Unmaking Biblical Womanhood

Photo by Channel 82 on Unsplash

Sometimes you have to go back to a 15th century woman to find your way to a 21st century church. At least that’s where Beth Allison Barr goes in trying to understand the sad history of patriarchy in the Christian Church. Which makes sense because Barr is both a medieval scholar and an evangelical Christian trying to confront the persistent strain in her branch of Protestant faith that downplays and often forbids women’s leadership in the Church.

The 15th century figure is Margery Kempe, an English woman known for “her extravagant worship style, which included disrupting services with crying and sobbing, together with her tendency to debate theology with clergy and even preach to local people.”(73) Such behavior earned her an audience with the Archbishop of York, who tried calling her out as “a very wicked woman.” To which Kempe shot back that she had heard he was “a wicked man,” before launching into a biblical defense of her public ministry.

Kempe ruffled a lot of feathers but she left the grilling with a grudging endorsement from the archbishop: a letter affirming that she was not a heretic. (Another man on the scene received five shillings for escorting her out.)

The point of the story, as Barr tells it, is that, even in the medieval period, women had more latitude for leadership than some evangelical churches allow today.

Barr’s new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, is a careful historical study of the creation of complementarianism, which she defines as “the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders”(5) Barr allows that patriarchy like this is not new; it has morphed through many forms throughout human history. But the underpinnings of complementarianism, she argues, are neither biblical nor blessed by God. Instead they are a result of Christianity “sanctifying”subordinate roles for women that grew up in the post-Enlightenment period.

“Instead of biblical womanhood stemming from the Bible, it stems from a gender hierarchy developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to deal with the social and economic changes wrought by work moving outside the home.”(166)

There are other factors at work that she traces, among other things, to the Reformation period and the rise of an evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy. But at its heart, evangelicalism moved toward the idea of biblical womanhood “by forgetting our long history of women in public ministry and by redefining holiness for women as rooted in both female distinctiveness and female submission.”(186) 

In doing so, evangelical Christians fell into the trap they so often warn about: they began to reflect the culture around them rather than offering a distinctive, liberating message that defies it. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled,” Barr says, “was convincing Christians that oppression is godly.”(173)

Beth Allison Barr

Barr’s book won’t break much new ground on the topic of women’s leadership for those trained in mainline Protestant seminaries in the last fifty years, but it is a refreshing and passionate tilt at a movement that was overdue for scrutiny. Ideas like complementarianism, like many contemporary movements of all stripes, project back onto the biblical era a coherence and a polemic that is foreign to the text itself. Barr follows the trail from the Bible to the present and opens a door to something much more life-giving.

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