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“The Making of Biblical Womanhood”: The Truth about the Role Jesus Intended for Women in the Church

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The statue of Julian of Norwich on the West Front of Norwich Cathedral, made by the sculptor David Holgate in 2014.

Julian of Norwich was an anchorite who provided spiritual counsel to her community and is believed to have been the first female to write a book in English.

I approached The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr with some trepidation. Although I understood that this wasn’t going to be a book about how “God wants me to be submissive if I want to be truly happy”, I suppose I’m just burned out on the whole concept.  A part of me just didn’t care anymore. 

If you have ever been a member of a Southern Baptist Church or any church that bars women from certain roles in the church, this book is for you.  If you have ever felt that you were not following God if you deviated from a very narrow definition of gender roles, this book is for you. 

Even if you have always been involved in churches that take a more appropriate view of women’s roles (i.e. that we are all the same in the sight of God) or don’t care anything about religion at all, this book is important to read because it reveals the history of women in the church up to the Reformation, a history that is perhaps not well known in the United States, because the Church’s view of women is so integral to the role of women in Western society. 

Like it or not, the Church is a major influencer of Western history, and its importance can’t be understated.

Barr is primarily a historian, and she shows how even the Bible contains a record of female teachers and preachers throughout the early church, and she also reveals how translation methods have obscured the roles of many of these women.

The compelling question she dares to ask it this: What if the patriarchy is not God ordained and is, instead, the result of people’s sin?

Author Beth Allison Barr’s Religious and Academic Background

Barr is a Southern Baptist, which is also the denomination I was raised in. A part of me with always be a Southern Baptist at heart, and I mostly agree with the church’s doctrine, but I eventually left because I could no longer stomach being a member of a church who shunned some of my spiritual gifts because of one chromosome, especially because, as a young widow with a daughter, my entire family was left with a limited voice.

As frustrated as I have been with my local Southern Baptists, I was shocked at some of the constraints Barr endured, especially because she has chosen to remain. My church banned women from being deacons and pastors, but all other roles were open to women, including teaching, whereas Barr’s church would not allow her to address any men (defined as males over 14 if you can believe it). In my church, women even sometimes served in roles that would be held by an associate pastor if a male had the job, especially in children’s ministry and music ministry. It irritated me that the women wouldn’t get the title, or the pay, but they weren’t banned entirely.

Members of her church are also apparently shamed for having married women and mothers working outside the home. I have never heard of that in my childhood church. While I understand the reasoning that it follows, that the man is the head of the family and should therefore support the family, my the families in my church realistically relied on female income too much for it to be viable option. The pastor’s own wife worked! I asked the Southern Baptist minister who married me take the word “obey” out of the wedding ceremony for me, and he did it.

Note: Southern Baptist churches are loosely and voluntarily linked, so differences of this nature are common. Unlike other denominations, a Baptist church can vote to leave its organization at any time, which is why there are so many different types of Baptists.

Southern Baptists separated from American Baptists during the Civil War because, you guessed it, they were not ready to join the northern abolitionists in their condemnation of slavery, and to this day, Southern Baptists tend to be more conservative. Now they are racially integrated, but gender bias and outright discrimination remains institutionalized. 

From the early church to the medieval church, women played a role as preachers and teachers, which is shown through the history of the saints, something many Protestants, especially, don’t know much about.

There are also more references to female church leaders in early church writings that didn’t make it into the Bible. Although they were omitted because their divine inspiration was questions, they are not necessarily historically inaccurate, and there is additional historical evidence that Barr writes about.

 What You May Hate About This Book

If you are a member of a Southern Baptist or other conservative church, definitely, there are going to be some sticking points for you.  One thing Barr confronts directly is the idea of the veracity of the Bible.  Of course, as a member of a Southern Baptist Church, I was taught that the Bible is 100% true.

Yes, I know 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that all scripture is “God breathed” (NIV). 1 Timothy (and 1 Corinthians) is one of the references about women’s being silent in the church AND the Timothies are where Lois is mentioned (as Timothy’s grandmother), so I’m familiar. 

But there are things that even a child can’t take literally.  Either the language is figurative, or it can’t possibly be true. There are also many other parts of the Bible that are clearly historical and are no longer practiced by the Church.  So how can anyone say The Bible is 100% factual?

Of course, if The Bible isn’t true, at least on some level, then why believe any of it, right? I’m no Bible scholar, but I deal with the paradox by assuming that God didn’t let anything in (or let anything left out) that is important, and the rest He had to leave to human error and understanding.

And after living in the Middle East very near to where the Bible was lived and written, I’ve come to realize how much of it is cultural. I never really understood how Joseph “divorce” a woman he had not slept with in the Nativity story until I found out about marital practices in Jordan/Palestine/Israel to this day: a contract is still signed at betrothal, and any couple who does not get married after its signing are still considered divorced (and they aren’t supposed to sleep together either). My first night in Amman, I walked my dog to the end of my road, which was on a hill, and saw a star that made me realize what the shepherds must have seen, and that was just on a random summer’s evening. 

Also, anyone who has training in literature knows that translation affects any work of literature, and when I read the early books of the Old Testament, the style and rhythm of the language is clearly that of a myth.  I’m not saying it’s true or not: I’m saying it’s clearly from the oral tradition (of course these events happened millennia before humans could write, so it has to be), and we know that things get changed in the story telling.  God is perfect; people aren’t.  We all played the game “Gossip” as children.

At any rate, these ideas are mine. I felt that this section of Biblical Women is the weakest in the book, and unnecessary, because she does make a strong case for how translation issues have affected our modern understanding of the key passages, and she also has a lot of support from historical evidence. 

You may believe or disbelieve the section on errors in The Bible, but the historical record of women in the ministry is real.  As a Protestant, you might even believe that these women were part of the corruption of the church.  But it’s worth knowing about.

 How this Book Might Change Your Spiritual Life

What this book did for me, even if I don’t necessarily agree with every single point, is reveal once an for all that the hypocrisy that I have felt in the Southern Baptist and similar churches is not in my head, in fact, it’s much bigger than I ever imagined and most people realize, even the clergy in the church.  It’s part of a systemic mission to use the church to reinforce the patriarchy that was already in place in imperial Roman society…you know, the same people who watched killings for entertainment…and corrupt the vision that Christ had for the church: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3: 28 ESV). 

For more on trouble caused by American women in the church, check out this book about Anne Hutchinson, who dared to preach in colonial Boston! To read about the role of African-American women in the clergy, read about Henry Louis Gates’ new book.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!

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