Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr

I went into this book hoping I’d like it. After all, I agree with Barr’s egalitarian position regarding women in the church (though putting my cards on the table, I am a complementarian when it comes to the home). At a personal level, Barr’s book is compelling. Her narrative is powerful. But, setting aside the emotions her story brings to the surface, the book’s argumentation is not great.

Here are a few of my big problems:

1. The book conflates the discussion of women in marriage and women in the church. Both, in Barr’s opinion, stand or fall together. This is a massive problem but a common one in complementarian and egalitarian literature. There are few that have separated these issues, though they are clearly different – different sets of texts, different interpretive challenges, and different types of institutions (common vs redemptive). A book can certainly deal with both, but Barr moves back and forth and connects submissiveness in the home causally to subjugation in the church and broader culture. She contends that “Patriarchy doesn’t stay confined to one sphere.” At one level, I understand this. But, can we not conceive of an employee who is submissive to his boss at work but wields authority as an elder over the boss in the church? Could this not be the case also for a woman – she is a submissive wife and an elder/pastor/leader in the church? The book would be much better if the issues were treated separately.

2. The author often points to the worst, most hard-core complementarians (Piper, Grudem, Dobson, Gothard) and uses them as representative of the whole while picking the best, most responsible egalitarians. To be fair to her, these men are especially influential, but they are influential from the extreme of the discussion. Particularly bothersome was her use of an “[obnoxious] conservative male student” in one of her Baylor classes that was always asking what her husband thinks of her lectures, if she gets them approved by him, etc. Ridiculous, right? Well, I’m sure we could gather some stories of obnoxious feminist students who don’t listen to their male teachers because that would support the hegemony. Let’s set aside the absurd, the outliers, and the most radical and think together from the middle, from the best examples of a given position. There are plenty of evangelicals who would agree that husbands are called to lead and wives submit, and yet also believe women can and should work outside the home, even leading companies or nations, etc.

3. The argumentation seems downright dishonest at times. A chief example is her chapter on English translations. In essence, she contends that the ESV was published to advance the subjugation of women. The ESV was published in response to the gender-inclusive language of the TNIV where sons became sons and daughters, etc. (To be clear, the TNIV is the one playing fast and loose with translation as the texts that get translated “sons and daughters” or “men and women” usually just have “son” in the Greek or man in the Hebrew, etc). Regardless, Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians 5, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, and Peter’s in 1 Peter 3 are remarkably similar in the TNIV and ESV. Submission is still there, as is headship, and it is dishonest to imply that it is a matter of translation. Other examples abound. One more, “I could not teach because of his belief that Paul told women to be silent and not to exercise authority over men. What if Paul never said this?” Had she said, “Paul didn’t mean this,” I’d be ok. But she implies that these aren’t Paul’s words. She goes on to explain how we’ve interpreted Paul wrong, which I’ll listen to sympathetically. But starting down the “Paul didn’t say this” road is a dead end for me.

4. I was fascinated by her telling of women’s stories from the medieval period. I am not well-versed in this area at all and was eager to learn. Some of the stories are entertaining! However, she holds up some odd examples. For instance, Barr presents us with Saint Paula, who, after the death of her husband, abandoned her children to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (literally left them crying on the beach). Paula went to pursue “the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life.” Or consider Margery Kemp, who gained some power by forcing her husband into a “chaste marriage” (refusing to have sex with him, a clear violation of 1 Cor 7). These are held up as exemplars of how women “broke free from the confines of marriage to serve God.” I cannot praise women who abandon their children to go on a pilgrimage, never to return, or women who refuse to live as wives to their husbands. Nor would I approve of men abandoning their wives and children to go the mission field! Additionally, she highlights the hagiographic story of Mary and Martha’s journey to France in which Mary preached, and Martha slays a dragon on the beach. She asks, “Mary and Martha look rather different from the medieval perspective, don’t they?” Yes they do. And these stories haven’t passed deeply into the life of the church because they are fictions.

Additionally, she makes a couple of odd leaps. She contends, and I believe her, that very few sermons can be found highlighting Paul’s household ethical codes from the medieval period. It just wasn’t a point of emphasis. But, could it be it wasn’t emphasized because it didn’t need to be? Is it likely that the number of sermons related to women’s roles in the 20th/21st century is due to the fact that these roles are being challenged in ways they weren’t in the past? I bet there are far more sermons today on the need to care for our planet and its limited resources than there were in the middle ages. Why? Because it has become a pressing issue. She doesn’t address this. (And while her medieval knowledge is impressive, her knowledge of evangelical history is woeful).

I did appreciate her critique of the cult of domesticity. Down with it! And her critique of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem’s eternal subordination of the Son is right (though she incorrectly identifies this with Arianism. It’s not that, but a different species of heresy). Thankfully others have joined in calling out the loose play with the doctrine of the Trinity (ESS/EFS)! And the extremes she points out in many complementarians should be rebuked and corrected (though I fear they are proliferating).

Additionally, I believe the discussion related to singleness that she broaches (doesn’t really focus much on) is one the church needs to have repeatedly. If we elevate marriage and family, how do the single people in our churches feel? Do they know Paul commends singleness as a noble option for the Christian?

On the whole, while sympathetic to her goals, I do not commend this book.