Is “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” a Game-Changer?

The discussion around women’s ordination, and complementarianism versus egalitarianism has percolated for decades, but has lately risen to a boil. Several books have come out, and when a church as high profile as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church ordains women, something different is happening. The reception of Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood made me wonder if new data had come along. After reading it, I don’t believe so.

Barr frames the issue as one of patriarchy. She defines Christian patriarchy broadly, alternately presenting it as something that has been with us forever, but also distinctive to recent evangelical thinking. It represents the subjugation of women in various harmful ways, and in Barr’s reading, it is not a faithful interpretation of history or of Scripture. That history, she claims, has numerous examples of the opposite—women in leadership, exercising their God-given ability. An underlying premise is that if harm has accrued to women, the solution is to get rid of patriarchy, and if this means a volte-face in our reading of Scripture, so be it.

She often casts a wide net, saying that those who see complementarianism as correct will reject a woman in a managerial role in business.[1] This is a non-sequitur that mixes the spheres of world and church together. A faithful exposition of Scripture does not require such a view.  Without question, a lot of what has happened in church history and in the recent past has been a betrayal of women by men who should have led differently; humbly and sacrificially. However, does acknowledging these sins mean we must change how we read Scripture?

If there is a consistent theme in Barr’s book it is looking to history not just as a guide, but as a source of authority. As a medieval historian, Barr makes appeal to the history of that era for how it might inform our view of women in ministry or leadership. But she marshals legend and fable as part of the historical evidence. Margaret of Antioch was eaten by a dragon, which ended up exploding because it couldn’t digest her. Mary Magdalene was affirmed by Peter, “she preached openly, performed miracles that paralleled those of the apostles, and converted a new land (France) to the Christian faith.”[2]

For Barr, these examples demonstrate the esteem women had in the Middle Ages. I assume she believes that whether these incidents actually happened isn’t the point. The medieval world didn’t suppress these records, and so they testify that women leading in this way was a possibility of the age. But history is not a unified record where one finds only one thing. The era also witnessed the rise of an elaborate cult around the Virgin Mary, and her elevation to a virtual 4th person in the Trinity. Because this is a fact of history does not make it authoritative. The period had many theological problems such as transubstantiation, an unhealthy prioritizing of monasticism, and untethered allegory as a hermeneutic. Why this single strand should be trustworthy is something Barr does not explain. One wonders if Barr believes these often dubious historical incidents should trump the canonical Scriptures. Barr presents the history of women in leadership at various points as prescriptive rather than descriptive. Because it was done, this means it should be done again.

What is notable about Barr’s book is how she doesn’t deal with many of the texts that speak to the issue of male leadership/headship. (Oddly, there is no index in the book.) There is discussion of 1 Corinthians 14, and Ephesians 5, and a cursory look at 1 Timothy 3, but the latter chiefly in regard to deacons. The section on elders isn’t exposited except to note that the use of pronouns is non-specific to gender (τις.) Strangely, she claims that the word “man” only appears in 1 Tim 3:13, where the qualifications of deacons include “one-woman man.” This, she says, is a reference to their married state, not a gender excluding qualification.[3] But the same phrase appears in verse 2 in the qualifications for elders. Here one would expect to find a discussion on why Paul uses the word ἀνήρ (male, man) rather than ἄνθρωπος (person.) She includes no such analysis. Other passages she doesn’t discuss in detail are 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11. 1 Peter 3 is similarly not considered. When making the claims she does, it is vital to consider the texts of Scripture in detail. The fact that this is lacking makes one wonder whether Barr actually wants to convince readers of her viewpoint, or to only decry the harms she has seen in personal experience.

But what of the discussion that is there? One example: The passage in 1 Corinthians 14 that presents women being silent in the corporate gathering has a novel interpretation. Her view is that while the Corinthians had this practice, it was not by apostolic command. Indeed, Paul registers surprise they are doing such a thing. He quotes the bad practice, but then intervenes: “What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” She puts a lot of weight on the word “What” as an abrupt reframing of their thinking, but it’s very uncertain if the text will support it. The word “what” is not in the Greek text. Who are the New Testament scholars of the past 100 years who share the view she puts forth on this passage?

She also considers whether Junia was an apostle, but only by way of insisting she was, yet without presenting the various views on Romans 16:7. I think those who claim Junia was a man are on shaky ground. She was a woman, but whether Paul is saying she is an apostle is long discussion—one Barr does not engage in. The customary way to deal with texts is to list the multiple viewpoints that exegetes have presented, then demonstrate why the one you favor should be preferred. This sort of comparison is necessary in a polemical work such as Barr’s, but it isn’t there.

Barr correctly identifies the harmful effects of eternal subordination of the Son that some complementarians have appealed to. While some recent complementarians have made this their foundation, it is by no means necessary. Male leadership in the church does not depend on it at all. For those who believe only qualified men should serve as elders, and who hold to Nicene Trinitarianism, this seems to be a non-issue.

Like many who have recently argued for egalitarianism, Barr seems to have no room for a person who reads the texts of Scripture, is convinced they teach male leadership in the local church—and yet is not committed to female subjugation. To disagree with Barr’s methodology and conclusions does not mean one endorses oppression. It is too facile to deal with the biblical data in such a way.  Sadly, the idea of a sincere believer who is not also an oppressor is a non-starter for many, as it seems for Barr as well. That’s lamentable, because if dialogue is the way to convince someone of a different viewpoint, it has to start with assuming honest motives on the part of another.


[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Waco, Brazos Press, 2021), 18.
[2] Barr, 82.
[3] Barr, 147-148.

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