“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.
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.