Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

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.

Review: Women Rising

Women Rising, Meghan Tschanz, Foreword by Carolyn Custis James. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: A global mission trip awakens the author both to the injustices women face throughout the world and the patterns of subjection she learned in childhood that held her back and which she learned to name and use her voice to speak against.

Meghan Tschanz grew up in a good conservative church and participated in a good Christian ministry in college. But she also absorbed teaching that caused her a lot of harm. It all had to do with being a woman and not a man. She was taught about purity, something to be protected, like a lollipop kept in its wrapper. She was taught about modesty, and how she didn’t want to be the cause of men sinning, with the subliminal message that her body, or at least some parts of it were bad and to be ashamed of. She was taught that women lived for men’s needs and wants. Then there were the passes men made, the remarks bosses and customers made that reduced her to an object, eye candy for their pleasure.

All of that was in her history, but below the surface until a year spent on a mission trip around the world. She confronted the male dominance of the mission. She is traumatized when a man pleasures himself while looking at her while she plays tennis. And she entered into the heartbreaking ways women were abused around the world. Beaten and raped by husbands. Subject to female genital mutilation. Deceived and trafficked. One of the women she reached out to was murdered by a client.

Meanwhile, she became involved in a relationship with a young man also associated with the mission. She’s attracted but also increasingly uneasy with the ways she feels controlled and has to “stuff” parts of herself. Those around her see the difference, how she stifles her voice to be with him. All this culminates as she reflects on her experiences, both with the women, and with the people and structures that have shaped her life. After trying so hard to cope and help women cope, she realized that things would not change without men being held accountable. Women endured all sorts of abuse, while men rarely were held to account, or not at all. She recognized the structures of patriarchy both in society and in the church that sought to control and use women, but not to permit them to be equal partners in society or ministry. It was believed that if women stepped up, then men would step back. She exposes the structures and strategy used to keep women “in their place” and the deep pain women experienced, that she experienced.

This is an honest book–about everything from sexuality and bodies to the times she fell apart under the weight of what she saw, and how prayer and friends helped. It’s a book meant to encourage women to raise their voice, to speak into the injustice of patriarchal church structures and societal structures that constrain women but never expect men to change or be held responsible. This is also a book men need to read. We need to understand the pain we as men have inflicted. We need to understand how our own irresponsible lack of control of our desires have caused women to be ashamed of their bodies when we are the ones who should be ashamed. We need to face why power and control are so important to us. What do we fear? There is mystery in the relations between genders and many of us would rather control the mystery than extend the respect that we want by listening, learning, and understanding. Fear is the prelude to wonder in the knowledge of God. The sad tragedy of patriarchy is not only are we robbed of half the gifts of the church, but we settle for the illusion of power and control when we could have wonder.

All this is to say, men, read this book. Some of it will (or should) break your heart. And it will help us support our sisters who are rising, reclaiming their voices, and bringing their whole selves into the lives of our communities.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.