Need to get caught up? Here are the first three posts for chapters 1-6:
Chapter 7: Making Biblical Womanhood Gospel Truth
“Forgetting Our Past”
In 1934, no one at this Southern Baptist church had a problem with Mrs. Lewis Ball preaching.
Oh, how quickly we forget. This just shows how inconsistent we’ve been in our “rules” about women preaching. And not only was Mrs. Ball preaching, she was the revival preacher for the one-week revival event at First Baptist Church Elm Mott near Waco, Texas. Barr goes on to reference a 2017 essay by religious scholar Timothy Larsen “showcasing the long history of female leadership in the evangelical tradition, including the Baptist tradition”:
[Larsen] went so far as to call women’s involvement in public ministry a “historic distinctive of evangelism.”
Well wow. I don’t think people associate women in public ministry with evangelism anymore. What happened? Let’s rewind a bit and walk through Larsen’s essay:
[Women in public Christian ministry] is historic because evangelical women have been fulfilling their callings in public ministry from the founding generation of evangelicalism to the present day and in every period in between.
It really makes you wonder how we came so far from this. Women used to have no issue preaching, teaching, and pastoring.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, moved from prohibiting women as preachers to embracing them.
“It is fascinating,” writes Larsen, “that [Wesley] affirmed the ministries of these women in explicitly egalitarian language as of the exact same order as that of the men who had not received Anglican ordination whose public ministries he was also affirming.”
Despite John Piper’s hardline complementarian stance, even Calvinist evangelicals of the past have affirmed women’s calling by God as public ministers. Larsen explains how the first American Calvinist denomination to emerge from the eighteenth-century evangelical revival was founded by a woman, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon.
So how did we get from this history, rife with women in ministry, to … this:
Many evangelicals believe that supporting women in ministry is a slippery slope leading to liberalism and agnosticism.
To which I reply, liberalism and agnosticism never looked so good. But seriously, how do we ignore history like this and simply rewrite the rules to benefit men? Because people like Wayne Grudem and John Piper — without proper historical context — are the ones speaking out about how if we support women in ministry, we are “succumbing to the peer pressure of modern feminism instead of remaining faithful to the timeless standard of God’s word.” And might I interject here: the word “feminism” means “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” Based on what? EQUALITY OF THE SEXES. It’s not saying that women are better than men, even though maybe we should use the word “better” to compensate for how we’ve been treated for much of history and still today. But back to Larsen:
Larsen inverts [Grudem’s and Piper’s] argument: “When evangelicals have cared more about the Bible and the gospel than they did about being perceived as respectable by the wider society, these commitments have often led them to affirm women in public ministry.”
Barr elucidates further:
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.
Boom. Read it again. Let it sink in. We are most closely aligned with the gospel of Jesus when we support women in public ministry. OK, so let’s align!
…it is impossible to write women’s leadership out of Christian history. We can forget it and we can ignore it, but we can’t get rid of the historical reality. It is also impossible to maintain consistent arguments for women’s subordination because, rather than stemming from God’s commands, these arguments stem from the changing circumstances of history.
Whether it’s keeping women out of leadership, justifying paying women lower wages than men, or keeping women out of the political realm, patriarchy has a way of shifting to meet whatever “needs” men happen to have at the time. In 1938 Dorothy Sayers actually wrote an essay with the title, “Are Women Human?” Why — I wonder — would she feel the need to write this essay? Oh, well perhaps she felt as though women weren’t being treated like humans!
“Championing Biblical Inerrancy”
…inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear. Any question raised about biblical accuracy must be completely answered or completely rejected to prevent the fragile fabric of faith from unraveling.
The evangelical fight for inerrancy was inextricably linked with gender from the beginning. Kristin Kobes Du Mez explains how, in the SBC specifically, the direct challenge to male headship caused by the rising number of female Baptist preachers put conservative Baptist leaders on the defensive. Inerrancy wasn’t important by itself in the late twentieth century; it became important because it provided a way to push women out of the pulpit. It worked extremely well.
Well, well, well. Isn’t that interesting. Inerrancy being used to push and keep women out of leadership. Annnnnd now you know.
Quick aside: if you don’t remember what Arianism is, it’s a heresy denying the divinity of Christ.
So in this section, Barr writes about nonchalantly sitting in a church service when all of a sudden, the preacher starts speaking about how Jesus is subordinate to God. She says she would have dropped her coffee had she been holding one. She says she looked around to see if anyone was reacting to this heresy. Nothing.
This teaching, called “the eternal subordination of the Son,” has infiltrated the evangelical world. Aimee Byrd describes a 2001 Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood document that teaches “the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is subordinate to the Father, not only in economy of salvation but in his essence.”
Spoiler alert: Christians are using this teaching (which, friendly reminder, is “outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy”) to claim that if the Son is subordinate to the Father, then women, of course, must be subordinate to men. Wow, nothing like using heresy to justify subordination of women. I mean, ya gotta love the creativity there.
On to the final chapter…
Chapter 8: Isn’t It Time to Set Women Free?
And the crowd goes wild. “Yes!” they cry. “Yes, yes, yes!!”
Barr talks about how at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention, Rachael Denhollander captured her experience:
“I think it is very telling that I have heard hundreds, literally hundreds, of sermons directed on the quiet and submissive sphere that a woman should have,” she said. “I have heard not one on how to value a woman’s voice. I have heard not one on the issue of sexual assault.”
Barr goes on:
Not one time during those years did I hear a preacher speak out against abusive relationships; not one time did a pastor speak about the dangers inherent in patriarchal power hierarchies. What I did hear was what Rachael Denhollander heard — women are called to be wives and mothers, submissive and silent.
And I have to concur with both of these women — neither in my experience have I heard any sermons about the dangers in patriarchal power hierarchies.
The harshest words Jesus utters in the Bible are to strict male religious leaders functioning as self-appointed border guards of orthodoxy. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27).
Hmm, male religious leaders functioning as self-appointed border guards of orthodoxy — this feels familiar. It’s almost as though some current male leaders are these exact people. (Piper and Grudem, I’m lookin’ at you.)
And even though people like Piper and Al Mohler and Russell Moore claim that their “Christian patriarchy” is different, Barr directs us to Kristin Du Mez’s point:
… that the conservative church model of authoritarian leadership combined with rigid gender roles fosters a culture of abuse (decade after decade, church after church, leader after leader).
Conservative evangelicals preach “a mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity — of patriarchy and submission, sex and power,” Du Mez writes. “It was a vision that promised protection for women but left women without defense, one that worshiped power and turned a blind eye to justice, and one that transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making.”
But it left women without defense. The recent report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention claims in its nearly 300 pages “that top church leaders suppressed and mishandled abuse claims, resisted reforms and belittled victims and their families.”
And if that wasn’t enough:
Katie Cannon explains, “The institutional framework that required Black men, women and children to be treated as chattel, as possessions rather than as human beings, was understood as being consistent with the spirit, genius and precepts of the Christian faith.” Patriarchy walks hand in hand with racism, and it always has. The same biblical passages used to declare Black people unequal are used to declare women unfit for leadership. Patriarchy and racism are “interlocking structures of oppression.” Isn’t it time we get rid of both?
Oh, oh, call on me! I know the answer!
What if evangelicals remembered women like Christine de Pizan and Dorothy L. Sayers? What if we remembered that women have always been leaders, teachers, and preachers, even in evangelical history? What if our seminaries used textbooks that included women? What if our Sunday school and Bible study curriculum correctly reflected Junia as an apostle, Priscilla as a coworker, and women like Hildegard of Bingen as preachers? What if we recognized women’s leadership the same way Paul did throughout his letters — even entrusting the Letter to the Romans to the deacon Phoebe? What if we listened to women in our evangelical churches the way Jesus listened to women?
What if we finally stood together, united by our belief in Jesus instead of divided by arguments over power and authority?
What if we realized that, even when the male disciples pushed women away, Jesus always listened to women speak? Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have been about Jesus.
Jesus listened to women speak.
Women, it’s time to speak.
Men, it’s time to listen.