Deconstructing biblical womanhood

Conversations through Safe Church explore how theology shapes church structure.

What if? My kids love “what if” questions. What if you had two extra arms? What if you could turn yourself into anything you wanted? These types of questions stimulate their imaginations and get them thinking about what life would be like if things were different. In her new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Dr. Allison Barr finds “What if” questions helpful, too. “What if I am wrong about my conclusions?” is a useful question for a historian. For Christians, as she points out, the question “’What if I’m wrong?’ helps me listen to others better. It keeps me humble. It makes me a better scholar” (42).

This overarching question frames her discussion of interpreting what the Bible teaches us about the role of women. She asks complementarian evangelicals: “What if you are wrong? What if evangelicals have been understanding Paul through the lens of modern culture instead of the way Paul intended to be understood?”

Complementarian theology teaches that women and men are created equal but have distinctly different roles in society. These roles are laid out clearly in the Bible and instruct men to be the leaders in both the public and private arenas (Biblical manhood) while women are to graciously submit to men (Biblical womanhood). Women can be leaders for other women and children but never have authority over men. Barr argues that ‘Biblical womanhood’ is actually not biblical at all but is instead a human construct, one that followed the path of the world around us rather than embracing the “Christ-crucified gospel.”

Dr. Allison Barr is a Baptist Christian and a specialist in European women, medieval and early modern England, and church history. In The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, she writes in part about her personal experiences with the effects of complementarian systems as she explains the historical evidence that shows how “Biblical womanhood was constructed – brick by brick, century by century” (17) rather than being a result of correct biblical interpretation.

“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Spanish artist Diego Velzquez (1618).

The Safe Church link

On November 17, 2021, Rev. Dr. Amanda Benckhuysen, the Safe Church Ministry Director for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and Rev. Elaine May, the CRCNA Women’s Ministry Developer, hosted a webinar discussion with Dr. Barr about her book and the impact the subjugation of women has had on women, the church and abuse. The Safe Church Ministry helps “build communities where the value of each person is honored; where people are free to worship and grow free from abuse; and, where abuse has occurred, the response is compassion and justice that foster healing.” This year the Safe Church ministry has put out a series of webinars to help congregations become safe places for all people.

Left to Right: Dr. Beth Allison Barr, Rev. Elaine May, and Rev. Dr. Amanda Benckhuysen.

The November webinar explored how the teaching of complementarian views is a Safe Church concern. Barr makes it clear that complementarian theology does NOT invariably lead “to abuse, there is not a direct line”; however, ideas do matter: theology matters as it shapes the structures where life is lived out. “Complementarianism leads to systems that make it much less likely for women to be able to report abuse and get out of abusive situations,” Barr says, “and it also leads to situations where men who are abusers are more likely to get away with it.”

Although the Christian Reformed Church espouses a diversity of interpretations on the roles of men and women according to the Bible, as Benckhuysen pointed out in the webinar, the message in Barr’s book is still relevant. “Complementarianism can become such a high core value that it inadvertently becomes elevated above the safety and well-being of women,” Benckhuysen warns. Barr agrees, and argues that in many evangelical circles this has indeed happened as leaders have re-written what it means to be saved to include one’s belief in the proper role of women and men. Biblical womanhood has become gospel truth, even though “the historical reality is that social systems that invest some people with power over the lives of other people result in the destruction of people” (173). This is not gospel. The gospel is good news for all people.

Although written with an Evangelical audience in mind, Barr’s book seems particularly relevant for Reformed churches that are dealing with a diversity of views and changing ideas of the proper roles for men and women. What if all our churches were aware of how beliefs shape our institutional structures and systems, and then worked for God’s justice within these systems?

Barr’s book and the November discussion challenge us to remember the stories of women throughout history who have answered God’s call to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a).

Hearing the words of women

The Making of Biblical Womanhood ends as it began. What if? After a journey through history to see how Christians have constructed systems that contribute to the imbalance of power and unsafe churches, Barr calls all of us to imagine what could be: “What if we finally stood together, united by our belief in Jesus instead of divided by arguments over power and authority? What if we followed the example of Jesus, who let Mary of Bethany sit at his feet like a male disciple and who overruled his disciples to make sure he heard the words of the woman of Canaan? What if we realized that, even when the male disciples pushed women away, Jesus always listened to women speak?” (181). What if . . .

This article first appeared in our February 14, 2022 print issue under the title “What if . . .” If you like that title better, maybe you’d enjoy a print subscription!


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