For the past few years, I have been inching closer to Progressive Christianity. Before you ask, I’m not going to become a Christian. However, since exiting my Angry Atheist phase, I’ve felt confident and curious enough to explore who Progressive Christians are and what they believe.
This curiosity led me to Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. This was one of the first Christian books I went into with a truly open mind and heart. I was open to changing my mind that perhaps Christianity was not as sexist as I’d been led to believe. At least, I hoped it wasn’t.
This book was not intended for me
The Making of Biblical Womanhood has rave reviews, and for good reason. Barr uses historical facts in the hopes of persuading fellow evangelicals (yes, she is an evangelical) that “biblical womanhood,” also known as complementarianism, also known as, well, patriarchy, is a recent invention.
My misalignment with the book stemmed from the fact that I was coming at it from the complete opposite direction than Barr’s intended audience was. I was a feminist atheist hoping to be convinced that if Christianity was more feminist than I thought, then maybe it wasn’t that bad. But Barr’s goal had been to convince her evangelical audience that if “feminism” or egalitarianism was biblical then maybe it wasn’t that bad.
More than anything, the book reminded me that Christians make everything harder for themselves and waste their time trying to make the Bible encompass cultural changes when it doesn’t. The Bible is still a huge roadblock on the way to feminism.
I know that sounded harsh, but amazingly, this book brought out the stereotypical atheist in me that’s been asleep for a few years. It felt kind of nice.
Paul’s household codes
If you’re a Christian who is convinced that complementarianism is biblical truth, or an atheist who is convinced that the Bible is sexist, that’s probably because of Paul’s many verses about wifely submission. The verses that Barr first wrestles with are below in their NRSV translation.
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.Ephesians 5:21-24
18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.Colossians 3:18-3:19
1 Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
. . .
7 Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.1 Peter 3:1-7
3 Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behavior, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, 4 so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.Titus 2:3-5
Was Paul a feminist?
Another review that I read described Barr’s discussion of Paul’s household codes as the “lynchpin of the book.” It is in the beginning of the book, and it is what everyone is caught up on when thinking of biblical gender roles. If Barr can’t refute this, the rest of the book is pointless.
So let’s talk about the submission of wives, an idea that evangelicals pull from the New Testament household codes. As we’ve seen, historical context suggests that wifely submission was not the point of Paul’s writings, including in the household codes. Rather than including the household codes to dictate how Christians should follow the gender hierarchy of the Roman Empire, what if Paul was teaching Christians to live differently within their Roman context? Rather than New Testament “texts of terror” for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 46
Barr does give Paul’s commands historical context, which I’m grateful for. She explains that in the Roman patriarchal world,
Wives legally had to submit to the authority of their husbands; unmarried women had to submit to the authority of their fathers or nearest male relatives; women could not own property or run businesses in their own right; women could not conduct legal or financial transactions without a man acting on their behalf.Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 46
Drawing from work by several scholars, Barr concludes that wifely submission was the air Romans breathed and so it wouldn’t have surprised anyone to see it in this letter from Paul. In fact, Paul’s commands were, in that time, more progressive than what his readers would have been used to. Barr uses an example of Aristotle’s fourth century text Politics in which he states that men should rule over and command their wives, and wives in turn are to obey.
The “radical” part of Paul’s commands come from the fact that he begins the passages speaking to wives directly and actually calls on husbands to respect and love them, which was certainly not the norm at the time. Basically, in the context of the Roman patriarchy, complementarianism (in which husbands and wives have “different but equal” roles in the household) was progressive.
Barr cites New Testament scholars Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald, arguing
. . . that the ethical teachings embedded in the Ephesian household code are so “oppositional” to the Greco-Roman world that, rather than a sign of accommodation “the household code is presented as that which ultimately sets believers apart.” When read rightly, the household codes not only set women free, as Shi-Min Lu writes, but they set all the members of the household free from the “oppressive elements” of the Roman world. Paul wasn’t imposing Roman patriarchy on Christians; Paul was using a Jesus remix to tell Christians how the gospel set them free.Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 47
That’s beautiful, but I have two major problems with this.
Christians are human, too
My first problem is that not just here, but in general, I take issue with the Christian idea of being “set apart” from the world. This concept of “in the world, not of the world,” comes from John 17:14-15.
Christians, like it or not, you are “of the world.” You might think your flesh is sinful, but you are made of it. You might think this world is evil, but you are part of it. You are primates, animals, just like the rest of us. You weren’t “called” to be better, you just believe in a different God than your fellow humans do. And your history of homophobia, abuse, and deceit show that you are certainly no more moral than anyone else. The human capacity for evil is a great equalizer because we are all capable of it. You just use your religion as an additional way to explain whatever good or bad things you do.
My second problem is why I did not find this book convincing and why my inner atheist emerged once again.
I’ll grant Barr’s argument that Paul was ahead of his time in regards to his calls for husbands to respect their wives. But there is no denying that these verses have not aged well. They look very bad. They may have seemed feminist in the first century, but it is alarmingly sexist in the twenty-first. My fellow atheists already know what I’m going to say.
Is God sexist or fallible?
Barr does admit in the book, on page 208, that she believes that Paul was inspired by God. I’m betting that almost all of her fellow Christians would agree with that. So if God was guiding Paul’s hand in writing these household codes, why was God considering only how they would be received in first-century Rome? Did God not want his Bible to be read throughout all of time, in all cultures?
Did he want all of humanity to read the Bible and be saved, or didn’t he? Why do we need PhD holders like Barr, Osiek, MacDonald, and Lu to spend years studying the Bible’s historical context to be able to tell us that it isn’t sexist? If an evangelical housewife didn’t have the privilege I had to spend $20 on this book and the time to sit around reading, is she condemned to spend her life serving her husband because they both think that that’s what God created her for?
I don’t buy it. Barr’s interpretation makes historical sense, but… for me, it kind of proves that God doesn’t exist. Or at least he didn’t want everyone to be saved.
Now, I want to look at Barr’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 14:33-37 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
1 Corinthians 14
34 Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.1 Corinthians 14:34-37
(I want to pause as I write this to express how difficult it is to write a post about this book when the book does not have an index. I’ve spent so much time flipping around to find what I’m looking for, and it’s immensely frustrating.)
Barr argues that in these verses, Paul was doing the contemporary practice of “correct[ing] faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it” as he does in 1 Corinthians chapters 6 and 7. So she is arguing that when Paul says women should be silent in the churches, he is reiterating the societal norm of the time and when he asks his readers if the word of God originated with them, he is refuting what he just quoted.
Only that in chapters 6 and 7, he actually quotes the phrases that he is correcting and he very clearly refutes them. I know that the Greek in which Paul wrote would not have had quotation marks, but in chapter 7, he literally says, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” We would understand that he is referring to someone else’s writings even without the quotation marks.
The above verse from chapter 14 has no such context clues. Paul does add “as the law also says” in verse 34, but we don’t know if he is agreeing or disagreeing with the law. Barr points out that the RSV, unlike the ESV or NIV, includes the word “What!” at the beginning of verse 36. She says that Paul’s sudden exclamation and shift in tone show that verse 36 is his condemnation of the beliefs summarized in verses 34 and 35.
Why wouldn’t Paul—or God—have known the importance of being crystal clear when proclaiming a “command of the Lord”? Was the whole paragraph part of the command or not?
Don’t worry. I was curious about the “What!” so I looked this up in my NRSV study bible. I was surprised to see that this whole passage, from verse 34 to 36 was in parenthesis. The footnote reads,
Many scholars regard this passage as a later non-Pauline addition, because it disrupts the flow of the argument from v. 33a to v. 37; it contradicts the assumption of 11:5 that women will pray and prophesy in the assembly; it resembles the viewpoint of the Deutero-Pauline letters (see 1 Tim. 2:9-15); it exhibits non-Pauline sentiments, e.g., v. 34b, as the law also says; and vv. 34-35 appear after 14:40 in some manuscripts.
This feels like a pretty solid argument that verses 34-36 were not even in Paul’s original letter. It’s such a shame, not to mention a waste of time, that we are still subjugating women because of them two thousand years later.
1 Timothy 2
11 Let a woman (or wife) learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman (or wife) to teach or to have authority over a man (or husband); she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.1 Timothy 2:11-15
Barr discusses these verses in 1 Timothy later on in the book, in chapter 4. (Everything so far has taken place in chapter 2.) Until this point, I had still been trying to approach Barr’s theology with an open mind. But on page 119, I wrote in my margin, “Where is Simone Biles? I need you.” The mental gymnastics was proving too much for me.
Obviously, the troubling thing here is the idea that women can only be saved through childbearing. Not that I as an atheist would be saved anyways, but any childfree Christian women out there would be screwed.
Barr tries to save these women from alarm. She turns to what she knows best: medieval sermons. She writes,
In one of the 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). In other words, the sermon interprets Paul’s claim that women “will be saved through childbearing” not as a way to enforce strict gender roles or to emphasize women’s domestic responsibilities or even to highlight women as mothers. This medieval sermon author is clearly aware of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:15, but he uses them to encourage all Christians to face the pain of repentance and penance so that they might be reborn into the joy of salvation.Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 119
To me, this interpretation seems, well, bonkers. Even if this unnamed medieval sermon author read the passage as a metaphor for the salvation of all Christians, Barr gives us no reason to believe that that was what Paul actually meant.
Medieval Christian feminism?
Throughout the book, Barr relies heavily on how people throughout history, especially in the Middle Ages, have interpreted the Bible, and on the girlbossification of medieval Christian women. I love history, and I know that it is important. I understand why Barr uses history to show that no, “feminism” in Christianity is not new. She uses examples of medieval sermons interpreting verses in non-sexist ways and of medieval women being confident preachers to demonstrate that attempts at egalitarianism are not a result of modern third-wave feminism.
Barr covers the interesting story of the ESV’s place in the fight against gender-inclusive language. She explains that in the original Greek, Genesis 1:27 said, “God created humans in his image, both men and women.” Other than that, though, she demonstrates that the gender-inclusive language in the 1978 NIV and 1989 NRSV are not a surrender to the seduction of feminism only by pointing to examples of medieval sermons quoting Bible verses with gender-inclusive language as well.
However, I wasn’t as invested in these historical examples as I was in her interpretations of biblical texts. I would have loved to see more examples of whether the original manuscripts of verses really were gender-inclusive or not. For her audience of evangelical Christians who think egalitarianism is a fad, medieval Christian history is important. For me? I’m happy for them, but I don’t really care. I just want to know if Barr can convince me that the Bible is less sexist than we think it is.
Unfortunately, she did not really convince me.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood left me with a greater understanding of and appreciation for the historical context behind several Bible passages. And I’m glad to know that this book has set free so many evangelical women living in the shadows of their husbands. For people who will only ever view gender through a biblical lens, this book is paramount.
But all it shows me is that their biblical lens clouds their vision. It blinds them from seeing, and helping to build, a more just society. Evangelical Christianity as a whole continues to hinder, not help, equality. Barr might wish that her religion could be less sexist than the culture surrounding it, but as far as I can tell, it’s worse.