Beth Allison Barr. The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Bravos Prez, 2021. Pp. 243. $19.99 (U.S.)
We are fortunate that Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood addresses challenges and exposes the unfortunate patriarchy that defines much of modern Christian evangelicalism. Her book meets readers on a personal level. This is a strength of the book and the author’s aim. Though Barr is a historian, she meets readers where they need it most—in the pew. Her historical genius is surrounded by personal stories from church experiences. These experiences invite readers to come alongside truths that will set them free from the bondage of complementarian theology. Readers will resonate with Barr’s own upbringing and ministry work within male-dominated churches. There is room for those who disagree. Barr challenges those who think differently with a direct but conversational style. Her craft as a historian also invites sophisticated intellects to wrestle with the past, and then to seriously consider what modern churches have done, or not done, with that past. In addition to these multiple paths for readers to be engaged, Barr delivers the content in rich ways.
The overall aim of this book is clear throughout, but Barr makes sure readers understand it in the final sentence (218). The book’s aim is to free women from the too often male-dominated Christian evangelical expressions that rule the modern church. As a male pastor, it frees me, too. I am a pastor in the Brethren in Christ Church. We already hold egalitarian theology, meaning that women are free to lead, preach, teach, and be bishops. So, what is it then, that I need to feel free to do? To fight back, as Barr says (209). In the Brethren in Christ, most pastors would admit that there is a long and somewhat immeasurable distance between our theological positions and the people in our pews. The distance may be even greater for those in staff positions or on church boards. Holding an egalitarian position does not automatically produce a church culture where women are encouraged to lead and are treated as equals to their husbands, colleagues, or men overall.
Aware of this dilemma, our denomination launched a Women in Ministry Leadership Task Force in 2020. One of the taskforce’s objectives involved the completion of a survey with current pastors. I received the survey. When I completed the survey, I added comments to the box at the end that asked for additional statements. I noted that, in the Brethren in Christ, it is commonplace for women to hit ceilings after fulfilling kids or youth ministry roles. The emerging leaders who are women either find new careers or take a church planting route. I am not suggesting these women do not want to plant churches. They very well may, and I can share that the ones I know are effective leaders in this realm. Their male colleagues are the ones who find their way into the senior pastor positions at more established or traditional churches (not church planting, that is). My point is that for a denomination that holds an egalitarian position, we have far too few women being interviewed or accepted into senior pastor roles. Barr eases my shock here because she shows us the reality. Therefore, Barr’s work challenges us and calls us to something greater. In sum, even our churches and denominations that already reject complementarian theology need this message, and Barr delivers. Egalitarian males like me are freed to join the fight against patriarchy and complementarian theology that exists in the communities we lead.
A surprising part of the work appears when Barr exposes popular Christian history texts (97). I have read the two Christian history texts that Barr analyzes here. These texts (Church History in Plain Language, and The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation) are widely accepted and affirmed among pastors and seminaries. Barr’s book adds a much needed and more careful analysis. By walking readers through specific examples, Barr reveals that women preachers and church leaders of the medieval period are framed differently in these Christian histories. In these texts, the women are few. If they are mentioned, they are the exception to the rule. As a member of the guild of historians, Barr throughout her book calls attention to the stories of women from the medieval time who were leaders in the church. The tension readers feel throughout could be summed up in these questions: So, if women were leading the church during early church and medieval periods, what happened? Why are we told in modern evangelical churches that God never intended for a woman to lead?
Barr spends much of her book creating that tension and then addressing it. She offers contextual interpretation of Bible verses that have long been used to subjugate women. The entire second chapter is dedicated to defending Paul. That may sound shocking to women who have grown up in modern evangelical churches. What Barr points out is that we have gotten Paul all wrong. When we interpret a verse or two out of context, we fail to give due diligence to the broader biblical canon. And, more specifically, we fail to consider Paul’s broader writings. Barr invites a better hermeneutic to Paul’s writings and correctly sets them within the context of his day. Readers find a Paul who is joining the early church’s work in making women equal to men.
Barr has given us the tools to be free and to lead better. Now, we must be brave enough to do it. Barr has shown us the way.