In her new book ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood,’ history professor Beth Allison Barr reveals centuries of women that modern leaders keep trying to erase. I was seventeen years old in 1997 and thought I might be receiving a call to the ministry.
The places I felt safest were in prayer, head bowed over my Bible, or in church, considering this precious, complicated world as a gift and thanking the God who I thought gave it to us.
I even had a good role model, a witty, vibrant associate pastor who told stories that wove together her gentle humor and a faith I saw as beautiful. But as I began exploring what Christian faith might look like, I expanded out away from her curious, humble leadership to attend Bible studies with evangelical friends and their pastor. I grappled with the restrictive, rule-obsessed God I heard about there, started watching The 700 Club, dated a Pentecostal preacher’s son — and discovered, when they laid hands on me, that I had never been saved in the way people in his youth group believed I should be. They all believed the Bible, a mess of history and stories as I understood it, was actually something a good Christian must take literally. I absorbed a grain of doubt — had I been doing faith wrong?
When I confided, “I think I’m being called into the ministry,” to a friend, it was with pain in his eyes that he let me down softly. I knew the Bible, right? He quoted Paul’s prohibition, “women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be in submission.”
Whatever I was experiencing must not be God working in me. Another grain of self-doubt.
As my amorphous, enthusiastic faith increasingly collided with the harsh strictures of evangelical theology bleeding in at the edges of my social circles, I became less certain. By the time I got to college and began studying the Bible in historical context, the newer, more literal sort of faith I’d tried to adopt had morphed into something so stiff, so brittle, it could not take the fractures of more doubt. It broke. I am a woman inclined to leadership (I didn’t know how to change that), fascinated by religion and faith, but I didn’t know how to fit inside it anymore. So, I walked away from the church.
As a reporter, a religion writer, I’m still deeply fascinated by women who stayed.
So, it was with great curiosity that I watched medieval church historian Beth Allison Barr giving out “End Christian Patriarchy” stickers to promote her new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Barr, a Baylor University professor of medieval and women’s history, is also a Baptist preacher’s wife who admits she was formerly complicit in accepting the silencing of women within her church. Despite growing clarity that “Biblical Womanhood” as it is preached and marketed today was disconnected from history, and increasingly to her mind, scripture, “I stayed silent because I was afraid of my husband losing his job. I was afraid of losing our friends. I was afraid of losing our ministry,” she writes.
But that’s exactly what happened after her husband challenged his church leadership by suggesting that perhaps a woman could teach Sunday school.
It was a disorienting period. After her husband was fired, they did lose friends, their church, their ministry. Barr was angry at first, but also says “I knew the problem wasn’t God… I knew the church had strayed from the teachings about what a church was supposed to be.” She didn’t blame the congregation either, “because they were doing what they had been told to do and what they had been taught to do.”
Barr opened her laptop and started writing.
In Barr’s book, being forced out of their church over the issue of female leadership serves as the frame to the church history that kept calling to her as she navigated her husband’s job loss, her church upholding complementarian rules, her own reckoning with women’s submission despite knowing the church’s history better than most. She began wondering if patriarchy, instead of being ordained by God, was a result of human sin. “What if the reason that the fruit of patriarchy is so corrupt, even within the Christian church, is because patriarchy has always been a corrupted system?”
For some reason, as she puzzled over that question, all she could think about was a fifteenth-century faith leader named Margery Kempe.