Beth Allison Barr had had enough. To all appearances, she was perfectly content in her roles within her evangelical church and her marriage to a youth pastor. Though she had her own accomplished career as an academic, at church she had also been for several decades an adherent of the traditional gender norms enforced by complementarianism, which placed women like herself under the unquestioned leadership of men. Though she had misgivings, she had situated her activities safely within the appropriate theological bounds. To the best of her ability, she had done everything right.
On the inside, however, Barr had grown increasingly frustrated with the way women were treated in conservative evangelicalism. In 2016, when she and her husband voiced concerns about such teachings in their church, he was summarily fired. Then, when evangelical votes lifted Donald Trump to the presidency—his Access Hollywood tape not withstanding—Barr started arranging an argument. By 2018, when evangelical churches and the Southern Baptist Convention in which she was raised were facing their own scandals as part of the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, she decided to take her case to the public. In April of 2021, it arrived in print. Her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, blends personal memoir with history to examine how submission became a central requirement for women in conservative Christian denominations.
Barr is associate professor of history and associate dean for professional development at Baylor University. She is the author, previously, of The Pastoral Care of Women in Late Medieval England and co-editor of The Acts of the Apostles: Four Centuries of Baptist Interpretation, as well as a regular contributor to the Anxious Bench.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Barr about the book recently by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: What is biblical womanhood, and how is it made?
Beth Allison Barr: Contrary to much popular belief, biblical womanhood is a very modern construct. It’s the idea that God created women and men with separate roles in life, and that women are destined for home and hearth, children and family, while men are destined for work outside of the home. It suggests that women and men are uniquely made in these ways, so while they may sometimes have to overlap their roles—as when, in time of financial hardship, a woman may have to get a job to help pay the bills—the ideal is that women manage the household and men participate in public life. It suggests, further, that when women and men adhere to these standards, God will bless them and their families.
This is biblical womanhood in a nutshell. There are two versions of it—one that originated in the nineteenth century and that we call the “cult of domesticity,” and another that emerged in the twentieth century, in response to the surge of women in the workplace brought on by World War II. When the men came home from Europe and Asia, there was a concentrated push to move women back into the household and restore those jobs to the men who had left them. Christians joined that effort and, by the 1970s, had tailored their “complementarian” arguments to counter those of the Second Wave feminists, who they believed to be antithetical to Christianity.
R&P: Though proponents of complementarianism position themselves as standing boldly against the secular culture, you argue that they are actually products of it. How so?
BAB: The one aspect of biblical womanhood that has historical continuity is patriarchy. Christians often don’t like to use that word because we associate it with feminism, but it’s really just a simple historical construct. It suggests that, wherever you are in time, women’s ability to make choices about their lives is always limited by the men around them, and that they always have fewer options than men do. Legally, politically, socially, religiously—in all of these realms—women are to a significant extent under the control of men.
Complementarianism—the idea that women and men have different and complementary gender roles to perform—is simply another manifestation of the patriarchy that has been at work since the beginning of civilization. So while complementarians are correct that their belief has historical continuity, they are incorrect that it is a Christian phenomenon. Essentially, the thesis of my book is that biblical womanhood is a product of historical circumstances. It has been refashioned throughout history—by Christians and non-Christians alike—but it always insists that women are less than men, that there is something innately wrong with them, and that they cannot exercise authority in the same way that men can.
R&P: The discussion around women in Christian ministry and in leadership always arrives eventually at the Apostle Paul. Has he been misread on the matter?
BAB: He has! I’m a medieval scholar—not a biblical scholar—so when I started writing the book, I decided that I was not going to tackle Paul. My husband is a pastor and when I told him my plan, he challenged me on it. He said the reason that Christians think biblical womanhood is biblical is because they are so accustomed to reading Paul that way and that if I didn’t address it, I was going to lose them. I listened to him, and I’m really glad I did.
I went back to the drawing board and wrote a chapter on Paul, drawing largely from scholarly sources that I’ve been using in my lectures at Baylor since 2008. I try to show that, to paraphrase Beverly Roberts Gaventa, we’ve missed Paul’s point. Because patriarchy is so central to everything we do, and because we look for the points in Paul that seem to support the world around us, we inevitably see Paul supporting a patriarchal world. But if we read Paul in his context, rather than ours, we see that he was calling Christians to be unified and to use their skills in God’s service. We see him celebrating women in positions of leadership. This includes Phoebe, to whom he entrusted his letter to the Romans. She was the carrier of that letter in the same way that Timothy had been previously, meaning that she would have taken it around and read it to audiences. In other words, the book of Romans was first preached by a woman, with Paul’s blessing. We miss those details when we read Paul in this post-1970s understanding. I want readers to know that you can be a faithful Christian and read Paul differently.
R&P: How did medieval Christians handle the matter?
BAB: Judith Bennett has noted that patriarchy is everywhere, but it’s not everywhere the same. I would never argue that the medieval era was a golden age for women, but women in the medieval Church had opportunities to lead and to preach and to be recognized in these roles that modern Christian women, at least in conservative, evangelical circles, do not. Now, medieval theologians did teach that something was innately wrong with women’s bodies. They took this belief from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, from Aristotle, so they saw women’s bodies as flawed. But they also believed that individuals could rise above their sex. Women who rose above the weaknesses of womanhood, through intense commitment or monasticism, were able to take on many of the roles and responsibilities that are now commonly associated with men—like preaching, for instance.
There are several biblical women who were renowned in the medieval world for their preaching. One of the best examples, of course, is Mary Magdalene. We don’t talk about her all that much in the modern church, but she was one of the most important female religious figures in the medieval mind. She was admired as the “apostle to the apostles.” They placed her on the same level as Peter and Paul, and there is at least one medieval story in which Peter commissions her to preach the gospel in faraway lands, including what would eventually become France. The medieval Church recognized that most women could not do this, but that was only because most women were married, which placed them under the legal authority of their husbands. It’s another instance in which a cultural patriarchy imposed limits on Christian women’s opportunities.
R&P: You argue that the Reformation marks a pivotal moment for Protestantism, but not so much for Protestant women. Why?
BAB: During the Reformation, women’s identity as wives became sanctified. Women have always been wives, historically. It’s been one of their primary roles—just like men have been husbands. As child-bearers, further, women have often been tied to the home. But the advent of the Reformation coincided with other events across Europe that began to prioritize the role of women-as-wives. One of these was the growing professionalization of trade. As the merchant class began to specialize and professionalize in the sixteenth century, women who had been active in these fields were increasingly pushed out, until they could participate only alongside—which is to say, under the authority of—their husbands. This is exactly the sort of household that would be celebrated as a holy household during the Reformation. It’s the beginning of an era in which wifehood and motherhood received fresh emphasis as God’s chosen roles for women.
There’s been a long debate among historians over whether the Reformation was good or bad for women, and there are a lot of nuances within that exchange. But I’ve worked to stress one point in particular: When modern evangelical women think about why our roles as wives and mothers are so central to our identities in the faith, we should trace the narrative back not to the Bible, but to the Reformation. It’s an important moment when, I argue, the Protestant Church caved to the patriarchal world around them and, instead of embracing the “priesthood of all believers,” imposed a gender hierarchy that elevated some over others.
R&P: How have Bible translators contributed to the problem?
BAB: One of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation was that it made the Bible more accessible. It also introduced the idea that scholars could produce new translations that would be easier for non-scholarly readers to read. The Bible was already available in English, but the invention of the printing press accelerated its spread and introduced demand for new versions, which have proliferated ever since. In the late twentieth century, some of the proponents of complementarianism who felt most threatened by feminism joined together to create the English Standard Version (ESV), a translation of the Bible that imposes gendered language on certain verses that the New International Version (NIV), for instance, had rendered gender-neutral. The ESV has exploded in popularity, to the point that it now competes with the NIV and the King James Version (KJV) for bestseller status.
The makers of the ESV were very intentional in translating verses—especially those from Paul—to reinforce their preferred gender hierarchy. They worked to establish that women have been created to serve under the authority of men, and even to some degree, that marriage replicates the Trinity, with women subordinate to men in the same way that Christ is subordinate to God the Father. There are a lot of examples that we could consider, but the net effect is to downplay the roles that women have played in the church while suggesting that complementarian theology represents the one true reading of the text.
R&P: You’re a Southern Baptist, and a lot of your examples concern people and discourses around the Southern Baptist Convention. Is this primarily a denominational concern, or is it more widespread?
BAB: This is a problem for all conservative evangelical churches. Though I did grow up in the SBC, the church that I attend now is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. My husband and I worked in the SBC early in our marriage, so the things that were happening there were magnified for us because it was the world in which we lived. We were at Southeastern Baptist Seminary when the conservative takeover was in full force, and we experienced the power that the Pattersons wielded over people at that time. In 2018, when all of the news began to come out about Paige Patterson, we weren’t surprised. We were deeply saddened, though, because we knew so many of the pastors who had come out of that seminary and how prevalent his attitudes on gender had become within the SBC. People in that world are still subject to a lot of fear-based pressure and control when they challenge the hierarchy. There’s a lot to say about Beth Moore and the pushback that she gets routinely from male pastors. But we could identify plenty of examples from other evangelical denominations as well. There’s John MacArthur’s church, which has branches everywhere. The Village Church with Matt Chandler, the 9Marks network, and of course, the Acts 29 organization that brought us Mark Driscoll. All of them push a complementarian ideology that is widespread across America.
R&P: I think a lot of readers will be struck by how long you were willing to submit yourself to the leadership of men. Why did your rebellion take so long?
BAB: I stayed for so long because I really believed that it was biblical. I really believed that, in order to follow Jesus faithfully as a woman, I had to heed the call to be submissive and subordinate. I believed that, if I submitted graciously, I would be helping to further the Kingdom of God. And I think now that this strong belief is the primary reason why most women stay in.
But over the course of time I began to realize that this patriarchal narrative does not further the gospel of Christ so much as hinder it. There is a tendency to excuse the worst of it—the control, the manipulation, the abuse, and other extreme cases—as the work of a few bad people. But if you look at the history of complementarianism, it looks just like the history of patriarchal structures that go all the way back to the ancient world. In every case, when you tell men that there is something about them that makes them especially powerful, that entitles them to exercise authority over all women, then you always enable their corruption, their abuse, and their oppression, none of which represent the gospel of Christ.
R&P: You remain in the faith, despite the problems that you’ve documented. Are you hopeful that things will get better?
BAB: I’m always hopeful. Christians believe in hope. And as a historian, I can tell you that things change. Patterns change. I think we’re at a moment right now when historians are playing a pretty critical role in all of this. Think about what Kristin Du Mez has done with Jesus and John Wayne. The simple brilliance of her work is that she has shown, based upon irrefutable historical evidence, that this conservative Christian patriarchy, expressed in militant masculinity, has been created by historical circumstances that are entirely separate from the gospel of Jesus. The Making of Biblical Womanhood goes back even further to demonstrate that these popular narratives about women are firmly grounded in non-Christian history. Though some Christians try to spin them, to make them sound biblical, it just doesn’t work. I stay because I believe in the ideals of evangelicalism and in the saving power of Christ. And I’ve written this book because I’m concerned that much of evangelicalism today has gotten caught in the human wheel of history and has been directed down some troubling paths. So it’s time for a course correction.