The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.
Summary: A study of women in church history and the construction of the idea of “biblical womanhood which underwent a series of developments from the Reformation to the present.
This is a work of histories–one personal and one of the history both of women who defied the stereotypes of the submissive woman, and the construction of the idea of “biblical womanhood” used by patriarchal religion to keep women subjugated. What makes this book compelling is the collision of these histories, as Barr, the wife of a pastor in a conservative church collides with Barr, the Baylor medieval historian who studies women and the sermons about them in medieval and early modern England. It is a collision that eventually resulted in her husband’s loss of his position and their departure from that church. It is a collision that brought to the surface abuses Barr had experienced as a younger woman that were emblematic of the ways women were oppressed as a patriarchal church used “biblical womanhood” to limit women’s contribution to the church’s life, define their role in marriage, and sometimes expose them to dangerous abuses.
Barr begins with a definition of and discussion of patriarchy. She focuses her attention on patriarchy as “a society that promotes male authority and female submission” (p. 13). She traces an arc between the Epic of Gilgamesh and the contemporary construction of biblical womanhood rooted on select passages of scripture expecting women to submit to husbands and not teach men in the church, ignoring both Jesus own relationships with women and numerous examples of women who teach and lead in the New Testament, and egalitarian readings of marriage passages. She goes on to make the argument that “biblical womanhood” cannot be based on Paul and those who do misconstrue his teaching. She then turns to medieval history and women like Margery Kempe, Brigid of Kildare, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Hilda of Whitby and Hildegard of Bingen.
She argues that these possibilities for women changed with the Reformation where the focus shifted to the ideal of the woman as wife under a husband’s headship. It limited the field of women’s aspirations to the household, and it was at this time that teaching began to focus on the Pauline verses that appeared to limit women’s roles. This was further followed by the translating of women out of the English Bible, removing gender inclusive renderings of medieval clergy and using male terms for humanity. She traces the arguments about the weakness of women and how these were used in the Industrial Revolution to foster domesticity in which piety, purity, submission, and domesticity are upheld. Yet even with this growing cult, there were a host of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who defied this ideal of womanhood, at least 123 that were documented preachers between 1740 and 1845.
Her survey concludes with more contemporary developments and figures from James Dobson to John Piper. One of her most trenchant criticisms is of the move to affirm the eternal subordination of the Son as the basis of a hierarchy that subordinates women to men. She unflinchingly calls this a resurrection of the Arian heresy. She also concludes her argument that biblical womanhood isn’t rooted in scripture at all but in a culture of patriarchy attempting to control and limit the freedom of women. Her concluding chapter asks, “Isn’t it time to set women free?”
I find the broad contours of her account persuasive but I also fear that what makes the account compelling, the mix of personal narrative and historical discussion, also makes it subject to criticism. A more extensively and carefully argued historical case would have been less interesting but perhaps more persuasive. At very least, it would not appear as a case of a historian with a personal ax to grind. As I write this, I realize this perhaps sounds harsher than I mean it. Patriarchy and the abuse of women is a universal condition across cultures and, I believe, both a consequence of the fall, and not the way God meant it to be. Nor do I believe this is how gospel people ought live. Perhaps those on the receiving end of patriarchy do well to be angry!
While Barr has sketched both compelling portrayals of women of God and the various historical turns patriarchy has taken in Protestantism and evangelicalism, this work needs to be developed further (and some of it is in Barr’s scholarship). We need a narrative that goes beyond patriarchy to partnership in marriage and ministry. We need models of men and women in flourishing marriages without the hierarchical roles of “biblical manhood and womanhood” and models of men and women leading together with integrity and grace in the church that reflect the better way of a Galatians 3:28 gospel.