Is Complementarianism Oppressive? A Review of Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood
Beth Allison Barr’s recent book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth is currently one of the bestselling religious books in the world. It is in Christianbook.com’s top 25 and on Amazon’s bestseller list. It currently has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has a 4.8/5 rating. Not only that, the book, audiobook, and Kindle edition are all in the top five of Amazon’s category, “Gender & Sexuality in Religious Studies.”
So, why is this book so popular and highly rated? Does it share new and valuable information for the church today? I believe that it fails to do, so and I want to offer an explanation as to why.
Barr immediately identifies herself as an activist and, before making her case, she gives us some background as to why she reaches her conclusions. Although she builds anticipation that there is going to be a gripping discovery from her exploration, the book’s arguments are a mismatch to the anticipation.
She begins with a personal story. Barr’s husband had been working for a complementarian church for many years. Their friends and their children’s friends were largely from that community.
Rising Action: When Barr tried to challenge her church’s complementarian position, the church resisted her proposal to change their doctrinal stance. When her husband supported her, the church leadership asked for his resignation and gave him what she believed wasn’t enough in the severance package (eight months).
Climax: Instead of leaving peacefully as her husband had planned to do, Barr couldn’t contain herself. The church placed a small table out on their last day with a picture of their family and a box for people to place goodbye notes in. The big moment in this highly dramatized story comes when Barr left the table suddenly and walked away from the people saying goodbye. As people tried to speak to her, she stormed out speechless and left the church.
Falling Action: She decided that she had “been silent” long enough and that she was going to be an outspoken voice against complementarianism regardless of the cost to her family.
Denouement: She used her platform as a historian to create a bestselling book so that other women (and men) would know the “truth” about how complementarianism wasn’t always the historical church’s position on the subject of women’s roles.
That story might relate to the feelings of some who feel that their voices have been silenced in the church, but anyone working in a high-stress job or who is familiar with what is happening in the persecuted church might be tempted to view her supposedly heart-wrenching story with a similar level of concern as they have for a sports player overreacting to a foul.
Perhaps some, like myself, will feel uncomfortable with the story because the protagonist seems to take the least amount of the blow of the actual repercussions. Barr’s husband lost his job and was humiliated by a forced resignation. Yet Barr makes herself out to be a victim. I believe that one of the reasons this book has become so popular is that people relate so strongly to stories of injustice, and Barr’s entire framework for her arguments stems from her personal victimization by complementarian beliefs.
It is important to me that I ask any readers of this book to not allow her personal story to grip at their heart strings any more than it should. If her arguments are valid, then they should be able to stand on their own. So, what are her arguments and are they able to make a coherent case independent of her appeal to emotional solidarity?
Below is a list of some of Barr’s most directly stated arguments. As you read through this list, consider what types of evidence would be needed to prove their accuracy. The bold provides my own emphasis and in several instances highlights some of the common verbiage of a person whose politics lean left. I think this could be significant as it seems to me that Barr’s political iterations impacted her theology and interpretation of history significantly.
- “[Complementarian theology is] based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible… Cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text” (p. 6).
- “Complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression” (p. 7).
- “Patriarchy looks right because it is the historical practice of the world… Christians are called to be different from the world” (pp. 24-25).
- “Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin (p. 29).
- “Patriarchy is part of an interwoven system of oppression that includes racism.”
- “In a feminine twist on apostolic authority, Jesus’s authorization of Mary Magdalene ‘bestowed upon the feminine sex’ the right not only to speak but to speak with authority” (p. 77).
- “Women’s leadership has been forgotten because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were” (p. 84).
- “Instead of scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world” (p.123).
- “Instead of biblical womanhood stemming from the Bible, it stems from a gender hierarchy developed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to deal with the social and economic changes wrought by work moving outside the home” (p.166).
- “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.”
- “We can no longer deny a link between complementarianism and …Hierarchy gives birth to patriarchy, and patriarchy gives birth to the abuse of both sex and power” (p. 207).
- “The roots of biblical womanhood extend from white supremacy” (p.208).
Like me, you might consider some of these claims to be massive. Massive claims require massive evidence. By massive, I mean both clear and compelling.
Instead of clear and compelling arguments, Barr (like so many other revisionist historians) offers us linguistic gymnastics, ignores the rebuttals of common egalitarian arguments, tries to score credibility points by appealing to her knowledge of medieval history, and attaches complementarianism to real forms of oppression in an attempt to delegitimize it. She appeals to the emotion of her readers and tries to relate what she describes as her own trauma to the hurt that other people have faced in their relationship to the church—even if that hurt is not directly related to the subject at hand.
One particularly concerning shift of language is how Barr defines patriarchy in various ways, and then equates it all with complementarianism. She explains that she is going to be using the term patriarchy to refer to “societies that promote male authority and female submission” (p. 13). However, just pages later, she subs out that definition for a different one, saying that patriarchy is “a general system that values men and their contributions more than it values women and their contributions” (p. 16).
Words matter and when definitions change, it can lead to ugly misunderstandings and mischaracterizations. Throughout the book, Barr changes the meaning of patriarchy several times and concludes, “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus” (p. 218). Such indicting overgeneralizations force the reader to ask, for starters, “Which definition of patriarchy is being used in this conclusion?”
Ignoring the Rebuttals
When it comes down to it, understanding what the Bible teaches about gender roles is what really matters and should determine what we should believe and shouldn’t believe about this subject. There are several key passages in the Bible that address men’s and women’s roles. Complementarians believe these passages point to distinctions in roles, yet they do not believe that these passages teach female inferiority or that women have less important roles.
Passages like 1 Timothy 2 & 3 and Titus 2 call for an elder to be married to one woman. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul instructs Timothy not to allow women to teach or to have authority over men. He appeals to the created order to make his case. Ephesians and 1 Corinthians offer us more insight into Paul’s view that qualified males be the shepherds of the church.
How does Barr address these passages that have been at the heart of the debate? First, she dismisses Paul’s verses by saying that Paul was a revolutionary feminist for his time. He was using familiar language to that of Roman law and modifying it to make allowances for women. He was saying what he had to say while also giving women more allowances within the church than they had been given in their culture. In other words, we have the age-old argument that Paul’s clear teachings can be dismissed because of context.
More importantly, Barr uses Galatians 3:28 as her nail in the coffin verse to debunk complementarianism once and for all. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Barr refers back to the curse in the Garden of Eden, claiming that Galatians is announcing the end of the curse. Women are no longer under subjugation. Barr’s last words in the book are the exhortation, “Go, be free!” (p. 218).
Using Galatians in this way not only misses the point of the Galatians passage; it also fails to acknowledge that all of Paul’s references to gender roles were written after he wrote the letter to the church in Galatia. If gender was destroyed as a construct or the curse in the garden was reversed by the New Covenant, why would Paul then go on to make all the references he did to gender roles for the New Testament church?
The point of the Galatians passage was not that gender or gender roles were abolished. It was to show that we are all eligible for justification through faith in Jesus Christ. All could inherit the kingdom of heaven regardless of social status. Despite complementarians rebutting these false interpretations of Galatians 3 for decades, feminist and egalitarian authors like Barr continue to fail to address the rebuttals.
Scoring Credibility Points
Barr unabashedly associates herself with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the author of the trending book Jesus and John Wayne. She and Du Mez both appeal to their authority as historians to show that they are credible. They wow their readers by sharing little known historical facts and stories in their books. Unlike Du Mez, who artfully crafts a narrative through history and tries to make a compelling argument by selectively including pieces of history, Barr tries to delve into theology based on non-theological credentials. (Note: Even if she did have theological credentials, that wouldn’t legitimize ineffective arguments.)
Barr spends a large portion of the book delving into stories about Margery Kempe, Hildegard of Bingen, and other medieval women who were examples of preaching women. She also claims that Mary of Bethany was “the apostle of the apostles” and the first preacher of the gospel (p. 82).
She tries to associate her claims about medieval and biblical women. Yet, her references to biblical women fail to show these women actually rejecting gender roles as described in the New Testament, and her references to medieval women fail to show whether or not women should hold preaching positions of authority in the church today. There is a disconnect between her historical observations and her theological conclusions. For example, her credentials as a historian do not give her credibility to make claims like these:
- “What got Eve into trouble was loving her husband too much” (p. 44).
- “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly” (p.173).
- “Inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear” (p. 190).
Attaching Complementarianism to Racism
You might be wondering (and rightly so), “What do men’s and women’s roles have to do with race?” In this cultural moment , it is common to relate every issue to race. And, because Galatians 3:28 lies at the heart of Barr’s argument that gender roles are part of Adam and Eve’s punishment—and the passage mentions slavery—she has her starting point. Barr can then argue that, just as slavery has been abolished, so should gender roles be. Going even farther, Barr suggests that racism and gender roles go hand in hand.
In particular, Barr cynically sees complementarianism as yet another power grab by white evangelical males, as she explains in this excerpt from an interview:
“If you try to disentangle racism from patriarchy, you can’t do it. Both are going to fall down. So, these critics of CRT, these critics of wokeness, essentially, their power is being threatened. If they admit that they are wrong about racism, about systemic racism, then that’s also going to lead to them having to recant systemic patriarchy, which means they’re going to lose their power base. So, that’s my cynical idea about what’s going on, it’s that it would undermine their power that they have been building since the late 1970s.”
This accusation aligns with the rhetoric from critical theorists and intersectional feminists who call out white people for their inescapable systemic racism and men for their inherent systemic patriarchy. This is the type of worldview one adopts, not from immersing in the Scriptures, but from absorbing Western progressive thought.
I have said quite a bit about the emotional appeal already, but it is important to understand that Barr’s book has hit an emotional nerve. Many women and men in the church (as well as those formerly in the church) can relate to the story that Barr tells of feeling abandoned by church leadership. I know that I have been in similar positions myself and have watched friends struggle to feel loved and appreciated by church leaders.
Barr talks about experiencing trauma and shows that the egalitarian/complementarian debate has been life-changing and life-shattering for her. She describes with great joy the moments when she realized she could finally break away from complementarianism.
At one level, this book is helpful in that it describes a cautionary tale for people in church leadership. The trauma she describes serves as a reminder for church leaders to be patient, affirming when possible, compassionate, and clear in their ability to articulate their doctrinal beliefs. The elders at Barr’s church did not appear to handle the issue in a biblical manner. For example, it was so important to them that an elder “have one wife,” but it must have been less important that elders also need to be able to teach.
On the flip side, this is also a cautionary tale for women whose ambition leads them to rethink biblical interpretation. Barr describes her distaste for keeping her home, seems to delight in a story of a woman who went into missions leaving her children crying on the beach, and gives the impression that her primary concern was often herself and not her husband. As mentioned before, her worldview appears to have uncritically embraced Western progressive thought, even while displaying a shocking cynicism toward evangelicalism. These are not healthy places to end up.
Despite the flaws of this book, I do believe that there were some small but significant contributions that Barr made.
First, she addresses the women in the church who have trouble liking the apostle Paul. Barr confronts these women and makes a case for Paul being radical to Roman culture in the positive ways that he spoke about women. I found this to be a very valuable part of the book and I agree with Barr that Paul was radically pro-woman.
Barr also addresses some heretical teachings that I have found taking hold in the church about the relationship between the members of the Godhead. Many churches teach that Jesus is subordinate to the Father and that men’s and women’s roles can be modeled as such. Barr does an excellent job of decrying this heretical teaching as Arianism. Our churches need to be aware of what Arianism is as it is becoming increasingly common in very subtle ways.
Yet, in conclusion, the subjugation of women has not become gospel truth, contrary to the book’s subtitle. Have there been rigid cultural versions of masculinity and femininity that have been passed off as biblical norms? Sadly, yes. Have there been teams of male elders which have assumed that spiritual shepherding equates to large-and-in-charge control over a church? Tragically, yes. Yet complementarian churches are not inherently racist, oppressive, and attempting to take away God-given rights from women. Rather, the complementarianism we champion at Renew.org is our best attempt at synthesizing all that Scripture teaches about men and women: both gloriously displaying God’s image, both enlisted in amazing acts of faith and ministry, but both living out that faithfulness by embracing—not rejecting—God’s vision of biblical manhood and womanhood.
The complementarianism we champion at Renew.org is our best attempt at synthesizing all that Scripture teaches about men and women.
 In addition to Renew.org’s “On Gender and the Bible” series, I recommend Dr. Jack Cottrell’s 1992 book, Feminism and the Bible. In this book, Dr. Cottrell exposes the roots of the Galatians’ false teaching and is a fascinating read that I highly recommend.