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.