Beth Allison Barr was reared as a Southern Baptist steeped in the idea that a Christian woman’s greatest role was to be a submissive wife. Now an associate professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, Barr is out to “disrupt Christian patriarchy” as a man-made notion that’s downright sinful.
In The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, April 30), she traces century-by-century how Christian theologians and church leaders cemented the idea of “complementarianism” —women with separate and lesser roles than men— into Evangelical culture in order to enshrine their own power.
Barr talks to PW about history, power, and her #MeToo moments.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
The book is deeply researched but you also weave in your own experiences, in academia and beyond. You were denied opportunities and your husband was fired as a youth minister because he stood up for women at the church. Why be so personal?
Women historians have been talking about the damage of patriarchy for years but men don’t read women historians. In all those small Christian colleges, Bible colleges, and homeschools, people are not reading women historians. I wanted to reach out. My audience is the people in my churches that I’ve lived with all my life and I know that they respond to experience. It’s not only the evidence that will make them sit up and take notice. So I decided to make the book my testimony — a very evangelical thing to do.
You describe Christian publishing as “saturated" with complementarian voices. After blasting numerous modern evangelical leaders and authors by name for views you call abusive, misogynistic, racist, even heretical, was it hard to get published?
Actually, no. I write a religious history group blog, Anxious Bench, on Patheos. I did a series on rethinking Paul -- who has been so misread and is really saying Jesus set all women free. After I did a series on disrupting Christian patriarchy I got a call from Katelyn Beaty, the acquisitions editor at Brazos, who asked, “Isn’t this a book?” I wanted to do it because these (patriarchal) views have infiltrated hundreds of thousands of homes and people don’t realize it’s heresy.
Evangelicals have been convinced "biblical womanhood" is the only option because we have been taught that it is tied to our trust in the reliability of God’s Word as well as embedded in the Godhead itself: women are subordinate because Jesus is subordinate. And if you don't accept this, you undercut the whole truth of the Gospel. Salvation is at stake.
You write, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly. That God ordained some people, simply because of their sex or skin color (or both), as belonging under the power of other people.” Is the devil winning this fight?
The reason I did the whole scope of history in the book is to show how arguments against women in leadership always arrive just in time to reinforce and prop up male leadership. Biblical womanhood isn’t biblical. It was made in history, which means it can also be unmade.