Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.” Mark Twain

How do you respond to criticism? Would you rather defend than correct yourself? Do you police the tone of criticism as an excuse not to hear legitimate concerns? Henry David Thoreau said we don’t get a man’s most effective criticism until he has been provoked. Don’t be surprised when the hard words that follow are given with some bitterness. 

In light of recent disturbing allegations of child pornography against Josh Duggar, and the protection his patriarchal circles afforded him over those affected by his sexual perversion, the critique of patriarchy and complementarianism lately has been angry, even shrill. But as Thoreau observed, such a tone wasn’t formed in a vacuum. Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood fits Thoreau’s observation as well. The tone of her critique may put off some, but I believe there is value in staying engaged with her text until the end.  

The Making of Biblical Womanhood is both memoir and history. Barr, with a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, teaches medieval history at Baylor University. She holds to Nicene orthodoxy but not biblical inerrancy. [Edited to add that Dr. Barr in response to this review says that she was arguing in her book against inerrancy in practice, not the doctrine of inerrancy itself.] Her husband was a longtime youth pastor in their Southern Baptist church when controversy arose over whether a woman would be allowed to teach young men. 

Barr states several times that her examination of patriarchy and complementarian thought stems directly from this conflict over women teaching young males. I listened to this part of her story in my car on my way to teach a Bible lesson from Matthew to youth in our little church plant. I rotate teaching our youth (all males at the moment) with another mom and two male pastors in our church. It was odd hearing of Barr’s church experience as I compared it to mine, both churches claiming a complementarian view of biological sex in Scripture. 

Barr uses “complementarianism,” “patriarchy,” and “biblical womanhood” interchangeably to mean anything that involves male authority in the church and home. If only qualified men can hold the office of elder in your church, by Barr’s definition, you’re patriarchal. Many readers will not find their understanding or experience of complementarianism in Barr’s experience. Others will. Regardless, I still found value, even some agreement, with her criticisms.

Barr’s discussion of Christian women in medieval history was particularly interesting. Compared to the time of the Reformation and later Victorian England, medieval Christian women were a bold bunch, known more for speaking truth to spiritual authorities than for being keepers at home. 

But the story of the widowed Saint Paula, who left her abandoned children crying on the shore as she sailed for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, left me sick to my stomach. Barr succeeds in showing that notions today of the ideal Christian woman have strayed far from those of medieval times. But she doesn’t show that the medieval model was more faithful to Scripture in all of those differences. History tells us how things were, but it cannot tell us how things should be.

Junia or Junias?

The most intriguing chapter for me was Barr’s history of Bible translations. Most serious Bible students recognize that Bible translations weren’t written in a vacuum. The unspoken agendas of some are more obvious than others, but all leave some taint of biased human hands on inspired Holy Writ. Why did the Geneva and King James Versions translate Junia as a female and allude to her as an apostle? Why do later versions not? 

The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood recognizes the arguments for translating Junia in the female form. Different translators chose differently. Were they affected by recent textual criticism? Were they influenced by culture? Were they most influenced by the patron who funded their translation? 

Why did the King James translate the Greek for women/wives in 1 Timothy 3 as wife when the Latin Vulgate translated it as woman? Why does the ESV use “wife” while the more literal New American Standard uses “woman”? The answers to these questions aren’t always straightforward. It’s valuable for all of us to know how our translation of choice compares to the versions that came before or after it. If a philosophy of translation is good, it will hold up under careful examination.

Barr criticizes patriarchal practices that deny the place of women like Deborah, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia in God’s kingdom, and we should too. Paul, and the long story of Scripture, show us the necessary partnership of men and women in church, home, and workplace. A conservative understanding of sex that has no vision for single or widowed ezers (the Hebrew word translated helper in Gen. 2:18) is lacking indeed. It should be critiqued, and Barr’s arguments about that should be received. 

My disagreement with Barr (like most folks who disagree on such matters) comes with Barr’s analysis of the writings of Paul in Scripture. Barr acknowledges the clarity with which Paul speaks of qualified male authority in the church and home. In response, she argues that Scripture isn’t inerrant. In her view, the doctrine of inerrancy has been a tool used to keep women down and institutionalize abuse.

“Inerrancy introduced the ultimate justification for patriarchy—abandoning a plain and literal interpretation of Pauline texts about women would hurl Christians off the cliff of biblical orthodoxy.”

“After all Paul says clearly that man is the head, and wives must submit. Except now I know that when Paul’s words are contextualized, both theologically and historically, they read rather differently.”

Barr’s use of the word inerrancy in this section was confusing. Did she mean that what we read of Paul in Ephesians or I Timothy was not actually what he wrote in the original manuscripts? Or does she mean that while we do have what he originally wrote, it no longer applies in our modern context? Historical context and inerrancy are two very different things. Rather than referring to a theological, academic understanding of inerrancy, she seems to use the word to refer to the type of literalism used at times to shut down criticism and even reasonable discussion. Her use of the word inerrancy confused her point. Many inerrantists I know still believe in textual criticism. 

This was the point at which Barr and I diverged. Paul explicitly taught male-only eldership and wifely submission in the home. But Paul isn’t the only evidence we have for God’s created plan of two complementary biological sexes, with both overlap and distinctions, imaging him in the world. Paul isn’t the only one to show us qualified male elder authority in the church. The Bible is the best commentary on itself. Scripture helps us clarify what Paul does and doesn’t mean. But he definitely means something that stands the test of time and culture. 

In my opinion, the weakest link in Barr’s argument against complementarianism (which some might actually find her strongest) is that complementarianism leads to abuse. “We can no longer deny a link between complementarianism and abuse,” Barr writes. She gives ample personal testimony, including a harrowing experience in Bill Gothard’s patriarchal circles during a time he was abusing a young woman. 

But God forbid the teaching of complementary sexes, headship, and submission in Christian marriages explicitly taught in Scripture be evaluated solely in light of Bill Gothard or Josh Duggar. Is there abuse in complementarian contexts? Absolutely. But #ChurchToo revealed abuse in egalitarian contexts as well. The entire #MeToo movement, from which #ChurchToo flowed, involved widespread abuse in secular contexts that eschew all of the Bible’s ethics about sex. 

In contrast to Barr’s experience, I’ve found respite from abuse and misogyny in my complementarian church. Women are integral to every ministry in my church. Our input is solicited. Our voices are valued. As a divorced woman, I was careful in the church I joined. I didn’t want to walk my road alone, with all the responsibility on my shoulders. I chose my church cautiously, knowing the pastors in my church, along with my dad, would have a role of influence, even authority, in my life that I needed and wanted. 

I’ve had far more experience with humble rather than proud male leaders in complementarian churches. I’ve had more experience with men who value my voice and ministry than those who disparage it. And I have much more experience with leaders who help me carry the weight on my shoulders than those who add heavy burdens they are unwilling to carry. But the help and protection I’ve found in my complementarian churches doesn’t deny the abuse Barr says she experienced in hers. Neither does the abuse she endured undermine the good ways my pastors and father have blessed me as heads in my life. 

Experiences Matter

Our experience isn’t the final say in whether a teaching from Scripture is good and right. But no one can deny that our individual experiences of complementarianism in practice affect how we understand the doctrine. 

I’m a help (ezer) to my pastor in the strongest sense of the word. But before I sat under his leadership (and the three other pastors that came before him), I sat under a pastor who held onto deep anger at his wife and who generally believed women were out to take control of his church. He was the first to teach me that Genesis 3:16 meant that a woman was predisposed by the Fall to want to take control from men and work against men. His misuse of that passage became a convenient cover for his misogyny. I understand the type of patriarchal experiences that Barr is reacting against even as I have a separate set of experiences that reinforce the value of complementarity in the Body of Christ.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood shows Barr’s rich understanding of medieval church history. Her book is compelling. It’s important to know what has happened in the past, and her writing will be an important contribution to church history. But the greatest strength of the book, it’s historical narrative, is also its greatest weakness. Barr argues against a doctrine of Scripture, not with Scripture itself, but with history and personal experience. 

Barr argues against complementarianism by saying that Scripture isn’t inerrant and complementarianism inevitably leads to abuse. [Edited to add that Dr. Barr has clarified online that she does believe that the original manuscripts of Scripture were inerrant and that the Bible is authoritative.] My conviction is that Scripture, in the original manuscripts, is without error and that God has preserved it for us so that we can have confidence in the text. My experience is that complementarianism is not inherently abusive, that it can, in fact, protect from abuse in certain situations. 

I don’t deny the harm done in some complementarian contexts. Our call, as believers who hold to a conservative understanding of sex from Scripture, is to take criticism seriously and examine ourselves honestly. All have fallen short of God’s glory, and the truth of Scripture will stand up to our examination of ourselves, our history, and God’s Word. 

Wendy Alsup is author of Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture.

27 Responses to Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

  1. R.J. Anderson May 22, 2021 at 3:05 pm #

    Appreciate this thoughtful and charitable review which still holds firm to conviction. I wish such reviews of controversial books were more common.

    • Wendy May 22, 2021 at 3:44 pm #

      Thanks, RJ.

  2. Amy L May 22, 2021 at 11:56 pm #

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m curious, how do you handle the idea of inerrancy (in the original manuscripts) in practice? This is something I’ve been struggling with before reading Barr’s book, and especially considering your own writing on the ESV and Gen 3:16 (which has been INVALUABLE to me — thank you). How does the ordinary Christian apply a doctrine of inerrancy to any English translation, especially when Bible translators don’t always agree with one another? It seems to me that, while I believe the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, I wouldn’t hold to an inerrant view of a translation, which renders the doctrine functionally irrelevant.

    • Wendy May 24, 2021 at 4:49 pm #

      Amy, that’s a great question. Around questionable interpretations, I lean into the idea that the Bible is the best commentary on itself. That won’t always get us to consensus, but it narrow down the possibilities at least.

    • Amy L May 24, 2021 at 8:59 pm #

      Thank you!

  3. Bob May 23, 2021 at 10:42 am #

    Excellent. I read Barr’s book and was mainly impressed, but your observations are very helpful.

    • Wendy May 24, 2021 at 4:50 pm #

      Thanks, Bob.

  4. Felicia Strange May 23, 2021 at 11:18 am #

    Thank you Wendy for again speaking on this subject and as a response to this book that I haven’t read but just recently heard C.S. Lewis’ comments on egalitarianism in The Great Divorce and became more curious to look into. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience to offer wisdom on the subject.

    • Wendy May 24, 2021 at 4:50 pm #

      SundA, I love it when you add your thoughts here!

  5. Rachael May 24, 2021 at 4:22 pm #

    Thank you for this review. I wish you would do more of them. You have poignant insights and are careful and charitable in your criticism.

    • Wendy May 24, 2021 at 4:52 pm #

      Thanks, Rachael! I will try to do more as I have time. But TIME is always the issue.

  6. Clarke Morledge May 24, 2021 at 7:02 pm #

    Thanks, Wendy. Very helpful review. I have not read Barr’s book yet, but from what I have read from her posts at The Anxious Bench blog, your analysis of her book is fair, balanced, and sober minded. You appreciate and value Barr’s contribution to the historical narrative, throughout church history, which we must all listen to, while cautioning against her unfortunate dismissal of Paul’s teaching content found in Scripture.

    • Wendy May 25, 2021 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks, Clarke!

  7. Dana May 25, 2021 at 8:06 am #

    You wrote that the book’s “greatest weakness” is that it views the Bible through history rather than “through Scripture.” Another way to put that is that the book is primarily historical rather than theological in its approach and perspective. But Barr is a historian. Her unique contribution in writing this book is her trained ability to use history as a scholarly lens through which to view her topic. I have a Ph.D in linguistics, and it’s like if you criticized me for focusing too much on language in something I wrote.

    I agree with the other commenters that this was a thoughtful and balanced review and a well written one. But that comment struck me as odd. If you want to read hermeneutics, buy a book by a theologian.

  8. Wendy May 25, 2021 at 8:33 am #

    Thanks, Dana! I understand that she is a historian, and so I filtered my criticism through that lens. Since she argued against “complementarian theology” and “biblical womanhood and the theology behind it,” I expected her to look at the theological underpinnings in Scripture some. So I think my statement is fair. I would have preferred her to specify the history of complementarianism over theology of complementarianism if she was going to focus primarily on history and not doctrine of Scripture. I think the book would benefit from some clarity there.

    • Norrin Radd May 30, 2021 at 2:15 am #

      With all due respect, the fact that the book was primarily historical, not theological, could have been reasonably inferred from any ONE of the title, the subtitle, the author’s brief bio, and the book introduction. It’s her understanding of the historical roots of the theology, not the mechanics of the theology

  9. Cassandra Bliss King May 25, 2021 at 11:13 am #

    Thanks for your gracious input, Wendy! I’ve been watching and waiting for your review . . .

    • Wendy May 26, 2021 at 4:09 pm #

      Thanks, Cassandra!

  10. James Pruch May 25, 2021 at 12:20 pm #

    You wrote, “In contrast to Barr’s experience, I’ve found respite from abuse and misogyny in my complementarian church.”

    I’m curious…how do you reconcile this statement with your experience at Mars Hill?

    • Wendy May 25, 2021 at 12:50 pm #

      I talked about Mars Hill above as well. Mark Driscoll was one pastor. I’ve attended three churches since Mars Hill with 5 pastors after him. They were all gracious men who have stood up for me in various ways. They value my voice and respect my input. My experience then with complementarian pastors is at least 83% positive.

  11. Karen Miller Rauch May 26, 2021 at 10:14 am #

    I encourage folks to read Barr’s book for themselves, especially the chapter on Paul. This review does not deal with Barr’s scholarship about what Paul is doing rhetorically (mirroring and then departing from Cato’s well-known (at that time) speech as well as traditional secular Roman household codes in order to show Christ’s followers a better way). A thorough read of Barr’s book challenges this arguably problematic characterization of Barr’s argument: “Barr argues against a doctrine of Scripture, not with Scripture itself, but with history and personal experience.” While Barr is a trained historian and does not claim to be a theologian, she is a student of scripture. While she includes personal experience throughout the book, her arguments are not only historical or personal, as this reviewer asserts. Rather, the book is an invitation to read Paul’s letters more COMPLETELY, in light of all of Paul, while also becoming knowledgeable of Paul’s actions and relationships with women in ministry. The book is an invitation to take Paul MORE seriously, taking all of his words TOGETHER, not focusing on some of them without openly examining the counsel of the whole. It’s not against “doctrine of Scripture” that Barr argues. Not at all. Rather, she argues that we should not use a few lines from Paul’s letters to the early church without looking at them in context of the entire letters, and all of the letters. Barr indeed uses Scripture itself to argue against a problematic doctrine that claims to be Biblical.

    • Wendy May 26, 2021 at 4:13 pm #

      This was not my take away, Karen. The book spent the vast majority of the time looking at medieval and reformation history, along with the history of translations, interspersed with Dr. Barr’s own experiences and the stories of other women who both preached and were shut down from preaching. I think it is fair to say that her arguments and evidence were primarily from history and experience, not from exposition of Scripture.

    • Wendy May 26, 2021 at 4:14 pm #

      Though this is not to say that I discourage anyone from reading it. Quite the opposite. I think complementarians (as I said in my review) would benefit from carefully considering her arguments and not dismissing them out of hand.

    • Norrin Radd May 30, 2021 at 2:23 am #

      I agree, especially regarding the characterization that you call “problematic” and I consider slanderous: ““Barr argues against a doctrine of Scripture, not with Scripture itself, but with history and personal experience.”

      She argues from various paths — mainly historical, with illustrations from personal experience, but also from Scripture itself — that a particular *interpretation* (not “doctrine”) of Scripture is faulty, but came to be widely accepted.

    • Wendy May 30, 2021 at 7:39 am #

      Hi, Norrin. Thanks for commenting. Slander is a serious accusation. I stand by my statement. As you said, Dr. Barr is a historian and leaned into her understanding of history and personal experiences to argue against something that complementarians believe is explicitly what Scripture teaches. If someone wants to convince those who hold to complementarianism that it is false, they will need more careful exposition of Scripture.

  12. Norrin Radd May 30, 2021 at 2:49 am #

    I appreciate your generally irenic tone. I think you lean a bit too heavily on the “inerrancy” issue. I agree that Dr. Barr could have been more clear in her meaning, but after some initial discomfort, it became clear enough to me that her complaint was not with the concept of inerrancy per se, but with the way fundamentalists often use the idea in practice.

    In practice, it means something like “the ‘plain meaning’ of certain passages in certain preferred translations, prioritized over other passages.”

    The “plain meaning” of most translations of 1 Tim. 2:11-12 and 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is incompatible with the “plain meaning” of Acts 2:17-18, 18:26, Rom. 16:1-2, 7, Gal. 3:28, and others. The “plain meaning” of Gen. 1:26-30 and 2:18-25 are not compatible with the “plain meaning” of Col. 3:18. In debates, this often degenerates into mud-slinging about which side is “twisting” or “ignoring” Scripture. Hopefully, Dr. Barr’s work will provide additional insight into how certain translations came to be, and how certain passages came to be prioritized over others.

  13. CLARKE H MORLEDGE June 10, 2021 at 9:16 am #

    Wendy: Thanks for editing your post to note Beth’s stated clarifications on her position on inerrancy. Inerrancy obviously means different things to different people, which partly explains the confusion. But if you walked away initially from Beth’s book with the sense that Beth was attacking inerrancy, then this really diminishes the impact of the book. If Beth really wants to try to reach stubborn-minded complementarians, who use inerrancy as a weapon, then it might be better for her to have a more clarifying discussion with someone who does not draw the same exegetical conclusions that she has.

    It would be great to see if some YouTuber would have both you and Beth on a podcast to discuss this, for the benefit for others.

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