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Beth Allison Barr on Paul and Biblical Womanhood

Making Biblical Womanhood


At the moment, like just about everyone I know, I’m reading Beth Allison Barr’s new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Beth is a professor of medieval history at Baylor University and, in her book, she maps the history of patriarchy in the church and the history of women’s leadership in the church. This information is cleverly introduced with snippets from the author’s own personal history. Beth’s writing style is conversational; her book is an informative read and an easy and enjoyable read.

In chapter two of her book, Beth writes about the apostle Paul and argues that the concept of “biblical womanhood,” popular in some churches today, doesn’t come from him.[1] For example, after mentioning women ministers who Paul commends in Romans 16, Beth writes, “The [historical] problem with women in leadership wasn’t Paul; the problem was with how we misunderstood and obscured Paul.” (p. 66)

In this blog post, I quote from a section in chapter two that I especially love. Here Beth comments on Paul’s words to husbands in Ephesians 5 and on his use of maternal metaphors for his ministry.  (I, Marg, introduce the quotations and give a short conclusion at the end.)

Women’s Bodies and Paul’s instructions to Husbands

Everything Paul says to husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff is remarkable and it’s very different from what other writers of the period were telling husbands.[2] But I want to highlight 5:28-29: “… husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it …” It is surprising that Paul tells husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies” considering that a common view in his day was that women’s bodies were defective and deformed.

Beth writes,

Did you know that in the Greco-Roman world, female bodies were considered imperfect and deformed men? In his Generation of Animals, Aristotle writes that “the female is as it were a deformed male” and that “because females are weaker and colder in their nature . . . we should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity.”[3] Women were literally monstrous. Of course, Aristotle did admit that the female deformity was a “regular” and useful occurrence. Galen, in the second century BC, likewise proclaimed women imperfect men who lacked the heat to expel their sex organs.[4] But, like Aristotle, he conceded it was a good thing that deformed men existed because otherwise procreation would be impossible.

By contrast, Paul reflects none of this disdain for the female body. He proclaims that male bodies are not any more valuable or worthy than female bodies. Women, like men, can be “holy and without blemish,” and men are to love the female body just as they love their own male body (Ephesians 5:27–29). (pp. 51-52)

Maternal Imagery and Paul’s Apostolic Ministry

Beth goes on and comments on how Paul uses maternal metaphors for himself and his apostolic ministry.

Seven times throughout his letters, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has found, Paul uses maternal imagery to describe his ongoing relationship with the church congregations he helped found. “Statistically that means that Paul uses maternal imagery more often than he does paternal imagery, a feature that is impressive, especially when we consider its virtual absence from most discussions of the Pauline letters.”[5] Paul describes himself—a male apostle—as a pregnant mother, a mother giving birth, and even a nursing mother. … What made female bodies weak in the Roman world made them strong in the writings of Paul. By taking on the literary guise of a woman, Paul embodied the radical claim of his own words in Galatians 3:28 that, in Christ, “there is no longer male and female.” (p. 52)

I love Paul. He was not a misogynist. Far from it. In his letters, he commended several women ministers and did not restrict their ministries.[6] He wanted husbands to love and nurture their wives in a way that was foreign to most marriages in the ancient world. And he identified himself and his ministry with mothers, even a breastfeeding mother. As Beth argues in her book, “biblical womanhood” as it is taught in some evangelical churches, can’t come from Paul when he and his letters are better understood.

In my next blog post, I quote from chapter four of The Making of Biblical Womanhood which is entitled, “The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women.”


[1] “Biblical womanhood” is the idea that all women are subject to men and that women are excluded from certain ministries that involve leadership and teaching.

[2] In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that Paul never tells husbands to lead or have unilateral authority over their wives. Rather, he uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff. For example, compare this with what Plutarch told a newly married couple here.

[3] Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 737a, 775a, in Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. Alcuin Blamires, Karen Pratt, and C. W. Marx (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 40–41.

[4] Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body II.299, in Blamires, Pratt, and Marx, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended, 41–42.

[5] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 7.

[6] Paul silenced disorderly, unedifying speech (1 Cor. 14:26-40) and faulty teaching (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:11-15) from both men and women. He did not silence or prohibit orderly and edifying ministry. More about 1 Corinthians 14 here and 1 Timothy 2 here.

The 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.
In this hour-long video, here, Mike Bird and Devi Abraham talk to Beth Allison Barr, Aimee Byrd, Kristin Du Mez about their respective books concerning Christianity, culture, and patriarchy.

And here is an informative interview that begins around the 50-minute mark.

Related Articles

Beth Allison Barr on the Reformation’s Role in Limiting Women
Beth Allison Barr on (un)Making Biblical Womanhood
A List of the 29 People in Romans 16:1-16
Partnering Together: Paul’s Female Coworkers
Paul’s Masculine and Feminine Leadership
Ephesians 5:22-33 in a Nutshell
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church
Men and Women in Genesis 1 looks more at the false idea that women’s bodies are defective.

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34 thoughts on “Beth Allison Barr on Paul and Biblical Womanhood

  1. I inhaled Beth’s book as soon as it arrived! I loved the reminder that Paul is no misogynist and even uses maternal imagery for himself. It seems Jesus did the same with his mother hen comment over Jerusalem. Thank you for this review and for all your info-packed, wonderful articles which have helped me for years as I’ve grappled with this issue. Your work must be difficult, but I’m so glad you use God’s gifts to build up the Church. He is using women like you and Beth, and many men as well, to give birth to a long overdue conversation in his family (maternal imagery intended). I’ve been regularly asking God to bring unity on this topic so that we can move forward, unhindered, focusing that energy on engaging people with the gospel of Jesus. I long for a day when we are all simply brothers and sisters in God’s family, learning from and supporting one another in his purpose for our lives. In Dallas, Texas, it’s hard to imagine that, but maybe someday soon??

    1. Yes, Jesus used maternal imagery for himself too, as does God in Isaiah, etc. 🙂

      I love using the expression “brothers and sisters” too: “siblings in Christ” who can be who God wants us to be, and do what God wants us to do, without arbitrary and suppressive regulations based on sex.

  2. I find it disgusting that a woman’s humanity is reduced to being the extended flesh of a man. This is because Eph thinks that the woman is the man’s property since Eve originated out of Adam. In his mind, when the two unite sexually upon marriage, the woman becomes a flesh extension of the man and her only identity is him since she first originated from man!

    Clearly the husband’s love is limited to just the care of his wife’s body because all she is defined as is his body after the spirit and the soul of the woman was totally wiped away in the previous verses.

    The wife’s mind, will, spirit, and emotions are to be completely crushed in favor of her husband’s will. She just gets absorbed into the identity of the head and his love for her is limited to physical provisions which she would have slaved away in domestic servitude to earn. It’s a total scam to feed and cloth your work slave and call that love. Maintenance of a slave is to the benefit of a master since a slave is worth more to it’s mater alive than dead.

    When you submit to another person’s will in everything, you yourself are no longer a person at all.

    And that was the point and intent of the author of Eph 5, to find a theological justification with which to eradicate a woman’s humanity and personhood. This is something all men attempted to justify in their writings and philosophy for thousands of years and many still do to this very day.

    I actually find that the author of Ephesians 5 is following the reasoning of Aristotle for his subjugation of women.

    Women were ontologically inferior to men because they were physically deformed males in the womb. So this philosophy justified making wives into slaves to their husband’s whims.

    Ephesians 5 author:
    Copies Colossians 1:15-22 and merged with 1 Corinthians 11:3,8-9 to form new theology and justify the ontological inferiority of the woman in relation to the man because the head is the origin of the body just like Adam was the origin of Eve and Christ is the origin of his church body.

    To originate from someone is inferior in being in relation to them.

    The whole poem of Col 1:15-18 stresses the ontological Superiority of Christ in relation to both all of creation and in relation to his personal church body since he Originated it’s very existence. Therefore Woman is ontologically inferior to man and should be subject to him just like the church is subject to its creator!

    Forget that every man outside of the mythical Adam also originated from woman, because the early church fathers deflected attention away from that fact by turning childbearing into a punishment as way for a woman to earn her own salvation in their 1 Timothy masterpiece since apparently they did not think women were worthy of salvation directly from faith alone in Christ.

    But you know, 1 Timothy and Titus likes to yoke women with DEEDS as a way for them to prove their worthiness while faith is sufficient for men.

    1. Thinking that woman is the “extended flesh of a man” (and not vice versa) is one way of looking at Ephesians 5:22-33, but it’s not how I read the Pauline household codes or the “one-flesh” passages.

      “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; cf. Ephesians 5:31 and Matthew 19:4-6).

      Rather than “woman becomes a flesh extension of the man,” this verse seems to be saying that a man bonds with a woman and together they become one flesh.

      Paul (or the author of Ephesians) was trying to temper the power of Greco-Roman husbands. He wanted them to use their socially-sanctioned position for service, rather than for oppression and domination. He uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands. This sounds good to me!

      Origins isn’t mentioned in Ephesians 5, but it is in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where Paul points out, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God” (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

  3. Hi Marg. I have a question: have you ever read any of Alaistair Roberts’ work? If you have a chance please consider reading this CT article in which Scott McKnight used one of his comments regarding theology of sex into a post: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/04/28/males-and-their-friends-alastair-roberts/

    The comments below are also interesting. I grapple with the idea of equality and find much sense in Roberts’ writing seeing as however scripture is read, men (as in the male sex) are always given primacy while women seem to have to beg for scraps. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated if you have the time to give it a read!

    1. Hi Courtney, I’m only slightly acquainted with Alistair’s work. His observations on male friendships, though they are generalisations, look fine to me overall, and I don’t have a problem with the theological postscript. However, I don’t see what his observations have to do with the scriptures. And they say nothing of how God interacts with men and women. What they do show is that, because of their differences, we need men and women working together in every human institution and in every sphere of human endeavour.

      The only woman I see begging for scraps in the Bible is the Syrophoenician (or Canaanite) woman, and she rocks in her story. She puts the Twelve to shame.

      There is no doubt that patriarchy is the backdrop of the Bible. Patriarchy is a consequence of the fall (Genesis 3:16b) and it gave men more opportunities to be prominent in their communities. So we see more men doing things in the Bible and more male leaders. Ancient Israel and the fledgeling church within the powerful Roman Empire are not necessarily models for society.

      Jesus came to deal with the fall and its consequences. However, there are “frictional losses” as the church co-exists with broader society. Not to mention that the church contains flawed and selfish people. But patriarchy should never have become a pervasive dynamic in the church!

      And let’s not forget that bearing children, as well as caring for the infirm and elderly, was a vitally important role for women. This has hindered many women from having public or prominent roles. Throughout church history, many women gave up family life and domestic responsibilities so they could devote themselves to ministry. (In modern societies, women can control their fertility, and caring roles are not just for women, so we have more opportunities and freedoms.)

      There are plenty of Bible stories where God or his angel, or Jesus, gave a woman a message, sometimes bypassing a male guardian, and that message would change the fortunes of many. God does not regard his daughters as second-rate. And of course, some women were leaders and protagonists in the history of God’s people.

      Perhaps some of these articles are of use to you.

      Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
      Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood, and Ministry
      Old Testament Priests and New Covenants Ministers
      Paul’s Female Coworkers
      The Twelve Apostles were All Male

      1. Thank you so much for taking time to respond. If I may post just a snippet of his broader theology on the sexes (and why women cannot function as pastors or priests):

        “There is a symbolism and a symbolic weight given to gender and to sex that we find very hard to understand in our society because our society is built around detached organisations with people who are fairly interchangeable. We see people as functions rather than as representing a deeper symbolic order. And yet this symbolic order is prominent throughout the whole of Scripture; we see the whole of Scripture teaching concerning men and women and the symbolic weight that they both have.

        And so men have a symbolic importance that we see coming to the foreground in figures like Adam or in the figure of Christ as well. That Christ is incarnated as a man—that’s significant. Christ also takes a bride, the Church. Likewise, the creation of Eve—Eve is distinct from Adam. Adam is created with a particular orientation in the world and Eve is created with a particular orientation in the world. Eve is created from the side of Adam to bring unity and communion through joining with Adam; and Adam is created from the earth primarily in order to form and till and guard and establish God’s order within the world and upon the earth. We see that within the curses as well.

        When we look more deeply, we see deeper connections between men and women and larger symbolic realities. So, for instance, the man is associated more closely with heaven; the woman is associated with the earth. If we look, for instance, in the curse, the woman is associated with the earth; she brings forth fruit from her body, just as the earth brings forth fruit from its body. The earth is the adamah and the man is the adam: the woman is the one from whom all future men come; men come from the womb of the woman. And the womb of the woman is associated with the earth: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there,” “Knit together in the lowest parts of the earth.” Such images are very significant for understanding the symbolic world of Scripture.

        And so when God talks about himself as Father, this is significant. The earth is our mother; God is our Father. And as Father, God is in a different relationship to us: we do not arise from God’s womb; rather God creates us through his word, and he is bound to us by his word and his commitment and love for us. But there is a gap, a distance, a break, a fundamental distinction between creature and Creator which is conceptually maintained in part by calling God ‘Father’.

        Now what is the office of the pastor to do? The office of the pastor in large part is designed to represent the fatherly and husbandly form of authority in relationship to the Church. And so it is proper that it is performed exclusively by men. That’s one of the reasons why we have exclusively male priesthood within the Old Testament. God is not a mother, God is a Father; and so God’s transcendence is symbolically masculine.”

        In danger of me decontextualising his full piece here is the link: https://www.google.com/amp/s/adversariapodcast.com/2019/12/05/transcript-for-what-is-the-case-against-womens-ordination/amp/

        I’m sorry for hammering on about this, my intent is not to be combative or to challenge you. Quite the opposite actually. As a 23 year old woman who doesnt fit the traditional model of femininity (I am not particularly social and I dont desire marriage or children) it makes me feel like I’m failing. And all this talk of this significance of difference between the sexes with God and Christ being fully male makes me feel so separated from God, like I cant connect to him at all. But I feel like I’m nowhere near intelligent enough to rebut anything Robert’s says. And he makes use of theology, history, anthropology, philosophy (Camille Paglia’s statement that if society were left in the hands of women we would all still be living in grass huts) etc to prove this bond between God and men that I am excluded from because I’m a woman. I dont know what to make of it but it has severely crippled my faith.

        1. There’s a lot to unpack here, and there are several thoughts that seem unrelated to me, but I reject the idea that Adam as a male human is given symbolic importance in the Bible.

          And I have no idea where this idea comes from: “the man is associated more closely with heaven; the woman is associated with the earth” especially as Alistair acknowledges that the first human (ha’adam) was made from the “dust of the ground (ha’adamah)” (Genesis 2:7) and that his first jobs were keeping a garden and tilling the earth.

          I’m aware of the idiom in Psalm 139. In the same way as “the lowest parts of the earth” metaphorically refers to the seclusion of a mother’s womb in Psalm 139:15, some scholars think the similar phrase in Ephesians 4:9 refers to Jesus’ incarnation through Mary.
          (Compare the Greek: εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς Eph. 4:9b; ἐν τοῗς κατωτάτοις τῆς γῆς Psalm 139:15b LXX.)
          But this idiom is obscure to us; we can’t make a strong statement about the metaphorical sense of “earth” here or about what Job was saying in Job 1:20-21.

          As far as the Genesis 3 curses go, the woman is more closely associated with the snake being cursed (Gen. 3:13-15), and the man is more closely associated with the ground being cursed (Gen. 3:17-19).

          Also, Adam and Eve are not polar opposites. The creation of Eve story in Genesis 2 is about her similarity with Adam, not her difference. There are also no differences mentioned in Genesis 1 where men and women have the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose. Differences between Adam and Eve are mentioned after the fall.

          God sometimes refers to himself as father and mother when speaking about ruling over nature and creation and in the context of God as the metaphorical parent of humanity. For example, God speaks about giving birth to Israel (Deut. 32:18). More on this here.

          And none of this has anything to do with ministry in the new covenant community of God’s people, the church.

          I pretty much disagree with most of Alistair’s assumptions, perspectives, or ideas, but I can’t address these points without writing hundreds of words. Addressing his ideas is better done in a conversation, not in typed comments.

          1. I realize it’s difficult addressing such a vast article in a comment section but thank you for even just the bit you’ve written. I just wanted to know if there was any strong evidence for any of what he was stating . . . And his associating men with heaven has to do with the trinity and heavenly hosts being male, from what I could gather. Thank you for sharing the links as well. I appreciate you taking time to eve briefly address some of these statement Marg. Thank you.

          2. Male humans are no more like, or unlike, God than female humans. God is not a man or male, the Holy Spirit is not a man or male, Jesus, however, became a man and is male. I suggest a few reasons why it makes more sense for the Saviour to be male than female towards the end of my Is God Male or Masculine article here.

            I have strong doubts that the heavenly hosts are actually men or male. Angels are sometimes referred to in masculine terms (so are demons), but it was common in the past to refer to groups of people and intelligent beings in masculine terms.

            It’s more likely that heavenly beings are not male and have no sexuality, especially when we consider what makes an organism male.

            In Hebrews 1 it says that angels are spirits, and spirits are usually thought to be sexless:
            “In speaking of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire’” (Heb. 1:7).
            “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14).

            Matthew 22:23-33 seems to imply that both resurrected humans and angels are sexless.
            “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30 NIV)
            (Sex and procreation is not needed because people will live forever. See also Luke 20:27-40.)

            I can’t see strong biblical evidence for most of the things Alistair is saying, they are just his ideas and I think he’s misinterpreting and stretching what the Bible does say. And none of it has anything to do with ministry and service in the body of Christ.

            A biblical case can be made for male rule by highlighting the many male leaders; people have been doing this for centuries, but I wonder why Alistair pushes this. A biblical case can also be made for mutuality and equality between the sexes, and I believe this fits much better with the values of the New Covenant in Jesus and the New Creation. 🙂

      2. Also, his article “debunks” Deborah, Jael and other “egalatarian” heroes. It’s so discouraging.

        1. I’ve seen many people try to diminish Deborah’s ministry. They need to do this if they truly think women cannot be leaders of God’s people.

          However, Judges 4 states that Deborah was a prophetess and a leader who was judging Israel. She advised Barak and told him what to do, and Israel was blessed by her leadership. And unlike some of the other judges, not a bad word is spoken about her in Judges 4-5.

    2. Hey Courtney, I’m not Marg but this sounded interesting so I went and read the post + all the comments. I hope you don’t mind if I share some thoughts 🙂 His observations on male and female social structures are interesting, but I have to say I agree more with the commentors that said he was making some sweeping generalisations.
      I definitely noticed an American colouring in his responses to comments, especially in one where he discusses the societal accomplishments (read: capitalistic achievements) that come from male ‘power-wielding’. While capitalism in the US began with a deeply protestant/Christian understanding of work ethic etc. (Vishal Mangalwadi talks about this at great length in his book The Book that Made Your World), I think we can agree that the current stage of capitalism is not something positive. And in fact, these ‘accomplishments’ have not led to a steadily greater, better society, but instead involved abuse and exploitation of various groups at every stage (slaves, the working class, immigrants, outsourcing of exploitation to the third world). Alastair does say that he is trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive, but I wonder why these results of, according to him, ‘the male shaping of the world’ are presented in a positive light. If this is truly the area of life & society that men have been ‘allotted’, how God-intended is this really?
      Another point is that his strong division between men and women seems to me to fall more into the area of gender than biological sex, and gender is something that seems to be emphasised in US society much more strongly than in my upbringing (mostly German). Hence why I also felt a lot of his commentary to be US-centric.
      Another point where my understanding differs from Alastair’s: he mentions in one comment that he understands this dynamic between men and women to be a pre-fall feature. I quote: “Unless we believe in radical physiological and behavioural changes after the Fall […], men would always have wielded the majority of creational and societal power”. In fact, this is exactly how I understand the verses in Genesis 3 (“To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe …”).
      In conclusion, I simply disagree with the idea that this dynamic in male and female friendships is a universal that has shaped all of human society & was in fact intended this way even before the fall. All of Alastair’s observations are true, but in my opinion, only to a certain extent.

      TL;DR: Alastair’s observations felt rather American, the fundamental difference in mine & Alastair’s opinions lies in the fact that I don’t think this was the created ‘order’ before the fall.

      1. Hi Simona, thanks so much for your comment. It was very interesting and I agree with you that his views are somewhat biased and American-centric. I personally found that much of what constitutes complementarian gender roles is 1950s America nostalgia/stereotypes, a vastly different setting to the 1st century Mediterranean Basin where most of the events in the NT occured. And yet these highly-specific and contextual versions of womanhood and manhood is somehow extrapolated as being biblical womanhood and manhood. Its confusing. I also tend to believe that reason why so many men (and some women too) are so set on female submission and male authority is because of the brokenness in Geness 3 as well -a male hunger for power and connection with each other instead of the partner God actually gave man, which is the woman. Male coalitions have seldom led to good things in the history of the world and this is a universal observation. Anyway, thanks again for your insight, it was very interesting to read. 🙂

      2. Hi Cassandra! Sorry to butt in but I got the notification for your response. It was very interesting to read. I’m curious -I’ve always wondered why childbirth was the “curse” given to women (as many teach it to be), something that men will never experience. But hard toil is something that many women, especially women outside of a Western-world context experience morso than many privileged men! If you don’t mind, could you please elaborate a bit more on the women’s “sorrows”? Was it referring to something specific to the female gender, or have I misunderstood?

        1. I’m glad the same word itstsavon is used for both woman and man.

          I believe Genesis 3 shows that both the woman and man are similarly or equally guilty.
          They are both held similarly or equally responsible for their own actions.
          And they will both suffer similarly or equally with “sorrowful toil,” even if it is expressed differently.

          The ground is simply not mentioned in Genesis 3:16. What is mentioned is two words/ phrases about having babies. The ground is only mentioned in God’s words to the man in Genesis 3:17ff (and Genesis 5:29).

          I don’t mind you holding to or mentioning your idea. I just can’t see how this is the case. And I have looked at it sincerely because I know some traditional interpretations of the Bible have been flawed and biased against women.

        2. Hi Courtney, Genesis 3 shows that only the snake and the ground are cursed. God does not curse the woman or the man but they will suffer with the consequences of sin.

          In Genesis 4:1, Eve acknowledges God’s blessing. Her statement is translated literally as, “I have acquired a man from Yahweh.” The sense is “I have had a male child with the Lord’s help” (CSB)

      3. Sorry for responding to this comment of yours but for some reason the reply option isn’t working for the last comment. The Old Testament is replete with things I can’t make sense of, and the more I try to look for answers the more discordant it seems. It’s like holding onto tatters of ancient scrawl, trying to make sense of a story long lost to time and language. And it feels like my whole world is dependent on how i can understand it. It’s the bible that wedges itself between me and my full trust of God and his love for me as a woman. The worst part for me is the whole women thing. Especially because reactivity to feminism is sending many men and women cracking down harder on exactly why the sexes are different and inadvertently, because of world history and the prominence of men on the world stage, dredging up age-old ideals about male superiority and female inferiority.

        It never bothered me until I started university. I’m currently 23 and when I started at 19, I was very conservative, fresh out of a religious household (who in practice was egalitarian) and I despised anything related to critical theory. Until I began to be exposed to the history of patriarchy and just what men have thought about women collectively throughout the ages, across various cultures and philosophies. And when I began to investigate things in the bible that bothered me I found a parallel theme of sometimes cruel, sometimes offhand treatment of women as second class, once-removed derivative creatures. I saw thinking among Christian men both past and present that ran tangent to secular philosophies of women and gender. And it really ran deep cracks in my faith. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough in the faith to have seen all of that -I think it takes a really strong relationship with God to not be thrown by stuff like that. It just continues to puzzle me how men then and now are allowed to get away with that kind of treatment of women, even seeping into the church.

        I think that’s why it’s so hard for me to shake off the belief that there’s some alliance between God and maleness that is missing between God and women. It’s a painful thing to wrestle with and I’m holding onto my faith with bloody fingernails at this point.

        1. Hey Courtney, responding again because your comment really resonated with me – I went through similar struggles a few years ago, and we’re even the same age! What are the odds. I don’t think I can offer up a good answer for the things men are allowed to get away with because of their flawed understanding of the bible. But that perceived bond between God and maleness was a huge burden for me as well, and just off the top of my head, here’s some things that helped me get past that perception of God & my faith.

          One thing I very strongly believe nowadays, that helps me, is that the bible was written by fallen humans. So while the Bible is inspired, and spirit-breathed, it’s still extremely coloured by the internal and external features of the humans who wrote it. As it happens, the people God spoke through were part of a patriarchal society. It raises the question why God would choose these people – but then, no matter who God would have chosen, I imagine the result would have been difficult for some demographic to find salvation in. The rad thing is that salvation doesn’t depend on those old, Israelitic ideals. It’s really just believing in Christ’s sacrifice for us. And Christ was a radical figure who repeatedly interacted with women in a loving and respectful way, even when his disciples spoke out against it (the old woman who touched his garment, the samaritan woman, the adulteress about to be stoned, the immigrant women who asked him to heal her daughter etc.).

          Another thing that relates to what Cassandra wrote, is that in real life, most people don’t even practice what they preach. From my own observations, putting men in charge of everything is a) unrealistic and b) inefficient.
          To a): my own parents have always practiced a very egalitarian approach, completely without meaning to (both grew up in similar conservative circles) – that’s just what worked out best for them and our family. I cannot imagine how unhappy we all, including my father, would be if he took on some kind of twisted male headship role that meant he had to make all decisions and rule supreme. I imagine that sort of relationship only really works when the man happens to have a dominant, and the woman a passive personality. But a lot of people aren’t like that – look at Deborah, Miriam, Esther, Priscilla… Were they passive? I think not.
          To b): I’m part of leadership for a small university youth group. If the organisation we’re a part of only allowed males in leading roles, we wouldn’t even HAVE a youth group in most cities because * surprise * there aren’t enough men to go around haha.

          It seems to me that ‘put men in charge of everything!’ is also spoken from a place of privilege. In countries where the church has been around for a long time, there are usually enough men to take up all the leadership roles (whether they want to or not, that’s another can of worms). Having grown up as a missionary kid though, I’ve seen first hand that in new churches, christians simply take up the work that God puts before them – it takes time before patriarchal customs become entrenched in the new church. Which is also what we see in the New Testament, with all the women that Paul worked along side.

          These are just some things I could come up with off the top of my head. I’m going to be praying for you – it’s tough dealing with these things. But I think you’ve already landed on the right page to help you with some of it. Marg has a lot of good articles, and just reading them has helped me personally feel ‘seen’ – it can be difficult redefining your own ideas about God when you’re stuck in a conservative environment. Just knowing there are other Christians out there that don’t secretly think God is a man (like my conservative brethren seem to) has helped me out 😀

      4. Hi Cassandra – to be honest, I didn’t even mean to focus on the child-bearing part, I just quoted the first part of the verses so people would know what I was talking about 🙂 Nevertheless, the discussion that came out of that was really interesting to read!

        1. @Simona Well, that was incredibly encouraging to read. Thank you very much for that. It’s not within the best of contexts given the situation but I’m always so grateful to find other women who struggle with this topic as I do. It’s quite a thorny issue to wrestle with. Just so you know, your points have all been very helpful and helped put things into a different perspective for me. Still difficult, still struggling, but I do suppose that my black-and-white assumption about God’s preference for men is a little more tempered. I appreciate your prayers, sister. Thanks again for that, and God bless.

      5. @Cassandra Your comment was exceptionally encouraging to read. Thank you so much for taking the time to write all of that down. I take comfort in knowing I’m far from being alone in this and hearing your story and experiences has been enlightening. Thank you again. 🙂

  4. I followed the article (which I’m very interested in) to a podcast. The podcast was one of the worst I’ve heard. I would HIGHLY suggest getting rid of the laughter and sea sponge worm talk part of the program. I didn’t stick around long enough to hear the biblical womanhood part.

    1. I didn’t listen to the beginning. I only listened to the interview with Beth.

    2. Hi again Marg. Re childbirth: do you ever struggle with why God punished all women for posterity with potential of painful or even deadly labour and delivery? Especially in the ancient world where around a third of births resulted in the death of the mother? That seems lie a disproportionately cruel punishment for the woman.

      1. Yes, it’s one of the verses I have struggled with. As a young woman, I often spoke to God about this, and I told him (respectfully) that now Jesus has dealt with sin, labours should no longer be painful. As it turned out, I had a completely painless 6-hour delivery with my first child, and a 4 1/2-hour delivery with some pain with my second. And no complications. But I know this is not the case with most women.

        Now that I’m older (and wiser?) I treat God’s statements in Genesis 3 as an aetiology. They explain why things are the way they are. The genre of aetiology is used several times in Genesis. There is a short explanation of aetiology here: http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t94/e44

        1. Ah, that does make sense. But I just struggle with God seeming to actively increase the woman’s labour while Adam’s punishment feels like a more passive one that happened aetiologically (if that’s a word haha). It definitely is one off the many things I really do wrestle with in the bible. But thanks for sharing your view.

          1. It does sound harsh that God says “I will …” 🙁

            The aetiology idea makes good sense of it. But accepting that the genre is aetiology brings up other questions that some Christians may not be comfortable with.

            And you’re right: God doesn’t say “I will ..” to Adam. His punishment or consequence is present passively.

          2. That is part of the reason that it makes little sense to me that God would “will” increased pain for the woman. I find the idea that pain is just a reality, a result of having a body of death after the Fall. Just as cleaning up a glass of spilled milk is a reality of spilling that milk and not a punishment for doing it. God also used a lot of plain ol’ future tense forms in Gen 3, and not a cursing formula. It’s like where God says that the man would rule over the woman. This isn’t an imperative. In English, we tend to form imperatives with using “shall” instead of “will,” and with vocal emphasis. Many other languages are more specific. I believe that there is the possibility of confusion because the usage of “will” and “shall” has changed in English and it is hard to understand what is really meant. We also want to confer the meaning of “God’s will” when God uses the verb “will.”

            I really don’t think that most Christian men mean to be deceptive or punitive. This is what we have been taught and absorbed for centuries. It has become a bigger problem since women entered the work force in the ’40s and then again in the ’70s with a Christian backlash against women leaving the home. I had hoped that when I ran headlong into this problem back in the early 90s, that it would be over by now. It makes me feel horrible that in some circles, it has gotten worse. As people of God, I think we should be leading the way, not trying to stop it. If we had kept in the front, as the Christian suffragettes did, I think we would all be in a much better place. Had we voted for women candidates back then, it would be better. I was wrong about the idea of the whole problem going away, I guess it makes sense that I have been wrong in my other thinking.

            I could go on, as I have spend 30 years trying to peg things down and make sense of it. We will all come to slightly different conclusions, I think, and that will keep us on our toes. I have so many questions to ask when I get to Heaven!!

  5. Thanks for this post. I think that academics are only just beginning to get to grips with the widely held view that women were a deformed version of men. This patently wrong belief has probably underpinned a lot of teaching about the role of men and women. Although no longer a belief held by women and men in the 21st century the effect of this belief is still felt throughout the Christian world. I wonder too how much that belief was held in other religions and influences their attitude towards women too. I realize that is outside of your remit but wanted to flag it up.

    1. Sadly, some Christian scholars of the past subscribed to the idea that women were deformed men.
      Thomas Aquinas refers to Aristotle four times in “Question 92. The production of the woman” of Summa Theologica. Aquinas is not as bad as Aristotle but still echoed him when he stated,

      “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.”
      Summa Theologica, Vol. I, Q. 92, Art. 1, Reply to Objection 1. (Read it here.)

      Modern science has proved that this idea is ridiculous. It wasn’t until 1827, when it was discovered that women produce ova (eggs), that it was recognised that women are not merely passive incubators of the male life force, and that fathers and mothers are co-creators of male and female offspring.
      More on this here: https://margmowczko.com/gender-in-genesis-1/

  6. Hey, Marg.

    I just read Kevin DeYoung’s critique of Dr. Barr’s book over at TGC, and Mike Bird’s rejoinder at his “Word from the Bird” site. I have to say, rather ruefully, that DeYoung had the better of it. If he’s wrong in terms of factual assertions, Dr. Barr and/or her advocates need to show it, and if he’s right, hammering him on style and tone is just whining.

    1. I think people should just read Beth’s book for themselves if they’re interested, and make up their own minds. I’m deeply appreciative of some of Beth’s insights, others didn’t grab me as much. That’s what usually happens when reading any book.

      Kevin’s comments that cast doubts over Beth’s ability to reason clearly because of her personal experiences are out of line. Beth’s book isn’t just theory and history, it’s also personal. And I like that.

  7. […] [5] In Paul’s instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33, Jesus is given as a model of service and love, not leadership and authority. Furthermore, as my friend MaryAnn has pointed out, “to love your wife as your body is to love her as your equal” (Eph 5:28). (More about Ephesians 5:28 here.) […]

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