Book Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Barr, Beth Allison. The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021. 256pp. Softcover. ISBN: 9781587434709. $19.99.

1.    Introducing The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Books on topics related to gender and sexuality continue to provoke lively discussion, debate, and best-selling books among evangelicals today. Beth Allison Barr’s recent The Making of Biblical Womanhood is no different. The proof is easy to find. There is a slew of popular thinkers that praise her book ranging from Kristin Kobes Du Mez to Aimee Byrd to Jemar Tisby. As of the writing of this review, Barr’s book is ranked #1 in Amazon’s “Gender and Sexuality in Religious Studies” section, #6 in Amazon’s “Christian Church History” section, and #19 in “Christian Evangelism.” But there are also several popular critical reviews of the book as well, including from Themelios. Suffice to say, Barr’s book has been quite popular and has served as a lightning rod for some. If you aren’t familiar with Barr, she is Professor of History and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Baylor University. She finished her PhD in 2004 at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a research focus on women and gender identity in medieval and early modern English sermons. So, she is a well-trained and acclaimed historian. Add those credentials to a topic that is potent in contemporary theology, and you have a recipe for a wide readership and strong opinions.

Now, I don’t normally review popular level books such as this one—especially those related to hot topics like gender. It’s nearly impossible to please anyone. You’ll be too harsh, too soft, too vague, or too squishy. So, I want to comment on why I’ve chosen to do so since I know such a review will likely please no one. In short, I love the pursuit of truth and the intellectual process that comes from thinking about big and important ideas. And understanding the role of women in the church of Christ is a big and important topic. So, from a purely abstract perspective, I’m always tempted to write a book review of any book because I think a well-done review has the ability to open up topics for readers (and myself as I re-read an author’s work time and time again). It leads to new worlds, new ideas, and new ways to think about old topics. It removes poor arguments, poor ideas, and poor ways to think about the world. It provides a window into a different way of being. Even when severe, reviews are ways of honoring authors and readers, charting a clearer path through the world of ideas. But enough about the virtues of a book review in general.

The reason I ended up deciding to read Barr’s book and write a review is because I read Kevin DeYoung’s negative review in Themelios several months ago and found it to be scathing if true. However, I had my own reservations that his review was sufficiently committed to charity. For example, I don’t find appeals to “another side” of personal stories (like those that DeYoung mentioned) to be all that compelling or relevant for book reviews. Nor do I find stylistic grievances evidence to reject something in a book (DeYoung’s laundry list of “historian” self-descriptors). And having given myself to reading a significant amount of literature (primarily philosophical, I’ll confess!) on gender, I have a hard time trusting most evangelicals who discuss the issue on points besides basic exegesis of biblical texts. So, I was uneasy with his review. Of course, my uneasiness is not shared by most in my own confessional tribe, much to their chagrin. I’m more willing to hear another “side” than most. But I’m a philosopher. I like to hear alternative ideas and give them a fair shot—give me your best punch! But even with that in mind, I had intended to let this one go. The topic is just too volatile. But her book kept coming back up with claims of unfairness and uncharity. So, I decided to finally pick it up and read it for myself. I was surprised, to put it mildly. I found that I ended up agreeing with a significant portion of DeYoung’s review. But I found several other serious deficiencies that DeYoung left untouched, or at least underdeveloped. Therefore, I think it’s worthy to discuss them. However, in my own commitment to charity, I think there are points that ought to be considered by those like me who seek to hold firm to the historic confession of what is unsavory to many today—only men are to be ordained as elders.

Before I begin, I’ll tell you my conclusion up front: Barr’s book is riddled with serious deficiencies. While there are areas Barr has identified as problematic that are problematic, she does not fairly explain or resolve them. And while Barr’s medieval historical expertise is fascinating and sorely needed, it does not cover for her faults. And, while I have many egalitarian friends whom I greatly respect, have read many egalitarian works that I have benefited and learned from, and have no doubt the sincerity in Barr’s thesis, I cannot recommend this book as a worthwhile companion. In fact, I think the faults in the book are grievous enough that they ought to lead both complementarians and egalitarians to find the book deeply dissatisfying.

2.    Summarizing The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Barr’s main goal throughout her work is to show that the modern concept of “biblical womanhood” is just that—a modern construct devoid of biblical truth. It is a modernized version of “patriarchy.” And the church continues a “long historical tradition of subordinating women” when it is patriarchal and bars women from preaching, leading, and teaching (20). Therefore, Barr argues that patriarchy is a part of the fall and that it isn’t divinely ordained (25). Her work is framed by her own personal story of pain due to her and her husband’s shifting view on women in ministry and her husband’s resultant firing from their church, with snippets being presented throughout. Barr begins her work in chapter one by defining “patriarchy” in society at large and the Christian church. She claims that patriarchy is identical to Christian patriarchy (16-18). Patriarchy takes power from women and teaches that women are less important than men (18). Barr then argues that patriarchy originates with human civilization itself (35).

Chapter two attempts to re-examine the Apostle Paul and suggests that rather than restricting women, he does nothing of the sort—anyone who thinks otherwise is captive to modern cultural categories (41). Barr explains that the Pauline texts that are often used by evangelical Christians (think texts like 1 Tim. 2) are mysteriously absent from late medieval sermons. The difference between the two cultures is evidence that the texts have been grossly misunderstood by modern Christians. Take the household codes like those found in Ephesians 5 for example. Rather than slapping a Christian bumper sticker of approval on the Greco-Roman household codes, Paul is actually subverting them (46-49). Evangelicals have misunderstood and ignored what Paul is trying to communicate. As another example, look at the amount of times Paul uses maternal language to describe himself (53). Such a view does not fit in standard evangelical frameworks. Barr then offers other typical accounts of passages like 1 Corinthians 14 that indicate the Pauline directives for silence are historically conditioned and not binding for today (63). Likewise, modern English translations have obscured women from the Bible by incorrect translations such as making Romans 16:7 mention Junius instead of Junia (67).

Chapter three is the most significant and unique contribution that Barr makes. It is about our “selective medieval memory.” Barr retells the story of several medieval women, such as Margery Kempe, Saint Paula, Saint Margaret, and many others. Each of them “defied” male authority in various ways, such as responding directly to the archbishop that he needed to repent (73-74). Barr argues that these women “undermine” modern biblical womanhood. But they are “covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (84).

Chapter four considers the cost of the Reformation for women. While the Reformation is typically a story of triumph for Protestants, Barr suggests it was not so for women. The changes in the Reformation actually “hardened a theology of gender” that made their lives tougher (104). And it is because gender hierarchy has more to do with politics and economics than divine order that this is so obvious (106). Ultimately, the Reformation removed the priest and replaced him with the husband (117).

Chapter five then focuses on writing women out of the English Bible. Barr covers the gender inclusive debate with the NIV and how the ESV was a “direct response” to the debate (132). She shows that medieval Bibles were gender inclusive for accuracy and not cultural reasons (142). The reason the gender-inclusive medieval Bible’s didn’t persevere is because of culture. A move to using gender-inclusive language again, therefore, restores Scripture rather than distorts (148).

Chapter six examines how biblical womanhood “sanctifies subordination.” Barr argues that after the Reformation the ideal of biblical womanhood and holiness changed from virginity to marriage (152). So, in a way, “the spiritual economy flipped” (153). Barr provides typical evangelical camp modesty examples to prove the oddness of evangelical views of holiness and purity for women. She also shows how the early modern period begins to link women’s spiritual calling with the domestic life (159).

Chapter seven is Barr’s attempt to argue that biblical womanhood has become gospel truth. She claims that the devil convinced evangelicals that biblical womanhood is central to the gospel (174). Evangelicals have forgotten the history of women in ministry and redefined holiness which has made biblical womanhood gospel truth (186). She provides two examples to prove how this has happened. First, she argues that the debate over inerrancy made biblical womanhood gospel truth. She says, “inerrancy introduced the ultimate justification for patriarchy” (190) and that “it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit” (191). Second, she argues that the growth of “Eternal Functional Subordination” (which she calls Arianism) is another example. Women’s subordination is so important to evangelicals that they rewrote the Trinity to defend it (192).

Finally, chapter eight seeks to “set women free.” Barr claims that “we can no longer deny a link between complementarianism and abuse.” (207) Therefore, she pleads for a change to move forward. It is time to move on from complementarianism and the body count it has accrued.

3.    What Barr Gets Right

I begin with what I find worthwhile in Barr’s book because I want to lead with charity. While I find Barr’s book deeply unsatisfying, I do think it has several points that deserve contemplation. First, I think her claim that the ideal of holiness has shifted for women in the modern era is both interesting and oftentimes true. She argues that holiness for modern women is now unduly linked wholly with domestic tasks. I think there is significant room for critique of how various sectors of evangelicalism have thought about gender roles, and reconsidering what holiness looks like for men and women is a worthy objective. I disagree with Barr’s conclusions here but her claim that ideals of holiness can be culturally shaped is certainly true and worthy of contemplation.

Second, I think she raises criticisms of the “Piperesque” Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) crowd that are fair. For whatever reason, there are still conservative evangelicals, even those in the Reformed adjacent sphere, who are advocating for the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) of the Son (I use “adjacent” purposefully—anyone who denies a basic tenet of what is held in common by the Reformed confessions cannot, by definition, be Reformed). While I have my problems with her historical retelling (as I will note briefly below), it’s fair to criticize EFS and those who continue to either hold to it or pretend they never did hold to it. And we ought to examine why such a doctrine has held such a significant place for many. After all, I must confess, I too once believed in such a doctrine. But I was corrected through a course at—would you believe it?—The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was there, in a course on the Person of Christ, during my MDiv, that I realized I was wrong. What I had grasped as fundamental for understanding male-female relations was actually a heterodox—possibly heretical—doctrine. But it is important to remember that many of these critiques of EFS have been rehashed ad nauseum over the last five years and roundly rejected by the majority of leading “complementarians.” At this point, dogpiling on the minority EFS group can often be a cheap way to score points. But that doesn’t negate its validity or prove that Barr is intending to do this. It is simply a note of caution for how we treat this topic as a “gotchya.”

Third, I do think there is a needed conversation to be had around the abuses of authoritarian men (like Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald). I think work shining a light on these sorts of examples is important. And Barr does this to some extent in her work.

Fourth, I think her work in medieval history is both interesting and relevant. So much so that if her thesis was the modest claim that medieval church history should cause us to reexamine our cultural blind spots about how we think about gender, then I would probably recommend the book.

Fifth, I think she’s a gifted writer. I don’t mean this to sound pedantic or grasping at straws. She genuinely writes well and that deserves praise. From a purely stylistic perspective, I honestly enjoyed reading the book. Not many academics can write in such prose.

4.    What Barr Gets Wrong

Now, charity does not require ignorance. Charity can critically interact. And whether you agree with the following critiques or not, I have labored to season them with grace and I hope you can sense that ethos. These debates too often devolve into tribal shouting. I hope to clear the air and level the playing field as best I can. There are ideas worth fighting for. There are ways to be sharpened by opposing interlocutors. We can be deadly serious and firm without being jerks. Now, I’m by no means the paradigmatic example for how to do this but I hope that I’ve run this through enough editorial checks to be closer to our Lord’s instruction to think with gentleness.

My first grievance is a typical one for philosophers. Barr’s definitions of key terms throughout the book are either lacking, late, or convoluted. Take a crucial example in complementarianism. Barr considers complementarianism to be identical to patriarchy. She initially offers Judith Bennett’s explanation of patriarchy that has three main meanings: 1) Male authority in the home, 2) Male ecclesiastical authority, and/or 3) Male authority in society. This seems like a fair way to cash out the various senses of patriarchy, but Barr, without reason, chooses to focus her study of complementarianism on the broadest and most expansive version of male authority as the target of her book: universal male authority in society (13-14). So, women are subordinate to men in every area. Elsewhere she confirms this definition by saying that complementarianism is “the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders” (5). She says it means “women are called to secondary roles….in everything from sermons to Sunday school lessons” (1). The obvious problem with these definitions is that few complementarians would confess such a universal doctrine of male authority. Even those that pay lip service to such an idea would often say belief in a universal claim to male authority is a separate issue from male authority in the church and family. Male authority in society can be wrong and not implicate male authority in the church or family. So, from a purely definitional standpoint, she is bundling all sorts of diverse views that are separable from each other under one heading that ends up invalidating her thesis numerous times over. For an argument to be valid we need clear and precise definitions and categories. Lumping everyone into the same category is a recipe for a failed thesis. All I need is one counterexample to prove her thesis wrong with this definition. And I can provide numerous counterexamples—including myself!

But this is not all. Elsewhere she describes egalitarians as “those who argue for biblical equality between men and women” and complementarians as “those who argue for a biblical gender hierarchy that subordinates women to men” (32). But this is not a fair or clear definition. What does she mean by “biblical equality”? Is she begging the question here? It appears so. Because nearly all complementarians (if not all!) would vigorously claim that men and women have “biblical equality.”

Consider one more example on the definitional front. She says that inerrancy is “the belief that the Bible is completely without error, including in areas of science and history” (188). But again, this definition is unclear. What does it mean for the Bible to be without error “including in areas of science and history”? Does she mean that what the Bible claims about science and history is true? That if the Bible speaks of a war in a certain year in a certain region that it actually happened in that year in that region? Or does she mean a more robust claim that historical and scientific claims outside of biblical revelation must be found somewhere in the Bible? That somehow the Bible contains every shred of historical and scientific piece of data? I assume she must mean the former. But it isn’t clear and sets the reader up for possible confusion. If she means the latter, I worry that she isn’t familiar with the strongest and oldest way of understanding the role of Scripture in the Protestant tradition.

The second major problem with her book is expansive. I found legion of faulty “arguments” throughout. I even found logical fallacies ranging from strawmen to ad hominem to false causes to begging the question to appeals to emotion, among others. Now, it’s true that as a philosopher I am more easily annoyed by invalid or unsound arguments. So, I may be more nitpicky than others (though, if I’m honest, I make the same mistakes too often myself). But that doesn’t excuse them. Published work ought to be held to a higher standard. So, let me walk through twelve examples here, because I think this is both the reason the book is ultimately not recommendable and the greatest opportunity to learn to avoid certain mistakes. These are not in order of importance.

  1. Barr says: “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’” (18). Unfortunately, this argument isn’t valid. There are premises smuggled into this argument that aren’t listed. It is impossible to argue from particular situation X to general situation Y without further argument. Just because I think men because of their sex have the potential to preach and exercise authority over a church but women do not have the potential because of their sex does not entail that I think men have authority “in general” over women.
  2. Barr makes an argument from the liberation of slaves to the liberation of women. Essentially, the argument is that if we can change our understanding there, why not here? (33-34). But for such an argument to work we would need significantly more explanation, examples, and proof. As it stands, it is unverifiable.
  3. Barr questions “didn’t the priesthood of all believers apply to women just as it applied to men?” (115). The point of her question is that if complementarians were consistent with their doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, then they would give up complementarianism. But of course, complementarianism has nothing to do with the priesthood of all believers doctrine. The doctrine of priesthood of all believers is about access to God and not formal pastoral offices. Therefore, a belief in one doctrine is not inconsistent with the other. If Barr wants to prove this argument, she needs to show the inconsistency clearly.
  4. Barr explains that late medieval English sermons rarely preach the Pauline complementarian passages (e.g. 1 Tim 2; 1 Cor. 14). So, there isn’t a continuous unbroken thread of teaching on women in the church like complementarians would like you to believe (44). There isn’t some “golden chain” that you are somehow bucking against if you reject complementarianism. It is not part of the Great Tradition of the church. But the lack of medieval English sermons could be for numerous reasons—many of which would explain the lack rather than prove any point from silence. And Barr even later admits that “medieval preachers preached Paul, but their primary focus was to teach parishioners how to find redemption through involvement in the sacraments and practices of the medieval Catholic Church” (119). Bingo. The reason they didn’t emphasize these could be completely irrelevant to her argument.
  5. Barr argues that Paul subverts the household codes. Therefore, complementarianism is wrong because complementarians think Paul didn’t subvert the household codes (46-49). Well, yes. Yes, Paul does subvert the codes. Husbands have duties too. They ought to love their wives like Christ loves the church. A radical calling. But does anyone disagree? Has Barr taken the time to read anyone besides Piper, Grudem, Ware, and Dobson to confirm this? Or have Owen Strachan’s blogs and Denny Burk’s tweets (yes, tweets) been sufficient evidence? Moreover, I don’t think any of them would disagree here. Complementarians do not find the household codes to be simply God anointing the ancient context with complete inerrancy. Take nearly any serious complementarian commentary off the shelf and read the section from Ephesians 5 and you will see an overwhelming consensus here.
  6. Barr argues that the English translators of the Bible have intentionally obscured women leadership. For example, take Romans 16:1: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (ESV). If the word for “servant” here were attached to a masculine name instead of feminine, translators would make Phoebe out to be a deacon instead of a servant (65-66). But that’s not true. Look even at her favorite whipping boy, the ESV. In Colossians 4:12 Epaphras is a servant even when it’s the same word Phoebe was described as (transliterated as deacon). Of course, Paul and James are “servants” throughout their letters too. The word “deacon” is used in the ESV in only two places: 1 Timothy 3 and Philippians 1:1 when paired with the office of elder. Nowhere else is it used. Not of men. Not of women. So, Barr’s entire argument here rests on either a misunderstanding or ignorance.
  7. Barr argues that Junia is an apostle in Romans 16:7 (66-67). If she is an apostle, complementarianism is wrong. But few take Andronicus to be an apostle (the guy listed next to her in Romans). The phrase that is crucial is …οἵτινές εἰσιν ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις… The operative preposition that needs clarity is ἐν. The text reads “Who is well known ἐν the apostles.” Clearly, the interpretation hinges on how we translate ν. The name of the person being masculine (Junius) or feminine (Junia) is irrelevant. And if you know Greek, you know ἐν is incredibly elastic. There is no obvious meaning. You need the context. So, it’s going to be an interpretive decision no matter how you look at it. Either, as an egalitarian, you’ll take your presuppositions and cram them into the ἐν or, as a complementarian, you’ll do the same. This isn’t meant to be bad. None of us can theologize or even translate in a vacuum. But it is important to note that this isn’t some obvious translation decision. Anyone telling you otherwise likely has an agenda to maintain.
  8. Repeatedly Barr gives examples of women deacons as proof that complementarianism is wrong. For example, she makes a big point out of Chrysostom saying women can be deacons (67-68). But this isn’t unique to Chrysostom. The Associate Reformed Presbyterians (ARP) is complementarian and allows for women deacons. As do “complementarian” macho groups like Acts29. But Barr says women deacons are a “frank understanding of female leadership.” (68). However, a strong understanding of the office of deacon would recognize it is not an office of leadership. Deacons are about service. Finding female deacons invalidates nothing of the complementarian perspective. Which is precisely why you see them in complementarian churches.
  9. Barr argues that Mary Magdalene is preaching after the resurrection which is proof complementarianism is wrong (87). Other women, like Hildegard of Bingen took “preaching tours” which proves complementarianism is wrong (no preaching for women, they say) (89). But this simply isn’t preaching. Sharing the good news in informal settings isn’t preaching. To prove that it was preaching would require an extended excursus and definition. But nowhere do we find one. All that is found is an assumption that we all agree about what preaching is. But the Reformed tradition has a very specific understanding of the task of preaching that is linked to the office of elder (and gifted brothers for the 2LCF) and the Lord’s Day. In a similar argument, Barr shows that Genovefa (a female) established Paris as a Christian stronghold “just as effectively as male bishops” (89). Therefore, women were doing the same stuff as men. Ergo, complementarianism in the modern sense is false. But rather than proof of a faulty belief in complementarianism, these are repeated evidences of a lack of understanding of church polity and the church offices. It is pragmatism devoid of polity. If Barr wanted to convince Reformed theologians at least, she would need to work within their theological framework, which she does not. And maybe she would object at this point and say “That’s exactly right. I’m not arguing against them.” But I would reply: “Okay, that’s fine. You don’t have to. But you need to if you want your thesis to stick. Knocking down the weakest arguments won’t win your case.”
  10. Barr claims that “as a church historian, I immediately recognized the eternal subordination of the Son as Arianism” and that the entire Christian world reacted with “horror” to Arianism (194). The reason she brings this up as a knock against complementarianism is because CBMW has been a major proponent of EFS. But there are two major problems here. First, CBMW is not the only representative of complementarianism. In fact, they aren’t even the majority. They are a modern invention and a minority segment. Knocking them out doesn’t knock out complementarianism. EFS is a new invention that has never been linked to complementarianism in the past nor need it be in the future. Second, EFS isn’t Arianism. While Barr is no doubt confident in her assertion, it’s simply not true. Arianism argues that the Son is a different substance than the Father and is created, but EFS decidedly does not. And of course, her anecdote, as noted by DeYoung, that the whole Christian world was “horrified” by Arius and his views is alarming because it’s so ignorant of the historical outworking of the debate. In actuality, much of the world was the opposite of horrified.
  11. Barr holds up Saint Paula as an exemplar. Barr retells Paula’s story about how she abandoned her children for the “higher purpose of following God’s call on her life”. After the death of her husband, she left her children “alone, crying on the shore” setting out to serve God (79). By my lights, this is not a story to be emulated, admired, or promoted. This is a story of direct disobedience to God’s will for parents to care for, love, and provide for their children. Paul tells us that a failure to provide for one’s family is worse than being an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). To think that this is even remotely near a positive example is extremely concerning. Quite honestly, it’s disturbing. So, to be frank: I don’t care if Paula helped translate a Bible. The ends never justify the means. We are not utilitarians.
  12. Finally, Barr notes that “Patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history” (33). I note this because it smacks of the faddishness with which many contemporary arguments can be made. I say this because modern race studies suggest that racism is a social construct born alongside America. If that is true, patriarchy is only a few centuries old. My point here is that Barr seems to be hitching her thesis to a popular “obvious” cause to give further weight to it. But what would have given it more weight? Examples outside America and England. Where is Africa, Russia, Vietnam, and China within her book? Where are the patristic sources? They aren’t there. And it’s true that she is a medieval expert. So of course, she doesn’t miss the medievals. But her thesis is universal. If it’s going to be universal like this, it needs to reckon with universal experience and belief and not argue from the particular to the universal.

The third major issue I had with the book is that her historical retelling is often suspect. I don’t want to rehash what DeYoung discussed in his review. So, I’ll keep this short and point to an example he didn’t mention. Consider Hanserd Knollys. She describes Katherine Sutton and how she began to “preach and prophesy through singing” and that Pastor Knollys supported her. Therefore, she says that women had the right to preach and prophesy according to Knollys (182-183). But this ignores the historical context about the serious debate over singing in the Particular Baptist churches at this time. It also ignores the argument from Knollys that there was a distinct “ordinance” of praise and signing. Sutton possessed this anointing for singing.[1] Singing was decidedly different from pastoral preaching. This is either deceitful or sloppy historical work from Barr. I hesitate to imply deceit on anyone’s behalf, but Barr is a well-trained historian, so I have a difficult time understanding why this claim was made.

As a final point of issue, I must confess, I think the tribal wars are only incited within this book. Instead of attempting to persuade those who disagree, Barr often pours gasoline and lights a match. Now, I bet if I asked Barr in person if she meant what she wrote in what I’m going to quote, she would likely retract it or modify it in some way (and to be clear, I did email this review to her beforehand in hopes to understand, but received no reply). Consider a few examples without my commentary first (though I will bold certain key words and phrases for emphasis):

  • “So much textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it. Sometimes I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.” (6)
  • “Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really it is defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression. I can’t think of anything less Christlike than hierarchies like these.” (7)
  • “The truth—the evangelical reality—is that we have focused so much on adapting Paul to be like us that we have forgotten to adapt ourselves to what Paul is calling us to be: one in Christ. Instead of choosing the better part and embracing the “new world of the Christ-crucified gospel,” we have chosen to keep doing what humans have always done: building our own tower of power and hierarchy.” (42)
  • [Why are evangelicals complementarian?] “to protect and enhance the authority of men.” (99)
  • “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly….That women’s subordination is central to the gospel of Christ.” (173)
  • “When evangelicals have supported women in public ministry, they are most closely aligned with the gospel of Jesus. It is when evangelicals succumb to the peer pressure of contemporary culture that they turn against women in public ministry.” (179)
  • [Complementarians are in a] “blind pursuit to maintain control over women” (194)

It is astounding that such rhetoric is used against theological “opponents.” Note first that these sorts of claims are a substitute for an argument. They attempt to win an argument by force of emotion. These claims are never proven. They are asserted. Note second that these claims assume a significant number of beliefs on the part of “complementarians.” They are in a “blind pursuit” to control women. It nearly sounds as if complementarians are wild and ravenous animals. They are deceived by the devil himself. The only reason they are complementarians is to oppress women. There is nothing less Christlike than to be a complementarian. But I think most fair readers will recognize this isn’t true (and as I suggested, I’ve got to imagine she doesn’t think this is true, either). Would she say both her and her husband were in blind pursuits to oppress women and were deceived by the devil prior to rejecting complementarianism? Or would Barr be willing to ask my own wife if I was in a blood thirsty lust to dominate her? I doubt it. The rhetoric here is not only unfair but inflammatory and slanderous. It ought to be retracted and apologized for. Now, true, there are instances where this may be the case. But she doesn’t limit her claims. They are universal and they are peppered throughout her book. They are not rare. And if you believe charity is a virtue, we ought to take people at their word. Consider my own plea: why am I a complementarian? Because I believe I am bound by Scripture to be one. Not because of culture. Not because of ambition. Not because of a desire to dominate and oppress. Not because of anything. I simply want to be faithful to the Bible and I have no other way of seeing texts such as 1 Timothy 2 without violating my conscience.

5.    Conclusion

I think it’s fairly obvious by this point what my opinion of Barr’s book is. It isn’t great. It’s not good, either, unfortunately. I honestly wanted it to be good. I wanted to learn about the historical shifts that have come about with modern evangelicalism and complementarianism. I wanted to learn about the history of the church and its thoughts and practices on the topic. I really, truly, and honestly wanted this book to be good. But while I did learn about some obscure medieval women, I didn’t learn much of anything else. And it’s a real shame. There is a great need for a book on this topic. But this is not the one. So, again, I simply cannot recommend the book as worthwhile reading. I hate being the big bad mean reviewer here, but I am bound to confess the truth. And Barr’s book simply doesn’t provide a faithful interaction with “biblical womanhood” or a serious critique of it. I think there is needed space for such a book in the future, but hopefully it won’t make these same mistakes.


Editors Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.


[1] Matthew Ward, Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 175.

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