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The degree to which culture intersects with Christianity has always been tricky. Some see Christianity above culture, in culture, separate from culture, or shaping culture. But measuring that interaction is always risky, especially when talking to Christians. There is a tendency to insist that we are not captive to our context. And yet, historically speaking, Christians have always lived in particular times and places. A few defy their culture and some are counter-culture, but most seem to happily adopt the current culture while also making the case that the culture is a by-product of their own faith tradition.

Beth Allison Barr, in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, makes the case that patriarchy, the real term for complementarianism, is not God’s original plan but a product of sinful human culture. “What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin? What if instead of being divinely created, patriarchy slithered into creation only after the fall? What if the reason that the fruit of the patriarchy is so corrupt, even within the Christian church, is because patriarchy has always been a corrupted system?” Barr, an associate professor of history at Baylor University, an evangelical and lifelong Southern Baptist, and the current president of the Conference on Faith and History, makes a strong case. Using her own personal history and experiences as a Baptist, a professor at Baylor, a professional historian, and the spouse of a pastor, Barr argues that Christians are “called to be radically different in how we uphold the dignity of all people, including women.” Furthermore, Barr contends that patriarchy “walks with structural racism and systemic oppression” consistently throughout history as a result of the Fall. Barr then points out the ways that an accurate contextual reading of Scripture demonstrates with regularity that Jesus and Paul celebrated the roles of women. Scripture called Christians to act in ways that were counter to Roman society patterns of paterfamilias, which enshrined the patriarchy. After the Reformation, protestant women lost even more status as spiritual leaders because of the emphasis on godliness being tied explicitly to the roles of wives and mothers and under the headship of men. “While Paul’s writing about women were known consistently throughout church history, it wasn’t until the Reformation era that they begin to be used systematically to keep women out of leadership roles.” According to Barr, society transformed how early modern Christians interpreted the Bible, not the other way around. Translators of early modern English Bibles erased women from leadership throughout scripture, thus making it easy for modern evangelicals to do the same.

After reading DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne, and seeing both Barr and DuMez on panels at various conferences and actively involved in the Conference on Faith and History as well as the recent piece by Eliza Griswold in The New Yorker, it seems this discussion of patriarchy in our current culture is becoming a larger conversation. Anecdotally, the evangelical women I’ve talked to seem to identify with DuMez and Barr’s experiences with patriarchy. More troubling, many evangelical women seem to identify with the abuses that patriarchy does not necessarily create, but often hides, protects, and obstructs.

Barr ends this way, fittingly: “What if we stopped forgetting our past and remembered that women—just like us—preached their way through the landscape of Christian history? What if we remembered that we are surrounded by a cloud of female witnesses and that we will never stand alone?”

Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group), 2021.

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Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

6 Comments

  • Thank you for this well-written article.

  • gregory van den berg says:

    Unfortunately, evangelicals seem not to read the bible. If one truly reads the Scriptures, there are many women who are heroes. Incidentally, the scripture starts the line of David with Rahab and then with Ruth. The men specifically in Ruth are depicted as spineless and Godless i.e. the sons of Naomi and Naomi’s husband. As one reads the Bible, there are many women who are the heroes in the book of Judges. In the New Testament, one reads about the faith of Timothy’s mother and let us no forget Lydia in the book of Acts. Christians must reject any infringement of secular culture into one’s faith. We must never forget secular culture is the counter culture running alongside Christianity. Christians seem to forget Christ’s commands of helping the poor, inmates in prison, and children living in poverty. The focus for many Christians is on issues never mentioned in the Bible. If Christian men were modeling their lives as to the Scriptures, this issue would not be discussed. Christian men are believing the lie and accepting the world’s model of masculinity. Isaiah the prophet and the psalmists are agree the Lord exalts the humble and not the macho. Christians cannot follow the world’s model of patriarchy. The model outlined in Scriptures needs to be followed. Just as Christ denied his Godhood, Christian men must reject the John Wayne supposed model of manhood. The irony of all this is John Wayne’s model of manhood is a myth and a lie.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Gregory,
      I agree with this article 100%. I’ve been fighting against patriarchy and the growing flow of complementarianism in the RCA, so I offer this with humility. I think evangelicals read the Bible as much if not more than any Christian group. I have a different hermeneutic so I interpret it in much different way. I would surmise that you do too.
      I’m not sure that arguments about who reads the Bible or who reads it correctly will change minds though. Rather I’m convinced that providing a radical and inspiring image of Christ following manhood is the best way forward. I think we could admit that the images we are offering are not inspiring men to follow Christ in a nee and meaningful way, thus the lack of so many men in our churches. I believe there is more work to be done in this regard, but I also believe there is a strong, humble, inspiring vision of manhood available to us and to the world in following Christ.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca, I too find Kristin Du Mez’ book a wonderful read. I hope many other Christian men and women read it with an open heart. She details events in history with accuracy and with Biblical lenses to critique what happened and how we should go in the future. Blessings on Kristin in her work.

  • Ronald Wells says:

    Rebecca (and all),

    I was among the founding generation of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH), now over fifty years ago. I taught at Calvin College for 35 years and was editor of of the CFH’s journal “Fides et Historia” for thirteen years. Now, as a long-retired colleague, I look with great pleasure and pride at fine postings like your’s, and books like those by Barr and DuMez. We (nearly all men) who started out, a half-century ago, to try to relate our faith to our historical work did not see coming the blossoming of scholarship by feminist colleagues. It is a wonderful development, and one that gives me great hope for the future of Christian scholarship. Please be encouraged to keep up the good work. Blessings and thanks.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you for writing this piece and for including the link to the New Yorker article. Here’s to the long game of educational matters – that matter … for the grounding of grace in each & all.

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