Why the Greatest Weapon Against Christian Patriarchy Is the Bible
In her new book ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood,’ history professor Beth Allison Barr reveals centuries of women that modern leaders keep trying to erase
I was seventeen years old in 1997 and thought I might be receiving a call to the ministry. The places I felt safest were in prayer, head bowed over my Bible, or in church, considering this precious, complicated world as a gift and thanking the God who I thought gave it to us.
I even had a good role model, a witty, vibrant associate pastor who told stories that wove together her gentle humor and a faith I saw as beautiful. But as I began exploring what Christian faith might look like, I expanded out away from her curious, humble leadership to attend Bible studies with evangelical friends and their pastor. I grappled with the restrictive, rule-obsessed God I heard about there, started watching The 700 Club, dated a Pentecostal preacher’s son — and discovered, when they laid hands on me, that I had never been saved in the way people in his youth group believed I should be. They all believed the Bible, a mess of history and stories as I understood it, was actually something a good Christian must take literally. I absorbed a grain of doubt — had I been doing faith wrong?
When I confided, “I think I’m being called into the ministry,” to a friend, it was with pain in his eyes that he let me down softly. I knew the Bible, right? He quoted Paul’s prohibition, “women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be in submission.”
Whatever I was experiencing must not be God working in me. Another grain of self-doubt.
As my amorphous, enthusiastic faith increasingly collided with the harsh strictures of evangelical theology bleeding in at the edges of my social circles, I became less certain. By the time I got to college and began studying the Bible in historical context, the newer, more literal sort of faith I’d tried to adopt had morphed into something so stiff, so brittle, it could not take the fractures of more doubt. It broke. I am a woman inclined to leadership (I didn’t know how to change that), fascinated by religion and faith, but I didn’t know how to fit inside it anymore. So, I walked away from the church.
As a reporter, a religion writer, I’m still deeply fascinated by women who stayed.
So, it was with great curiosity that I watched medieval church historian Beth Allison Barr giving out “End Christian Patriarchy” stickers to promote her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Barr, a Baylor University professor of medieval and women’s history, is also a Baptist preacher’s wife who admits she was formerly complicit in accepting the silencing of women within her church. Despite growing clarity that “Biblical Womanhood” as it is preached and marketed today was disconnected from history, and increasingly to her mind, scripture, “I stayed silent because I was afraid of my husband losing his job. I was afraid of losing our friends. I was afraid of losing our ministry,” she writes.
But that’s exactly what happened after her husband challenged his church leadership by suggesting that perhaps a woman could teach Sunday school.
It was a disorienting period. After her husband was fired, they did lose friends, their church, their ministry. Barr was angry at first, but also says “I knew the problem wasn’t God… I knew the church had strayed from the teachings about what a church was supposed to be.” She didn’t blame the congregation either, “because they were doing what they had been told to do and what they had been taught to do.”
Barr opened her laptop and started writing.
In Barr’s book, being forced out of their church over the issue of female leadership serves as the frame to the church history that kept calling to her as she navigated her husband’s job loss, her church upholding complementarian rules, her own reckoning with women’s submission despite knowing the church’s history better than most. She began wondering if patriarchy, instead of being ordained by God, was a result of human sin. “What if the reason that the fruit of patriarchy is so corrupt, even within the Christian church, is because patriarchy has always been a corrupted system?”
For some reason, as she puzzled over that question, all she could think about was a fifteenth-century faith leader named Margery Kempe.
In her book, Barr describes how in 1417 Margery Kempe was arrested. Her extravagant worship style and proclivity for debating theology with clergy had put her under a cloud of suspicion. The archbishop of York said, “I hear it said that you are a very wicked woman.”
Kempe, not the docile sort, fired back, “Sir, I also hear it said that you are a wicked man. And if you are as wicked as people say, you will never get to heaven, unless you amend while you are here.”
She then went on to quote from the book of Luke to explain why the gospel gives women like her the right to speak about God. A priest rushed to read one of the old Pauline “women be silent” chestnuts, asserting women should not preach. Kempe claimed she didn’t preach — she wasn’t going up to pulpits after all — just having conversations, teaching the good word just as Jesus had endorsed all believers must do. Kempe argued and wore the men down.
By the end, the archbishop paid a man five shillings to escort her from the room and even provided a letter endorsing she was not a heretic for her to carry on her travels.
“Unlike modern evangelicals, medieval Christians remembered the female leaders of their past.”
“I knew from reading her words and from reading sermons that were preached during that time, I knew she believed in Jesus the same way I believe in Jesus,” says Barr.
“Unlike modern evangelicals, medieval Christians remembered the female leaders of their past,” Barr writes. Kempe wasn’t in a vacuum. There were plenty of women acting in faith leadership roles as women religious (nuns), and people still remembered and revered the early church’s women leaders. Kempe had, as Barr writes, “a great cloud of female witnesses.” Barr’s project has become reacquainting believers with that history.
In The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Barr starts a chapter with the words, “I hate Paul!” She hears this often from her female students who have been scarred by verses attributed to Paul that were used against them.
Instead she offers context for the Roman world in which Paul was writing, layers of then-recent history that would have influenced debate within the early church. Wartime laws limiting women’s wealth had remained intact, while those limiting men’s wealth were lifted. Women led protests against the laws, fighting for reform in a time when they weren’t supposed to conduct any business, even privately, without a guardian. Between 30 BCE and 17 CE, Cato the Elder famously argued that tradition mandated women remain under the authority of men, that they shouldn’t be advocating independently in the streets. If women’s fury led to repeal, he warned, “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors.”
Barr notes that a common rhetorical device during that period was first quoting what one saw as a faulty argument and following up by refuting it. She suggests, as others have before her, this might have been what Paul was up to in those women-silencing passages in Corinthians. “What if Paul was so concerned that Christians in Corinth were imposing their own [Roman] cultural restrictions on women that he called them on it?” Barr writes. In this interpretation, Paul was quoting Romans’ dubious gender hierarchy about silencing women and making them subordinate. Then he goes on to say, “What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” and directs the Corinthian church not to forbid speaking in tongues. In Barr’s understanding, he’s differentiating Christians from the broader culture that silenced women, and even if he isn’t, “Paul is not making a blanket decree for women to be silent” as evidenced by all the other references he made to women’s leadership and his support for them.
When Barr reads these and other verses aloud in class in this context, students with other Bible translations notice differences. For example, there’s one in Ephesians that is often used in isolation to tell women to submit to their husbands. In the verses prior, all people are told to be subject to one another and men are told to likewise submit to their wives, but in the English Standard Version (ESV) the verses are sectioned off with headings to separate out women’s submission — and keep it separate from even earlier verses where Paul is pushing against Roman patriarchal household codes.
Barr gives an example from Romans in which a list of women in the early church are recognized for their ministry: Phoebe, a deacon; Priscilla is named before her husband; Mary is recognized for her hard work in Asia; Junia is prominent among the apostles. Ten women in all are mentioned — more than men in that chapter. But it gets obscured. Moody Press’s Ryrie Study Bible translates Phoebe’s role, not as deacon but as “servant.” Junia was accepted as a female disciple until the twentieth century when it began to be translated as the masculine “Junias.”
Barr knew all this, taught it. “Yet I still allowed the leaders of my church to go uncontested in their claim that women could not teach boys older than thirteen at our church. I still remained silent.” The question Barr kept struggling with is why?
In the early aughts, I had become one of the growing legions of women disaffiliating with the church. I studied religion in college, even attended Divinity School. I could study faith, but could not feel it anymore.
Barr had grown up Southern Baptist in small-town Texas, saturated with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson on the radio and as a teen, reading his book Love for a Lifetime where she remembers learning “biology predetermined my physical weakness and emotional instability, drawing me to my divinely created masculine compliment.” Her husband attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, directed by then-president Paige Patterson. Patterson, along with his wife Dorothy, led SBC to resolve in 1984, women’s secondary creation and in 1998, that wives submit to their husbands.
There’s been plenty of ink spilled about the accumulation of political power by the evangelical movement over the 1970s and ’80s. Less, perhaps is spent on the bubbling up of a global ecumenical women’s movement in the 1990s. More progressive churches were beginning to recognize and celebrate women’s leadership, and this may have deepened the backlash against women within many more conservative churches. One 1993 feminist, Christian women’s conference, Re-Imagining, was so effectively smeared — as pagan, lesbian, and heretical — that for decades after those involved were hesitant to utter its name.
After a period of conservative resurgence rooted in, as Barr describes it, “evangelical fears of the family falling apart,” there was also the obvious political and cultural overlay of the Clinton years, when Hillary Clinton came to embody the threats of feminism to many within the Christian Right. This is back when Clinton rather infamously said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.”
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In 1997, World magazine published an article, “Femme Fatale: The Feminist Seduction of the Evangelical Church,” warning the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible was quietly going gender-neutral. Two months later, led by James Dobson, a group of 12 male leaders, including Wayne Grudem and John Piper (from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) produced guidelines for “Gender-Related Language in Scripture.”
Soon after, SBC condemned gender-inclusive language in scripture, along with those who “accommodate contemporary cultural pressures.” The next year Grudem got permission to revise the 1971 Revised Standard Version of the Bible, what would become the ESV.
By 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention officially banned women serving as head pastors. The ESV translation was published the same year. Now pairing a theology of literal, biblical inerrancy with a Bible tweaked to reflect gender difference, it became easier to establish the twenty-first century version of “Biblical womanhood” was as old as the church.
Since evangelicalism’s books, conferences, and networks are so diffuse, this restrictive, faux-redux of faithful womanhood bled out to more mainline churches too. I myself got caught in the undertow. Barr and millions of evangelical women were awash in the big wave.
The day Barr and I spoke she knew a headline was about to break. She was being quoted in the Religion News Service piece in which Beth Moore announced her disaffiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Moore, a Bible-teacher with nearly a million Twitter followers, had for years walked that strange line within SBC, leading women (but not men!), teaching, but not preaching (just joking about that once caused an enormous uproar). Moore left SBC, saying she loves many Southern Baptist people and churches, but “I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.”
Moore had been increasingly outspoken about sexual abuse and women’s treatment within the church, piping up at a time when her overwhelmingly white denomination was embattled over how and whether to acknowledge the realities of racism and white supremacy. As Barr wrote in her book, of course, “patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history.”
It’s no wonder many walk away.
Barr is well aware that for her generation of women who grew up in the ‘80s and for those younger or older, “our understanding of the Bible is really rooted in the post-conservative resurgence time. We really don’t remember anything different,” says Barr. “And that to me is what has become so frightening because we really believe that the gospel is bound up in male headship and female submission.” Yet Barr thinks to believe in Jesus is to believe in hope. She sees patriarchy as the construct.
Recent years have called up a present-day “great cloud of female witnesses.” Christian influencers like Beth Moore may get ample attention for raising questions against patriarchal doctrine. But there are so many voices calling out. Barr hopes “we are at a reckoning point where we are going to be able to shed all of that cultural accretion that has weighed evangelicalism, and Baptists as part of the evangelical world, down.”
Barr’s book is revelatory on one last count: it illuminates her as part of a movement of women, now, demanding to be heard.
It’s women like Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians and also a Lutheran pastor, who leads in her church while trying to help the rest of us understand the impact of Christian nationalism in places many reporters never go. Despite the SBC and other denomination’s efforts to bar women in church leadership, plenty of women keep preaching.
That cloud of witnesses includes women like Kristin Kobes Du Mez, whose book Jesus and John Wayne has served as a sort of oracle revealing toxic masculinity within the evangelical movement. A year out from publication, the book spurs daily posts from believers starting to peel their faith away from hyperbolic manhood they’d been led to believe was at its core. It’s voices like Jules Woodson and Ashley Easter (the latter, an ordained reverend) insisting churches confront sexual abuse within their midst. It’s Emily Joy Allison who led the broad numbers of women and men who demanded accountability with #ChurchToo. It’s Anthea Butler making plain the racism experienced by Black Catholics and at the roots of the evangelical movement. It’s the women, thanks to Barr, now walking around with “End Christian Patriarchy” stickers on their coffee mugs. I’ve known them through writing about them, and maybe I never would have if they’d all been inclined to only perch behind a pulpit. But for eyes curious to witness a different sort of faith, I’ve found it in their words and work, in their leadership.