The Making of Biblical Womanhood [a review]
In April 2021, Beth Allison Barr will release her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. There is every reason to believe it will make a big splash: it is a no-holds-barred case against Complementarianism by someone who used to affirm it from within the SBC. The book weaves together her personal story as the recipient of misogyny and abuse with historical, philosophical, exegetical, theological, and experiential arguments to make the case that Complementarianism is equivalent to patriarchy and that it necessarily leads to the abuse and subjugation of women. As such, she argues, it should be rejected.
I commend Barr for her unflinching commitment to speaking truth to the powers that be within Complementarian circles. Though I find serious, substantive issues with parts of the book (which I'll demonstrate below), it is, I think, still a book worth reading. Though not every argument is sound, those who have ears to hear nevertheless would do well to respond not with defensiveness but with humility, a quickness to repent, and a desire to push back against misogynist structures and attitudes in our churches and our world.
Countering Historical Ignorance
Complementarian Evangelicals tend to hold a frighteningly naive view of history, and especially as it relates to sex and gender: men have always led and women have always followed until the sixties when the feminists barged in and ruined a perfectly good society. Barr quickly dismantles this narrative; she shows that Christian beliefs and attitudes about women through the millennia have varied enormously. History defies simple narratives! Sometimes the Church has been deeply patriarchal; at other times, women could preach even in Southern Baptist churches and were commended for it. Her historical focus is medieval women and the Church, and she shows that even during patriarchal eras such as that women nevertheless were in some ways more free than they were after the Reformation. Before, they could join a Convent and be first-class citizens in God's economy. After the Reformation, the locus of spiritual spiritual authority shifted more toward the family and because of theological reasons, women became subordinated under the headship of their husbands. Given that she is a historian, it comes as no surprise that her historical argument against Complementarianism is the high point of the book.
Confronting Gender Determinism
Complementarians essentialize sex and gender to such a great degree that even the spiritual path of men and women becomes gendered. There is a cottage industry of Men's and Women's Study Bibles, as well as books seeking to explain how to be a godly wife or how to become the man that God created you to be. Barr does not try to dismantle the entire concept of gender by any means, but she does still argue that it means less than Complementarians want to squeeze out of it. When the concept of submission is feminized, we do the great injustice of acting as if a woman's spiritual growth is almost entirely a matter of getting married and submitting to her husband, and we do the parallel injustice of acting like men mostly don't have to worry about submission. Women and men can grow in godliness together! We are all of us created in the image of God; though there are certainly ways in which the masculine and feminine experience differ, growing in godliness and virtue should nevertheless be mostly framed in terms of our common human image instead of culturally-determined gender roles.
All that being said, she leaves this reader adrift when it comes to what gender should mean, or what a good kind of submission should look like. She mostly uses "submission" and "subordination" synonymously, so when we read biblical passages about submitting to authorities, submitting to one another, and submitting to God, are we supposed to view all of that negatively as "subordination"? Further, if Complementarians are wrong about what they believe the implications of gender to be, then what implications should one draw? Her intent was primarily to make a case against Complementarianism, but a positive vision for something else is, in my view, crucial to that argument.
Pushing Back Against Masculinized Exegesis
Complementarians typically like to read from "literal" translations like the ESV or NASB, thinking that this gets them "closer to the metal" as it were. These translations render grammatically masculine nouns and pronouns like αδελφοι ("brothers") or the singular "he" as they are, trusting that the reader will be able to determine from context when it applies to only men or when it is a shorthand for everyone. The problem is that the context is not always clear, and in those cases the reader is basically left to fall back upon his or her own culture's gender stereotypes. This results in the reader seeing a scriptural basis for a gender role when it is not in fact there. For example, Complementarians often point at 1 Timothy 5:8 ("if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever") to show that husbands are supposed to be the providers for their families, but this interpretation rests entirely on the word "he" and assumes that this should not be taken inclusively. Barr argues that overly-masculine Bible translations effectively write women out of the script in many places where they should be included.
The question of how to translate masculine pronouns and nouns is, of course, representative of the many other decisions translators must make. For example, Barr raises the question of whether to translate Phoebe's role in Romans 16:1 as "deacon" or "servant" (an option that some more "literal" translations in the 20th century chose).1 But both "deacon" and "servant" are literal translations; the average Bible reader should not assume that just because they are reading a self-described literal translation that it can therefore be read uncritically.
Nonetheless, when Barr engages in biblical exegesis of key passages to show why they do not support Complementarianism, it becomes clear that her degrees are in history and not Biblical studies. Consider her discussion of 1 Timothy 3:
A few months ago, I rewatched Steve Lipscomb’s documentary Battle for the Minds, which is about the conservative takeover of the SBC. I was struck by how the SBC leaders harped on 1 Timothy 3:2, that overseers should be husband of one wife. They used this as ironclad proof that senior pastors had to be men. Yet Lucy Peppiatt shows us how 1 Timothy 3, the chapter so often cited by the male leaders of the conservative resurgence as articulating why only men can preach, was shaped by English-language translations to look more masculine than it actually is. We assume 1 Timothy 3:1–13 is referencing men in leadership roles (overseer/bishop and deacon). But this is because of how our English Bibles translate the text. Whereas the Greek text uses the words whoever and anyone, with the only specific reference to man appearing in verse 12 (a literal Greek translation of the phrase is “one woman man,” referencing the married state of deacons), modern English Bibles have introduced eight to ten male pronouns within the verses. None of those male pronouns in our English Bibles are in the Greek text. Peppiatt concludes that the problem with female leadership is not actually the biblical text; it is the “relentless and dominant narrative of male bias” in translations.2
This analysis contains factual errors (verse 12 is not the "only specific reference to man"), and while Peppiatt's argument is valuable, it doesn't actually have anything to do with the argument that she describes SBC leaders using in Lipscomb's documentary. Barr describes his argument as boiling down to the male noun ἄνδρα ("husband" or "man") in 1 Timothy 3:2, while the refutation is about all the grammatically masculine pronouns in the other parts of the passage. I have not watched the documentary in question, but the point is that at least here the refutation has nothing to do with the argument; it's a red herring. It is possible that perhaps elsewhere SBC leaders did use the argument from masculine pronouns she refutes, but the presentation here is intellectually dishonest and sloppy.
She is correct that exegetical and translational choices can make a text seem more masculine than it really is, but again I found her positive demonstration of how we should exegete the text to be lacking.
Taking to Task Patriarchally-motivated Theologizing
Barr argues that there are two doctrines that enable Complementarians to hold Patriarchal views and feel good about it: Inerrancy and Eternal Functional Subordination. The latter is a recent invention that pretty transparently seeks to import Complementarianism into the Trinity, and she is right to call it out. It is by and large a rebrand of a heretical idea that the Church has always unequivocally renounced. It is deceptive and just plain bad theologizing to try to import hierarchy into the Trinity and then turn around and use that as an argument for Complementarianism. She rejects inerrancy, however, because she falsely equates the doctrine of Inerrancy and the interpretive attitude of "the plain and literal reading of the text":
“We may like what Paul says, or we may not like it,” proclaimed Princeton Seminary professor B.B. Warfield in 1920, “but there is no room for doubt in what he says.” The divinely sanctioned patriarchy entrenched in his words would sound the death knell for preaching Baptist women like Mrs. Lewis Ball. The concept of inerrancy made it increasingly difficult to argue against a “plain and literal” interpretation of “women be silent” and “women shall not teach.” The line between believing the Bible and believing a “plain and literal” interpretation of the Bible blurred. If Ephesians 5 told wives to submit to their husbands, the plain and literal interpretation demands that wives submit to their husbands. Those who disagree were not faithful to Scripture.3
It requires relatively little effort to dismantle the belief that scriptures must always be taken "literally." Psalm 18:2 is not suggesting that God is literally a rock or a fortress. Happily, one can quite easily reject literalist interpretation while gladly holding onto the conviction that God-breathed scripture is free from error. The many Egalitarian professors at my seminary regularly and heartily affirm that "the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original writings, complete as the revelation of God’s will for salvation, and the supreme and final authority in all matters to which they speak."4 Citing personal experience in the SBC, Barr goes on to claim, "Inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear."5 By this she means that when literalist readings are questioned, other Christians respond defensively because their faith is fragile and even the smallest questions result in existential crises. But the solution is not to reject Inerrancy; the solution is to teach Christians in the pews basic hermeneutics so that they have an awareness of how the "plain and literal reading" is shaped by genre as well as by historical, cultural, and literary context.
Exposing Patterns of Abuse in Complementarian Churches
Complementarians often present their view of gender roles as the antidote to the over-sexualized culture that we live in today, and Barr's most emotively powerful work in this book is to take to task that line of reasoning. She points at the numerous #MeToo and #ChurchToo stories that have surfaced recently, both in the culture at large as well as in her own personal story. The narrative that Complementarianism is the antidote to our over-sexualized culture just flat-out doesn't work when sexual abuse is just as prevalent within Complementarian churches as it is in the culture at large. She does not beat around the bush: “Hierarchy gives birth to patriarchy, and patriarchy gives birth to the abuse of both sex and power.”6 The Complementarian reader will likely be affronted by this accusation, but they should not dismiss her lightly. If she is wrong about this, then what does give rise to the utterly grievous presence of abuse in these churches where men and women are supposedly living in the way God designed? Whether the reader ultimately accepts or rejects this conclusion, repentance must begin with the household of God, and it would be good and right to see Complementarians stop blaming victims and greatly strengthen cultural and structural forms of accountability for those who have power.
On Loving Neighbors and Doing Good, Scholarly Work
Near the end of the book, Barr exhorts her readers:
For those who still believe that biblical womanhood is God ordained, my advice is Dr. Switzer’s: Stop it! We have become so embroiled in arguments about Greek grammar and whose Bible translation is better that we have forgotten what Jesus told us was most important: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ... [And] love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39). We have forgotten that the harshest words Jesus utters in the Bible are not to the ordinary people and sinners around him—the tax collectors and prostitutes and gentiles and women, whom the disciples kept trying to push away.7
This struck me as a particularly rich false dichotomy: not only did Barr devote plenty of time in her book both to "arguments about Greek grammar" and to making the case that some translations are patriarchal, but she then claims that when other people do this they are doing so instead of loving others. It's an insulting and condescending cheap shot at the many scholars who devote their entire lives to questions of translation and exegesis so that we might all benefit from their work and thus love our neighbors better. I imagine Barr would take issue if I asserted, "We should focus on loving our neighbors instead of worrying about the role of women in Medieval society." Rhetoric like this feeds into the tired, counter-productive, and even dangerous notion that Christian academics labor away in ivory towers that have no bearing upon the life of the church, when on the contrary their work is deeply necessary. We must not dismiss the hard work of biblical and theological study, but instead do so all the more but with the keen remembrance that it affects real people in significant ways, and has the power to do either good or harm.
Barr does a fabulous job demonstrating that many common Complementarian narratives about "how it’s always been" regarding sex and gender are at best historically ignorant and at worst profoundly damaging to real human beings. She shows why supposedly literal translations, overly masculinized exegesis, irresponsible theologizing, and preconceived biases about gender roles all come together to affect the way women are treated in Christian communities and the world at large. Though there are many substantive, troubling issues with her argumentation, I nevertheless came away with the conviction that she is the conscience that Complementarianism has lacked.
Who should read it? The Complementarian who is aware of the stakes would do well to listen humbly and carefully. She's going to poke your sacred cows. She's going to trigger you. You will most likely find some of her arguments lacking. You'll be angry and shocked, but you'll be better for it. But as a Complementarian, you should be aware of your movement, your history, and the skeletons in your movement's closet. You absolutely should reflect on the ways that your Complementarianism might be creating space for men to prey upon women. You should mourn for the damage that has been done to women by Complementarians just like you, and whether you are persuaded to renounce Complementarianism or not, you should actively work against abusers and the ways in which they use their masculinity to take advantage of others.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.
Barr, Beth Allison, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (prerelease), (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), Kindle Electronic Edition loc. 1003.↩
Barr, Biblical Womanhood, loc. 2115.↩
Barr, Biblical Womanhood, loc. 2717.↩
Barr, Biblical Womanhood, loc. 2728.↩
Barr, Biblical Womanhood, loc. 2965.↩
Barr, Biblical Womanhood, loc. 2943.↩