Beth Allison Barr
Brazos Press, 256 pages
I loved “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” and have been recommending it to nearly everyone I know. Barr writes directly to the Southern Baptist Convention, the faith community in which she was raised and served as a pastor’s wife. Bit by bit, through excellent exegesis and historical scholarship, Barr deconstructs a complementarian view of female and male identity as outlined by men like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, showing that “Biblical Womanhood” (i.e., a woman’s highest calling is to get married, have children and submit to her husband) is neither imprinted in creation or in Christian society since the days of Jesus; it’s not biblical at all. Rather, patriarchy “shape-shifts” throughout Christian history, as the reasons for subjugating women change according to the cultural assumptions of the day.
A compelling example of this shape-shifting is the difference between how women were viewed in the Middle Ages and during the Protestant Reformation. Influenced by Aristotle, medieval women were viewed as lesser or deformed men. But, if women gave up their sexuality, they could rise into positions of spiritual authority. “Virginity empowered them.” Thus, in medieval history, we have female Christian leaders like Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and (Barr’s favorite) Margery Kempe.
In contrast, the Protestant Reformation said that women were created in the image of God and ought to be honored as such. But this did not give women more room to exercise spiritual authority; rather, holiness for women in the Reformation became embedded in their calling as wife and mother. Women in these Reformation spaces, up into the 20th and 21st centuries, have had a degree of spiritual authority, even being invited to preach. But their identity is first as wife and mother — for example, Mrs. Lewis Ball, a revivalist preacher who was known by her husband’s name rather than her own. Today’s evangelical emphasis on a women’s calling being in the home has far more to do with the Reformation than the Bible.
I am not Southern Baptist. I don’t consider myself a conservative evangelical, though I was adjacent to evangelical spaces through much of my childhood and young adult years. I remember discussing in college the differences between complementarian and egalitarian views of marriage and how these influenced how we interpreted Scripture. But I was not raised in an environment in which I was told that a women’s highest spiritual calling was to get married, have children and manage a household. I certainly wrestled with Pauline texts that told women to keep silence and submit to their husbands, but I never doubted my call to ministry — a ministry to preach, teach and administer the sacraments. Nor did my faith community or family question my call.
And yet, I could not stop reading Barr’s book. She interweaves her own personal stories of awakening to the toxicity of the patriarchy with good scholarship that is easily accessible to all readers. Barr shares lesser-known scholarship about women in Christian history, yet her book did not retread things I already knew. I am better equipped to resist patriarchy, especially when it masks itself as the Christian gospel.
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