The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr

The Making of Biblical Womanhood
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Editor's Note: The CRCNA officially recognizes that both complementarian and egalitarian positions honor the Scriptures. We offer this review to foster conversations, not to promote or malign any positions.

Why does the term “biblical womanhood” hold so much influence over women in the church? Is it even a biblically valid ideal? Historian Beth Allison Barr unfolds her own journey in exploring these important questions.

Reading The Making of Biblical Womanhood feels like time-traveling through critical moments in an evangelical woman historian’s own life and a guided tour by an expert in medieval Christianity. It is a deeply personal and also intellectually enriching experience. The author remembers growing up in a small-town Texas Southern Baptist world where “a single woman behind the pulpit was aberrant; married women behind their husbands were the norm.” The scripts of biblical womanhood as “submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers” were everywhere. Nevertheless, this myth of complementarianism later imploded when Barr's husband, a youth pastor, was fired after he challenged church leadership over the issue of women in ministry.

As a trained historian, a pastor’s wife, and a former insider within conservative evangelicalism, Barr writes this book to clear the house of patriarchy. She shows that evangelicals have always selectively interpreted biblical texts, written in patriarchal worlds, with regard to gender roles. Readers learn how historical Christian women since early Christianity, from Mary Magdalene, Margery Kempe, Christine de Pizan to Katherine Bushnell, struggled with these same issues of church authority.

But, “women couldn’t be written out of history.” Barr’s historical survey presents the convincing fact that “the medieval church was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire.”

Another distortion in our historical understanding of biblical womanhood is rooted in a glorified version of the Protestant Reformation. It was a  “a story of success, of freedom, of faith revived and reinvigorated,” when submission and domesticity became the “ideological touchstones of holiness for women” and when English Bibles lost their gender-inclusive language thereafter. As a result, “womanhood became redefined and the role of wife and mother sanctified in the post-Reformation world.” Even today (especially since the widely celebrated 500th Anniversary of the Reformation among conservative evangelicals), such triumphalist, male-dominated historiography continues to be popular among evangelical Christians, elevating complementarianism as orthodoxy.

The author contends that women tend to fall into two camps within the complementarian system: adapter-enablers and victim-survivors. The author candidly admits that she has traveled from the first to the second. The last chapter presents great detail about how both subgroups fared in America’s public sphere. Her personal discussion of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements makes this book a welcome addition to the literature of trauma-informed advocacy and pastoral caremuch needed for today’s churches. (Brazos)

(Editor's note was added and a sentence was revised on April 24, 2021)

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (3)


I have to admit that I'm puzzled by the first line of the last sentence.  "Women inevitably grow into two camps within the complementarian system: adapter-enablers and victim-survivors."  First, is that the position of the author of the book (Barr) or the author of the review (Li Ma)?  After multiple readins I can't tell.  Either way, since it starts the very last paragraph of the review, it seems to be posited as a true statement.  And yet a significant minority of CRC churches still hold to that position.  If that sentence is accurate, how can the CRC continue to allow churches to hold to the complimentary position?    And if it's not accurate, why is in there? 

       I will readily agree that there have been abuses done in the name of complimentarianism.  But are those the only 2 options? Are all the women in our CRC complementarian churches either enablers or victims?   There are many churches, and many women in those churches, who would strongly disagree.  


"Women inevitably grow into two camps within the complementarian system: adapter-enablers and victim-survivors."

You've got to be kidding me. What an insulting thing to say about thousands of strong, godly women--many of whom are the mothers and grandmothers of this "liberated" generation. 

Gracious disagreement is one thing, but this is shameful. 

The editors had to add this note: "We offer this review to foster conversations, not to promote or malign any positions."

If that were true, this review that so obviously does malign one position would never have been published.