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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.