I can’t write about The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr without telling part of my story. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name of Jesus. My family and I attended a Baptist church off and on until I was around 10 years old. I knew the Bible stories and I went to Vacation Bible School most summers.
I was a young married woman when I gave my life to Jesus. Through a Bible study called Experiencing God, the truth of John 3:16 became personal. For the first time in my life I understood, “for God so loved Marie,” and I gave my whole life and heart to Jesus. From that moment, I wanted my life to reflect my love for him.
Very early in my marriage, I was told by a well-meaning church leader that I showed too much leadership when I hired someone to pressure wash my and my husband’s home, and that if I wanted my husband to lead I needed to stop. I tried desperately to squelch my natural tendency to take care of things. After all, husbands lead, wives follow. Husbands rule, wives submit. Our pastors said it, my Bible studies said it, and all the other resources I read confirmed it.
I Didn’t Know It
I didn’t know it then, but that is patriarchy. The counsel, that belief, the mindset; it’s patriarchy. Some call it complementarianism. It would take me years of submission, wrestling, doubting, and crying out to God before I asked Him to let me read the Bible without presuppositions. “God let me read the Bible like it’s brand new to me. Without my Baptist lens. Holy Spirit, teach me.” God did it. And He showed Beth Allison Barr the truth, too.
What Beth Allison Barr does so brilliantly in her book is weave together her story, the story of the evangelical church, and the stories of women in the medieval church and the reformation to make this point: “Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian. It just shows us the historical (and very human) roots of biblical womanhood.”
Biblical womanhood is a modern cultural construct, not based on the Bible. Barr writes about the same disconnect I experienced – the disconnect between what her church was telling her, what women have always done in history, and how Jesus treated women.
In the Beginning
Barr gives us a fascinating overview of the history of patriarchy beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh. She keeps the reader reading with stories of her students at Baylor University. She tells medieval history in the way she teaches it to her students, and made me want to learn more. It was through her own study she came to know the truth about patriarchy.
She admits that her silence made her part of the problem and shares the pain of what happened when she and her husband spoke up. She knows what keeps us silent and calls it out. “Complementarianism rewards women who play by the rules. By staying silent, I helped ensure that my husband could remain a leader. By staying silent, I could exercise some influence. By staying silent, I kept the friendship and trust of the women around me. By staying silent, I maintained a comfortable life.”
Paul, My Brother
She gets right into the Pauline texts in chapter 2 and asks these questions, “What if we have been reading Paul wrong? What if evangelicals have been understanding Paul through the lens of modern culture instead of the way Paul intended to be understood?” Her explanation of Bible translations and how the ones we use most came to be was enlightening. I was shocked to read how easy it is for a group of men to write a new Bible translation.
Barr continues to make her point by giving us insight into the Reformation. She states in a Gravity Leadership podcast that “Reformation theology should have set women free. Instead the reformers carried the gender hierarchy of the early modern world to the Bible.” She proves her point about patriarchy in the book. This system is dangerous. It’s wrong and it doesn’t look like Jesus at all.
Early in the book, readers understand Barr’s love for the church. It’s the reason she wrote the book. She urges us to, “Stop fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us and start fighting to make it look like the world God inspired Paul to show us was possible: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)”
Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood
Church, this is an important work. No matter where you land on the issue, it will serve you well to read The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. I’ll end this review as she ended her book and how she ends her classes: Go, be free!