The debate between complementarian and egalitarian views within the Christian church has gone on for years. Every so often a new book publishes that challenges long-held beliefs in a way that sheds new light or shares new insights. In her recent book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr takes us through her own journey from complementarian pastor’s wife to a more holistic egalitarian historically accurate view. As an associate professor of history and the associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, she is definitely an expert and well-equipped to write this book. She shares many actual examples of women from throughout history, delves into Church history, details specific scriptures and interpretations, as well as shares her personal journey throughout.
Having entered Christendom in my mid-20s and having studies women’s literature in college, I considered myself a feminist. But when I plugged into church culture, I quickly realized that feminism was not valued; complementarianism, which says that there are distinct and different roles for women and men, was the new norm. I managed to set some of my concerns aside as I focused on learning correct theology, leading small group Bible studies, running a business from home, and raising four kids. Every so often I’d have a lively conversation with other women at our PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) about the role of women in ministry. Most of us didn’t feel it necessary to buck tradition and look at these issues more closely. Now, we have a primer to delve into the historical context of Pauline teachings in the Bible and a guide to show us the way.
Is Biblical Womanhood Biblical?
You see, I knew that complementarian theology–biblical womanhood–was wrong. I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible.” –from The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Kindle, location 168)
Barr proposes that complementarian views are more akin to subordination or subjugation. Throughout the eight chapters, she takes us on a history lesson through biblical times, details what secular culture was like during the inception of Christianity, and walks us through medieval history (her specialty) and up through the present day. Along the way, she gives historical evidence that Christianity wasn’t at first mimicking secular, patriarchal culture but that it gradually crept in and became synonymous with the Christian view of the distinct roles of men and women. I will say that the book doesn’t provide a complete view of history (that’s a tall task), but does share relevant historical facts as they relate to how women expressed their ministry gifts of teaching, preaching, and exhortation.
Challenging Evangelical Norms
As Christians we are called to be different from the world. Yet in our treatment of women, we often look just like everyone else. Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression.” – from The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Kindle, location 176)
We’ve accepted that we’re not allowed to teach men, or to hold elder positions, or to (gasp) preach. These dogmas have been shored up with New Testament (mainly Ephesians 5 and I Corinthians 14). Barr goes through these arguments, weaving in her own frustrations with her Baptist church that refused to allow her to teach boys in the youth group. This is fairly standard protocol in most Evangelical churches: a more highly qualified woman is not allowed to teach a class or Bible study if there are men in the group. A man will always be chosen even if he is less qualified because the views of complementarianism teach that women are covered, or subject to male authority–first to their husbands, then to the church elders and pastors. Other women have written on this subject arguing for complementarian views, perhaps most well know is the short ebook, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry, by Kathy Keller, wife of PCA pastor, Tim Keller. Another well-known Evangelical Bible teacher, Beth Moore, has also been in the news recently having announced her departure from the Southern Baptist Convention and Lifeway Christian Resources, her long-time publisher.
Paul in Historical Context
Christians in the past may have used Paul to exclude women from leadership, but this doesn’t mean that the subjugation of women is biblical. It just means that Christians today are repeating the same mistake of Christians in the past–modeling our treatment of women after the world around us instead of the world Jesus shows us is possible. –from The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Kindle, location 645)
Barr does an excellent job of not devaluing Pauline texts in any way but rather emphasizes the misappropriation of his teachings through the lens of modern patriarchy instead of historical context. She also goes into some detail on Bible versions and how some translations lean toward the subjugation of women and complementarian views in how they select words during translation. I was saddened to learn that this applies to the English Standard Bible, which I’ve relied on as one of my personal Bible translations. I’ll be aiming to do more of a deep dive into Bible translations as it relates to these issues of gender roles, which feels complicated and murky.
Isn’t it Time to Set Women Free? (chapter 8’s title)
From Mary Magdalene to Waldensian women, Ursuline nuns, Moravian wives, Quaker sisters, Black women preachers, and Suffragette activists, history shows us that women do not wait on the approval of men to do the work of God.” –from The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Kindle, location 3070)
While this book covers a lot of ground – from the inception of patriarchy to Pauline texts to historical Christian preaching and teaching women to Bible translations to flat out angst about how the church has historically treated women – it doesn’t go into day to day issues. I kept waiting for Barr to share with us the inner dynamics of her own family life since she is married with two kids. I was curious, more than anything, what her husband believes, what their marriage is like, and how she has created something that works, but she doesn’t go there.
Women currently live in a time that offers us innumerable opportunities, freedoms, options, and economic freedoms and luxuries. I agree that many denominations within the Evangelical Church don’t seem to be current. At the end of the day, the question we all should be asking is: How do we perceive God’s desire for his Church? If we disbar women from teaching over men or preaching to a mixed gendered audience just because of gender (before we even look at qualifications), who are we benefiting? Is this edict really Biblical?
I thought it would be interesting to list out some denominations that allow female preachers, as well as those who don’t (this list is far from comprehensive):
Churches That Do NOT Ordain Female Pastors:
- Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
- Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
Churches That DO Allow Female Pastors:
- Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
- United Methodist Church
- American Baptist
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- Assemblies of God
- Christian Reformed Church
Further Reading on This Topic:
- National Public Radio Interview with Beth Allison Barr
- Women in the Early Church by Elizabeth A. Clark
- Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey
- A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
- Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Byrd