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Beth Allison Barr on (un)Making Biblical Womanhood

Hildegard of Bingen St. Foy Church in Sélestat, France. making biblical womanhood

Hildegard of Bingen
“Hildegard preached regularly in Germany, undertaking four preaching tours between 1158 and 1170.” (p. 89)

In this third blog post on Dr Beth Allison Barr’s new bestselling book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, I quote from the final chapter entitled,” Isn’t it Time to Set Women Free?” (You can read previous posts here.)

Throughout the book, Beth shares snippets and stories from her own life. In the last chapter she gets even more personal and shares how damaging and dangerous “biblical womanhood” (AKA complementarianism or patriarchy) can be for women. I won’t relate Beth’s darkest story here; you can read it for yourself in her book. Instead, I share quotations that I think present a summary of The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

Beth writes about losing faith in complementarianism:

… it wasn’t until I began to pull on the historical threads that weave complementarianism together that I really began to doubt it. You see, I had fallen for the biggest lie of all: that adhering to complementarianism is the only option for those who believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God.…
Evidence shows me how Christian patriarchy was built, stone by stone, throughout the centuries.
Evidence shows me how, century after century, arguments for women’s subordination reflect historical circumstances more than the face of God.
Evidence shows me that just because complementarianism uses biblical texts doesn’t mean it reflects biblical truth.
Evidence shows me the trail of sin and destruction left in the wake of teachings that place women under the power of men.
Evidence shows me, throughout history, the women who have always known the truth about patriarchy and who have always believed that Jesus sets women free. (pp. 204-205)

The goal of Beth’s work is “to change the future by more accurately understanding our past.” (p. 214) This includes remembering the many women in church history, a “great cloud of witnesses,” who led, taught, and preached, and made significant spiritual, intellectual, and inspiring contributions to the church.

I love Beth’s observations here:

… regardless of whether the ecclesiastical establishment recognized their work, women persisted in preaching the gospel and ministering in the service of God.… From Mary Magdalene to Waldensian women, Ursuline nuns, Moravian wives, Quaker sisters, Black women preachers, and suffragette activists, history shows us that women do not wait on the approval of men to do the work of God. We can hear women’s voices in our Christian past, and despite all the obstacles in their way, nevertheless, “they are preaching.” (pp. 213-214)

Beth then poses these questions:

What if evangelicals remembered women like Christine de Pizan and Dorothy L. Sayers?
What if we remembered that women have always been leaders, teachers, and preachers, even in evangelical history?
What if our seminaries used textbooks that included women?
What if our Sunday school and Bible study curriculum correctly reflected Junia as an apostle, Priscilla as a coworker, and women like Hildegard of Bingen as preachers?
What if we recognized women’s leadership the same way Paul did throughout his letters—even entrusting the Letter to the Romans to the deacon Phoebe?
What if we listened to women in our evangelical churches the way Jesus listened to women?
Women stand with a great cloud of witnesses. We always have. It is time, far past time, for us to remember. (p. 214)

Here are Beth’s closing words:

Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus. I don’t remember when I started it, but for a long time now, I have been dismissing my students from class with this phrase: Go, be free! I think that is a fitting way to end this book as well. Jesus set women free a long time ago. Isn’t it finally time for evangelical Christians to do the same? Go, be free! (pp. 218)

I, Marg, couldn’t agree more. The artificial limits and boundaries that churches have placed, and continue to place, on her women are stifling and hurting many women and girls. They are also harming and hindering the mission of the church. More and more, as I look around, I see how sick some sectors of the church are, and patriarchy and the false notion of “biblical womanhood” play a part in this sickness. I’m happy to be playing my part in the un-making of so-called “biblical womanhood.”

Beth’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood is easy to read. It is conversational in style, and even though Beth draws on history—church history as well as her own—the information is never technical or difficult to understand. On the other hand, the concepts presented in the book are sometimes painful to read and they demand deep thought. They also demand action. We can and must do better. The health of the church, especially in America, is at stake.

Paul and womenThe Making Biblical Womanhood is available from Amazon and other booksellers.
A seven-minute interview on NPR with Beth about her book is here.
Sarah Skansorb has written an excellent and interesting piece, here.

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Image Credit

Hildegard of Bingen holding a model of the church. Stained glass window in St. Foy Church in Sélestat. France. Excerpt of an original image by Ralph Hammann. (Source: Wikimedia) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence.

Explore more

Beth Allison Barr on Paul and Biblical Women
Beth Allison Barr on the Reformation’s Role in Limiting Women
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
Preaching Words in the New Testament and the Women who Preached

9 thoughts on “Beth Allison Barr on (un)Making Biblical Womanhood

  1. Thank you, Marg. I will be buying this book.

  2. Still in the middle of the book. Nice to see the mention of Dorothy Sayers. Everyone should read her seminal work Are Women Human? Two short common sense essays about women that could have stopped all this nonsense before it got started. Its weird that some of the worst patriarchs took her essay about classical education and built a school system on it, but ignored her essays on women.

    1. I wish everyone would read Dorothy Sayers too!

  3. Thank you Marg!

  4. I plan to buy this book. This is one of the most exciting posts (to me) that I’ve read. As a lifelong (I’m 83) member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I’ve often thought about women’s roles in my church, which I do love. I must read Dr. Barr’s post on the Reformation’s limiting women.

    Unfortunately, our elders sent out a letter 4 years ago saying that our church was going to ‘limit’ women’s activities. Of course, it caused quite a stir & a meeting was held. Two elderly men, one of them who eventually was admitted to assisted living because of dementia, & the other a very ill man who died last year, complained because a young woman in our congregation who had served as its chairman, took part in a Sunday service while our pastor was on vacation. Typically when our pastors go away, they retain a retired pastor to fill in & give the sermon or ask an elder to conduct the service. We have a shortage of retired pastors & for some reason, none of the elders stepped up to do the service. Our pastor asked the young woman to take his place as there was no communion that day. The woman spoke from the floor as agreed upon, & unfortunately a problem with the sound system developed. She had no choice but to go to the pulpit whose sound system was working. And an elderly pastor who used to fill in, but is no longer doing so happened to attend that day. He apologized after the service for not being available to speak that day, but he thought she did a good job. So now, based upon angry comments by the two ill men, she was being excoriated & along with the rest of the women in attendance, was being thrown under the bus. What a Christian thing to do!

    I don’t know if the LCMS will ever stop its rigidity concerning women in the church. There are some pastors who feel that ordination for women is on the horizon & it’s acceptable. Our elders withdrew the limiting of women, with the exception of women using the pulpit, & we returned to our usual activities including helping serve communion, but unfortunately, we lost several young families.

    1. Hi Iris, I’m saddened and disappointed that those men complained and caused problems about the young woman who took part in a Sunday service. There are so many stories like these. 🙁

  5. Yes, yes, and yes.

  6. I also recommend Daughters of the Church, by award-winning missions historian Ruth Tucker. Because she documents all these women over the last 2000 years. A book from the 80’s that I only discovered now! How my life might have been different if I had only read it when it came out!

    1. This book has been on my wish list for a while. I really must read it.!

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