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 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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