by Katharine Armbrester
Complementarianism. Not all Christian women have heard the term, but they have felt its impact. If they grew up with it, complementarianism has carved itself into their psyche, if not their very soul. Beth Allison Barr’s immeasurably investigative and important work The Making of Biblical Womanhood illustrates why this is a problem in Christian culture and in the church.
Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of sin?
Complementarianism is a belief in Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities. The problem with this ideology, Barr explains, is that complementarianism is and has always been rooted in patriarchal cultural expectations for men and women, and it is not something that Christ ever preached.
In her book, Barr discusses how cultural expectations for Christian women have been shaped, particularly by three historical periods: Ancient Rome, the Reformation, and the Victorian Era. The problem is that all of these historical periods were extremely patriarchal, and women were upheld to the impossible cultural ideals of womanhood that eventually molded what a modern “Proverbs 31 woman” is supposed to be.
Among the many problems with complementarian womanhood, is that it leaves little use or respect for single, widowed or childless women, for all three aforementioned historical periods, (but especially the Victorian Era) stressed that the ideal Christian woman was meant to be married, stay at home, and have as many children as possible.
The further removed medieval women were from the married state, the closer they were to God. After the Reformation, the opposite became true for Protestant women. The more closely they identified with being wives and mothers, the godlier they became.
After the Protestant Reformation, there were far fewer uses for unmarried women—no more convents with abbesses that often provided a refuge for unmarried and intellectual women—and with this dwindling of opportunities came a proportionate lack of respect for them. Luther and Calvin wanted women married, mothering, quiet, and by the hearth. Single Protestant women have been allowed to become Sunday school teachers and missionaries in the centuries since, but in many Protestant churches there is still a fierce reluctance to allow women to teach mixed adults and to preach. The Reformation was the beginning of what Barr calls “a theology of gender” that was cultural and politically inspired and that did not necessarily improve the lives of Christian women but only placed them more completely under the control of their husbands than they had been since Roman times.
Christians were called to be radically different in how we uphold the dignity of all people, including women…I had come to realize how historically unremarkable Christian gender ideals were. Instead of looking different in how we treated women, Christians looked just like everyone else.
Barr’s greatest strength as a writer is her ability to carefully explain complicated theological concepts and distill large swaths of ecclesiastical history into short, compulsively readable chapters. Her skills are particularly notable when she discusses Paul and his impact on Christian women. One of the most controversial questions to this day is whether a woman has the right to speak in church, i.e., to preach to men. Barr explains how Paul both lifted Christian women up from the culture around them, but also adhered to the patriarchal, Roman mores of his time. Yes, women can speak in church. It’s 2023, it is no longer 62 A.D.
Paul was a patriarchal man living in a patriarchal time, and as Barr explains, “Patriarchy may be a part of Christian history, but that doesn’t make it Christian.” It is not Paul but Christ who should be considered the final word when it comes to the role of women, and Barr illuminates how Christ repeatedly gave women the right to speak and to roles of leadership.
A gender hierarchy in which women rank under men can be found in almost every era and among every people group. When the church denies women the ability to preach, lead, teach, and sometimes even work outside the home, the church is continuing a long historical tradition of subordinating women.
It is to be hoped that as many Christians as possible will read this phenomenal book, and not only women but men too. Hopefully, this book will encourage Christians to examine the ideology of complementarianism and cast it away, as it is of the world and not of Christ’s teaching. It has brought about nothing but the unbiblical subjugation of women, and mental, emotional, and physical suffering in many cases. It is to be hoped that those who adhere to complementarianism will consider the twisted fruit that it has borne, and remember John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
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Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one. Katharine has been recently published in the Lucky Jefferson literary journal, the Birmingham Arts Journal, and the supernatural Twilight Zone-inspired anthology, Step Into the Fifth Dimension.
One thought on “The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr — Book Review”
Thank you for the food for thought.