ARTICLES

Volume 46 - Issue 2

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: A Review

By Kevin DeYoung

Abstract

Beth Allison Barr’s influential book The Making of Biblical Womanhood sets out to demonstrate the historical roots of “biblical womanhood,” a system of Christian patriarchy that is not really Christian. This review article poses two key questions, both of which point to significant weaknesses in Barr’s argument. First, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the proponents of “biblical womanhood”? Second, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the historical evidence she cites in opposition to “biblical womanhood”? Specific examples of historical half-truths reveal a more comprehensive problem with Barr’s methodology, which reflects a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to history.

“Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian. It just shows us the historical (and very human) roots of biblical womanhood.”1 In two sentences, this is the central argument of Beth Allison Barr’s popular book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.

The idea of “biblical womanhood” is nothing other than Christian patriarchy, and the only reason it continues to flourish is because women and men blindly continue to support it (p. 216). For too long, Barr argues, the system of Christian patriarchy has “place[d] power in the hands of men and take[n] power out of the hands of women.” It has taught “men that women rank lower than they do.” It has taught “women that their voices are worth less than the voices of men” (p. 18). At bottom, Christian patriarchy is no different from pagan patriarchy. Both are rampant in the world. Both have been around for a long time. And it’s time for both to end.

Although in many ways a learned book with hundreds of endnotes and plenty of academic citations, The Making of Biblical Womanhood is anything but a dry, dispassionate work. From the first sentence of the Introduction (“I never meant to be an activist”) to the numerous references in the Acknowledgments to those who “believed in this project” and “stood by me” and “fought for me” and “gave me the courage I needed to be braver than I ever knew I could be,” this is a work of vigorous advocacy (pp. viii–x). Barr is not simply arguing for a theological or historical interpretation. The stakes are much higher than that. She is “fighting for a better a Christian world” (p. x). She is fighting for evangelical Christians to finally be free (p. 218).

1. A Work of History

The Making of Biblical Womanhood straddles several different genres. It is part personal history, with Barr’s own painful interactions with patriarchy (as she sees it) looming large in the background (and in the foreground). Woven throughout the book is the story of Barr’s husband being fired as a youth pastor for challenging his church’s leadership over the role of women in the church. We also hear of disrespectful male students in her classroom and of a scary relationship she had with a boyfriend years ago. Barr acknowledges that this experience with her boyfriend, along with the experience of her husband’s firing, “frames how I think about complementarianism today.” These “traumatic experiences” mean that she is “scarred” and “will always carry the scars” (p. 204). Those sympathetic to Barr’s perspective will likely resonate with the personal narrative, considering it one more reason to dismantle patriarchy once and for all. Others, however, might be curious to know if there is another side to these stories (Prov 18:17) and, more importantly, might wonder whether the author’s scars get in the way of giving complementarianism a fair hearing.

The book also contains elements of a typical egalitarian apologetic. As an exegetical work, there is little in The Making of Biblical Womanhood that hasn’t been said many times over the past 40 years. Anyone familiar with egalitarian arguments will not be surprised by the main exegetical claims: Paul’s commands are culturally bound; husbands and wives both submit to each other; Phoebe was a deaconess; Junia was a female apostle; Mary Magdalene preached the gospel; Galatians 3:28 obliterates gender-based hierarchy. I won’t repeat Barr’s arguments, nor will I attempt a point-by-point rejoinder. If anyone wants to look at the same issues from a different perspective, my new book Men and Women in the Church is meant to be a concise overview of complementarian convictions and conclusions.2

What makes Barr’s work unique is her work as a medieval historian. It’s this new angle that prompted so many rave (if sometimes cliched) reviews: “readers should be ready to have their worlds transformed” (Tisby); “absolute game changer” (Du Mez); “this book is a game changer” (Fea); “convincing and moving” (Jenkins); “I have waited my entire adult life for a book like this” (Merritt); “a brilliant, thunderous narrative” (McKnight). With a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now as an associate professor of history and associate dean at Baylor University, Barr has an impressive academic pedigree. No one can question that Barr writes as a well-trained historian, something she reminds the reader of often:

  • “As a historian…” (p. 6)
  • “Listen not just to my experiences but also to the evidence I present as a historian” (p. 9).
  • “Even from my early years training as a historian…” (p. 12)
  • “Here I was, a professor with a PhD from a major research university…” (p. 56)
  • “Because I am a historian…” (p. 56)
  • “So as a historian…” (p. 60)
  • “Instead, I taught the narrative I had learned from my training as a historian…” (p. 107).
  • “My training as a historian…” (p. 107)
  • “My medieval history-trained eyes…” (p. 125)
  • “But as a historian…” (p. 127)
  • “As a medieval historian who specializes in English sermons…” (p. 132)
  • “Yet, as a medieval historian…” (p. 133)
  • “So let me tell you what I know as a historian…” (p. 133)
  • “As a historian who studies manuscript tradition…” (p. 143)
  • “To my women’s history-trained ears…” (p. 171)
  • “As a medieval historian…” (p. 183)
  • “As a church historian…” (p. 194)
  • “At least to my historian’s mind…” (p. 197)
  • “I am a historian…” (p. 205)

With this relentless emphasis on writing “as a historian,” we would do well to evaluate The Making of Biblical Womanhood first of all as a work of historical scholarship.

Along these lines, let me raise two questions, both of which point to significant weaknesses in Barr’s argument. First, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the proponents of “biblical womanhood”? Second, does Barr, as a historian, deal fairly and accurately with the historical evidence she cites in opposition to “biblical womanhood”?

2. Dealing Fairly with Our Opponents

One of the difficulties in evaluating Barr’s arguments against “biblical womanhood” is that she never provides a definition of what exactly she means by that pejorative label or how she has determined who counts as authoritative spokesmen for the concept she rejects. The closest she comes to a definition of biblical womanhood is when she observes that she grew up learning that “women were called to secondary roles in church and family, with an emphasis on marriage and children” (p. 1). Along the same lines, she defines complementarianism as “the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders” (p. 5). The problem with both of these definitions is that they don’t come from anyone in the “biblical womanhood” or complementarian camp. That’s not automatically a problem. There’s a place for summarizing big, broad movements in our own words. But for a whole book against “biblical womanhood,” one would have expected a substantial and sophisticated analysis of the theological, exegetical, and cultural vision laid out in the book with biblical womanhood in its title, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.3 One would have hoped for a careful look at the Danvers Statement or an evaluation of the “Mission & Vision” of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Instead, Barr’s version of “biblical womanhood” relies heavily on her personal experience, broad generalizations, and bite-size quotations from people as diverse as Tim LaHaye, James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Russell Moore, Owen Strachan, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem.

I hope most history departments would insist that the best research tries to present historical subjects and ideas in ways that would be familiar to them. That is, before moving to critical evaluation, historians should try to make sense of what people in the past have believed, on their own terms, and why they came to the conclusions they did. While Barr demonstrates admirable sympathy for her medieval subjects (the women at least), she makes little effort to understand her “biblical womanhood” opponents or to look for much more than gotcha words and phrases. For example, Barr often mentions a 2006 article from Russell Moore where he talks favorably about the word “patriarchy.”4 (Incidentally, it’s ironic that Moore, because of an article 15 years ago, has become the chief culprit in advocating patriarchy when many would regard him as the type of complementarian most sympathetic to many of Barr’s complaints.) Barr also quotes Owen Strachan using the p-word (patriarchy). Citing Moore’s article, along with one line from Strachan, Barr insists, “Not long ago, evangelicals were talking a lot about patriarchy” (p. 12). Two examples hardly seem like a lot, especially considering the word complementarian was coined specifically to get away from words like patriarchy.

It should be stated that patriarchy, by itself, is not a bad word. If we have God as our heavenly Father, we all believe in some kind of patriarchy. Personally, I don’t tend to use the word because of all the negative connotations. But just because someone uses the word patriarchy doesn’t make them—or an entire movement—guilty of those negative connotations. In fact, as Barr points out, Moore is careful to distinguish Christian patriarchy from “pagan patriarchy” and “predatory patriarchy” (p. 16). Barr admits that Moore’s stance has been “women should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy)” (p. 17). That seems like a significant and helpful distinction. But in her next line, Barr takes away the distinction Moore tries to make: “Nice try, I thought. Tell that to my conservative male student.” Does one rude college student mean that all patriarchy is pagan patriarchy?

At times, Barr’s takedowns feel more like political oppo research than careful academic reasoning. For example, she tells her students “how easily a study of Paul overturns John Piper’s claim that Christianity has a ‘masculine feel.’” After all, she argues, Paul describes himself as a pregnant mother, a mother giving birth, and even a nursing mother (p. 52). I don’t expect Barr to like the phrase “masculine feel,” but Piper’s argument does not rest on whether Paul ever uses female imagery. Piper argues that God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. He argues that the Son of God came into the world as a man, that the priests in Israel were men, that the apostles were all men, that men are given the responsibility to lead, protect, and provide. Piper acknowledges that emphasizing a “masculine ministry” can be seriously misunderstood and misapplied. He also underscores several times that a “masculine ministry” is for the flourishing of women and that women contribute in fruitful partnership to the work of ministry. Again, Barr has every right to disagree with Piper’s vision for ministry, but that disagreement should deal with his specific arguments and proposals, not with one phrase she feels is particularly laughable.

Or to cite another example involving Piper, Barr claims, “Even John Piper admitted in 1984 that he can’t figure out what to do with Deborah and Huldah” (p. 36). But if you look up the citation, here is the totality of what Piper said:

I admit that Deborah and Huldah do not fit neatly into my view. I wish Berkeley and Alvera would do the same about 1 Timothy 2:8–15 (etc.!). Perhaps it is no fluke that Deborah and Huldah did not put themselves forward but were sought out because of their wisdom and revelation (Judges 4:5; 2 Kings 22:14). I argued in March (pp. 30–32) that the issue (in 1 Cor. 11:2–16) is how a woman should prophesy, not whether she should. Are Deborah and Huldah examples of how to “prophesy” and “judge” in a way that affirms and honors the normal headship of men?”5

That presents a different picture than Barr’s “he can’t figure out what to do with Deborah and Huldah”—not a befuddled complementarian, but someone trying to deal with the strongest arguments of the other side and provide a response. Surely, this is a good model for all of us to follow.

Similarly, Barr chides Capitol Hill Baptist Church for one of their Sunday school classes. “To this day,” she writes, “I grind my teeth over the church history series used by Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It paints a grim picture of a sordid, corrupt medieval church in which few people, except for a remnant of ‘scattered monks and nuns,’ found salvation” (p. 137). Barr is free to argue that the curriculum is too negative about the medieval church, but she ought to at least note the first two sentences of the lesson: “Common belief is that the Middle Ages was a truly horrible time period with no redeeming qualities. But the more we examine [we] realize just how rich some of the theology was, and how important many of the people and events are during this time period.”6

Whether because of her own pain, or maybe because of her stated aim to fight for a better world, Barr is frequently guilty of reading material from the other side with a hermeneutic of suspicion. For example, she states matter-of-factly that the ESV translation of Junia as “well known to the apostles” instead of “prominent among the apostles” was “a deliberate move to keep women out of leadership” (p. 69). How she has confidently ascertained the inner workings of the ESV translation committee is not stated. Likewise, she cites an ESV resource as saying, “The union of one man and one woman in marriage is one of the most basic and most profound aspects of being created in the image of God.”7 Barr concludes from this one sentence: “because we are created in the image of God, implies the ESV resources, we desire the union of marriage. Marriage—from the evangelical perspective—completes us” (p. 112). I can’t imagine many other readers jumped from “marriage is one of the most basic and most profound aspects of being created in the image of God” to the relational philosophy of Jerry Maguire. It is worth noting as well that the ESV resource in question was written by Yusufu Turaki, a pastor and scholar from Nigeria. Does Barr mean to lampoon the evangelical African perspective on marriage and singleness? And all of this is to say nothing of the fact that Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood specifically begins with a Foreword addressing single men and women—the eighth point of which states, “Mature manhood and womanhood are not dependent on being married.” While you will find many complementarians celebrating the goodness and design of marriage, I doubt you will find any insisting that single persons are incomplete without it.

Before moving on to the next heading let me make clear: I don’t believe complementarianism and “biblical womanhood” are above critique. I don’t agree with everything I’ve seen over the years from CBMW. I have cringed at certain comments complementarians have made on Twitter. There have been rhetorical blunders in the complementarian world and some theological mistakes. Like many others, I share Barr’s concerns with tying gender roles to the eternal subordination of the Son—a view I’ve critiqued before (though Barr unfairly equates ESS with Arianism). This review isn’t about circling the wagons and disallowing any criticism of Piper or Grudem or Dever (or DeYoung for that matter). But complementarians should recognize the arguments being critiqued, and they should know the intellectual reasons why fringe figures like Bill Gothard are often referenced when serious mainstream complementarian scholars like Doug Moo or Don Carson almost never are (let alone magisterial theologians like Augustine or Aquinas or Bavinck, all of whom interpret and apply the biblical passages on men and women differently than Barr does). One could be forgiven for thinking that words like “biblical womanhood” and “patriarchy” are not careful representations of cogent theological positions or discernible ecclesiastical movements as much as they are catch-all terms for whatever ideas about men and women that the author (and, likely, his or her colleagues) disdain. Would that our academic historians might treat their ideological opponents with the same level of integrity and sophistication they no doubt insist upon from their students in other historical matters.

3. Dealing Fairly with the Historical Evidence

As a work purporting to be serious history, The Making of Biblical Womanhood contains more than a few historical oddities. I don’t know that any other historian has ever referred to John Calvin and John Knox as “radical Puritan translators” (p. 145), given that the term “Puritan” began as a term of derision in the Church of England and barely existed before Calvin and Knox died. Likewise, Barr mistakenly claims that the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion was “the first American Calvinist denomination” to emerge from the evangelical revivals (p. 177), when, in fact, the Anglican breakaway group was English not American. Barr also evinces an amateurish view of the Arian controversy, equating the error of eternal subordination with the teachings of Arius (when someone like Origen would have been more accurate) and stating incorrectly, “When everyone else in the Christian world got wind of what Arius was teaching, they reacted with horror” (p. 194). This is hardly an accurate reading of the back-and-forth theological and geopolitical debate that ensued after Nicea and prompted the council in the first place.

More important than these mistakes, Barr often employs ambiguous language and selective information in presenting the heroes and heroines of her cause. For example, she observes triumphantly that Chrysostom interprets 1 Timothy 3:11 as a reference to deaconesses. This shows, on her reading, that the golden-tongued preacher clearly supported “female leadership” in the church (p. 68). But is “female leadership” the best description for the order of deaconesses that emerged in the third and fourth centuries? Early church documents like the Apostolic Constitutions explain that deaconesses were to visit women in their homes, help bathe infirm women, and assist the presbyters in baptizing women so as to maintain proper decorum. Robert Cara’s summary is apt: “there were two gender-separate ordained deacon bodies in at least part of the church during the third and fourth centuries AD and no example of a mixed-gender diaconate. The ordained deaconesses had restricted responsibilities compared to the male counterparts.”8 If deaconesses were “leaders” in the church, Barr should explain what that leadership looked like, lest we commit the historical fallacy of anachronistically reading modern notions of “female leadership” back into Chrysostom’s sermons.

Moreover, before we make Chrysostom an opponent of “biblical womanhood,” we should note what he says in his other homilies on 1 Timothy. According to Chrysostom, women in the church must “show submission by their silence. For the sex is naturally somewhat talkative; and for this reason he restrains them on all sides.” A little further in the same sermon we read: “He wishes the man to have the preeminence in every way.” And later: “The woman taught once and ruined all. On this account therefore he saith, let her not teach. But what is it to other women, that she suffered this? It certainly concerns them; for the sex is weak and fickle, and he is speaking of the sex collectively.”9 The point is not that Chrysostom is right about everything—I’m embarrassed by some of his language too—but intellectual honesty demands that we represent historical figures as they were, not as we wish them to be.

Or take the example of Genovefa of Paris, whom Barr calls the “defacto ecclesiastical leader of Paris” (p. 88). Leaving aside the fact that what we know about many of Barr’s medieval heroines come from hagiographical sources often written centuries later, is it fair to say Genovefa was the “defacto ecclesiastical leader,” when she did not ordain anyone, did not administer the sacraments, did not hold ecclesiastical office, and did not preach in the church? It is said that Genovefa prayed for the city when attacked by the Huns and encouraged the citizens of Paris not to flee. She reportedly received numerous visions of saints and angels. She erected a chapel in honor of Saint Denis. At one point, the bishop appointed her to look after the consecrated virgins. This is a kind of leadership to be sure, but not what most people hear in the term “ecclesiastical leader.”

Even more telling is Barr’s use of Brigit of Kildare. Whereas “Genovefa acted like a bishop,” Barr maintains, “Brigit of Kildare (according to hagiography) was actually ordained as a bishop” (p. 89). There is a story in one lone hagiographical source of a bishop presiding over Brigit’s consecration, and while chanting the liturgy of consecration, he got so intoxicated with the grace of God that he mistakenly read the episcopal ordination ceremony instead and made Brigit a bishop by accident. To her credit, Barr mentions the unusual circumstances surrounding Brigit’s “ordination.” What Barr doesn’t mention is what the source she cites says next: “Within this hagiographical episode, the saint herself did not acknowledge the unique event but instead accepted a donation of land.”10 In other words, Barr’s example of a woman having “received ordination like a man would have” (p. 89) is anything but. The ordination was an accident; Brigit refused to accept it; and the whole incident may not have happened in the first place.

We could cite other examples. Barr maintains, “Even Calvinist evangelicals of the past have affirmed women’s calling by God as public ministers” (p. 177). Her one piece of evidence in support of this claim is the aforementioned Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. To be sure, Selina was a remarkable woman. In fact, the conservative Calvinist publisher Banner of Truth released a book about her.11 The Countess supported George Whitefield, gave generously of her family fortune to start a training school for ministers, and established a number of chapels in England, over which she exercised close superintendence. While Reformed Christians of the past (and present) have celebrated the Countess of Huntingdon as playing a pivotal role in the evangelical awakening, this is a far cry from suggesting that Calvinistic Methodists in the eighteenth century affirmed Selina as a public minister, something she was not and something she would not have claimed.

And then there is Margery Kempe, the medieval English mystic who appears in The Making of Biblical Womanhood more than any other historical person. Barr tells of the time Margery was arrested, in 1417, in the town of York and brought before the archbishop. “The archbishop knew Margery was traveling around the countryside without her husband; he knew she was acting like a religious teacher without any training” (p. 73). And yet, when confronted by the archbishop of York, “she stood her ground in a room full of masculine authority” (p. 73). A priest read aloud one of the passages commanding the silence of women, but Margery was undeterred: “She preached from the Bible to a room full of male priests—including the archbishop of York—defending her right to do so as a woman” (p. 74). As Barr puts it later on the same page, “For this medieval woman, Paul didn’t apply. She could teach the Word of God, even as an ordinary woman, because, she argued, Jesus endorsed it” (p. 74).

Two pages later Barr explains that at another point in The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery hears God make a promise to come to her aid “with my blessed mother, and my holy angels and twelve apostles, St Katherine, St Margaret and St Mary Magdalene, and many other saints that are in heaven” (p. 76). According to Barr, “Margery Kempe stood with a host of female witnesses who helped authorize her voice, pushing back against male authority and even the limitations placed on her” (p. 99). Barr harkens back to Margery’s “great cloud of female witnesses” many times in the rest of the book (pp. 76, 77, 88, 96, 99, 181, 183). Crucially, the example of Margery Kempe was a key factor in motivating Barr to fight for the liberation of women and to challenge complementarian teachings about women in the church (p. 72).

The Book of Margery Kempe is a fascinating and sometimes bizarre autobiography of a remarkable medieval women who hears from God in intimate conversation, receives frequent visions, prays and fasts to the point of exhaustion, cuts off sexual relations with her husband because she wishes to be a virgin, enters into spiritual marriage with the Godhead, is told by Jesus to lie in bed with him and kiss his mouth as sweetly as she wants, is assaulted by the devil with visions of male genitalia and tempted to have sex with various men of religion, cries uncontrollably over the course of a decade, constantly interrupts worship services with shrieking and wailing, berates people on the street for their oath-taking and bad language, and speaks to people of every rank about her messages from God whether they want to hear from her or not.

Margery is many things, but she is hardly a rebel against male authority. Her Book is filled with good priests, confessors, and friars whom Margery seeks out for counsel and assistance and who, in turn, provide Margery with protection and support. In keeping with the expectations of her age, Margery seeks permission from religious leaders before traveling and receives a male escort to guard her on her journeys. She even describes her husband—with whom she will not have sex for several years—as a kind man who stood by her when others let her down. If there is an overarching theme to Margery’s Book it is the pursuit to find from (male) religious figures approval for her insights and validation for her unusual life.

When Margery appeared before the archbishop of York, it was one of many encounters like this throughout her life. Half the people who met her thought she had a special gift from God, and the other half thought she had a devil. The anger from the archbishop was not because she was a woman bucking patriarchal authority. She was accused of being a Lollard and a heretic. To be sure, she defended her right to speak as a woman, but as Barr herself notes, Margery explicitly denied preaching. “I do not preach, sir,” Margery stated before the archbishop, “I do not go into any pulpit. I use only conversation and good words, and that I will do while I live.”12 This is not exactly saying “Paul doesn’t apply.” It’s more like saying, “I listen to Paul, and I’m not doing what he forbids.” A few chapters later, Margery says to the archbishop, “My lord, if you care to examine me, I shall avow the truth, and if I be found guilty, I will be obedient to your correction.” Margery did not see herself as a proto-feminist standing against the evil forces of patriarchy. She saw herself as an orthodox Christian who was sharing her visions and revelations in the midst of antagonism and support from both men and women.

I can see why Margery (minus all the weird stuff) might be an inspiring figure for women. She is bold, passionate, and intensely devoted to God. But she was a medieval woman, not a twenty-first century one. Barr insists that Margery calls upon St. Margaret, St. Katherine, and St. Mary Magdalene because “the medieval church was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire” (p. 88). Leaving aside the fact that the saints mentioned above were more than 1,000 years removed from Margery—indeed, we are much closer in time to Margery’s age than she was to St. Katherine or St. Margaret—isn’t the simpler explanation that Margery was a medieval Catholic who prayed to and called upon numerous saints? At other times in her Book, Margery prays to St. Augustine, and frequently she prays to St. Paul. Her “great cloud of female witnesses” (which included many men) was ordinary medieval piety, not a defiant repudiation of male authority.

Barr imagines that if Margery—who cared for her husband in his old age, was pregnant fourteen times, and spoke extensively about her son and daughter-in-law in part two of her Book—had a Twitter profile, “I doubt Kempe would include any reference to her family or her husband” (p. 168). It seems to me historians can’t be overly confident about the imaginary social media habits of medieval Christians. Speculating about Twitter profiles likely says more about us than our historical subjects.

Elsewhere Barr lauds the example of St. Paula, “who abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life.” After the death of her husband, Paula set sail for Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, “leaving three of her children alone, crying on the shore” (p. 79). For Barr, this is the kind of womanhood we need more of in the church. I think most Christians today, outside of the enclaves of highly educated Westerners, would agree that if female liberation looks like mothers abandoning their children alone and losing all sense of calling as wives and mothers, then the cure for biblical womanhood is worse than the disease.

4. Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

These specific examples of historical half-truths reveal a more comprehensive problem with Barr’s methodology. Barr could have made a compelling case that women throughout history have been key players in the story of the church and have often acted in ways that contemporary Christians might find surprising. If this were the story, we could then explore how to understand these women in their historical context, how they understood themselves, how others viewed their ministries, and in what ways their examples are worth emulating today. That would be a worthwhile discussion—one that would likely provide evidence “for” and “against” current assumptions about biblical womanhood.

But that is not the book Barr has given us because that is not the historical method she employs. In Barr’s hermeneutic, all the evidence she likes counts as a blow to “biblical womanhood,” while all the evidence she doesn’t like counts as patriarchy. Time and again, Barr quickly pushes aside any evidence that might challenge her thesis. What’s left is a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to history.

  • “Echoes of human patriarchy parade throughout the New Testament—from the exclusivity of male Jews to the harsh adultery laws applied to women and even to the writings of Paul. The early church was trying to make sense of its place in both a Jewish and Roman world, and much of those worlds bled through into the church’s story. At the same time, we see a surprising number of passages subverting traditional gender roles and emphasizing women as leaders” (p. 35).
  • “Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy” (p. 36).
  • “The New Testament household codes tell a story of how the early church was trying to live within a non-Christian, and increasingly hostile, world. They needed to fit in, but they also needed to uphold the gospel of Christ. They had to uphold the frame of Roman patriarchy as much as they could, but they also had to uphold the worth and dignity of each human being made in the image of God. Paul gave them the blueprints to remix Roman patriarchy” (p. 54–55).
  • “Of course, I told my students, not everyone in the early church supported women in leadership. The office of presbyter testifies loudly to how patriarchal prejudices of the ancient world had already crept into Christianity” (p. 68).

This line of argumentation is key to Barr’s entire project. Patriarchy is a shapeshifter (p. 153). It is ever present, always evolving and changing as history changes (p. 169). Patriarchy is like racism (pp. 186, 208). It never goes away. It just adapts to a new world. Consequently, anything that smacks of “biblical womanhood” is just one more indication how pervasive patriarchy has been in the world.

Who is to blame for “biblical womanhood”? Almost everyone. The Babylonians introduced patriarchy from the very beginning (p. 24). Then it was the Roman Empire that colored the New Testament in patriarchal hues (pp. 46–47). After Abelard valiantly fought for the ordination of deaconesses, the church acquiesced to worldly conceptions of power and pushed out women from positions of power (p. 114). Then the Reformation tragically cemented the idea that women should be wives and mothers (p. 123). Later the Victorian age introduced unbiblical notions of modesty and purity (p. 156). Finally, the early twentieth-century doctrine of inerrancy created an atmosphere of fear and proved the perfect weapon against women’s equality (pp. 190, 196). Patriarchy is the villain with a thousand faces.

Let me say one more time, if Barr simply wanted to demonstrate that “biblical womanhood,” as some conservative Christians understand and practice it, has been shaped over the centuries by ideas and forces other than the Bible, that would likely be a convincing argument. But this would require Barr to admit that the current fervor against “biblical womanhood” is culturally situated as well, comfortably resembling the spirit of this age.

It would also require a better, fairer, and more intellectually rigorous approach to history itself—an approach that doesn’t resemble a Grand Monocausal Theory of Everything whereby every piece of historical evidence already has a predetermined meaning. So, if the biblical patterns of leadership and biblical descriptions of God sound overly masculine, don’t worry—that’s patriarchy. If Jesus chose only male apostles and Paul commanded women to submit to their husbands, don’t be surprised—that’s patriarchy. If the Reformers championed marriage and motherhood, of course they did—that’s patriarchy. The historical deck is stacked before the scholarly game is even played.

Barr’s historical argument “works” because it is impossible not to work. Whatever evidence one might produce—from the Bible, from theologians across the ages, or from human nature itself—in support of male authority in the church and in the home, or for the high calling of motherhood, or for the general principle that men ought to lead, protect, and provide, all of this can be dismissed as patriarchy. By contrast, any evidence that shows women teaching others or exercising leadership—no matter what kind of leadership or what kind of teaching it might be, no matter the historical context or the reliability of the historical sources, and no matter how much the women themselves made a point not to transgress proper lines of authority—all of this counts as resistance to patriarchy. Given this hermeneutic—and with the entire canvass of human history to work with—Barr’s thesis, and those like it, cannot fail. It is not falsifiable. Every bit of patriarchy means she’s right, and every bit of not-patriarchy means she’s right too.

That’s one way to do history. But surely there is a better way.


[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos Press, 2021), 37.

[2] Kevin DeYoung, Men and Women in the Church: A Short, Biblical, Practical Introduction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021).

[3] John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991). Crossway released a revised edition in 2021.

[4] Russell Moore, “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate,” JETS 49 (2006): 569–76.

[5] John Piper, “Headship and Harmony: Response from John Piper,” The Standard 74.5 (1984): 39–40, available at Desiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/headship-and-harmony.

[6] “Class 5: The High Middle Ages,” Capitol Hill Baptist Church, 24 June 2016, https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/sermon/class-5-the-high-middle-ages/.

[7] Yusufu Turaki, “Marriage and Sexual Morality,” ESV.org, https://www.esv.org/resources/esv-global-study-bible/marriage-and-sexual-morality, Barr’s italics.

[8] Robert J. Cara, “Justification of Ordained Office of Deacon Restricted to Qualified Males,” Reformed Faith & Practice 5.3 (2020): 38–39, https://journal.rts.edu/article/justification-of-ordained-office-of-deacon-restricted-to-qualified-males/.

[9] John Chrysostom, Homilies on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy 9 (NPNF1 13:435–36).

[10] Citing Lisa M. Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 180.

[11] Faith Cook, Selina: Countess of Huntingdon: Her Pivotal Role in the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001).

[12] Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. Barry Windeatt, Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin, 2000), 164.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte.

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