this I thought: that is self-evidently false, is it not? The contemporary world is digging in its heels in defense of complementarianism? That seems patently false.
Barr (rightly) broaches Genesis 3:16: “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.’” Good for Barr. Certainly, any scholarly exploration of complementarianism should engage meaningfully with such texts. But what we get is not really much of an argument, but an assertion: “Patriarchy is created by people, not ordained by God” (29). Unfortunately, Barr, in seeming to follow Gerda Lerner, moves rather abruptly to associate patriarchy/complementarianism with “militarism, hierarchy, and racism” (33). Indeed: “Isn’t it time we stop ignoring the historical reality that patriarchy is part of an interwoven system of oppression that includes racism?” (34).
In the second chapter, “What if Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?,” Barr argues that Paul himself is not, and would not be, an advocate of “Biblical Womanhood” (note: Barr uses “Biblical Womanhood” as shorthand throughout the book as the term of choice for “complementarianism”). Barr’s key question for complementarians is: “What if you are wrong? What if evangelicals have been understanding Paul through the lens of modern culture instead of the way Paul intended to be understood?” (41). This is actually a wonderful question, and the kind of question any thoughtful Christian would want to consider. Might I be wrong? (of course). Could I be interpreting Scripture wrong at some or many points (worth considering). Might one be open to an interpretive option which has eluded one’s best efforts (most certainly). But the reader quickly discerns that one will not be treated to a close analysis of biblical texts in an effort to try and query one’s own exegetical labors and interpretations. Rather, we quickly find ourselves in the realm of “gender discrimination,” and “hierarchy and power” (42), not in the realm of a close, reasoned, grappling with Holy Writ. Again, this is a difficult book to review. After a brief, three-page treatment of a few writers, including some medieval figures like Peter Abelard, Barr concludes: “I could say a lot more, but this is the point: despite the evangelical obsession with male headship, Christians past and present have been less sure” (45).
Barr in this chapter interestingly suggests, on looking at texts like Colossians 3:18–19 and Ephesians 5:21–33 that: “The Christian structure of the house church resists the patriarchal world of the Roman empire” (49). This could have been a fascinating section of Barr’s book: What kind of social vision of the world does Scripture offer, when compared with the ancient Roman world? That would be a wonderful study. But unfortunately, since Barr is working in such a high-octane and highly-charged, anti-complementarian register, we do not get to see that kind of careful analysis. Rather, Barr asserts that “Paul’s Purpose Wasn’t to Emphasize Wifely Submission” (subheading, p. 45), and that “Paul’s Purpose Wasn’t to Emphasize Male Authority” (subheading, p. 49). I suppose a complementarian might say: “Fine. But does Scripture teach— even if it does not ’emphasize’ — wifely submission and (some form of) male authority?” Or one might ask: “It sure seems like Paul argues for headship in the home in Colossians and Ephesians. I wonder where this is similar or dissimilar from first-century Roman understandings?” This is just one example of missed opportunities, missed because Barr’s work is more of an impassioned, journalistic juggernaut, and not a closely and tightly reasoned argument.
Barr’s treatment of Ephesians 5 (50–51) is underdeveloped and, frankly, a tad sensationalistic. Ephesians 5:22 is where Paul speaks of wives submitting to husbands. Barr rightly notes that in Ephesians 5:21 Paul speaks of Christians “submitting to one another”. But why would Barr write: “When this verse [i.e., v. 21] is read at the beginning of the Ephesians household codes, it changes everything” (50). This is odd. Everyone (virtually) who reads Ephesians 5 will of course read both v. 21 and v. 22. How does reading v. 21 change “everything”? Before becoming an academic I would have probably read Ephesians 5:21 and following and said something like: “Hmmm, okay. All Christians should submit to each other. I need to think through what that means. Ah, verse 22. Wives are to submit to husbands. Hmmm. I really better think through that. Why would Paul say something like that?” (thankfully, Paul explains his theo-logic quite plainly in what follows). I most certainly would not think: “Wow. Verse 21 changes everything.” Barr simply does not help the reader better grasp the meaning of Paul in Ephesians here. When Barr writes: “Yes, wives are to submit, but so are husbands,” there is an (intended?) ambiguity in what she says. Certainly, Christians are to submit to one another. And alongside that, or within that lifestyle of Christians submitting to one another, Paul also teaches wives to submit to husbands, as to the Lord.
Barr offers a certain interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, where Paul writes: “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Barr suggests that Paul is actually quoting something he opposes, in order to contradict it. On this reading, Paul is opposed to the prohibition on women speaking in church. Certainly Paul (or any writer) could engage in such activity (i.e., quoting a position the author wants to oppose). But unfortunately, Barr does not really argue for such an interpretation. She refers to several scholars who contend for such an interpretation (D.W. Odell-Scott, Charles Talbert, Lucy Peppiatt, and Marg Mowczko), but does not really make an argument (61–63). I did not see engagement here with scholars who do not affirm such an interpretation. But in a somewhat odd move Barr writes that even if she is wrong that Paul is quoting a viewpoint with which he disagrees — that women should be silent in the churches — “I would still argue that the directives Paul gave to Corinthian women are limited to their historical context” (63). Why is this? Because we must seek to interpret Paul here in relation to other things Paul says (and this is of course exactly right). Barr writes: “Paul is not making a blanket decree for women to be silent; he allows women to speak throughout his letters (1 Corinthians 11:1-6 is a case in point)” (63). I am unaware if Barr knows that this is almost exactly what the ESV Study Bible notes say. (And the ESV translation had earlier been castigated for being driven by a desire by “complementarian translators” to advance the “subjugation of women”; p. 51). For the ESV study notes on 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 read: “Since Paul seems to permit wives to pray and prophesy (11:5, 13) as long as they do not dishonor their husbands by the way they dress (11:5), it is difficult to see this as an absolute prohibition (cf. Acts 2:17; 21:8-9). Paul is likely forbidding women to speak up and judge prophecies (this is the activity in the immediate context; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29), since such an activity would subvert male headship.”
Barr testifies that it “was Paul’s women in Romans 16 who finally changed my mind” (63). Apparently, Barr sees the mention of Phoebe in Romans 16:1, a “deacon” or “servant,” as particularly significant in Romans 16:1. Barr assumes the reasons some translators choose the translation “servant” instead of “deacon” when she writes, “We can guess the reason for the translation choice: it is because Phoebe was a woman, and so it is assumed that she could not have been a deacon” (66). But why “guess”? Why not just pick up a lexicon and dig around a bit? Baur, Arndt, Danker, Gingrich, in their A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (230) list two main headings/definitions for diakonosa word which can either be masculine or feminine — context and/or the definite article would help us to know which. The two options listed are: (1) “one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier”; (2) “one who gets something done at the behest of a superior, assistant.” Another classic Greek lexicon, Liddell, Scott, and Jones, in their Greek-English Lexicon, list the following possible translations: “servant,” “messenger,” “attendant,” or “official.” Finally, the newer Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (edited by Franco Montanari) lists the following options (when feminine): “servant,” “deaconess.” So, in three of the main lexica, there are a number of translation options, and one (Montanari’s Brill Dictionary), includes “deaconess.” So, it seems odd — and frankly unfair — to attribute an ill motive to Bibles which have chosen “servant” in Romans 16:1. Finally, it is worth noting that the ESV study notes on Romans 16:1 are happy to say: “Scholars debate whether Phoebe is a servant in a general sense, or whether she served as a deacon, since the Greek word diakonos can mean either ‘servant’ (13:4; 15:8; 1 Cor. 3:5; 1 Tim. 4:6) or ‘deacon’ (referring to a church office; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12).”
But then Barr seems simply confused. As she recounts the lecture in which she was working through this material with students, she writes: “Here I was, walking my students through compelling historical evidence that the problem with women in leadership wasn’t Paul; the problem was with how we misunderstood and obscured Paul” (66). But almost all persons who have worked meaningfully through the New Testament, and tried to understand the terms “elder,” “bishop,” “pastor,” and “deacon” (including complementarians) do not see the role/position/office of diakonos as a “leadership” position in the first place. There is a slip here which I hope is just an oversight by Barr. Barr is sliding from (1) a discussion of diakonos in Romans 16:1 to (2) inferring something about Paul in “leadership.” Paul is not addressing“leadership” in Romans 16:1. I would hope Barr would be pleased to know that as Southern Baptists recovered biblical inerrancy and a heightened emphasis on expositional preaching there was a (fascinating) two-pronged development in certain quarters: (1) a principled commitment to complementarianism, and (2) an openness and even practice of female deacons.
Barr also expresses concern about Romans 16:7, and the translation of the Greek name Iounia. English translations sometimes translate this with the feminine Junia and sometimes as the masculine Junius. Barr writes: “Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle” (67). Now, it certainly could be the case that translators have been motivated by such a concern. But no evidence of such a motive is given. But all things are not quite how Barr summarizes. Indeed, twentieth-century translations seem quite divided on how best to translate Iounia, and have often chosen the feminine “Junia.” In fact, among the twelve English translations available on my Accordance Bible software, nine of the twelve translations feature “Junia” (and two of the three which feature “Junius” are virtually the same translation, the NAS in its 1977 and 1995 iterations). The chart below summarizes key data:
Please note the obvious: many contemporary translations have opted for “Junia,” including the ESV.
Near the end of this chapter, Barr notes what the ESV says about Junia, that Junia was “well known to the apostles,” rather than “prominent among the apostles.” This translation decision was, she claims, “a deliberate move to keep women out of leadership (Romans 16:7)” (69). Barr does not note from which translation she gets “prominent among the apostles” (but it is a common enough translation).
It is indeed the case that the ESV is different from a number of English translations at this point, which tend to render the Greek prepositional phrase as “among the Apostles.” Is it possible that “among the apostles” made the translators (or some of them) nervous? Certainly, that is possible. But why would a scholar state categorically that the ESV translators were making “a deliberate move to keep women out of leadership”? Barr may be right, but she has no way of knowing this, or at least has not told her readers how she knows this. She is simply asserting.
In chapter three, “Our Selective Medieval Memory,” Barr turns to a number of medieval figures. This material is fascinating, and at times disturbing. Some of the (presumably?) role models “broke free from marriage to serve God, whose preaching brought thousands to salvation” (78). Saint Paula, “who abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life,” is likewise held up as an exemplar (79). Margaret Kempe is held up as a role model, at least in part because she used her financial status to negotiate with her husband, in order to ensure she did not have to engage in sexual intimacy with her husband (75).
A somewhat odd argument Barr makes is: “If women couldn’t preach, then Mary Magdalene shouldn’t have preached” (86). And a few lines later: “Mary Magdalene carried the good news of the gospel to the disbelieving disciples” (87). To what is Barr referring? I assume she is referring to Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, and Mary sharing this with others (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:9–10; Lk 24:10; Jn.20:14, 17–18). The fact that Mary saw Jesus and told others is an argument for affirming women preachers today? The reason many Christians do not see these things clearly is, Barr asserts, because of “male clergy” who have “undermined the evidence” (87).
Even though there were a number of medieval women active in various acts of ministry, Barr laments that many medieval Christians “couldn’t accept female leadership as normative” (90). Why might this be? Rather than look at an array of texts, data, and evidence, Barr asserts: “Because the medieval world inherited the patriarchy of the Roman world” (90).
Chapter four is titled, “The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women.” This chapter starts with a simple thesis of sorts: The Reformation was bad (ultimately) for women. Barr writes: “Women have always been wives and mothers, but it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation that being a wife and mother became the ‘ideological touchstone of holiness’ for women” (103). The chapter ends similarly: “While Paul’s writings about women were known consistently throughout church history, it wasn’t until the Reformation era that they began to be used systematically to keep women out of leadership roles” (127). Thus, as Barr sees it, the Reformation saw an increase in a misuse of Scripture (especially Paul). Barr appears to follow Lyndal Roper, who — in Barr’s words — “focuses on how the Reformation affected the lives of ordinary women” ( 104). Roper characterizes the story of the Reformation as one of “increased subordination rather than of liberation” (104). The Reformation “ushered in a ‘renewed patriarchalism’” that placed married women firmly under the headship of their husbands” (105). The Reformation witnessed “the increasing authority of men as heads of spiritual households” (107). Likewise, “the waning power of the Catholic priest was balanced by the waxing power of the Protestant household” ( 117).
I am unsure if the theological issues at stake in this chapter are clear to Barr. Perhaps they are. But here is one helpful point. Barr laments that in the medieval era, a woman who brewed ale was known as an “ale-wife.” That is, this woman’s identity was tied closely to being an “ale-wife.” But then the Reformation happened. And what was the consequence? “[I]n the early modern era, a Protestant wife who brewed was a good wife working alongside her husband (or taking over her deceased husband’s trade). Her primary identity was her marital status, and her job was secondary” (110–11). What does one do with such historical data (for now let us simply assume this is an accurate summary of the historical data)? For a complementarian, one will likely tend to read this development as a healthy thing, generally. Let us say that in the Reformation and post-Reformation era that there is an increase and development and flowering of biblical literacy, biblical preaching, biblical knowledge, and healthy application of all of Scripture to all of life. One could very well look at the kind of developments that Barr bemoans and interpret the very same data quite differently. One indeed might rejoice that a more biblical understanding of men, women, and marriage flowered due to certain Reformation emphases. But Barr looks at certain Reformation and post-Reformation developments and laments them. Ultimately, exegesis and a clear grasp of Scripture will be the only way to determine if — generally — one should rejoice or lament over these Reformation and post-Reformation developments.
There are some odd and unsettling statements by Barr. For example, in praising Reformation-era Argula von Grumbach (a German Lutheran), Barr writes: “She knew the writings of Paul, but she did not believe they applied to her” (115). If von Grumbach simply believed there was some real contextual reason why Paul’s teaching did not apply to her, that is one thing. But if Barr is praising von Grumbach because she felt the freedom to brush off an apostolic command, that is sad indeed. It is hard to tell exactly what Barr is saying. In fairness to Barr, she mentions that von Grumbach felt free to speak because men were not doing so. That is an issue worth discussing (115).
Barr, unfortunately, makes a number of assertions which are simply unfair. For example, while she argues that much of medieval preaching did not particularly focus on the various Pauline texts often used to illustrate husband-wife relationships, or issues related to the preaching office, Reformation and post-Reformation preachers did more intentionally deal with such texts. And Barr writes that such “early modern preachers . . . preached Paul to enforce women’s subordinate role within the household” (120). But how does Barr know that is the reason early modern preachers preached these Pauline texts? Might these preachers have preached such texts because they were — how does one say it — in the text? It is striking that Barr feels the confidence to know the motives of such early modern preachers. Perhaps we could read Barr charitably, and interpret her as saying that early modern preachers so preached Paul that the result (but not intent) is a number of sermons which emphasize such a “subordinate role”? Perhaps. And it is sad to see what Barr laments: “The family became not only the center of a woman’s world but her primary identity as a good Christian” (127).
Chapter five is titled, “Writing Women Out of the English Bible.” After a brief personal narrative, Barr broaches briefly the debate over the TNIV and its turn toward accepting “gender-inclusive” language. She then spends seven to eight pages on the medieval church and the Bible, before returning to the topic of “Gender-Inclusive Language before the TNIV” (139, sub-heading). Her attempt briefly to critique Vern Poythress’s concern about the TNIV decision to render ’adam as “human beings” misfires. Poythress thought the translation decision to choose “human beings” instead of “mankind” for the Hebrew word ’adam was misguided, and not acceptable (140). Barr’s response: “Except that it is.” She proceeds: “The Hebrew word ’adam is a gender-inclusive word for ‘human.’ Indeed, the text of Genesis 1:27 explains this for us: God created humans in his image, both men and women” (140). Well, yes, and no. What the text says in Genesis 1:27 is:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
I am only being a little cheeky in quoting the Hebrew here. Is the Hebrew word ’adam “a gender-inclusive word for ‘human’” (140)? In fact, the Hebrew word ’adam is a masculine singular noun. It in fact may very often denote both men and women. But context is key. In Genesis 1:27 there is a very basic structure. In the ESV it reads:
So God created man [’adam, a singular Hebrew noun] in his own image,
in the image of God he created him [singular masculine pronoun suffix used here];
male and female he created them [plural masculine pronoun suffix used here]
Note that the first part of Genesis 1:27 highlights a masculine, singular word ( ’adam) and a masculine, singular pronoun (“him”). The second half of Genesis 1:27 highlights “male and female,” and a masculine, plural pronoun (“them”).
I am quite confident Poythress happily affirms that “God created humans in his image, both men and women.” Indeed, the second half of Genesis 1:27 explicitly makes that point: “male and female he created them.” But that is a completely different question from whether in the first part of Genesis 1:27 “human beings” is a better translation choice than “mankind.” In Genesis 2:7 the exact Hebrew word (’adam) is used twice to refer to presumably a particular person, Adam. This term (’adam) is then used in Genesis 2:15, 16, 18, 19 (2x), 20 (2x), 21, 23, and 25 to clearly refer to a particular male person. Sadly, Barr simply does not deal with the actual issue at stake: how to engage in meaningful and faithful translation.
Barr ends this chapter with a brief section on Genesis 2 and the question of “wife” or “woman.” What has become clear by this point in the book is that Barr seems to be interrogating Scripture and church history through a feminist lens. Thus, as Barr sees it, when English Bibles use the English word “wife” to translate the Hebrew word ʾišāh, some ill-motive is afoot. Indeed, when she looks at Genesis 2:22–24, Barr claims: “neither the word marriage nor the word wife appear in the Hebrew text” (150). As Barr knows, of course the English words “marriage” and “wife” do not appear in the Hebrew text. The real question would be: would “marriage” or “wife” be legitimate translations of the Hebrew word(s) in question. Ad fontes! Let us look at the Hebrew word ʾišāh (sometimes translated “wife,” and found multiple times in Genesis 2:22-24) in the standard Hebrew lexicons. In Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, the entry for ʾišāh is “women, wife, female” (61). In Koehler and Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, the entry includes “woman,” “wife,” “female,” and “each” (93). In David J. A. Clines, The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, the entry lists “wife,” “woman,” “each woman,” “female animal,” “each [female] animal” (34). In William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, the entry lists “woman,” “wife,” “female,” and “each (woman)” (29). In short, in standard Hebrew lexica one standard translation option (context would be key) for the Hebrew word ʾišāh most certainly is “wife.”
Chapter six is titled, “Sanctifying Subordination.” Barr expresses concern over “purity culture” and encouraging teenage girls to dress modestly, bemoans “the cult of domesticity,” and appears to lament that “domesticity, for evangelical women, is sanctified” (the last two on this list come from p. 159). The last two are somewhat provocative, especially given texts like Titus 2:3–5, which very much does appear to encourage a kind of domesticity.
Part of Barr’s effort in this chapter is to trace the roots of a tendency to see men and women as fundamentally different, a difference which may even rightly apply to vocation and roles in life. A number of these sources are fascinating and worthy of study. After the Reformation and the early modern era, the next major eras to which Barr points as unfortunately encouraging “biblical womanhood” are the Enlightenment, then early Modern science, and then the Industrial Revolution.
Barr’s lament over the “cult of domesticity” is both intriguing and sad. One of Barr’s favorite medieval figures, Margery Kempe is praised because in her imagined Twitter profile Barr doubts if “Kempe would include any reference to her family or her husband” (168). Barr appears to endorse Catherine Brekus’ contention that certain medieval women differ from the post-Reformation world: “Instead of justifying women’s right to preach on the grounds that they had transcended their gender — they were neither male nor female,” what has happened with “biblical womanhood” is the emergence of “a new ideology of female virtue,” which grounds the authority of women “in their feminine distinctiveness.” That is, whereas certain medieval women somehow “transcended their gender,” biblical womanhood errs in encouraging women to emphasize their “feminine distinctiveness” (169).
Chapter seven is titled, “Making Biblical Womanhood Gospel Truth.” The first nine pages or so of this chapter lament that Evangelicals do not know their history — a history where there are numerous examples of women preaching. Doubtless Evangelicals need to mine our history to understand our past. But I suspect Barr would happily admit that history is not ultimately authoritative. It can inform our decisions, but ultimately, we must look to the heart of theological authority, Holy Writ, to develop our theological convictions about any issue, including questions of manhood, womanhood, and the nature of gospel ministry and teaching and preaching.
Barr contends that two key shifts occurred in the twentieth century that contributed to the development of “biblical womanhood,” and which “helped seal biblical womanhood as gospel truth.” These two are (1) biblical inerrancy and (2) the revival of Arianism (“Arianism” is Barr’s code for the idea of the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son) (p. 187 and following).
Regrettably, Barr has a tendency in this volume to engage in rather sweeping generalizations. For example: “the early twentieth-century emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women” (189). A few lines later: “The concept of inerrancy made it increasingly difficult to argue against a ‘plain and literal’ interpretation of ‘women be silent’ and ‘woman shall not teach.’” And Barr concludes: “And just like that, evangelicals baptized patriarchy” (190). Finally: “The evangelical fight for inerrancy was inextricably linked with gender from the beginning.” Indeed: “Inerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit” (191). This is painting with a very broad brush, and seems to amount to scholarship by assertion.
Barr’s second main concern here is so-called Arianism (again, shorthand for the doctrine known as the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son). Although Barr may be a historian, her summary and discussion of Arianism and the position of those evangelicals who affirm the eternal functional subordination of the Son does not add clarity to these issues. First, when summarizing what she considers to be contemporary Arianism, Barr insists on speaking of “eternal subordination of the Son” multiple times (starting on p. 191), even though adherents like Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have repeatedly used terms like “eternal functional subordination of the Son.” In summarizing Arianism, Barr writes: “In the fourth century, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, began to preach that the Son was of a different substance from God the Father [so far, so good], which meant the Son had a subordinate role to God the Father [here is where the confusion begins]” (194). This is simply not an accurate summary of Arianism, and Barr should know better. The Arian notion that the Son and Father were of a different substance most certainly is Arian, but Arianism is not and has not been defined as: “the Son had a subordinate role to God the Father” (194; my emphasis). Certainly Barr must know this. But something is awry here. Barr has clearly summarized the position she is critiquing as the “eternal subordination of the Son” (multiple times on pp. 194-96), rather than the “eternal functional subordination of the Son” (the terminology used by actual adherents of this position). But then, when describing Arianism, she slides from (1) the notion that Son and Father were of a different substance [and that is Arianism] to (2) the notion that the Son has a subordinate role when compared to the Father [which is not, traditionally considered, Arianism]. If Barr is unaware of her equivocation, that is unfortunate. If she is aware of the equivocation, she is essentially bearing false witness, which is (to put it mildly) regrettable.
Chapter eight is titled, “Isn’t it Time to Set Women Free?” We learn that Professor Barr has another story besides the firing of her husband and the emotional sadness of leaving a church one loves. Professor Barr was once in a bad relationship (she tactfully and understandably simply gives a muted history of that story). I am sad that that is indeed a part of her story. I have a daughter and would never wish abuse of any kind on any woman. Hearing a bit of Barr’s story helped me to frame her book better.
This final chapter is something of a call to arms. Intentionally echoing the humorous skit featuring Bob Newhart, Barr calls her readers to “stop it!” (as in, abandon “biblical womanhood”/“patriarchy”). And the rhetoric heats up. She speaks of the overlap (as in a Venn diagram) of “reformed, complementarian, and misogynist,” comparing this to a Venn diagram featuring an “overlap of patriarchy with militarism, hierarchy, and racism” (208). Indeed, “Patriarchy walks hand in hand with racism, and it always has” (208).
Sadly, the book ends with more sweeping generalizations. Barr issues a call to refuse “to let 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 drown out every other scriptural voice” (217). And: “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have been about Jesus” (218).
When I was a Ph.D. student at Baylor, I took a course with a visiting theologian. This gentleman was kind enough to take me to lunch. Even though we clearly had significant theological differences, he was a true gentleman, and we enjoyed a wonderful lunch of Mexican food. At some point in the discussion, he said (I am paraphrasing, some twenty-five years later): “You write with passion, but it is clearly passion in the service of truth. Don’t lose that.” Beth Allison Barr clearly writes with passion, and a passion which it seems has been born, at least in part, of suffering. The challenge of writing out of passion, and indeed out of suffering, is that it can be difficult to channel one’s passion in a proper direction. It seems to me that Barr’s passion too often gets the best of her. Her frustration with, and animus toward, what today is called “complementarianism” (and which she generally simply calls “biblical womanhood” or “patriarchy”) is so intense that I fear that this frustration and animus have been victorious over careful scholarship and a convincing treatment of the key issues.
There were fascinating possibilities in this book: How did Reformation emphases encourage a certain way of thinking about women? Were there indeed certain strands or tendencies or elements of medieval piety and scholarship that have been eclipsed with the Reformation and post-Reformation eras? Do different Bible translation committees allow deep presuppositions to get the best of them? If that is so, what are good criteria to discern such? I suspect if Professor Barr and I were to sit down and discuss these things, we could agree on a good many questions along these lines which a book might explore. But I also suspect our deep convictions on questions of men, women, and teaching authority in the Christian church differ. And those convictions have a way of influencing the way we think about many other issues. At the end of the day, all of us write and think out of a set of convictions which (generally) we have developed over a length of time (sometimes many, many years). It seems to me Barr’s deep animus toward complementarianism has caused her to read her opponents uncharitably and unfairly. That really is too bad.
The Christian Church needs good and careful scholars — whether men or women. I hope Barr’s next book will channel her passion into a work of careful scholarship, scholarship that might help readers and that might ultimately bring glory to God.
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