A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Andrew Ballitch
Summary and Review
Let me put my cards on the table at the outset, as this is a highly polemical book and I in many ways represent the opposition. I grew up reading many of those whom Barr has in her crosshairs, men like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, and was educated by others, such as Russel Moore and Bruce Ware. My wife is a homemaker and mother and looks to me for the spiritual leadership of our family. I am committed to biblical complementarianism in a denomination currently plagued by a vocal minority of powerful egalitarians on the issue of women pastors. I have been outspoken both from the pulpit and with the pen. This book piqued my interest because it promised something new, namely, an historical argument against complementarianism, and, honestly, I am open to persuasion because it would make life much easier to swim downstream. Alas, I remain unconvinced and offer this review as a few more strokes against the prevailing current.
Barr aims to expose biblical womanhood or complementarianism for what she asserts that it is—Christian patriarchy. She writes as a professor of history at Baylor University with a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a profession and credential she makes a regular practice of reminding readers about. From an historical perspective, she identifies a number of definable moments that built upon one another to produce complementarianism. These all have the same foundation, the gender distinctions and strife found starting in Genesis 3 and the patriarchy that has therefore poisoned all human civilization. What is not considered, is that gender distinctions and roles were ordained at creation as attested to in Genesis 1 and 2, which would also explain the universality of patriarchy, though as a sinful distortion of the created order.
The primary argument proceeds as follows. Fixation on the Pauline household codes, the instructions for husbands and wives, slaves and masters, parents and children, is a recent phenomenon. But regardless, because the household instructions address each member of the community, the point is equality of each individual before God. Paul’s directions were countercultural, and his primary purpose was neither male authority nor female submission. All of this big picture description is on point, but it does not somehow trump the particulars of husbands loving wives and wives submitting to husbands. In fact, it is entirely consistent with these directives.
Next, a contrast is drawn between the medieval church and the changes implemented by the Protestant Reformation. Examples are presented of women during the middle ages rising above their sex, abandoning the responsibilities of wife and mother (often after these were no longer potential obligations, but literal commitments), and ascending to positions of spiritual authority. The Reformation came with a cost. Before women were empowered by virginity. With the sixteenth century came godliness being equated with domestic duties and roles. Alternatives to marriage decreased, along with priestly celibacy, abbeys, and nunneries, while economic, political, and legal dependence on husbands increased. Marriage followed by motherhood completed women. At the same time, institutional religious authority went from being an exception for women to disappearing entirely. This contrast begs the question, shouldn’t marriage and family be the normal experience of both men and women? Going back again to the creation order and biological realities, it would seem both right and good.
After the Reformation, English Bible translations refused the gender neutrality of traditional Christian interpretation. The nineteenth-century “cult of domesticity” was baptized, equating womanhood with being a wife and mother and as a result under the authority of men. For Barr, the issue is not domestic duties normally being performed by women, but linking them to spiritual calling and godliness and as a result, relegating women to the private sphere. Women in the ensuing complementarian circles have carved out religious authority only by embracing and building on the marriage and family mandate.
In the final content chapter, Barr seeks to put two final nails in complementarianism’s coffin. She claims again that the biblical manhood and womanhood movement is a relatively new occurrence by citing various examples of female preachers in the evangelical tradition and concluding that this was normative, especially in the Wesleyan, holiness, and Pentecostal movements. Then she argues, first, that the championing of inerrancy from fundamentalism was linked to gender, giving Christians a false choice: accept the literal meaning of every passage or throw out the Bible in its entirety. This applied from Genesis to 1 Timothy 2. This coupled with, second, the eternal subordination of the Son, a position that grounds submission in Christ’s submission to the Father which she equates with the heresy Arianism, made biblical womanhood “gospel truth.” Barr’s treatment of inerrancy illustrates her tendency to impute causation to correlation. Her handling of the eternal subordination of the Son shows her propensity to make the complex simplistic, as if this theological error is affirmed by all complementarians.
Before offering a final evaluation, here are a few quotes illustrative of what readers can expect from this book…
“Because I am a historian, I know there is more to Paul’s letters than his words reveal” (56).
“Inerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit. It worked extremely well” (191).
“Trinitarian teachings are central to orthodox Christianity; and complementarians—in their blind pursuit to maintain control over women—have exchanged the truth of God for a gender hierarchy of human origin” (194).
“Isn’t it time that white Christians realize that the roots of biblical womanhood extend from white supremacy?” (208).
Barr bookends her narrative with two negative experiences she lays at the feet of complementarianism. She recounts an abusive dating relationship. While all abuse is a tragic misuse of power, the recollection, in this case, is too vague to be evaluated in any way. Great detail is given about her husband being let go from a Southern Baptist Church over differences of opinion on women’s roles in the church. This was the traumatic experience that initiated the writing of this book. Perhaps the situation could have been handled with more grace, but at the end of the day, the church fired him because he changed from the clearly articulated, ubiquitous position of the leadership and pressed them on it.
In the final estimation, I do not believe Barr is really trying to convince anyone across the aisle of her position. Her language is loaded, condescending, and elitist. Her rhetoric is emotional. She impugns the motives of godly men and women. Her recounting of history confuses correlation with causation and assumes outlying examples were normative. She admits being badly burned and while her experience may warrant her anger, her evidence fails to substantiate her claims. Hell hath no fury…indeed.
Andrew S. Ballitch (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Westwood Alliance Church in Mansfield, Ohio.
Buy the books
THE MAKING OF BIBLICAL WOMANHOOD: HOW THE SUBJUGATION OF WOMEN BECAME GOSPEL TRUTH, by Beth Allison Barr