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'The Making Of Biblical Womanhood' Tackles Contradictions In Religious Practice

<em>Making of Biblical Womanhood,</em> by Beth Allison Barr
<em>Making of Biblical Womanhood,</em> by Beth Allison Barr

White evangelical women are often taught that their calling is to be passive in the church, to be submissive to their husbands and to stay out of the pulpit.

History, though, says otherwise.

In her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, historian Beth Allison Barr traces cultural sources of patriarchy that have all but erased women's historical importance as leaders of the faith.

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.

Interview Highlights

On the day her two worlds — her church and her life in academia — collided

I came home from church one day. 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. And yet I was in a church that was telling me I couldn't even teach Sunday school without permission of our pastor.

On grappling with this truth and bringing it to the church elders

Yes, we did. We asked them to please just let us present our reasoning for allowing women to teach Sunday school. And that was the beginning of the end of our ministry at that church.

On the theological root of biblical womanhood, the idea of complementarianism

As a historian, 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.

On making the case for women's equality from a theological standpoint

The reason we think women cannot be in authority is simply because we've taken five or six verses from the New Testament and we have used those verses and read the entire Bible through them, through that lens. And there are mostly the Pauline verses: women be silent, women submit to your husbands, etc. And if we step away from those verses and actually put them in the context of what Paul was doing — and then put that in the context of the entire Bible — what we see is that while patriarchy exists in the Bible, that God is actually always fighting against patriarchy, that he's always raising women out of it. He's always giving women authority in surprising ways, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. And that if we look at the historical context of what Paul is actually doing in the New Testament, there are serious problems with reading Paul as telling women that they have to be silent and under the authority of men for all times.

On some evangelical Christians reading the Bible with historical context when it comes to slavery or punishments at the time — but reading passages about women literally

Yes, that is very true. 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.

On specific parables in the Bible about women that are dismissed, or that should be elevated, if you stop reading the Bible through a male lens

So as a medieval historian, one of the stories that ordinary medieval Christians would have known, it's 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.

On telling Christians to "be free" at the end of the book

Conservative evangelicalism has been teaching women for so long that there is only one way to be a woman that makes us godly and that allows us to follow Jesus. And that one way is to be focused on home and family and marriage. 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.