Reading Dr. Barr Soberly and Prayerfully

Victor Chininin Buele

I argued previously that two things Dr. Kevin DeYoung did in his review of Dr. Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood were highly concerning and could be taken by readers to ignore Dr. Barr’s entire argument primarily because of her emotional portrayal of her stories and the trauma she has experienced. Also, there were implications of doubt planted regarding her telling of both her experiences and history as a whole.

Today I do not want to write about the more superficial kinds of controversy that have come with the book’s publication. Instead, I commend Dr. Barr’s work to you to be read soberly (thoughtfully, critically) and prayerfully. Her voice and arguments must be engaged fairly and thoroughly. She is associate professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University, a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a professing sister in Christ. She is no history aficionado as I am.

She writes,

I have found it useful in my work as a historian—what if I am wrong about my conclusions? Am I willing to reconsider the evidence? I have found it useful as a teacher, especially when a student presents me with a different idea. The question “What if I’m wrong?” helps me listen to others better. It keeps me humble. It makes me a better scholar.

Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, 41

I have always found that reading in that spirit is very important. Without endorsing him, I want to point out something Doug Wilson said in Heaven Misplaced, as he asks the reader to consider postmillennialism,

Someone can really enjoy The Lord of the Rings and agree to temporarily set aside his knowledge that orcs and elves are not exactly real. But once the reader is in story grip, the story comes alive and is made real to him because of that willing suspension of disbelief. Even if the reader does not really “believe in it” after he has closed the book, he still knows the story far better than he would have if he had been saying, “yeah, right” every other page. He knows the story “from within,” even if he cannot accept it at the last.

Wilson, Heaven Misplaced, 10

Willing suspension of disbelief. I argue for that today. I want you to read Dr. Barr’s work as a charitable Christian ought to read it. And to ask yourself and Dr. Barr the questions that need to be asked.

I should make a quick note about my presuppositions and convictions in the interest of fairness. I confess complementarianism as an appropriate framework to synthesize the Bible’s teaching about men and women in Christ, in God’s image, on mission in the world for the Kingdom as co-heirs of the promise of a new heavens and a new earth after the return of Jesus Christ, our Lord. I confess it with a couple of important caveats: 1) I strongly believe there is a hyper-complementarianism that is as devastating as in Spurgeon’s times hyper-Calvinism was to Calvinism, leaving caricatures and devastation behind that can turn anyone away easily–who wants to cause pain and abuse?, and 2) abuse does happen in any and every context in a fallen creation, but the abuse of complementarianism does help breed cultures, churches, families, and institutions where the subjugation of women, the silencing of women, and the dehumanization of women are very real. This is not me having itchy ears or going with the spirit of the age. This is just reality. Also, in the interest of fairness, I should state that Dr. Barr has not persuaded me of an egalitarian reading of Scripture or of history in her work. Willing suspension of disbelief and all.

As I’ve read the book, I have noted the following areas and questions that I believe any thoughtful reader of this book and the Church at large must be willing to ask and seek to answer and research thoroughly. We will all be better off from it:

  1. The first words of the book will turn off many and will help facilitate confirmation bias for Dr. DeYoung’s tone on his review: “I never meant to be an activist,” she writes. Dr. Barr’s story certainly is full of emotion–how could you not leave a church so dear to you under such difficult circumstances and not show any emotion about it? How could you go through what she reveals at the end of the book and not be affected by it at your core? So, the key question here for the Christian reader is this, what can we do better as the Church and as individual Christians to help those who have experienced abuse and to grow mutually through doctrinal disagreement rather than rush to institutional protection mode? Not just Dr. Barr’s testimony but the testimony of so many is that at minimum the perception of institutional protection and, at worst, actual institutional protection come to the forefront over and above the well-being of the person, of the image bearer of God, who incidentally is going through what very likely is the worst time of her life. Let us not rush to discount truth and to call out falsehood because a person has been through the emotional wringer. Our God is truth.
  2. Dr. Barr reports multiple times, “I stayed silent.” In what ways are we, as individual Christians and as the Church, directly and indirectly silencing women? Are we communicating clearly and unequivocally, even if indirectly, that women have no place in theological discourse, mutual discipleship, the sharpening of the saints, or to raise up concerns or suggestions to the leadership of the church? Where can women go when things do go wrong because they will? What have we built so that suspicion is not our natural reflex or the charge of usurping of authority is not our initial reaction to valid concerns or legitimate charges? Have we built just structures and procedures? Is our discipleship and participation in corporate worship one that testifies to the whole truth of Scripture? Our God is justice.
  3. Dr. Barr assumes that complementarian theology necessarily will result in this concept of biblical womanhood as we observe it in complementarian churches and institutions today, as taught and advanced by the CBMW, the Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, etc. She says, “I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog […] cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context” (6). She argues, then, that proponents of complementarianism are misreading Scripture. This is a serious charge that needs to be considered thoroughly. So, is she right? Is complementarianism the reading into Scripture of American mid-twentieth-century preferences or the reading into Scripture of a Victorian worldview? Is complementarianism based on a handful of verses? A good start to this question can be found in Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity. I point out to you his discussion of the role of hermeneutics in questions like these starting on page 238 of chapter 8 Is the Son Eternally Subordinate to the Father? Eternal subordination does play an important part of this argument, and Barrett asks, by whose rules are you reading Scripture? His discussion is not about complementarianism and egalitarianism, but I think that frame of thinking and way to address a related subject can be helpful for further discussion about Dr. Barr’s statement. Our God is our Triune Creator.
  4. Dr. Barr joins complementarianism with patriarchy very tightly, and in her defense, she has citations from Dr. Russell Moore to do it. I believe that mixing these concepts can cause unnecessary distraction. I believe we need to discuss fairly what patriarchy is and is not, what abuses of patriarchy are and are not, and that we don’t go past the boundaries that Scripture has for headship. It is not fair to conflate categories on both sides. After some discussion on The Epic of Gilgamesh, Dr. Barr presents what is in my opinion, the most significant claim of her book: “Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin” (29ff). Dr. Barr argues, then, that complementarianism is a theology of Genesis 3 and not of Genesis 1-2. I happen to disagree with that. If complementarianism were a theology of Genesis 3, that is, a result of the Fall, I would be fully standing by Dr. Barr’s side on this. But it isn’t. In his article Gendered Exegesis of Creation in Philo (De Opificio Mundi) and Paul (1 Corinthians) in Paul and the Greco-Roman Philosophical Tradition, Dr. Jonathan Worthington presents exegetical work that is substantial that Dr. Barr ought to consider in her analysis not only in her chapter about the Beginning of Patriarchy but also on her proposed reading of 1 Corinthians. Complementarian theologians, how can we show exegetically and practically that complementarianism is not a result of the Fall, that it is rooted in creation? I think Dr. Worthington has given us all a good example to go deeper.
  5. The second heaviest argument presented by Dr. Barr in her book is her chapter 2, What if Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul? In this chapter, she argues for a reading of 1 Corinthians and the rest of the Pauline epistles that is different than the complementarian reading. The thoughtful reader will want to know why this is and how to scrutinize both readings to reach a Scriptural conclusion in the Spirit. Not because we can read Paul differently (42), it means that we must read Paul differently. Is there warrant to do so? Dr. Barr does present her case, but please do not ignore that she is intellectually honest here. Yes, she inflects certain words in 1 Corinthians 14 (What! Did the Word of God originate with you?), but she also says, “While I cannot guarantee this is what Paul was doing, it makes a lot of (historical) sense” (62). What we need to ask is, is she correct? Do we have exegetical and historical warrant to say that Paul was quoting a bad practice common to the cultural context of the day that he is rejecting? Is Dr. Barr right in saying that all the household code sections of Paul mean the complete opposite of what the complementarian reading says they do? Can we take the medieval sermons cited as evidence that the reading is wrong or not? If so, why? If not, why not? What does it mean for the complementarian to affirm that there is both mutual submission and individual wifely submission in Ephesians 5? Can we also make clear that Paul nowhere calls a woman to submit herself to all men? Can we also make clear that none of these readings should make a way for the subjugation of women? Can we also be honest that sometimes the egalitarian writings on Romans 16 seem to be stronger than the complementarian arguments and deal with those cases fairly? Our God does not support favoritism. There is no room for insults or fearmongering in our interaction with these arguments. Sometimes it feels that we are more afraid of being called an egalitarian than we are about missing the truth of God.
  6. How can the historical charges that Dr. Barr make be properly assessed? Are our history books that slanted? I do have to admit that it is rare to find references to women in them. DeYoung’s review is the most extensive in this area. He charges Dr. Barr with ambiguous language and selective information. I want to point out that history is an area that the Christian has to be willing to engage with all the way–our historical heroes are rarely as clean as they’ve been cleaned up by time and distance and by our own idolatry of them, at times. My encouragement to the reader is to engage the historical positions presented by Professor Barr, a professional historian, again, willing to hear them and consider them thoroughly. Then, feel free to ask if anything is missing, and if it is, point it out. We all need to ask, once all the historical evidence is on the table what the role of history/tradition and Scripture are. R. C. Sproul was fond of saying that salvation was not by statistics. I can’t just poll the sermons in America today and argue that because 80% of them say something about a given subject that such a thing is gospel truth or that it is biblically solid. The Church is always in need of reformation. Just because a whole bunch of preachers are preaching the same thing, it doesn’t make it true. But it should alert us to look at it comprehensively. That is a long way of saying, let’s make sure we do understand the medieval Church, what it thought and taught and the reasons why. Then, we can engage in processing that information in the light of Scripture and moving forward without ignoring the saints of the past.
  7. On the subject of Bible translation, can we all be intellectually honest and accept that our favorite translation has made translation and meaning choices that even if well-intentioned can slant our reading of the text? The ESV’s changes to Genesis 3:16 are not neutral! They communicate something. We should be willing to enter chapter 5 of that book with that reality in mind. Bible translators have to make choices for defining meaning and for communicating meaning. Those choices cannot always be isolated from one’s most dearest convictions.
  8. All the these seven areas will impact how we apply these concepts to our lives. Our interaction with chapters 6 through 8 will be marked by whether we listen or not. We all ought to desire complete freedom in Christ for every creature breathing today. There is no distinction. The gospel is the most liberal in its call to every creature to proclaim and confess Jesus Christ as Lord. The gospel is the most progressive in truly advancing humankind by renewing the person who believes in Christ to the core, renewing her mind through the gospel truth, and in humility from the Spirit helping her to find a greater degree of Christlikeness every day through every circumstance.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Barr for taking the time and the massive effort to put all of this into published words. The weight of the footnotes pains me to not be able to go and read every single one of those sources for myself. Yet, that’s why we don’t read in isolation. That’s why we are the Body of Christ, or at least, we are supposed to be. Can we give it a good read? Can we really immerse ourselves in the Word of God so that it sweetness would permeate through Word-based arguments? Can we truly love charitably? We have a lot to learn from Dr. Barr and from one another.

Godspeed, fellow reader. God be with you.