“For millennia,” wrote Owen Strachan, “followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism.” Others have made similar statements, and so we might not be surprised that Beth Allison Barr identifies complementarianism with patriarchy, which Barr understands as a system of male power and female oppression.
How does she make this connection between patriarchy and complementarianism? First, Barr discusses a taxonomy of patriarchy and highlights this definition of it: “A society that promotes male authority and female submission” (13). She then explains, “Both the tradition of male church leaders and the authority of male household heads function within cultures that generally promote male authority and female submission” (14). In other words, male-only pastors and male leadership in the home exist as instances of a larger patriarchal society.
Although Barr may allow for good in hierarchies, she does not explain if or how that might be the cause. And she argues that “gender hierarchies oppress and damage both women and men in the name of Jesus” (9). If I understand her argument correctly then, gender hierarchies as such indicate patriarchy, and patriarchy by definition creates a system of power and oppression that privileges men and devalues and damages women.
Women in History
And as a historian, Barr wants to give a fuller picture to the experience of Christian women. She levies (mostly) medieval examples of women who served God as teachers and preachers. She does so to illustrate how women often taught and preached in ways unlike the roles that complementarianism encourages. So Margery Kempe (1373–1438) stood up to the Archbishop of York and won the day (73–75), using the words of Jesus in Luke 11 against the words of Paul (1 Tim 2 or 1 Cor 14) in the context of her 1417 disputation with the archbishop and others.
I could give more examples to Barr’s narrative of women teachers. Macrina (330–379), someone whom I admire, was the sister of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea. Gregory calls her his teacher and a philosopher, both of which would be counter-cultural since, as Barr rightly shows, Greco-Roman culture saw women as something less than men. Certainly, Gregory’s words here reflect a high view of women and his anti-slavery preaching also cut against the grain of his society.
Blandina (d. 177) is another a hero of mine. At around 12 years of age, she died a martyr when many fell away. And by her death, many returned to the faith. Through her bravery, she became an icon of the cross and self-sacrificial love to those with eyes to see as she hung on a pole—like Christ on the cross. She gave her life up for her faith, an inspiring account of this twelve-year old (or so) slave-girl who “played the man” better than any other man about her.
Macrina taught with life and words, Blandina inspired by her death. Both led others to a knowledge of the truth. I have learned from both, and I hope others do too. I have no complaints here then. Give us more examples of women of faith! Though, as Barr notes, even Kempe did not affirm male-priests. Kempe only affirmed that as a non-priest she could speak about God. Would many complementarians forbid this today?
Okay, so some would. Barr, for example, explains that her church would not let her teach teenage boys (5). So her church had a strict interpretation of gender and teaching. I know others do. But there is also diversity. Pastoral wisdom leads to different applications of how ministry should work. And I wonder how Barr might understand Hebrews 13:17 and its application to such situations: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” I am sure she’d say that patriarchy is wrong, and so she should not obey sinful actions of her pastors. And yet pastors have the duty to organize worship.
I here note that whether one is Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or confessional Protestant that male-only pastorates are the norm and have been across time. So if such a position entails the sinful oppression of women, then we have quite the problem since the sin of patriarchy would pervade the Christian tradition for two millennia. Now, I have done something of a sleight of hand since I started with teaching teenage boys in Sunday school to male-only pastorates. The connection, however, is that if male-only pastorates make sense, then submitting to male church officers is good.
Barr too explains how the household codes of the New Testament subvert expectations by addressing slaves, wives, children, and husbands instead of just husbands, the paterfamilias. Such a view shows that Jesus is Lord of the household. For the most part, I appreciated Barr’s work here as she outlined certain biblical texts, drawing on evidence and scholarship that I might not otherwise see.
I am left wondering, however, why the mutual command of submission in Ephesians 5:21 nullifies the unique force of Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, submit to your own husbands”) and the Christological connection to church that parallels husbands and wives (5:23–24). Might there not be a general command for mutual submission to serve one another along with a unique mode of life in marriage? Grace does not destroy but perfects nature, a point I will repeat later on.
Interestingly, Barr argues that, in 1 Corinthians 14:33–35, Paul cites his Corinthian opponents whom he corrects in 14:36. If correct, that would certainly help her case and remove a significant argument for complementarianism. If correct. Oddly, I did not see any detailed discussion of 1 Timothy 2:12, even in a chapter where Barr attempts to show that patriarchy did not begin in Paul. That said, Barr aims primarily to uncover the history of patriarchy and the historical contexts of the texts, and so she does not aim to be comprehensive.
Barr makes historical arguments that contribute to her case. She does so with intriguing arguments that feel plausible. I do not accept all her conclusions, and I will try to tease out a bit more below about why. Yet one should not dismiss Barr as lacking evidence or argument for her position. She has it. The question is: are her arguments persuasive?
I could say a lot more about Barr’s book. She sees the Reformation as cementing the family as the main unit and demoting women in terms of their ministry freedom. She highlights Bible translations that seem to favour patriarchy. She even highlights TGC and its tying together complementarianism and reading the Bible rightly. To see the table of contents and get a sense of the whole picture, do see Baker’s landing page for the book.
I note here too that as a Canadian (who has lived in the USA), some of her examples feel local to her experience. They probably make sense in certain regions of the USA. For example, a student in her college class wanted Barr to ask her husband to approve her teaching materials (17). Does such a view stem from complementarianism? On the page 18 where Barr makes further reference to the student, I pencilled into the margin: “okay. But is the student also stupid?” That was a harsh, private thought, I admit. And yet: does his behaviour and the behaviour of others besmirch complementarianism to the point that it equals a system of oppression by men against women? Or do some corrupt what is good by doing what is bad?
I suppose that hits at the heart of Barr’s book which argues that patriarchy and complementarianism are bad per se.
While reading Barr’s work, I found myself having to distinguish various concepts that Barr wraps together. A theology and culture complementarianism, patriarchy, and Christian life and practice. She references Bill Hybels and Bill Gothard, the first of whom I only have a basic idea of while the latter is like some mysterious figure named here and there but not part of my conscious world. Are these two men part of the world of complementarianism? Not my world. Of course, Barr criticizes a definable movement (complementarianism) whose main proponents include John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and others very familiar to me. Maybe what I am trying to get at is this: if you lived in Texas, this book probably rings true throughout. If you live in Washington, it may not.
I think that’s important to note because by uniting complementarianism with patriarchy, she unites a large and diverse group on the basis of a fairly simple premise: if women have distinct roles from men in church and family life, then it follows that this signifies a kind of oppression, patriarchy. Certainly, she argues that such limited roles exist within a broader societal application. Hence, a student can ask Barr to get her husband to check her teaching material. She infers that the student sees her as under the authority of pastor and husband. So patriarchy.
Rhetorically, her writing style—fast and tidy, her emotionally wrought experiences, her use of historical citation, and her plausible biblical interpretation—means that Barr’s work accomplishes what it sets out to do. If the positive response to this book is any indication, Barr along with Du Mez and others have made great strides in providing counter narratives, full of Bible and history and rhetoric, which furthers the anti-patriarchal case (and thus the anti-complementarian case). Barr is not egalitarian, she is anti-patriarchy, anti-oppression.
Even so, I am not persuaded by her primary conclusion—even if I have no problem affirming her historical evidence, much of her biblical citation, and even her experiences. There are a number of reasons why.
First, Barr’s use of history only shows greater freedom for women in the past, not a female-pastorate. For every citation she provides of a woman teaching and preaching, I note that female ordination to the pastorate has not existed among the Christian tradition until recent times. Personally, I have no reason to restrain any women from speaking about God. Jesus seemed entirely keen on interacting with women during his teaching (Luke 11:27–28). So good on Margery Kempe. Kempe did not, however, lead a church. So while Barr’s historical examination rightly exposes our ignorance of the past, it has a limited (but still important) contribution to Barr’s overall argument.
Second, despite the many (I admit) bad uses of male power, Barr overstates the connection between hierarchy and oppression. Christians are to submit to authorities (Rom 13:1) as well as leaders (Heb 13:17). Hierarchy is not a product of the fall. In creation, God through the Word ordained hierarchies: “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col 1:16). At one point, Barr qualifies her criticism of hierarchies as only being “like these” (7) by which she means power and oppression based hierarchies. Beyond that, she does not appear to have a favourable view of any sort of hierarchical thinking. And she quite explicitly rejects gender hierarchies (9).
In practice and by repeated critique, Barr then appears to criticize patriarchy and complementarianism due to hierarchy as such since, she reasons, hierarchy implies power and oppression. Yet in the order of things, angels and archangels exist. Women cover their heads because of the angels (1 Cor 11:10). There seems to be hierarchy as part of God’s good creation. Even the Sun and Moon have greater and lesser roles according to Genesis 1:16. And Paul talks about various glories among the created order (1 Cor 15:38–41).
And so if there is some sort of hierarchy among the sexes, then I do not think we should argue that sexual differences cause harm against women as Barr seems to. She explains that patriarchy “has caused women to fare worse than men” (25). Instead, I have to wonder if sin within the gender-hierarchy is a better candidate to be the cause of oppression and harm? I will note here that what I am calling hierarchy, Barr identifies as patriarchy, a product of the Fall (25). If a product of the Fall, then a sinful institution. So we are not exactly disagreeing on sin being the cause of harm, but we are, I think, disagreeing on the nature of that sin.
Third, Barr avoids any extended discussion on nature or natural law, but the New Testament and Christian writers integrate natural law into the discussion of sexual difference. Paul bases our understanding of nourishing of the human body with Christ’s love for the church and our unity as members of one body (Eph 5:29–30). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains the resurrection uses natural analogues of agriculture, astronomy, and zoology. More than that, the medieval and Reformed traditions (e.g. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession) affirm a two-book revelation of God as well as a robust view of the law of nature (Aquinas, Hemingsen, Hooker, Junius, etc.). And Scripture’s context is reality, visible and invisible realities, not just the book a Bible verse is found in. The real word corresponds to and is in harmony with the Bible since the Bible itself is a creature of God like the cosmos is.
If given more space, nature and the natural differences among men and women would, I think, provide more plausibility to the possibility of distinguished yet equal operations of men and women. Granted, Barr’s citations of Aristotle and Galen show their criticism of women as such, but then is the fact of difference (hierarchy) the cause of their comments? Or might sin and its corruption be the case. Then Gregory of Nyssa’s counterpoint (anti-slavery and elevating his sister, Macrina) shows that one like Gregory who lives within hierarchies of bishops and sex and creation can overcome the corruption of hierarchy due to sin.
Fourth, Barr at times appears to make grace abolish nature, not perfect it. Barr criticizes complemententarians for living like the world instead of speaking out against it, namely, against patriarchy. In at least two places, she will cite Galatians 3:28. Whatever is natural, however, can be corrupted by sin or perfected by grace. Grace does not eliminate the natural signs embedded within reality. Marriage, for example, forms a natural partnership between men and women. In procreation, certain biological realities imply distinct modes of being in the world. It also points to Christ’s love for the church (Eph 5:32). Grace does not eliminate the family, since (among other reasons) a male-female union existed before the Fall (e.g., Gen 2:23–24). Fathers exist because God is eternally the Father of the Son (Eph 3:15). And so grace, being one in Christ, means that there is neither female nor male in Christ since we are all one in him (Gal 3:27–28)..
But that real union with the body of Christ does not mean that we do not have diverse and different spiritual gifts, despite being baptized into one body (1 Cor 12). And it does not mean we lack ongoing patterns of life as male and female, embedded and written into nature by God. Signs point to realities, and grace perfect nature. But the sign and natural mode of being do not go away. They have their place.
I have more thoughts, especially, about the definition of patriarchy that Barr uses and how she identifies it with complementarianism. But what I have striven to do here is simply to interact with Barr’s work, provide some large-scale evaluative thoughts, and so help readers get a sense of the book.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood is very well written. I appreciate Barr’s occasional citation of online writing and tweets of significant figures. Some are afraid to do so, but it is a medium that should sometimes (not frequently) demand our attention. The stirring stories, the emotional rawness, the historical and biblical argument together make her case feel plausible.
Insofar as Barr narrates the abusive actions of complementarians or an historical allergy to studying women in history in their context, I have no complaint. But insofar as Barr lays such weight on complementarianism as the cause of womanly harm, I wonder if she has let grace (Gal 3:28) destroy nature—something good but corrupted by sin. Could we as the salt of the earth who have the gift of the Holy Spirit live out an uncorrupted example of male-female relations that accord with natural differences and the full equality of grace in the body of Christ?
The publisher provided me with a review copy. I used their cover image, located here.
 “Of “Dad Moms” and “Man Fails”: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” JBMW 17.1 (Spring 2012), 23.