The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Beth Allison Barr

“You want me to finish this book,” I said to my husband. It was early in March 2020—just one month before my manuscript deadline and just days before COVID-19 shut down the world. At the time I was an associate dean in the Graduate School at Baylor University, which meant I worked eight-hour days. This left evening hours, the time I usually spent with my family, for writing.

My husband paused, still holding a plate in his hand. He was in the middle of loading the dishwasher, rinsing dinner pans and kid lunchbox containers. We were both exhausted. Full-time jobs that did not stay confined to traditional work hours combined with raising a pre-teen daughter and a teenage son, not to mention unexpected (and stressful) challenges at the small church where my husband pastored, already filled our lives. After seven months of writing in addition to everything else we were doing, he was ready for me to be finished. I didn’t blame him. I was ready for me to be finished too.

He stood there quietly, looking at the dish in his hand. I don’t know what he was thinking (nor does he remember). But I knew, despite how tired we were, this book needed to be written. I think he knew it too. “One more month?” he asked, making room for the plate in the dishwasher. “One more month,” I answered.

Today—more than two years, five printings, and three translations (two still in progress) since that moment—I am so glad we persevered. I wrote The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth because I believed the evangelical world needed to learn the history that led to complementarianism. It wasn’t until after publication, though, that I fully realized how much that history was needed.

For those of you who don’t know, The Making of Biblical Womanhood walks through more than 4,000 years of history, from the ancient world to the present, showing how “biblical womanhood” is a product of human culture rather than biblical teachings. The argument is simple: Christians have succumbed to the sin of patriarchy and become complicit in the oppression of women. We have tried to make our complicity look acceptable, dressing it up with words like complementarian and biblical womanhood. We have packaged it in pretty Bibles and sold it in marriage sermons. We have elevated it to gospel-level importance, even creating organizations dedicated to preserving a gender hierarchy of male headship and female submission.

Yet, as The Making of Biblical Womanhood argues, Christian teaching about female submission—rather than extolling values different from the world around us—closely resembles the historical oppression of women. Take, for example, the ancient world of Rome. Historian Sarah Pomeroy tells the haunting story of a Roman woman in her 2017 book The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2010). Regilla was born into an affluent Roman family in 125 CE; fifteen years later she married the Greek politician Herodes Atticus; and twenty years after this marriage, when she was eight months pregnant with their sixth child, she died from a brutal beating. Pomeroy quotes a contemporary source describing what happened: “A murder charge was brought against Herodes in this way. When his wife Regilla was eight months pregnant, he ordered his freedman Alcimedon to beat her for trivial reasons. She died in premature childbirth from a blow to her abdomen.” Despite his clear guilt, Herodes wasn’t convicted of the crime. He was a member of the imperial family and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius intervened on his behalf. Instead of suffering consequences for murdering his wife, Herodes gained her vast property and thus benefited financially from his crime.

How did this happen? The answer is both simple and terrible. The ancient Roman world taught that women belonged under male authority. Herodes had the legal authority of life and death over his household; he was a prominent leader connected through the Good Ole’ Boy network of family and politics to the emperor himself; and he was acquitted for the murder of his pregnant wife. Roman thought, Roman culture, and Roman law taught that men were superior to women, and this attitude translated into how men like Herodes treated women like Regilla.

Of course, Regilla’s story is extreme, right? It doesn’t have parallels with how modern evangelicals treat women.

Or does it?

The social system of patriarchy was a constant in the Roman empire, affecting the life of every woman. But how it impacted the lives of Roman women varied. Some women had good husbands with happy marriages and control over their finances and family. Some women gained freedom from male guardianship through legal loopholes, becoming powerful property owners. And some women, like Regilla, lived with brutal husbands and died terrible deaths. Because Roman patriarchy was built on the idea of hierarchy between the sexes—the subordination of one sex to the other—the potential for violence and abuse existed alongside the potential for comfort and happiness. How women experienced patriarchy was often less about the choices they made and more about the circumstances in which they lived. A woman could be lucky—her husband could love and treat her well, and she could benefit from the respect Romans afforded her position as matron. Other women were not so lucky. For Regilla, despite her considerable economic and social resources, her husband proved the most powerful force in her life.

I thought of Regilla recently. On May 23, 2022, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published a review of The Making of Biblical Womanhood. In case you don’t know, the CBMW resides in Louisville, on the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention.  The author, Bradley Green, questioned my ability as a historian and dismissed my scholarship as misdirected “passion” and “highly-pitched rhetoric.” Only one day before, Guidepost Solutions released their independent investigation into the response of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee to sexual abuse allegations. What they found was a pattern of abuse, mishandling of abuse allegations, intimidation of sexual abuse victims, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.  I couldn’t help but think about the connection between the SBC’s commitment to complementarianism, the condescending dismissal of the scholarship of a woman who challenged their beliefs, and the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse allegations. Isn’t it possible that SBC’s ideas about women have contributed to their alleged mistreatment of women—that ideas teaching women are less than men have resulted in men treating women as less? The SBC claims that complementarianism is good for women, but just as Regilla would probably have a different perspective on Roman patriarchy than Herodes, I suspect the victims of sexual abuse within the SBC might have a different perspective on complementarianism than the authors of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

For too long, evangelicalism has failed to understand the consequences of our ideas about women. For too long, evangelical churches have taught a narrative about women we believed was rooted in Scripture and supported by the facts of history: A narrative that places women permanently under male authority. A narrative that insists that female submission is good for women and does not equal subjugation. A narrative, despite the mounting evidence, that keeps arguing that “aberrations” like Paige Patterson, Mark Driscoll, and Ravi Zacharias are isolated incidents of good men gone bad and not indicative of a problem with the foundation of our churches. A narrative that insists that “biblical womanhood”—the idea that women are divinely ordained to be under male authority—is rooted in gospel truth.

It is true that for some evangelical women, the idea of male headship and female submission costs little—just the backdrop to their everyday routines. But it is also true that for other evangelical women, the logical outcome of ideas teaching women are permanently subordinate to men costs much more—sometimes as much as their lives.

More than two years ago, my husband and I decided that the cost of writing The Making of Biblical Womanhood was worth it. We thought it was time for evangelicals to understand the historical context of our ideas about women as well as the cost of those ideas for women. Below is an excerpt from my opening chapter “The Beginning of Patriarchy.” It will give you a taste for both the style of The Making of Biblical Womanhood as well as the historical narrative that I tell. I hope you find it helpful. Thank you for reading!

Christian Patriarchy Is Just Patriarchy

“But you only work part time?”

“So how many hours does that take you away from home during the week?”

“Oh, you breastfeed? I figured you didn’t do that since you worked.”

“Is your husband okay with you making more money than him?”

These are just a sampling of the questions I have been asked over the past twenty years. A pastor’s wife who continued to pursue my own career even while I had children perplexed many in my evangelical community—including some of my college students. One student was particularly vocal. He was theologically conservative and expressed concern about my choice to continue teaching as a wife and mother (especially as a pastor’s wife). He challenged me so often in the classroom that I took to rewriting lecture material, trying to minimize his disruptions. I wasn’t successful. Once the student suggested that I clear my teaching material with my husband before presenting it to my classroom. This both angered and unnerved me. It angered me that he thought it appropriate to suggest that I submit my teaching materials to the authority of my husband. It unnerved me because every semester I worried about how my vocation as a female professor clashed with conservative Christian expectations about female submission.

When I read Russell Moore’s attempt to distinguish “Christian patriarchy” from “pagan patriarchy,” the experience I had with this student came to mind. According to Moore, “pagan patriarchy” encourages women to submit to all men, while “Christian patriarchy” only concerns wives submitting to their husbands. Moore has softened his discussion of patriarchy over the years, emphasizing in his 2018 book that, in creation, men and women “are never given dominion over one another.” Yet he still clings to male headship. While he writes that “Scripture demolishes the idea that women, in general, are to be submissive to men, in general,” he explains wifely submission as cultivating “a voluntary attitude of recognition toward godly leadership.” Thus, his general attitude remains unchanged: Women should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy).

Nice try, I thought. Tell that to my conservative male student. Because that student considered me to be under the authority of my husband, he was less willing to accept my authority over him in a university classroom. No matter how much Moore wants to separate “pagan patriarchy” from “Christian patriarchy,” he can’t. Both systems place power in the hands of men and take power away from women. Both systems teach men that women rank lower than they do. Both systems teach women that their voices are worth less than the voices of men. Moore may claim that women only owe submission “to their own husbands,” not to men “in general,” but he undermines this claim by excluding women as pastors and elders. If men (simply because of their sex) have the potential to preach and exercise spiritual authority over a church congregation but women (simply because of their sex) do not, then that gives men “in general” authority over women “in general.” My conservative male student considered me under the authority of both my husband and my pastor, and he treated me accordingly.

Christian patriarchy does not remain confined within the walls of our homes. It does not stay behind our pulpits. It cannot be peeled off suit coats like a name tag as evangelical men move from denying women’s leadership at church to accepting the authority of women at work or women in the classroom.

Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy. Complementarians may argue that women are equal to men, as does the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 amendment to the “Baptist Faith and Message”: “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image.” Yet their insistence that “equal worth” manifests in unequal roles refutes this.

Historian Barry Hankins quotes the “key passage” of the controversial statement approved at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in June 1998: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” The claim is certainly that women’s work (from housework to childcare to answering phones) is valuable and worthy, but when that same work is deemed unsuitable for a man to do, it reveals the truth: Women’s work is less important than men’s. Moreover, just as men are demeaned for doing women’s jobs (which often come with less authority and, consequently, lower pay), women are restricted from doing men’s jobs (which garner both more authority and higher pay). In this way, Christian patriarchy models the patriarchy of mainstream society. Our pastor valued the work of a woman less than the work of a man, just as the economy of my hometown values the work of women less (almost $20,000 per year less) than the work of men. Russell Moore is right to prefer the term patriarchy because, realistically, it is the right term to use. But he is wrong to think that the Christian model is different.

Indeed, regarding the treatment of women throughout history, the present looks an awful lot like the past. How little the wage gap between women and men has changed over time both frightens and fascinates me as a medieval historian. Judith Bennett describes this startling reality: “Women who work in England today share an experience with female wage earners seven centuries ago: they take home only about three-quarters the wages earned by men. In the 1360s, women earned 71 percent of male wages; today, they earn about 75 percent.” This historical continuity—what Bennett calls the “patriarchal equilibrium”—lends superficial support to the idea of biblical womanhood. When examined carefully, however, the historical origins of patriarchy weaken rather than bolster the evangelical notion of biblical womanhood. 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.


[Content taken from The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing]

Posted Oct 12, 2022