Dr. Beth Allison Barr is a historian and academic dean. She isn’t a church fundraising director.
Yet, last November she helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the congregation her husband pastors, First Baptist Church in Elm Mott, Texas. Perhaps the word “helped” isn’t the most accurate. The money poured into the relatively small church by outraged supporters after a fundamentalist Christian organization attacked both the congregation and Barr for their theological views on gender roles.
Those invested in defending separate spheres of influence for men and women in church and society (relegating women to inferior roles and places) turned Barr into a lightning rod following the publication last year of her book The Making of Biblical Womanhoood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.
As the title makes clear, the volume argues that patriarchal ideas operating in certain Christian circles are the product of historical developments rather than sound biblical teaching. That angered more than a few men benefiting from their privileged perch at the top of conservative church power structures who saw Barr’s scholarship as a threat to their status.
“The one aspect of biblical womanhood that has historical continuity is patriarchy,” Barr told Religion & Politics in an interview about the book. “It suggests that, wherever you are in time, women’s ability to make choices about their lives is always limited by the men around them, and that they always have fewer options than men do. Legally, politically, socially, religiously — in all of these realms — women are to a significant extent under the control of men.”
While more progressive Christians (or those with a general awareness of history) may not find many surprises in such arguments, her explanations proved jarring in conservative Christian subcultures where women are prohibited from pulpits, restricted by men from exercising leadership in many domains, and relegated to an inferior status that allows for diminishment and even violence based on justifications supposedly rooted in the Bible.
Many opponents did not debate and engage her ideas in good faith. Instead, they demonstrated with their critiques the very sexism and patriarchal thinking she exposed. Consider the language used in one prominent response from Southern Baptist scholar Bradley Green that drew on various gendered stereotypes. As noted by Mark Wingfield of Baptist News Global, Green tried to diminish Barr’s work by describing it as “an attempt at historical scholarship.” He referred to it as an “impassioned personal narrative,” “emotionally charged,” and “not subtle in its rather highly pitched rhetoric.”
Barr has shared a bit about the personal toll of these attacks. In April, she tweeted:
Like the negative reactions to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, the vitriol directed toward Barr is rooted not only in sexism but also driven by the influence of her work. From high profile endorsements by biblical scholars, church historians, and theologians to small groups studying her book and even conservative women furtively turning its pages, The Making of Biblical Womanhood is changing how American Christians think about the role of women in church and society. Her scholarship is not only changing minds but altering the present witness and future direction of churches. Patriarchal thinking is far from dead, but with her book Barr put another nail in its eventual coffin. That alone makes it worth your attention.
However, there’s another reason to pick up this book. Mixed in with historical arguments and biblical interpretation is a compelling personal narrative. Barr does not write as a disinterested academic but as a devoted Christian with a firm commitment to the church. Events in her own life — experiences of injustice, staying silent too often in response, painful moments caused by her speaking up — are part of this story. Having lived one reality as a female Christian and church leader, Barr uses her own history to persuade readers that another reality for women in the church is not only possible but more faithful to the testimony of scripture.
Even if you already disavow “complementarianism” and advocate for gender equality within the church, you are bound to encounter many others ready to defend a subservient role for women. They will attempt to justify their patriarchal views with biblical verses and historical references devoid of content or only partially understood. The Making of Biblical Womanhood equips you to counter such falsehoods and, more importantly, it allows you to see the harm inflicted on so many when that foolishness is perpetuated.
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