Historian Beth Allison Barr has written a book with a most provocative title, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Readers have much to learn from Barr’s book about her emotionally riveting, painful experience as a woman in her branch of evangelicalism, as well as her perspective on the history of Bible translation and women in the church. But along the way readers might want to question if she has thrown out the baby with the bathwater in her examination of an issue dividing evangelical churches today.
As in more than a few of my book reviews, this will be a long read for some, yet it is such an important topic, that it requires careful attention, instead of sound-bite responses.
Ever since Rachel Held Evans’ 2012 blockbuster A Year of Biblical Womanhood, a whole spate of provocative titles have been written by thoughtful evangelical women seeking to navigate the issue between complementarian and egalitarian views regarding the relationship between men and women. Before her untimely death, Evans’ eventual embrace of same-sex marriage, as permissible within a life of Christian faithfulness, surely signaled a red flag for many readers, but Evans’ examination of “Biblical Womanhood” still sparks a lot of conversation among many evangelicals. The phrase “Biblical Womanhood” was popularized by an influential evangelical organization, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, that authored the 1988 Danvers Statement, followed by the 2017 Nashville Statement, that addressed important topics related to gender and sexuality.
So, what is “complementarian” and “egalitarian” all about, anyway? In a nutshell, complementarian theology affirms an essential equality between men and women, while suggesting that the church urgently needs to affirm an often neglected truth, that male and female are not interchangeable characteristics of being created in the image of God. Egalitarian theology affirms to some degree that men and women are indeed different, but that the church has wrongly bought into the false idea that women are somehow “second-class” citizens in the Body of Christ, where women are subjugated under men. Aside from Rachel Held Evan’s book, there is Wendy Alsup’s Is the Bible Good for Women?: Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture, which tops my list of the best of the genre. Other books like Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society and Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose offer important supplemental perspectives.
The Shadow Side of “Biblical Womanhood”
Beth Allison Barr‘s The Making of Biblical Womanhood fits within the mix, having a lot of buzz in the evangelical press, yet The Making of Biblical Womanhood is a polemical book, born out of a real lived experience that will be unfamiliar to many evangelical Christians, but that was all too real in her life. For others, Barr’s polemic will reinforce their belief at just how pervasive misogyny is in American evangelicalism today. From the outset, I should say that from my reading of Beth Allison Barr in the past, she is quite a remarkable person, with a deeply devout Christian faith. The danger in writing such a polemical work, as she has done in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, is in allowing her wounded experience to overstate the case she is trying to make.
In her area of teaching medieval history at Baylor University, I have benefited much from reading Beth Allison Barr’s various essays on the The Anxious Bench blog (#1 and #2). Critics of Barr’s theological argument would do well to listen to her story with a compassionate ear. Barr’s story of growing up in a particular Southern Baptist world, where complementarian theology is at the forefront, is a difficult yet important read. She relates to her experience, as a historian at Baylor University, having years of experience teaching history to college students, when she was asked to fill in one day to lead her church’s youth group, made up of teenage boys and girls. But because some of these boys were at least the age of 14 and older, she had to undergo a review of what she might be teaching these young people.
According to Barr, the elders of her church believed that having a woman teaching high school boys at the age of 14 potentially violated Paul’s directive in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” In view of how contemporary research concerning youth today extends the period of adolescence now even into the mid 20’s, it is befuddling to comprehend why the elders of her church might consider a 14-year old to be a “man,” and therefore inappropriate for having to learn anything spiritual, from a woman who could easily pass off as being a mother of such a teenager. Barr’s experience was just as humiliating as it was absurd. Perhaps Barr’s experience is common in certain parts of evangelicalism culture, but thankfully not in mine.
Had Barr’s church elders never heard of Henrietta Mears, perhaps the most influential evangelical woman of the 20th century? Mears ran the most successful Sunday school program in America, at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, impacting thousands of young people, where she also led the young adult Bible class, that included 20th century leaders like evangelist Billy Graham, CRU founder Bill Bright, Young Life founder Jim Rayburn, and Navigators founder Dawson Trotman. Mears was a principled complementarian, who strongly believed that church elders should be qualified men, who never once spoke from a Sunday church pulpit, nor who considered herself a “preacher,” and yet she probably had one of the greatest impacts on the development of contemporary evangelicalism, in her generation.
Barr also relates her experience of how her husband lost his job as a youth pastor, for challenging their church’s teachings on women’s roles at the church. Apparently, her local church leadership refused to hire a man to serve as a church secretary, since some believed that it was beneath a man’s dignity to be a mere church “secretary.”
The story only gets worse. The most painful part of The Making of Modern Womanhood was in reading the very last chapter of the book. There we read about Dr. Barr’s #MeToo moment, years before she married her husband. She had a boyfriend, with whom they both attended a Bill Gothard Seminar, that emphasized a rigid form of hierarchal complementarianism, which encouraged this boyfriend to somehow abuse her (she spares the reader the gory details). Bill Gothard’s ministry, the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, had become a household name in the 1980s in evangelical homes, encouraging home schooling, advocating “courtship” over “dating,” and in teaching a “chain of command” type approach to parental authority. In 2014, Gothard resigned from his post after some 30+ reports of sexual harassment, and repeated failures to report child abuse, within the organization.
This is the type of story that just makes one absolutely sick to their stomach. It made me think of a story from my own life, years ago before I became married, when the young woman I was most interested in at the time had grown up in a world, much like Dr. Barr’s. This girlfriend of mine, who was then in her twenties, had been raised in a very conservative evangelical church, where she told me that at the age of about 15, she had been “date raped” by the son of the pastor of the church, who was just a few years older than her.
I will never forget her description of what this pastor’s son told her, that she could never tell anyone else in the church about what had happened, because as a girl, no one would believe her. This pastor’s son was casually citing 1 Corinthians 14:34 out-of-context, as justification for her keeping quiet: “The women should keep silent in the churches.”
I can only imagine Dr. Barr shaking her head with sad acknowledgement, if she were to read what I just wrote. In reading of Dr. Barr’s experience in The Making of Modern Womanhood, it triggered my memories, as I thought of my old girlfriend. You have to have either a heart of stone, or else be a full blown misogynist, not to be moved by Dr. Barr’s personal story.
Well, then. With that type of church experience, is it no wonder why Dr. Barr is now opposed to complementarianism?
It might be helpful for some readers to pause for a moment, before continuing…
But Is All Complementarian Theology Like This?
That all being said, it is very easy for strong emotions to cloud sober judgment. Is it right totally to dismiss complementarian theology, primarily on the basis of extreme misapplications of that kind of theology? It would be equally troubling for someone to be dismissive of an egalitarian theology, based primarily on extremes found there as well.
Do all evangelical egalitarians fall down a slippery slope and eventually embrace same-sex marriage, or advocate abortion, convincing themselves that these are somehow legitimate Christian options? Surely not, as this would be a logical fallacy. Just because some egalitarian Christian person does, in certain cases, follow such lines of thinking, does not in and of itself, disqualify egalitarian theology, per se.
This is where Dr. Barr runs the risk of tossing the baby out with the bathwater, by her rejection of complementarian theology en masse. For example, Barr describes the efforts of Russell Moore, former president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Liberty Commission, to make a distinction within different schools of complementarian theology. Moore has made news recently in leaving the Southern Baptist Convention to become public theologian at Christianity Today magazine, partly due to Moore’s concerns that his former denomination was not doing enough to address reports of sexual abuse against women.
Moore grants that there are those who believe that Paul’s prohibition of having women serve as elders in a local church, from 1 Timothy 2 & 3, have gone further than the Scriptural text allows, by making the argument that since Paul prohibits a woman from serving as a church elder, this somehow means that all men have authority over all women, in every and all cases and settings. Instead, Moore makes the counter-argument, that the Apostle Paul’s teaching regarding male headship only applies to the relationship between husbands and wives, and between church elders, and the flock that they spiritually shepherd.
Unfortunately, Barr dismisses Moore’s counter-argument as a “nice try,” as in her experience, few complementarian Christians, who seek to uphold a definitive distinction between male and female, really hold such a view (Audible version, Chapter 1, timemark starting at about 19:32). In support of her view, Barr notes that one prominent complementarian theologian, Wayne Grudem, applies his version of complementarian theology to say that he would have great difficulty in accepting a woman as President of the United States. However, not all complementarians hold to the specific views endorsed by Grudem, so it would be unfair to put all complementarians in the same bucket.
Furthermore, Barr repeatedly claims that complementarian teaching is merely copying what we find in secular culture. Perhaps this is true in Dr. Barr’s part of Texas, but the exact opposite is the case in America’s elite class that runs our secular universities, our political institutions, and our Fortune 500 companies.
Never before in human history have the opportunities for women been as broad as they are now in the 21st century Western world, including in the Protestant evangelical movement, across all stripes of theological traditions. But in my part of the world, the secular impact driving certain elements that have benefited women has also created significant cultural problems as well, that pressure the church negatively. Egalitarianism is the order of the day as political correctness has become the reigning orthodoxy throughout the secular world. In an age where gender has become merely a social construct, where families continue to split, due to a lack of cohesion in the home, there is no sign of any reversal of this trend in Western society anywhere in sight.
Evangelical Bible Translations, in the Debate Regarding Men and Women, in the Church
Nevertheless, this shortcoming of Barr’s should not take away from her cogent contributions towards reading Scripture better, based on her expertise as an historian, who values the importance of historical context. She rightly questions the tendency of Bible translations to potentially mislead the reader, when translations like the ESV (English Standard Version) group Ephesians 5:21 under a different section heading than Ephesians 5:22ff, a practice that can not be found in the original text of Paul’s letter (The NIV 2011 translation avoids what the ESV does).
Barr also makes a compelling argument that 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 has been horribly misread as advocating for an absolute silence of women in churches, which would contradict Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, Paul is instead most probably engaging in a quotation/refutation argument of a Corinthian saying in 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 (see this previous Veracity post for a more in-depth look).
Furthermore, of the 29 people mentioned in Romans 16, whom Paul warmly commends in some way as being fellow co-workers for the Gospel, 10 of them are women. Those who wish to denigrate the contribute of women in the church will have a difficulty in finding an ally with the Apostle Paul.
Barr’s treatment of Paul’s reframing of the Roman household codes found in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1 is less as convincing as she makes it out to be, but she does make an excellent point. Barr rightly suggests that the Apostle Paul was pushing back on the pater familias tradition of first century, Greco-Roman culture, that the oldest living male in a household, typically the husband and father, could legally exercise autocratic authority over his entire household of wife, children and slaves, with the power of life and death over every member of that household.
By advising husbands to love their wives, as Christ loves the church, Paul is calling Christians to serve Christ first and foremost, and not primarily the male head of the household, according to Roman law. Paul’s injunction radically places a greater responsibility upon husbands, to offer themselves fully in love towards their wives, going against the Roman practice of absolutism of male authority. In other words, it is because of the Apostle Paul that today’s #MeToo movement even became possible.
Nevertheless, despite the call for believers in Jesus to live lives of freedom, Barr does not convincingly demonstrate how this effectively relates to Paul’s equally important concern for order and peace within the home. Many Christian egalitarians contend that their marriages are able to arrive at consensus in all decision matters. Good for them. But such is not the case in many other Christian families, where husbands and wives do not always agree with one another, and consensus is not always easily found. When two equally strong-willed persons in a marriage are unable to resolve an area of conflict through consensus, does the Apostle Paul not offer perspective on how to resolve such conflicts? Barr never addresses this in her book.
The Neglected Story of Women in Church History
Barr shines best in her expertise as an historian. Beth Allison Barr is absolutely correct that the story of women in the church has been disproportionally overshadowed by the story of men in the church (See my attempt to rectify the problem a bit through my six-part review of Catherine A. Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World. The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America.)
Barr includes colorful examples of women in the church, particularly in medieval church history, who prophetically challenged corruption within the church, in their day, and called fellow believers to have a deeper life in Christ and renewed sense of holiness. Barr’s description of the 14th-15th century English mystic Margery Kempe is particularly insightful. Though never a priest/presbyter in the church, an office exclusively held by men, Kempe was nevertheless a popular and influential figure in her day. Her spiritual autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, chronicled her experience as a mother, who bore 14 children, and who failed in running a brewery business, in an effort to help provide for her family. Kempe was most known for her travels on various Christian pilgrimages and in the recording of her ecstatic visionary experiences.
Barr’s sub-thesis, which suggests that Christian women during the medieval period experienced a greater sense of spiritual freedom and vitality, than women in the later era of the Reformation, into our modern period, may not convince every reader, but it is worthy of consideration. Barr believes that while the 16th century Reformation was a good thing in general, in removing the shackles from the medieval church, the Reformers promoted a view of women that took them out of the monasteries and subjected them under their husbands in the home.
Barr’s claim is a bit of an overreach, as I am pretty sure that not all Christian women joined monasteries during the medieval era. Some actually became mothers, with husbands, and bore children. Otherwise, Barr probably would not be around to write her book! After the medieval period, tales of single-woman missionary heroes, like Amy Carmichael and Helen Roseveare, have continued to fill the bookshelves of contemporary Protestant evangelical homes for decades. The Protestant Reformation is not quite the “boogeyman” she makes it out to be.
Furthermore, Barr pretty much ignores the story of the church in the East, which did not experience the Protestant Reformation. In Eastern Orthodoxy, those Christians lay claim to adhering to an apostolic tradition that forbids women from serving as priests/presbyters, a practice established in the early church era. Eastern Orthodoxy in general does not suffer from the type of division and unjustified weirdness associated with recent complementarian vs. egalitarian theological debates, common to today’s Protestant evangelicalism.
Still, Barr’s examination of medieval church life in the West is illuminating. Barr shows us that in the medieval Western church, women and men were separated on the basis of gender in Sunday worship, women on one side of the church nave and men on the other. This practice gave women the opportunity to gather with their female friends, looking to other women for support. This is contrast with the Reformation tradition where families generally sit together, wives with their husbands, thus separated from their female friends.
Barr relates a curious example of Protestant Reformation strangeness where in 1690, the Puritan writer Isaac Marlow wrote a tract condemning the practice of congregational singing (Audible version, chapter 4, about 42 minutes in). Marlow observed that if Christians were to sing together in church, then women would be singing as well. Marlow read that Colossians 3:16 commands all Christians to teach one another, even through singing. But Marlow also read 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-40 as instructing that women are not to teach men, nor speak in church. Marlow therefore concluded that congregational singing should be banned, lest Christians violate those latter passages of Scripture, by encouraging women to sing, thus “teaching” men.
My mind just went “tilt” when I read that.
The word for “teach” in 1 Timothy 2:12 is the same as is found in Colossians 3:16, so it would do well for believers today to appreciate the different context for these letters, which might indicate that Paul was thinking about different kinds of “teaching”, when comparing the two letters. Marlow’s tract was rightly rejected as unlearned for good reason, as Colossians makes no mention of church elders nor overseers, and in fact, explicitly mentions relations between husbands and wives just a few verses after Colossians 3:16, which would reasonably tell us that the type of “teaching” associated with singing, encouraged for both men and women to do, is not in the same category as “teaching” given from local church elders, the kind of “teaching” described in 1 Timothy.
Unfortunately, there are times where Barr’s historical survey can mislead the reader. For example, even in her description of Margery Kempe, Barr neglects to tell the reader that some of Kempe’s visionary experiences were frankly quite bizarre. In chapter 36 of The Book of Margery Kempe, Kempe describes a visionary experience of where she learned of “Christ as a husband, who will lie in bed with her and she may kiss him.” Mmmm…. that gives me a little pause here.
A critical review of Barr’s book, by Kevin DeYoung, responds to Barr’s claim that the 5th century Irish “Brigit of Kildare (according to hagiography) was actually ordained as a bishop” (p. 89). Brigit was a well-known founder of monasteries for women in Ireland, in her day. Unfortunately, the hagiographic source that Barr cites also states that Brigit refused to accept the ordination, presumably because her reading of the New Testament precludes a woman from being ordained as a priest, much less as a bishop, a fact that substantially alters the narrative that Barr wishes her readers to adopt.
Kevin Madigan’s and Carolyn Osiek’s masterful study, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, is perhaps the most exhaustive, modern scholarly examination of women and church office, in the early centuries of the Christian church. Madigan and Osiek conclusively demonstrate that the early church records many examples of women serving as deacons in those early centuries, with the earliest record (outside of the New Testament) going back to the first decade of the 2nd century. This evidence should be sufficient to convince naysayers that the Bible affirms the principle of ordaining women to serve as deacons in a local church, and use their spiritual gifts to edify the church, as this was demonstratively part of the practice of the earliest Christians. Deacons are not “second-class citizens” in the church. In the history of the church, both men and women as deacons have served as the backbone in many church ministries.
However, when it comes to the office of “presbyter,” otherwise known as “elder” or “overseer”, the evidence available fails to conclusively show that the early church affirmed women as elders/overseers, particularly in terms of a church officer who is authorized to preside over the administration of the Lord’s Supper. The witness of the early church in this area is amazingly consistent across those early centuries. In citing Madigan and Osiek, Barr goes onto make the provocative claim that the failure of the church to ordain women as presbyters illustrates how the “patriarchal prejudices of the ancient world had already crept into Christianity” (Audible, chapter 2, time mark: 1:04:33), a judgment that Madigan and Osiek themselves wisely refuse speculate on.
If Beth Allison Barr was hoping to win over her complementarian critics, then she surely self-torpedoed her own polemic by irresponsibly tweaking certain historical details to serve her thesis, as noted above. The biggest blunder was not even a tweaking of historical details, but it came right from the story that Barr tells about 4th century Saint Paula, who assisted Jerome in the translation of the Latin Vulgate, a significant fact neglected by many popular presentations of church history. Barr amazingly tells the reader that after her husband died, Paula left to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, “leaving three of her children alone, crying on the shore” (p. 79), as she sailed away on a ship.
Was Dr. Barr really thinking that retelling this anecdote would be serving her case? This is too bad, as Dr. Barr has much to offer in making some corrective arguments against irresponsible applications of complementarian theology.
An Extreme Theological Misstep Made by Some Complementarian Theologians: The Eternal Subordination of the Son
The strongest theological argument that Dr. Barr makes is in her critique of some complementarian theologians who propose a novel view of the Trinitarian relations, between the Father and the Son, namely the idea of the Eternal Subordination of the Son. Classically, Christians have believed that when the Son became incarnate, the Son learned obedience to the Father, and thus became subordinate to the Father, in that Incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Otherwise, in the Godhead, the Son and the Father are mutually subordinate to one another, albeit in different ways. However, in 2016, a fiery debate ensued in evangelical social media over a new idea that the Son has always been subordinate to the Father, even prior to the Incarnation, for all eternity. This idea of the Eternal Subordination of the Son somehow tries to acknowledge that both the Father and the Son are divine, yet that the Son stands one-sidedly in a subservient relationship to the Father, for all eternity. Some complementarians have thus used this analogy of Trinitarian relations to teach that women are to be one-sidedly subservient to men.
This is a pretty academic and technical debate, and too much to go into here (see Andrew Wilson’s brilliant summary), but Dr. Barr is correct in denouncing this Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) idea as being heretical. That being said, it simply is not true that all complementarians adopt the concept of the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS). Other complementarian theologians are just as critical of ESS theology as are egalitarian theologians. Barr indirectly misleads her readers in implying that complementarian theology necessitates an adoption of ESS theology.
What If Complementarians Are Wrong? Likewise, What if Egalitarians Are Wrong?
At one point in the book, Dr. Barr asks her complementarian readers, “What if you are wrong in your complementarian theology?” This is a fair question, that should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, the same could be said of Dr. Barr’s egalitarian theology: “What if Dr. Barr is wrong in her egalitarian theology?”
I really want to believe that Dr. Barr is correct in saying that it is permissible for women to serve as elders/overseers in a local church. But there are serious problems. On the one hand, she has convincingly shown that outside of a church eldership role, women should be encouraged to use all of their spiritual gifts, in speaking and in leadership…. speaking before a group of teenagers included!! Barr has effectively argued that women are just as competent as men to accomplish any work of Christian ministry. I hope that we can scratch that objection off the table in the discussion.
I have agreed with author Wendy Alsup, in her Is the Bible Good for Women?, and have made my own case that women should be encouraged to use their gifts, including teaching, both with children and adults, in a wide variety of settings, under the authority of male elders. This would include settings where local church eldership is not in place or otherwise not applicable, as in parachurch ministries, theological scholarship, leading a Bible study (think Priscilla teaching Apollos), and in church planting. In other words, there are plenty, plenty of opportunities for women to serve in Christian leadership without becoming elders in a local church.
On the other hand, one should be careful not to press the example of Junia too far, in Romans 16:7, as being “noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles,” as the Christian Standard Bible would have it. Was Junia on equal par with the Apostle Paul, as perhaps even being an “apostle” herself, as some egalitarians contend?
Yet as Sarah Ruden put it, an expert of Greco-Roman classical literature and author of Paul Among the People, the word “apostle” could simply mean “envoy,” which would lessen the ecclesiastical flavor many Christians often attach to the word “apostle.” It could be that the New Testament speaks of “apostle” in two different senses, one of that associated with the Apostle Paul, and his special apostolic calling, as compared to a more general sense of being like a “church planter,” which might best fit Junia’s case. Nothing clearly indicates that Junia would have been a church elder or overseer.
Why “Biblical Feminism” Does Not Always Find a Friend in Jesus
Appealing to Jesus as a way to “trump Paul” does not always help. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar at Vanderbilt, who interestingly is one of the finest New Testament scholars of our day, has been often told by Christian egalitarians that Jesus was the first “feminist,” offering a radical re-envisioning of relations between men and women, and completely upsetting the Jewish patriarchy system. However, Levine is quite candid in saying that Jesus did no such thing.
Though Jesus did teach Mary (of “Mary and Martha” fame), and had women supporting his ministry, Jesus’ inner circle of twelve was nevertheless still all-male, which was a distinctly Jewish practice. For those who want to make Jesus into a “feminist”, Levine is honest in saying that Jesus surely missed out on the opportunity to fully express his “feminism.” For if Jesus was really a “feminist”, Levine argues that there would have been six female and six male disciples, in the inner group, other than what we really have.
1 Timothy 2 & 3: The Passages of Scripture That Trouble Egalitarians the Most
However, all of this has been heavily debated. Yet the biggest stumbling block comes from reading 1 Timothy 2 & 3, the primary Biblical passage that addresses the qualification for local church elders (Titus 1:5-9 repeats largely what we read in 1 Timothy 3). Barr rightly observes that none of the pronouns in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, as are found in the ESV’s translation of the passage, are masculine. This particular detail might easily cause a reader to conclude that Paul makes no reference to gender in describing the qualifications of an elder/overseer. The Common English Bible translation of this passage follows this particularly line of thought. Fair enough.
But two other important details severely mitigate against this type of reading of the text. First, 1 Timothy 3 follows immediately upon the controversial section in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul states specifically in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (ESV). After giving a theological rationale from the doctrine of creation, as to why Paul is saying this, Paul goes on in chapter 3 to apply the principle he lays out in the previous chapter, by spelling out the criteria used for selecting elders/overseers, in a local church. This pattern of making a doctrinal statement, followed by the practical application of the doctrinal statement, is characteristic of Pauline literary style we do find in in other Pauline texts. Note also that the original text did not contain chapter divisions, a feature that easily causes certain readers to disconnect chapter 3 from chapter 2. This view is consistent with the long-standing interpretation of this passage going back almost two thousand years, universally held even back to the early church era.
Egalitarian scholars go to great lengths to show that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a culturally-bound mandate, limited in scope, thus having no universal, timeless application. But the explanations given are quite contradictory of one another. Ben Witherington, a highly respected evangelical scholar at Asbury Seminary, argues that the verse should read, “I am not now permitting these women to teach or usurp authority over the legitimate male teachers,” thus indicating a temporal injunction. St. Andrews theologian and New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, otherwise one of my favorite scholars, in a closely like manner, translates the passage like this: “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.” But if either of one of these interpretations is correct, why do we not find such an interpretation in any of our modern English translations?
Cynthia Long Westfall, a New Testament scholar at McMaster Divinity College, favors the Common English Bible reading that makes the passage about relations between a husband and wife, and not anything related to church order, “I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband.” But what clues exist in the text that sufficiently demonstrate this translation to be the best?
The most plausible, in my view, might be that Paul is specifically condemning certain false teachers, who happen to be women, who in the 1st century, follow some incipient form of 2nd century Gnosticism, that would teach that Eve was created before Adam, an attempt to reverse the creational order as taught in Genesis (see 1 Timothy 2:13). This view was defended by Catherine Clark Kroeger, in her landmark early 1990s study, I Suffer Not a Woman. But what type of evidence is available to indicate that there were Gnostics in Paul’s day who actually taught such things? Interestingly, many other egalitarian scholars themselves, like Witherington above, are not persuaded by Kroeger’s arguments.
How persuasive then is any one of these explanations? Is there sufficient evidence to substantiate any of these readings? However much I would desire to be convinced, it seems that each one of these conflicting explanations come across as rather forced, and thin on the evidential side.
Frankly, the whole passage comes across as sounding like a blithering mess, when trying to make sense of how evangelical egalitarians handle the text. Many just throw up their hands in bewilderment, thinking that we have no clue what this passage really means; therefore, let us just skip this passage and move onto something else. Interesting, on the other hand, the large body of liberal, historical critical scholarship is not buying into any of this.
When compared to liberal, historical critical views of 1 Timothy, historical critical viewpoints carry a lot of substantial weight behind them, when compared to the various speculative (and often contradictory) evangelical egalitarian views, that Dr. Barr might lean towards accepting. Most critical scholars today do not believe that the Apostle Paul even wrote 1 Timothy, and go onto suggest that 1 Timothy was written in the 2nd century, perhaps even beyond the living memory of the Apostle Paul, a position held by Jouette M. Bassler, in the study notes of the popular HarperCollins Study Bible, a favorite resource in Protestant mainline churches.
Such critics draw this conclusion partly because they believe that the message regarding women in 1 Timothy contradicts what Paul says elsewhere in his letters, such as in Galatians 3:28. Other critics have claimed that the supposed negative treatment of women in 1 Timothy was really a later attempt by nervous church officials, to try to blunt and domesticate the egalitarian message associated with the “real” Apostle Paul of Galatians 3:28 (see agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, for a brief example). The logic here is simple: if 1 Timothy was not written by Paul, nor by anyone with first hand knowledge of Paul, then we can safely dismiss what is taught in that letter as being irrelevant to authentic Christian faith.
If someone begins to travel down that road, then such Christians have a major apologetics issue to contend with. How did the early church allow a forgery, like 1 Timothy, as so many of the liberal historical critics claim it is, to wind up in the New Testament canon? The failure to confidently uphold 1 Timothy, as a genuine Pauline letter of some sort, creates a much more serious problem than the question of whether or not women can serve specifically as elders in a local church. Barr’s most vocal critics will speak out most loudly at this juncture, claiming that her speculative approach to 1 Timothy opens a door that threatens to undermine biblical inerrancy, and thus equivocate on Scriptural authority.
The second important detail that works against Barr’s view is the reference in 1 Timothy 3:2, which is the only possible specific reference to gender in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, but a significant one at that, where many translations indicate that a church elder/overseer is to be the “husband of one wife.” Many egalitarian scholars argue that gender can be taken out of the equation, as this “husband of one wife” phrasing is more about “marital faithfulness,” regardless of gender. But the phrase more accurately and specifically describes a church elder/overseer to be a “one-woman man.” Compare that to the phrase “one-man woman” in the same letter, in 1 Timothy 5:9, where a woman is explicitly referenced. Complementarian scholars argue that “one-woman man” is a clear reference to gender. Otherwise, how is it possible for a woman to be a “one-woman man?”
Why Gender Matters in Today’s World…. In How the Debate over Gender Identity Impacts Children
This leads to the most neglected part of The Making of Biblical Womanhood. As the church is entering the third decade of the 21st century, the evangelical church finds itself headlong involved in gender issues that go far beyond the question of having women serving as elders in a local church. Dr. Barr may not like what “Biblical Womanhood” has become, but the theological issue of how male and female relate to one another is not only not going away, the stakes are getting higher in terms how the church will respond to today’s new challenges.
Twenty-five years ago, the thought of a woman trapped in a man’s body would not have been taken seriously, by most people in Western culture. Such is not the case today, where a recent Gallup poll shows that 1 in 6 Americans, between the ages of 18 and 23, consider themselves to be somewhere in the “LGBTQ” category, as opposed to 1 in 50 Americans, ages 56 and older. The largest growth area is among those in the “T” category, where more and more young people are wrestling with their gender identity. Today, the thought of a woman becoming a “one woman man” is no longer an outlier possibility, associated with something you see on the Jerry Springer show.
A whole generation of high schoolers, middle schoolers, and even elementary school kids are being exposed to the transgender craze through SmartPhones and other sources of social media, bombarding them with doubts about gender identity, on an almost daily basis. If you are a parent of a young child, growing up in the SmartPhone age, the likelihood that your child will experience anxiety and depression about their sexual identity is significantly increased, as compared to children who grew up in previous generations, particularly for girls, according to Abigail Shrier, author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (summary video interview of Abigail Shrier, on Jordan Peterson’s podcast).
Amazingly, Galatians 3:28 has been used in recent years, as a justification for, not simply same-sex marriage, but also to legitimize sexual reassignment surgery. Christians are surely called to love transgendered persons, recognizing that gender dysphoria is a very real phenomenon, that demands a compassionate response. But we must also guard against an unhelpful ideology that merely reduces gender identity to being a social construct, that feeds into the overwhelming sense of anxiety that millions of young people are now facing in the social media age. Most Christian adults today, who remember a time before SmartPhones, are generally unaware of how the cultural influences found in social media today are impacting children. If we care about the next generation coming along, concerns about gender identity are far more important than whether or not a woman should be able to preside over the Lord’s Supper.
However, The Making of Biblical Womanhood takes only passing interest in the theological mystery in how male and female relate to one another. Dr. Barr’s primary focus here is in the area of “roles” taken by men and women, and specifically her critique that women are subjugated to men in complementarian theology, bending the knee to patriarchal culture, in contrast to the message of the Bible. If this were the heart of complementarian theology, she might have a point here. But the notion of complementarity between male and female, rightly understood, is focused primarily on the non-interchangeable character of male and female, and only has a secondary concern related to order, or what Dr. Barr derides as “patriarchy” or “hierarchy.”
Recalling the Trinitarian debate, noted earlier in this review, relations between the Father and Son are to be mirrored in how male and female relate to one another, in the church and in the family. It is more of a question of the beauty in how male and female relate to one another, as in the analogy of a dance, as opposed to some rigid “chain-of-command”, top-down military style male-over-female structure, that has (rightly) given Dr. Barr such terrible fits.
While egalitarians, like Dr. Barr, focus on what they see as the injustice in not permitting women to preside over the administration of the Lord’s Supper, perhaps she is missing the point of it all. It is often true that what seems the most unfair to us as humans, God uses to reveal some grand mystery to us, giving us knowledge that mere words are altogether too difficult to express. To the modern mind, the sacramental character of only qualified men performing the Lord’s Supper, and teaching the church in an authoritative manner, with perhaps women instead serving in a supportive role, may seem unfair, but the bigger point is that the whole ceremonial aspect of what Christians do with the notion of sacrament is just plain weird. Perhaps that instead is the point of it all.
Just as bathing in water does not, in and of itself, make one a Christian, nevertheless Christians celebrate baptism as the initiatory act into the people of God. That is just plain weird, too. Just as partaking of the Lord’s Supper, in and of itself, does not strengthen a believer’s continued walk in Jesus, nevertheless Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper because we “feed on Christ” in the ritual, and experience communion with God, through that act. That is also pretty weird.
So having only men serve as elders is pretty weird as well. Sure it is. But perhaps that serves as God’s way of showing us that gender matters to God, and that being created in the image of God, as male and female, really makes a difference in what it means to be human. Perhaps that is the point of it all, and not the idea that women are to be wholly subservient to men in all things.
A number of my Christian egalitarian friends, who are sympathetic to Beth Allison Barr’s perspective, argue that more and more evangelical churches in America will continue to shift in an egalitarian direction, with more churches having women as elders, as time moves forward. Having thought about this for awhile, I have come to conclude that a fulfillment of this prediction would be a serious mistake.
On the positive side, The Making of Biblical Womanhood should go a long ways towards shifting against attitudes that denigrate women as “deformed men,” that trivialize women as being more easily deceived than men, or that threaten to silence women, particular when the Bible is used as a weapon by abusive men against women. But on the negative side, The Making of Biblical Womanhood only muddies the waters concerning the gender identity insecurity issues that are currently threatening the upcoming generation of young people, particularly girls. Evangelical Christians need to think more deeply and theologically about how we celebrate the mystery of what it means to be created in the image of God, as male and female.
Back to Another Question: What If Complementarians Are Wrong? Likewise, What if Egalitarians Are Wrong?
In the final chapter of The Making of Modern Womanhood, Beth Allison Barr reveals where the fault line runs on this issue that divides thoughtful Christians today. She tells the story of when the Church of England began to hold serious discussions, shortly after the end of World War II, about the possibility of having women serve as presbyters (elders) in the Anglican Church, to administer the Lord’s Supper. The great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis was opposed to the idea, inspiring him to write an essay, “Priestesses in the Church?”
Lewis also wrote to fellow Inkling companion, and highly esteemed Christian author, Dorothy L. Sayers, asking her to join Lewis in opposing women’s ordination. In 1948, Sayer’s wrote Lewis back, with a polite refusal, ““I fear you would find me rather an uneasy ally,” as from her perspective she could find no unreasonable theological objection to ordaining women as Anglican presbyters. This came as a shock to Lewis. Despite the disagreement, Lewis and Sayers remained steadfast friends.
This is pretty much the situation we find ourselves entering the third decade of the 21st century. The Church of England finally agreed to permit women to serve as presbyters by the 1990s, thus allowing women to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in Christian worship. But Lewis’ prediction that “the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation” has proven itself to be eerily prescient. The Church of England is still an ongoing movement in the United Kingdom, vibrant in certain quarters, but on the whole the Church of England is a shadow of its former self, as the advance of secularism continues to weaken the influence of Anglicanism in the U.K. The intense history of churches dividing over this issue, even here in the United States, over the past five or six decades, is difficult to ignore.
During my early years in theological seminary, I was a fully-blown, if not outright obnoxious, egalitarian. I was thoroughly taken in by the forcefulness of Catherine Clark Kroeger’s 1992 I Suffer Not a Woman, in advancing the egalitarian case, based on a new reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. So I am very sympathetic with the effort to advance a fully-blown egalitarian theology.
I thought like Beth Allison Barr, that any argument against women’s ordination, regarding the office of presbyter (Greek word for “elder”), was merely a cloak for hiding an insidious misogyny. I thought that way until my final year in seminary, when I ran across J. I. Packer’s stunning 1991 article in Christianity Today magazine, “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters“, subtitled “Is there not a better way of benefiting from women’s ministry than by ordaining them?” J. I. Packer always came across to me as a highly respected teacher of the Bible, so I could not easily dismiss him as a “woman-hater,” so I began to carefully ask that same question that Beth Allison Barr asks her readers in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, but from the opposite angle, “What if I as an egalitarian was wrong?”
My philosophy prior to reading Packer’s article was that we need an “all-hands on deck” approach to Christian ministry, thus requiring women to serve alongside of men as presbyters, to accomplish the task that God has set out before us. I still have an “all-hands on deck” approach, but reading Packer’s article challenged me to think differently how the church might best go about doing that, in a more Scripturally faithful way. As I read Packer’s article closely (that I summarize here), and attentively did my own research on the relevant Scriptural passages, I found myself less and less convinced by various egalitarian exegetical arguments, which when I took an honest look at the actual evidence, came across to me as very weak. Once I saw how weak the case for making women presbyters actually was, it became exceeding difficult to “unsee” what I saw. Even the esteemed Jonathan Edwards scholar, Gerald McDermott, changed his mind on this, so I think I stand in good company.
Throwing Tim Keller Under the Bus??
This realization of my own error was confirmed as I read various ways that Beth Allison Barr painted other evangelical Bible teachers with such a broad, condemning brush. In The Making of Modern Womanhood, Dr. Barr manages to throw even Tim Keller, a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, under the bus for his advocacy of a sober-minded, moderate complementarian theology (see Barr’s blog post about Keller, and other complementarian theologians). Tim Keller? Really? Like J.I. Packer, Keller is also one of the nice guys! I can understand Dr. Barr having a few bones to pick with some of the more extreme views expressed by stalwarts at the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem. But Tim Keller? Good grief!!
What are we to make of this? In 2017, feminist factions at Princeton Seminary managed to block Keller from receiving the esteemed Abraham Kuyper prize, in honor of the great Dutch Reformed statesman, primarily on the basis that Keller’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), does not permit women to serve as elders in the local church. The irony of that moment is that on that basis, Abraham Kuyper would not have been eligible to receive his own prize!!
Tim Keller’s wife, Kathy Keller, has written what some say is one of the most cogent defenses of such a moderate complementarian theology, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry), though I have not read the book personally. Barr also links the move towards the ordination of women as presbyters, as being in alignment with the fight against racism, a definite overreach and confusion of categories.
At times, Dr. Barr goes even further in her polemic against the worst excesses in the complementarian movement, painting more moderate voices with the same brush. Even in her discussion about the abuse of women in the church, she concludes that such abuse is a direct consequence of complementarian theology.
Wow. This claim must surely be hyperbolic. Does she really believe this?
To her point, it would be a colossal understatement to say that abusive sex and power scandals involving high-profile complementarian personalities in recent years, like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Ravi Zacharias, obviously do not serve the complementarian movement well. But the equally deplorable scandals involving egalitarian leaders, like former Willow Creek pastor, Bill Hybels, and co-founder of the influential Christians for Biblical Equality, Gilbert Bilezikian, are ignored by Dr. Barr. This claim made by Dr. Barr sadly takes away from the more substantial critique that she puts forward, thus weakening her overall argument. It would have been far better if Dr. Barr had taken a more positive approach, and avoiding this kind of overreach.
I am under no illusion that my defense of a sober-minded, moderate complementarianism will win over the principled egalitarian easily. It took me years to change my mind. For Dr. Barr, her painful past might probably be too much for her to even counsel a more moderate proposal championed by a Russell Moore, a Tim and Kathy Keller, J.I. Packer, or a C.S. Lewis. But I wish she would reconsider. I have learned that the best way of critiquing a theological position you disagree with is best done by engaging the best arguments that represent that position, instead of focusing on the extremes.
Otherwise, the prospects for establishing Christian unity within the broader Protestant evangelical movement remain rather grim. Unless something significant happens to tone down the extremes in this debate, we will have to accept that the future of evangelicalism will be a split movement, with egalitarian churches on one side of the street, and complementarian churches on the other side of the street. This makes me very sad. Is this really the type of global church that God really wants for us?
At the same time, I want to give Beth Allison Barr the benefit of the doubt, as I can tell that she has the best of intentions, in presenting her thesis, in her effort to make a positive Scriptural argument in favor of women serving as elders. She firmly believes that the entirety of her message in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, at least regarding her historical research, is meant to “set women free.” Perhaps Dr. Barr is genuinely persuaded by the New Testament scholarship of egalitarians like a Ben Witherington, Cynthia Long Westfall, or Catherine Clark Kroeger, noted above. Very well then. If someone can help me see what I am not seeing in their arguments, then please advise me as to where I am misguided. In the meantime, I hope that one can still be friends despite our disagreements.
Not an Essential Issue for Faith…. But Quite Possibly a Very Wrong-Headed Idea
Is the question of having women serving as elders a make-or-break issue for evangelical churches? Not necessarily (though I know it is for some). I do not believe that having women serving as elders in a local church would surely bring about “the end of the world,” and destroy a church. But in more than a few cases, this is exactly what has happened.
Even with my disagreement with Beth Allison Barr, I hope we would both agree that the “women-in-ministry” question is not an essential issue for Christian faith, and need not be a fellowship breaking issue. But it does mean that members of churches need to be in good conversation with one another, learning to listen well to the stories of others, while maintaining a fidelity to Scripture, as we work towards a healing, unified global church.
Many fine Christians have served in evangelical churches where women serve as elders, though in many cases, what is meant by “elder” differs substantially. For some, a church “elder” board is more akin to a board of directors, like what you find in a secular organization, where the lead pastor functions like a CEO, and the “elder” board offers mostly business-oriented oversight. Other churches have something like a board of deacons to fulfill such a purpose, which include men and women serving together. Nevertheless, this is quite different from a more historic understanding of church eldership, where an “elder” functions more like a spiritual father in the church family, responsible for shepherding the church flock, offering more spiritual oversight of the community, thus leaving other kinds of oversight to the deacons to manage.
On the other hand, having women serve as elders seems like a wrong headed solution to a problem that ignores some urgent, fundamental theological questions that many churches seem unable to adequately address, that I have noted in this review. It is in this sense that I agree with Tim Keller that how we view the distinctive roles for men and women in both biology and personhood, “indirectly affects the way we understand scripture and the way we understand the gospel.” For if the leading spiritual authority figures in an established local church can be either men or women, it can easily communicate that male and female are interchangeable categories, thus downplaying the differences that gender makes. Would this give the wrong idea that gender does not matter, to our children? To ignore such questions poses great harm to the witness of the church, and threatens to contribute to further confusion for the up and coming generation, who yearn to know what it really means to be male and female, created in the image of God. Those who clamor for “You-Do-You” are not helping the cause of Christian discipleship. We could easily lose the next generation. The stakes could not be higher.
Furthermore, Beth Allison Barr’s egalitarian proposal only makes ecumenical reconciliation between the churches all the more difficult. Despite occasional calls for change, both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions, despite their major differences between one another, are both strongly committed to an historically all-male presbyteriate (i.e. “elders”). While Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox communions differ in important ways regarding the exact meaning of eldership, the historic understanding of elders in all three traditions as being all male goes back 2,000 years, to the very roots of the New Testament tradition. If more Protestant evangelical churches continue to shift towards full-blown egalitarianism, it will only make efforts to heal the rift between Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all the more complicated. The worldwide church is already divided enough. We do not need to throw yet another wrench into the whole mess, and bring more scandal upon the Christian movement, that is constantly ridiculed by an unbelieving world. As someone committed to making ecumenical progress between the churches of the Great Tradition (Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), the aggressive stance taken in The Making of Biblical Womanhood is an unacceptable solution on a larger scale, however well-intended it may be.
Bottom Line Question: Does Gender Really Matter?
Just a few more loose threads here to close out this review: I agree with book reviewer Rachel Schmoyer, a pastor’s wife in Pennsylvania, that The Making of Biblical Womanhood, while not providing a convincing argument for having women serve as elders and pastors, nevertheless offers helpful historical analysis of how views of “Biblical Womanhood” can often go off the rails in the opposite direction, and introduce a legalistic applications of Scriptural principles that sadly distorts the Bible itself. In particular, it must be said that it simply is not true that only women are to be “busy at home,” while men go off and do their own thing. According to both Titus 2:5 and 1 Timothy 3:4-5 (as in the NRSV translation), both women and men share in the responsibility of being “keepers of the home,” and managing their households well.
Likewise, I concur with Wendy Alsup’s review of The Making of Biblical Womanhood, that many women do quite well in many churches where only men serve as elders/pastors. These are churches where qualified men, serving as elders, do their best to honor the contributions of women, encouraging them to flourish in the exercise of their spiritual gifts, and take their voices seriously, particularly when accusations of abuse sadly take place. Without knowing much more than Barr describes, in her negative experience, it makes me seriously wonder whether the male elders in Dr. Barr’s church were truly qualified men to do the job.
I have several ultimate takeaways from reading The Making of Biblical Womanhood. First, as long as church leadership structures continue to go to extreme applications of complementarian theology, that at best aggravate and disenfranchise women, and at worst, ignore reports of abuse, then books like Dr. Barr’s book will continue to be written. Secondly, churches need to take a longer and deeper theological look at what constitutes the nature of gender, and how both male and female equality, as well as male and female differences, can both be celebrated in a local church setting, as a sacramental expression of a grand and beautiful, spiritual mystery. Thirdly, The Making of Biblical Womanhood takes on a serious problem, as found in at least some, if not many, evangelical churches, that overreact with fear of a cultural infection of secular feminism. However, in making her critique, Dr. Barr tends to overreact herself, coming dangerously close to tossing out the baby with the bath water.
Does gender really matter? Yes, it really does. Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood, though flawed at certain significant points, furthers the discussion about gender in important ways, and deserves to be part of the on-going conversation.
I have been writing on-and-off regarding this topic for several years now, and it is time for me to move onto other things that stir up a greater interest in me, so this will probably be my last post regarding “women in ministry” for awhile. For a more in-depth look at this issue regarding “women in ministry,” with respect deacons, pastors, and elder, take a look at this series of posts written a couple of years ago.
Here is a short, 60-second video clip where Beth Allison Barr summarizes her book: