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Baylor professor argues 'biblical womanhood' more cultural than biblical

Baylor professor argues 'biblical womanhood' more cultural than biblical


It is time to speak out against a Christian doctrine holding that God intends women to support men but never lead them, Baylor historian Beth Allison Barr said.

Centuries of Christian history have something else to say about women, and Barr has marshalled examples of female saints, preachers and leaders from New Testament times on in her upcoming book “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.”

Her book, published by Brazos Press with an April 20 release date, also addresses how interpretations of biblical passages used to justify what is called complementarianism, are often shaped more by culture and translation than by the passages’ historical and social contexts.

Complementarianism, drawn largely from passages in the biblical book of Genesis and the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament, holds that God created men and women equally, but with different roles and responsibilities, including leadership and authority for men, children and spousal nurturing for women.

Barr argues, however, that complementarianism, or patriarchy, is a cultural construct that runs through human history rather than a theological truth.

“Christians have been duped into believing this is Gospel truth,” she said. “This is about power. Oppression is always about power. We dress it up and make it pretty, but it’s about power.”

“The Making of Biblical Womanhood” arrives as reverberations of evangelical writer and speaker Beth Moore’s public repudiation of complementarianism as an essential Christian doctrine in recent weeks is still ringing in evangelical circles. For years, the conservative Baptist built a national following through her Bible studies, devotionals and books. She began to split from male evangelical leaders in 2016, primarily on issues of women in the church, triggering attacks on her beliefs and theology.

Others have been outspoken in their criticism of male dominance in American evangelical circles. Calvin University scholar Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the rise of what she considers toxic masculinity in evangelicalism over the last four decades, resulting in white evangelical support of Donald Trump, in her book “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.”

The wave of women sharing their stories of sexual misconduct, silencing and sexual discrimination in the #MeToo social movement of recent years has led to a corresponding #ChurchToo movement with women recounting similar stories with male church leaders, preachers and church administration.

“The #ChurchToo movement has cracked open the problems inherent in the system,” Barr said. “It’s time for Christian patriarchy to end, and we’re at a moment when it could happen.”

For Barr, Baylor associate dean of graduate studies, the issue is no mere academic discussion, but one that cut close to home. Complementarian belief sometimes is used to support a male authoritarianism in church administration, one that led to her husband Jeb Barr’s firing as a Waco-area youth minister five years ago.

That incident crystallized a yearslong struggle in trying to reconcile a theology she absorbed as a Southern Baptist, Baylor graduate and pastor’s wife with her personal knowledge of the Bible and Christian history.

After several years in North Carolina for graduate studies — Beth Barr a master’s and doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina, Jeb Barr a master’s of divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — the Barrs returned to Waco. She taught medieval, church and European women’s history at Baylor while he led the youth ministry for an Evangelical Free Church of America church near Waco. Their 15 years in rewarding church work started to sour, however, when they asked church leadership permission to allow a woman to lead a Sunday School class for high school boys. The Bible does not allow a woman in leadership over men, they were told. Efforts to question the decision eventually led to Jeb’s dismissal. The Barrs now are members of First Baptist Church of Elm Mott, where Jeb Barr serves as pastor.

Beth Barr avoids naming the church in her book and online excerpts of it, partly because her family still has close friendships with members there and partly because she does not want readers to believe the issue is limited to a single church, she said.

Seeds that would lead to her book were planted earlier with her kids, Barr said. She was unsettled by the implication of teaching her son that leadership was part of God’s plan because he was male. Sometime later, watching her then 9-year-old daughter ride her bike on the Baylor campus, Barr thought about her.

“She has to have a better world where God could call her to do whatever she was gifted to do,” she said.

The book that followed took several years to shape and grew largely in part from the study and research underlying her Baylor history classes.

Among Barr’s findings:

The “Household Codes” outlining behavior of husbands, wives and slaves found in Pauline letters such as 1 Corinthians, Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy take on additional meaning when compared to the prevailing Roman patriarchy of Paul’s time, she said. Romans would advise husbands how to compel behavior from their wives and slaves, but Paul calls them to act from love first, then addresses Christian wives and slaves directly, which would have startled listeners. In several of his letters, Paul refers to women who are doing the work of leaders in fledgling congregations, Barr said.

Medieval histories and church accounts — Barr’s forte — are dotted with examples of female saints known for their boldness in witness and preaching. In 15th century England, for example, Margery Kempe not only publicly defended her right to preach, but rebuked the archbishop of York in the process. Women also led convents that were the equal of many monasteries.

With its message of access to faith unmediated by priests, the Reformation removed the spiritual equality experienced by husbands and wives. A subsequent emphasis on family as a spiritual unit built in male authority.

Early English translations of the Bible sometimes drew from English social structure in resolving Hebrew and Greek words with multiple meanings, with the words “wives” and “virgins” narrowing subsequent interpretations.

Barr has a public book signing scheduled for 7 p.m. April 20 at Fabled Bookshop and Cafe and expects her book will draw its share of pushback, particularly with male church leaders whose identity is invested in leadership.

Her defenses of both Moore and Du Mez, a fellow Christian scholar, on her Twitter feed occasionally draw criticism, but she shrugs it off.

“I’m pretty good with the mute button on Twitter,” she said with a laugh.

More important is an ability to connect online with women who have been hurt by the practice of male authority in their churches, she said.

What she tells them, armed with history, is that the Gospel message means freedom as God intended, not a forced submission.

“We put our identity more in what we do rather than who God is,” she said.

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