(2) Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr: Chapters 3-4

Listen to our podcast episode here: Red Weather Christians “S2E6: Down With the (Christian) Patriarchy!”

Chapter 3: Our Selective Medieval Memory

“Blessed God, may you be praised, who, among the other infinite boons and favors which You have bestowed upon the feminine sex, desired that woman carry such lofty and worthy news.”

Let’s goooooo. Here, Barr is quoting Christine de Pizan — “a professional writer who lived in the late fourteenth century France and was employed by the French court.” Jesus, by authorizing Mary Magdalene the right to speak with authority, gave women “the freedom to speak.” Go, Jesus! Way to be a contrarian.

So, for medieval Christians, Mary of Bethany was not just a woman who sat quietly at the feet of Jesus; she was a repentant prostitute and former demoniac. She was the apostle of the apostles — the first apostle who carried the good news of the resurrection. She was a missionary of Christ, affirmed by Peter. She preached openly, performed miracles that paralleled those of the apostles, and converted a new land to the Christian faith.

Dang, Mary! You are a total rock star. Well, for medieval Christians, that is. Why is that, though? Why don’t modern Christians talk about you? Preach about you? Regard you as the apostle of the apostles? Sad.

In a world that didn’t accept the word of a woman as a valid witness, Jesus chose women as witnesses for his resurrection. In a world that gave husbands power over the very lives of their wives, Paul told husbands to do the opposite — to give up their lives for their wives. In a world that saw women as biologically deformed men, monstrous even, Paul declared that men were just like women in Christ.

People. This is big. REALLY big. (That’s what she said.) But seriously, Jesus comes in and completely upends tradition, cultural norms, rules. Reminds me of a one of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Walt Whitman: “Resist much, obey little.” Jesus seems to understand that there are times to break the rules. I’d agree.

No, the problem wasn’t a lack of biblical and historical evidence for women to serve as leaders along with men in the church. The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence.

But good Christian men wouldn’t do that, would they? Are you alive? Have you seen all the crap “good Christian men” have gotten up to in the church? It’s embarrassing. It’s inexcusable. It’s a mess. Sexual abuse, affairs, stealing church funds, narcissism, lies — not to mention gross justification for private jets, mansions, extravagantly expensive sneakers, etc. I could go on; you know this. So are modern Christian men so very different than the men who contributed to the different translations of the Bible? Barr goes on to quote New Testament scholar Ben Witherington:

“No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis, to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.”

How are feeling right now? A little threatened? First, let me ask: are you a man? If yes, then read the entirety of this book. Next, are you a woman? If yes, then read the entirety of this book. Then we’ll talk. Because if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable, GOOD. Dig into that. (By reading Barr’s book.)

… “women have been preaching in the Christian tradition from the earliest historical moments, perhaps only days after Jesus Christ was crucified and his resurrection announced” …

Barr uses Elaine Lawless’s words here, and do you know why? Because writers know that sometimes someone else writes something so clearly, so eloquently, that they couldn’t possibly re-word it. This is an example of this. Lawless makes it pretty clear that women have been in the preaching game for a long time, preaching after and about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Boom, done. Up next is another one, this time by a guy named Abelard who is thought to have given the “last defense” for women’s ordination:

Abelard argued that female ordination “was established by Jesus himself and not by the apostles, specifically rejecting the teaching that only the male priesthood and diaconate were part of the original church.”

Seems reasonable. Logical, even. But female ordination went the way of all things, and soon enough, the church became full of male priests being ordained by male clergy. What the heck?

Could it be that another building block for modern biblical womanhood is simply that evangelicals have rewritten Christian history?

Could it be, indeed. Sigh.

Chapter 4: The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women

While it could have affirmed women’s spiritual equality with men, the Reformation instead ushered in a “renewed patriarchalism” that placed married women firmly under the headship of their husbands.

Well that’s depressing.

Reformation theology might have removed the priest, but it replaced him with the husband. . . . In an eerie echo of the ancient Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the state and the church, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was balanced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband.

We sure do have a way of taking a good thing and messing it up, don’t we?

1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing.” In one of only two medieval sermons to discuss this verse, the sermon casts the woman (the “she” in the verse) as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself).

This verse is wacky, and I’ve heard different interpretations. One is that these particular women Paul is talking to are recent followers of Artemis, their “mother goddess,” and that when they give birth without Artemis’s help or blessing, they know they’ve been saved by Jesus. But this medieval sermon Barr shares is fascinating, too. For all the women out there who have given birth, you know it’s painful. But the joy of that newborn baby is unrivalled. So a cleansing of sin and joy of salvation is a neat analogy.

In other words, a shift occurred across the Reformation era in how preachers used Paul.

Just before this, Barr brought up an example of a sermon by a man named Lancelot Andrews that used the childbearing verses as some kind of divine ordination of women as homemakers. And then Isaac Marlow published a tract that argued “Women ought neither to teach nor pray vocally in the Church of Christ.” He goes on to argue that singing is considered teaching and since women clearly should not teach, they should not sing. As someone who has sung most days of her life, I am offended.

Paul had less impact on attitudes toward women within late medieval English sermons. In the aftermath of the Reformation, however, Paul came to define Christian womanhood. . . . The question is, of course, why? Why the shift in how Pauline texts were used in regard to women?

Yeah, I think that’s exactly the question I had reading through this chapter. So here we go:

The medieval reality was that most men would never be priests, placing them — strangely enough — on more spiritually equal footing with women. The spiritual headship of a husband didn’t matter so much in a patriarchal world where both husbands and wives had to go as individuals through a priest for the necessary sacraments. But it did matter in a world in which patriarchy was already the norm and women potentially had as much spiritual power as men did. Patriarchy had to shapeshift to adapt to the new Reformation world.

So there needed to be action. Patriarchy wasn’t going to shapeshift on its own. It needed help. Early modern reformers most likely did the easiest thing:

The emphasis on Pauline texts by early modern reformers was born into a secular world already supported by a gender hierarchy.

I imagine the conversation went like this: “OK, so gender hierarchy is already a thing? Cool, cool cool cool. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s do that. Men, sound good to everyone? Yeah. K cool lez do ittt.”

Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure. Instead of Scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world.

One word here: UGH. Now brace yourself for this next quote:

Women’s identities were now subsumed within the family. . . . As the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank. The family became not only the center of a woman’s world but her primary identity as a good Christian.

This just makes me think of the little blurb Christian women put on their social media bios. The descriptor “wife” is almost always on there. But do men include “husband” on their bios? I don’t see that as much…

Instead of Scripture transforming society, society transformed how early modern Christians interpreted the Bible — and this was compounded (as we will see in the next chapter) by the proliferation of the English Bible.

Well fantastic. See you next time for the next couple of chapters.

And, again, if you’re itching for something to do in the interim, check out my and my husband’s podcast: Red Weather Christians.

Listen: Down with the (Christian) Pariarchy!

Becoming Red Weather Christians

I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. . . . My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.

Jimmy Carter

If you’ve been following along with my life, you’ll know that Steve and I started a podcast called “Red Weather Christians.” It’s a big deal for us. And it’s nerve-racking.

Because it’s about our journey growing up in the Christian faith . . .

And then growing out of the Christian faith.

(Spoiler alert: We are still Christians.)

So we wrestle with how to reconcile still being Christians with lots of questions and doubts. With questions and doubts are we even Christians? Are we Christian enough? Steve and I think we are.

But we do wonder what other people — other Christians — might think.

Listen, there’s a problem in the Christian community: If we ask the hard questions or express doubt, we’re often met with dismissal, eyebrow raises, and defensiveness. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Steve and I are two simple people who would like to change the narrative. We’d like to normalize questions and doubts and embrace an incomplete understanding of our own faith (which, if you’re a Christian, I’d challenge you to think about that: can you say you have a complete understanding of your own faith?).

After all, we have only this one life. With one chance to make it count for something. So we’re going to do whatever we can, wherever we are, whenever we can, for as long as we can with whatever we have to try to make a difference.

And we’d like for you to come along with us, asking questions, expressing doubt, and opening yourself up to healthy dialogue. You might have questions for us. You might express doubt towards us. We welcome that.

So I encourage you to join us as we chronicle our disillusionment and analyze our commitment to the complicated faith called Christianity.

We are Red Weather Christians.

Episode 1: If Those Idiots Call Themselves Christians, What Are We?

Episode 2: Sometimes God Moves You. Literally.

Episode 3: Navigating the Missionary Position

That’s what we have so far. Stick around, and the sound quality gets better, I promise. Thanks for giving us grace on that. This is all completely new to us, and we’re learning a lot along the way.

Peace be with you.

Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr

Listen to our podcast episode here: Red Weather Christians “S2E6: Down With the (Christian) Patriarchy!”

One: The Beginning of Patriarchy

Let me show you, from the world history sources I have been teaching for more than two decades, how much Christian patriarchy mimics the patriarchy of the non-Christian world.

Here we go! I love this sentence from the first chapter because it sets up Barr’s ethos (credibility) as an author. She is a historian. She has studied this stuff for decades. She has taught this stuff for decades. So let’s pay attention when she says that Christians are like non-Christians when it comes to patriarchy. This is a problem, my Christian friends. We are supposed to be set apart, remember?

It was okay to hire a woman to answer the phone, but the job would be demeaning to a man.

She tells the story of her qualified male friend who applied for the church secretary position. He was denied, even though he was in financial need. The pastor assumed he wouldn’t want to answer the phone. Think about what this is saying: “the job would be demeaning to a man.” Hmm.

This example of a man being deemed above the work suitable for a woman fits into a larger social pattern in which men’s work is more highly valued than women’s.

Sounds like the secular world, amiright?

Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin?

Barr talks about how “Babylonian law allowed husbands to drown their wives for alleged adultery” but also how her students live in a state (Texas) in which “women make up 94 percent of the victims in domestic partner murder-suicides.” Ick. Call it what it is (patriarchy), and stop considering it a point of pride in Christianity. Let’s treat women better.

Instead of looking different in how we treated women, Christians looked just like everyone else.

What happened to Christians being radically different from the world?

The first human sin built the first human hierarchy.

So what if hierarchy wasn’t God’s plan for humans? What if when Adam and Eve ate of that darned fruit, their consequence was that the ground was to be master over the man, and the man was to be master over the woman?

Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.

Oof.

As Du Mez explains, “For Bushnell, male authority over women contradicted God’s will and perpetuated man’s original rebellion against God.” Women thus “continued to commit the sin of Eve when they submitted to men, rather than to God.” Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.

So what you’re saying here, Barr (and Du Mez and Bushnell), is that if we women have been submitting to our husbands as the authority figure in our lives, we’ve been sinning? Wow. That sure does change things.

Patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history.

Well this is uncomfortable.

Clarice J. Martin asks a provocative question: “How can black male preachers and theologians use a liberated hermeneutic while preaching and theologizing about slaves, but a literalist hermeneutic with reference to women?” I would like to ask the same question of white preachers and theologians. When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better see slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?

How can we not, indeed. This picking and choosing of what is liberated hermeneutic or literalist hermeneutic has always baffled me. How to choose? Who gets to choose? Can I choose? Could be fun…

Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.

OK, Barr, you’ve pretty well established your ethos (not only does she have loads of experience studying women in history, but she also has quite the erudite writing style), but now — on to the logos, the evidence. Can’t wait to dig into this!

The most difficult passages in the Bible to explain, historically speaking, are those like Galatians 3:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history.

Preach, Sister.

Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ?

Hittin’ us with that pathos — that emotional appeal. This makes me want to stand up on a soapbox with a megaphone (and I can’t stand those people). But it gets me pumped up! And Alanis Morissette would have definitely added this to her song had she read this book first. It’s that ironic.

Two: What If Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?

Paul frames every aspect of complementarian teachings. Evangelicals read Pauline texts as designating permanent and divinely ordained role distinctions between the sexes. Men wield authority that women cannot. Men lead, women follow. Paul tells us so.

Barr goes on to explain why so many of her students hate Paul. I can say there was a period of time for me when I thought I hated Paul as well. But what Barr continues explaining in this chapter is that perhaps we’ve been “reading Paul wrong.” Oh, suspense!

The evangelical church fears that recognizing women’s leadership will mean bowing to cultural peer pressure. But what if the church is bowing to cultural peer pressure by denying women’s leadership?

I like where this is going. I like it a lot!

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.

BOOM goes the dynamite. Yeah, I resonate with this. And don’t worry: Barr provides tons of verses in this chapter to support her statements.

By allowing a woman to anoint him with oil, Jesus overturns male headship — allowing a woman to do what only men had been able to do until that moment: anoint the king.

Jesus was a radical guy, what can I say. He’s like, “IN YO’ FACE, MEN!” (Probably.)

Pope John Paul II’s stance: using Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5 to justify male headship and female subordination in marriage would be the equivalent of using those passages to justify slavery.

Again, I’m uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

Rather than New Testament “texts of terror” for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?

DOWN WITH THE (Roman) PATRIARCHY!

The Christian structure of the house church resists the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire.

Well, as it should. Now what happened between then and now to bring patriarchy back into the Christian community? (I am hearing in my head a reimagining of Justin Timberlake’s lyrics “I’m Bringing Sexy Back,” but instead of “sexy,” it’s “patriarchy” and instead of being sexy, it’s just pitifully sad.)

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Yes, wives are to submit, but so are husbands. Instead of making Christians just another part of the Roman crowd (emphasizing female submission), the mutual submission in verse 21 is “characteristic of a way of life that sets believers apart from the nonbelieving world.”

Isn’t it strange (and alarming) that it seems Christians have become more like the ancient Roman crowd than radically different?

The subjection of women is highlighted in the ESV translation of Ephesians 5, and the call for husbands to submit is minimized — not because Paul meant it that way but because the complementarian translators of the ESV wanted it that way.

And now, for a quick music break: “I Want It That Way,” by the ever-popular Backstreet Boys.

Seven times throughout his letters, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has found, Paul uses maternal imagery to describe his ongoing relationship with the church congregations he helped found. … What made female bodies weak in the Roman world made them strong in the writings of Paul. … Just because modern evangelicals overlook Paul’s radical use of maternal imagery doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means that, once again, we have gotten Paul wrong.

I used to despise Paul because I thought he was the main guy who taught female submission. But now I’m realizing that maybe we’ve simply been missing his point. This gives me hope.

Not only did early Christians place women in leadership roles; they met together on equal footing — men, women, children, and slaves — in the privacy of the home, a traditionally female space. Christianity was deviant and immoral because it was perceived as undermining ideals of Roman masculinity. Christianity was repugnant … because it didn’t follow the Roman household codes — not because it followed them.

Well, I’ve always liked to be a bit of a rule-breaker. You know, to keep life interesting. It’s probably why I married Steve.

What if instead of replicating an ancient gender hierarchy, Paul was showing us how the Christian gospel sets even the Roman household free?

Yes. I choose that.

Paul was an educated Roman citizen. He would have been familiar with contemporary rhetorical practices that corrected faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it. … When Corinthians 14:34-35 is read as a quotation representing a Corinthian practice, Paul’s purpose seems clear: to distinguish what the Corinthians were doing (“women be silent”), and to clarify that Christians should not be following the Corinthian practice (“What!”).

“What!” is right! That completely flips the narrative that I’ve been hearing from the pulpit most of my life, that women should be silent. Perhaps Paul is saying the complete opposite. That’s some fascinating stuff right there, gals.

Could it be that, instead of telling women to be silent like the Roman world did, Paul was actually telling men that, in the world of Jesus, women were allowed to speak? … Instead of heeding his rebuke and freeing women to speak, are we continuing the very patriarchal practices that Paul was condemning?

Well if that’s not something important for all of us mere mortals to mull over, I don’t know what it. So go ahead: mull.

Women really did lead and teach in the early church, even as deacons and apostles. Junia was accepted as an apostle until nearly modern times, when her name began to be translated as a man’s name: Junias. … Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle.

And here I will simply transcribe what I wrote in the margin of my book: “messed up!”

Seminary textbooks are often written by pastors — not by historians (and especially not by women historians).

That’s juuuuust a little friendly reminder for everyone.

That’s it for Chapters 1 and 2. We’ll see you next time for the next couple of chapters. (I need to take a nap; I’m exhausted.)

Looking for something to do in the interim? Check out my and my husband’s new podcast, “Red Weather Christians.”

Listen: Down with the (Christian) Pariarchy!