I heard about this book from a number of people, it was all the buzz, and I admit it. I was curious.
Years ago, when I had first become the teacher of a large women’s Bible study, one of the women I worked closely with had begun involvement with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group I had not heard of before, but soon would become very familiar with through this coworker.
As her involvement increased with CBMW, she also began to place ever-increasing pressure on me to step down as teacher and leader of our Bible study. She felt it was a point of principle because the director of our international organization was a woman—not a problem if all the Bible studies registered women only, but some of the Bible studies were men’s groups, and the male teachers of those Bible studies came “under the authority” of our woman director. According to my colleague, that was in direct violation of the Bible’s “clear teaching.”
At the time, I was a member of a fairly conservative, Complementarian church, and therefore felt my credentials, so to speak, were impeccable. From what I felt was the high road, I ended up writing her a note about how Romans 14 allows for differences of opinion among believers, enjoining us to be one in the Spirit, to avoid creating stumbling blocks for each other and to keep from judging each other.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to[d] God.”
So then, each one of us will be held accountable.Romans 14:10-12 (NRSV)
But she was not in the least persuaded nor dissuaded. Eventually, she resigned from our organization, but continued to pressure me for nearly a year or so after that.
So, reading The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr was deeply cathartic for me. I had actually already taken a class in grad school studying women theologians, mystics and scholars down through church history, and was thankful to have that background as I read Barr’s research and cogent arguments. It was, as they say, an eye-opening experience.
Probably the biggest takeaway was learning about the great shift in the church’s ideology concerning sex, and concerning the place of women. I had already been pursuing this topic in great depth, first in my seminary coursework, but now also with Barr’s bibliography (often an excellent resource). Barr put the pieces together for me, so I could see the metanarrative, as they say, of the church’s historical arc. In the earliest centuries of the church, many believers chose celibacy as the highest calling, both women and men, that they might unite all the more deeply with Christ, and be fully available to teaching and shepherding, as well as meditation and prayer.
The enormous shift towards marriage and family did not happen until about five hundred years ago with the Age of Enlightenment and the Reformation. I doubt the Reformers fully grasped the implications of this radical departure from church teaching and practice, but in America of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it has meant for women (and men, too) restriction in Christ, not freedom in Christ.
A good book is one a person is ready to read more than once. Even though I finished Barr’s book last year, I am ready to read it again. She is a great writer and a consummate scholar, and I hope she writes more in this genre.