The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth

Written by Beth Allison Barr Reviewed By Ryan L. Faber

Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood is less an account of how the subjugation of women became gospel truth than it is an argument against patriarchy. Barr, an associate professor of history at Baylor University, presents the evidence that led her to disavow complementarianism. She hopes her readers will do the same because, in Barr’s estimation, complementarianism is not only wrong but also dangerous. Barr writes of “the ugliness and trauma inflicted by complementarian systems” (p. 9), claims that “patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression” (p. 33), and alleges that “there is a link between complementarianism and abuse” (p. 206).

Barr argues that patriarchy is not rooted in creation, but is a result of the fall into sin (Gen 3:16). Pauline texts do not teach biblical womanhood. Rather, when read in the context of Roman history, they provide a “Jesus remix” of Roman patriarchy meant to set women free. Church history provides numerous examples of women preaching and teaching. Throughout church history, women have been ordained as deaconesses and abbesses. In the medieval church at least one woman was ordained a bishop. Medieval Bible translations and sermons reveal a long history of gender-inclusive language.

It was not until the Reformation—which should have set women free, but did not—that being a wife and mother became the ideological touchstone for holiness for women. In the nineteenth-century this became the “cult of domesticity” (pp. 165–67), of which biblical womanhood is simply a twentieth-century version. Only recently, with the championing of inerrancy, which privileged literalist readings of Pauline passages, and the revival of Arianism—the eternal subordination of the Son—has patriarchy become gospel truth. (pp. 191–97) Today, the heretics are “me and my husband, as we dared ask permission for a woman to teach a high school Sunday school class.… No wonder we were fired” (p. 200).

Barr acknowledges that the story of her husband being fired for questioning complementarian teaching “frames how I think about complementarianism today” (p. 204). It does not account for her rejection of complementarian teaching, but it may account for the polemical tone of her book.

Barr recognizes three definitions of patriarchy: (1) male-only church leadership, (2) male headship in marriage and family, and (3) the subjugation of women to men (p. 13). She claims to focus on the third, which encompasses the first and second. It is not clear, however, that the first and/or second necessarily lead to the third. The example of the Roman Catholic church, which has a male-only priesthood, but does not teach male headship in marriage and family, suggests that they do not (p. 44). Indeed, many complementarians who hold to the first and/or second definitions of patriarchy reject the third. But one would not know this from reading Barr’s book. She presents all three as if they are inseparable and inevitable consequences of one another.

Strong on polemic, Barr is notably weak of nuance. This is especially evident in Barr’s accusation that complementarianism relies on heresy. Anyone who teaches the eternal subordination of the Son espouses Arianism. Barr’s book says nothing about the distinction between functional and ontological subordination. Only the latter is obviously Arian. None of the passages Barr cites from complementarian theologians explicitly teach ontological subordination; all can be read to refer to functional subordination.

Barr admits that she is a historian, not a theologian. Her discussion of church history, especially medieval church history, is a strength of the book. Barr is right: Too many evangelicals know too little about church history, and women have too often been written out of the little history that evangelicals do know. Yet Barr often assumes more than her evidence allows. For example, though women preached and taught in the medieval church, they did not occupy the official preaching space (p. 116). The ordination of a woman as a bishop was accidental (p. 89).

Barr’s lack of biblical training is a significant weakness in the book. She misunderstands Vern Poythress’s objection to the TNIV’s translation of Genesis 1:27 (p. 140). Poythress objects to the plural “human beings” translating a singular Hebrew noun, adam. One expects that the NRSV’s “humankind” would satisfy both Poythress, because it is singular, and Barr, because it is gender-inclusive. Barr acknowledges the range of possible meanings, including “wife,” for the Hebrew word אִשָּׁה, but then claims that the word “wife” (one of the possible meanings of אִשָּׁה!) is not found in Genesis 2:24. (p. 150)

She cites examples where the ESV opts for a complementarian translation of difficult passages, but does not acknowledge how her own egalitarian agenda determines her preferred translation of those passages. Barr says nothing about the 2011 NIV produced by the Committee for Bible Translation that included both complementarian and egalitarian members. Perhaps because she is not interested in rapprochement between complementarians and egalitarians.

Egalitarians will find Barr’s book confirming. Egalitarians in complementarian churches may find it encouraging. But complementarians are likely to find its activist tone and lack of nuance off-putting. Barr presents important evidence that the subjugation of women is neither biblical nor Christian. Such patriarchy may indeed be linked to racism, systemic oppression, and abuse. But, as many complementarians argue, that is not Christian patriarchy. Rather than encourage complementarians to be self-reflective about their own potential contribution to the subjugation of women (and racism, oppression, and abuse), Barr’s tone will likely only engender defensiveness and polarization, neither of which serves the church or its Lord well.

Ryan L. Faber

Ryan L. Faber
Stellenbosch University
Stellenbosch, South Africa

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