A New Book on the Erasure of Biblical Womanhood


A friend sent me an interview with the author of a new book today. The book is called The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. It's by historian Beth Allison Barr. What caught my eye was this hook:

"Barr is a Southern Baptist and a pastor's wife. In an interview with NPR, she describes the day she realized that "what we found in the Bible about what women were supposed to do did not match with what my church was saying women were supposed to do." Eventually, she and her husband left that congregation no longer able to tolerate the contradictions, she said."

Southern Baptists believe that a woman is to "submit graciously" to her husband, so this certainly piqued my interest. Barr relates how "The pastor had been teaching on women's roles in the church, and during that sermon, one of the women and [one of the] men were called up to give a testimony at the end. And the testimony that they gave was that no matter if the woman agreed with her husband or not, she should always tell him, sure, and just do whatever he said, because that was what women were called to do. And I'd recently been teaching on women in the early church and I had this moment where I realized that what we found in the Bible about what women were supposed to do did not match with what my church was saying women were supposed to do. And that in Romans 16, we see women leading in the church as teachers, as apostles, as deacons."

I was also very interested in her take on complementarism. I gather that in the Southern Baptist faith, it is used to shut down women who want more. Barr says, "I will say that complementarianism is not any different from patriarchy. But in the evangelical understanding, complementarianism is this idea that women are created differently from men. And that difference means that women cannot be leaders, that they cannot have authority over men and that within the marriage relationship they are called to always be under the spiritual authority, the headship of their husbands. So complementarianism is that women are divinely created to be under masculine authority."

Wow, that's awful. That's a terrible interpretation of a concept that could have underpinned equality in the context of sexual difference. But it raises the question for me (and for Barr) as to why we have to accept the interpretations of men? Here's Barr's take:

"What we see arise in the early 20th century is a doctrine called inerrancy. And essentially what it says is if you do not believe the Bible literally, and every aspect of the Bible literally, then that means you do not believe the Bible. The problem with inerrancy is that it says you have to read the Bible the way these men in the early part of the 20th century read the Bible. And if we don't read it that way, then that essentially means that we are not biblically faithful. So they've made patriarchy part of the gospel of Christ."

So well said! I have experienced a woman-centered reading of the Bible that is very different from the way men interpret things. Why are they viewed as having a more authoritative insight?

Barr offers a wonderful example of this: the story of the woman of Canaan in Matthew 15. "A woman is calling following Jesus, calling for him to stop and listen to her because her daughter needs help, and the disciples tell Jesus to tell her to go away, to tell her to stop following them. And Jesus actually doesn't do that. He turns and he talks to this woman and essentially he tells her what the world says about women and a woman like her, a Samaritan woman. Essentially, he says, "You are not worthy of what I have." And she looks at him and she essentially says, "I am worthy of what you have." And Jesus looks at her and says, "You are right. Woman, you are of great faith. Your daughter is healed." If you look throughout the New Testament, when Jesus tells somebody they are of great faith, it's women. And so women are not only recognized by Jesus in a way that their patriarchal society would not have done so, but they are also given the spiritual authority of being recognized as those who see Jesus and understand Jesus for who he is."

Though my copy of the book has not yet arrived, the interview notes that her message to Christians is to be free. She elaborates, "So "be free" is me wanting women and men to know that the limitations we have placed on them are not God's limitations. They are limitations that we have placed on them within our own human culture. And we can see how they're constructed by human culture and that they are not of God. So "be free" means be free to be what God has called you to be, whatever that may be."

I am so looking forward to reading this book!