Author: Beth Allison Barr
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publishing Date: April 20, 2021
Pages: 256 (Paperback)
It’s an interesting time in history to be reading Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. On January 20th, the first woman was sworn into the Vice Presidency of the United States. There are three women serving on the Supreme Court. About 57% of the American labor force is female. Women can vote and own property—year after year there are more female graduates from college than men. Why, oh why, then, are we still having to address the complementarian vs. egalitarian argument? Why, when evangelical leaders like Beth Moore speak out against the patriarchy, is there even a counter-argument to be had? Why does the church continue to hold out as an institution that is struggling with the place of women? As Barr states in her introduction, “I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.”
Barr’s historical argument against patriarchy packs a punch. She makes the claim that Christian patriarchy does not come from the scriptures—it has simply mimicked the patriarchy of the non-Christian world throughout history and is closely connected to the ebb and flow of power struggles within the Church and culture at large.
Barr is a professor of medieval church history. In her studies, Barr noticed that a peculiar trend began to emerge: there was a significant body of work from female church leaders that had been meticulously written out of the history books, and, in the case of Junia, even the Bible. There are rather daring stories of ancient women who helped translate the Latin Vulgate, who defied marriage to serve God, were rescued from imprisonment through divine means, and converted Pagan spouses of influence to believe in the Christian message. Where did these women go in the works of Christian history?
As the power of the church increased, so, too, the position of women within the church decreased. The prevailing thesis of the church was the Aristotelian theory that women were simply incomplete men. Though early church fathers (think Abelard) advocated heavily for the ordination of women, as the Bible itself discussed women who preached the Good News of Christ (Anna, Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman), Abelard lost the argument as the papacy brokered power away from noble families, celibacy became a central doctrine and by default the impurity of the female body, and women were pushed out of priest–holding offices.
What stood out to me the most within Barr’s historical analysis was her careful review of the Reformation. As a member of the Christian Reformed Church, I’ve looked to the Reformation as a triumph in the history of Christianity. And Barr agrees that it was—but not holistically. The Reformation also brought a renewed elevation of the home and family. Martin Luther was especially vocal about the woman’s place being in the home. Barr points out the loss of holy life for women in the Reformation as independent–minded women that desired a life outside of family and housekeeping no longer had the option of holy vows and convent life. She states, “Reformation theology might have removed the priest, but it replaced him with the husband.”
It is difficult to know where to stop in a review of such a well-researched work that Barr presented. I appreciate the scrutiny to which she gives her own reformational tradition, encouraging her readers to not rewrite history or spin uncomfortable doctrines. She makes a strong historical argument that patriarchy and complementarianism aren’t always theologically motivated.
More often than not, the power struggle comes first, and the theology comes second as a means to justify decisions already made. If the reader disagrees with that last sentence, then I encourage them to read Barr’s book with an open mind, particularly her analysis of the patriarchy and its tight connection with the inerrancy argument and its use of “slippery slope” theology, and allow the good, bad, and ugly of church history to stand trial.
Upon finishing Barr’s book, I pulled out “Ain’t I A Woman” by Sojourner Truth and read the familiar lines that I’ve just about memorized by now. You see, at the end of her work, Barr cautiously dips her toe into the crux of the matter: the interlocking structures of the patriarchy and racism. It is indeed a slippery slope when those in power meet at the table and they alone decide who deserves a seat. I hope authors like Barr continue to shake things up and push the boundaries of our historical understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be free in Christ, and the dangers of forgetting our history to justify our present.