“Biblical Womanhood” in the Crossfire

One of the things I love about Advent Christian Voices is the ability of those who blog here to disagree respectfully on matters that are often more complex than we like to admit. That is an amazing quality in a time like ours fraught with division and fear of others who see things differently.

I’m diving into one of those areas, and adding my two cents into the good debate that Catherine Rybicki and Luke Copeland have had on these pages the past couple of weeks. This dive is prompted by my reading of Beth Allison Barr’s controversial new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Woman Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021).

Drop the Hammer

All of us bring spoken and unspoken biases to our work and I am no exception. So, let me state my point-of-view. Since 1977, I have been a biblical egalitarian who thinks that in family, church, work, and life women and men are partners in God’s call to ministry and service. My convictions are strong enough that I could not in conscience sign the 2000 SBC Baptist Faith and Message nor the Danvers Statement of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). My egalitarian convictions began with my experience at a Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts week-long seminar held in Long Beach, CA. Mr. Gothard was the complementarian poster-boy of the 1970s and thousands of evangelicals flocked to his seminars and soaked in his “teachings” about hierarchy. Mr. Gothard illustrated his teaching with his now infamous “umbrella” diagram complete with hammer and chisel; the tools for “molding” people, especially women and children, into his vision of Christian maturity.

I sat stunned as I watched 9,000 people lap up this stuff. No questions were permitted (those who know me know that I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask), especially questions that might challenge the entire house of cards that comprised the Gothard system. A couple of years later at one of his advanced seminars held in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Gothard told the group of pastors and leaders assembled that if a husband was assaulting and beating his wife, the wife had the obligation to stay and accept that in the hopes of witnessing to him. (Fortunately, one of the pastors there stood up in that large gathering, yelled out “you’re crazy!” and stormed out for all to see.) This was complementarian paradise and I wanted nothing to do with it; so I left behind Bill Gothard eager to discover a more Christian way, a way that affirmed the dignity, worth, and giftedness of every Christian man and woman.

Money, Sex, and Power

Fast-forward 45 years past the hundreds of books written and in my view, that way has become more clear even if the issues have become more complex. We’re not only talking about how we order our families, or about who can do what in our churches. Now we face the horrid reality of rampant sexual and spiritual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the United States and the entire world. Not a week goes by anymore when some prominent megachurch pastor or leader is outed because of gross sexual abuse or abuse of power. Richard Foster was right when he argued that almost all sin can be categorized as the abuse of money, sex, or power.

Barr offers her readers a helpful way of seeing how “biblical womanhood” of the past 50 years is more a creation of recent history than of early and medieval Christianity. The historical reality has been that the more centralized institutional structures of church and society become, the most restricted the lives and ministries of women. This is well illustrated by missions history. Many of the great endeavors in world missions were accomplished by women exercising gifts of preaching and teaching that they were not allowed to exercise in North America or Europe. Why? Because there was nobody else to communicate the gospel through preaching and teaching. And the folks who thought it was wrong for women to preach and teach were all thousands of miles away. You know what? God honored those women and thousands of men and women, boys and girls came to know and love Christ because God worked through their preaching and teaching. I’m fortunate to have met a few of them.

John Piper and others like to speak of Christianity as having “a masculine feel” and this “masculine feel” involves notions of authority and submission. This idea has become popular in circles where “biblical womanhood” is taught. Often it is connected to the heretical idea of the “eternal subordination of the Son,” Advocates of this rather Arian concept argue that “the Son, the second person of the Trinity is subordinate to the Father not only in economy of salvation but in his essence” (193). In other words, within the inner workings of the Triune God there is a hierarchical relation of authority and submission. There is a tactical reason for why some advocates of “biblical womanhood” like this idea. As Barr writes, “if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify” (195-96).

What about the Bible?

All of this is nice, you say, but what about the Bible. Does Scripture not clearly limit the roles of women both in marriage and the church? Space prohibits me from going into all of the exegetical arguments, so let me make two points. First, throughout the Old and New Testaments we see women performing tasks that those who advocate for “biblical womanhood” argue are off limits for them. Junia (yes, she was a woman) was honored among the Apostles according to Paul’s words in Romans 16:7. Phoebe was described as a “deacon” earlier in the same passage. The first two witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection were women and they proclaimed it publicly first to the twelve, and then by extension to Jesus other disciples. Women prayed and prophesized, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. The are more examples. I think we begin with what the New Testament (and the Old Testament) tell us that women actually did, and we interpret the Pauline and Petrine teaching regarding women in that light, and not the other way around.

Second, In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul is clear that we are to “submit to one another our of reverence for Christ.” Then he identifies three pairs where those who are view as stronger (husbands, parents, and masters) and who are weaker (wives, children, and slaves) are asked to practice mutual submission in important ways. As Barr writes, “Instead of endowing authority to a man who speaks and acts for those within his household, the Christian household codes offer each member of the the shared community–knit together by their faith in Christ–the right to hear and act for themselves” (49). Exactly.

I don’t like labels, even though here I’ve used the term “biblical egalitarian” to describe my views. What does that term mean? For me, the following:

(1) Women and men are created in the image of God and hence are equal in terms of identity and function.

(2) There are no ministries in the church of Jesus Christ that are off-limits to women, even preaching and teaching.

(3) Marriage is a partnership where both partners learn to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

(4) There is no place for the spiritual or sexual abuse of women (or men) in the Church of Jesus Christ and instances of that must be addressed with the utmost seriousness when discovered.

(5) There is a place for complementarity as we recognize that there are physiological and emotional differences between men and women, but complementarity does not imply hierarchy in home, in church, and in society.

The writer Dorothy Sayers authored a short book in the first half of the 20th century with a simple question as the title. Are Women Human? You would think that the answer is simple and clear, but Sayers had noticed all of the overt and covert messages in church and society that appeared to scream out, “No, they are not!” She lived in a society where patriarchy was still the order of the day. Hopefully, that will continue to change and Christians like you and me will have opportunity to offer a biblical word that affirms that like men, women truly are human in Christ.

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There are several good books that I would suggest for further reflection. The book that I have made mention of here is Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 244 pp. The best exegetical book that I have read is Philip Barton Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 541pp. This in my view is the best exegetical study of Pauline passages in the New Testament where Paul address women in family, church, and society. It solidified my biblical egalitarian convictions through outstanding biblical exegesis of those relevant texts. The little book by Dorothy Sayers is Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 2005).

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer recently retired after 24 years as Librarian and faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.