The Unmaking of Our Biblical Womanhood

To my younger sisters in the faith:

Perhaps you grew up in the church, and have chosen with joyful intention to continue in the same tradition or denomination now that you’re an adult. Maybe you’ve deepened your faith commitment as you’ve moved into your twenties or thirties. Maybe you’ve made a big change in your life, and have found stability and community among other believers who seek to take the Bible seriously.

In a time when many of your peers are moving away from the church, I commend you for your countercultural decision. When I came to faith in Christ more than four decades ago, 68% of Americans maintained some kind of church membership. A recent Gallup poll reports that less than half of Americans now identify as church members. If you are sticking around, you are swimming against the tide. That takes strength and conviction.

There is a temptation in that place of strength and conviction. It’s subtle, and it masquerades as virtue or even victory. But it is a terrible lie, and it will, in broad daylight, steal pieces of your soul from you.

It is the myth of Biblical womanhood. If you’re in conservative church circles, and sometimes, even if you’re not, there is the idea that there is a certain way to be in the church as a Christian woman. Men are the spiritual leaders of the church. Women aren’t. Some call it complementarianism. Others call it patriarchy. Historian and author Beth Allison Barr, whose new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, describes how thoroughly this teaching saturates our subculture:

Men lead. Women follow. The Bible tells us so.

For a time, I believed this too. It echoed all around during my teenage and young adult years. I heard it attending a Bill Gothard conference, which some people in my small-town Southern Baptist church invited me to. I heard it from my Bible study leaders in college. I heard it from the hosts of Christian radio stations. I heard it from the notes in my study Bible. I heard it at almost every wedding ceremony I attended, spoken loud and clear as each preacher read Ephesians 5. Male headship was a familiar hum in the background of my life: women were called to support their husbands, and men were called to lead their wives. It was unequivocal truth ordained by the inerrant Word of God. 

I’m not writing you to debate the Bible passages and translation choices at the center of this debate. Barr’s book, along with books like this and this, are great starting places if you want to further explore those questions and how they play out in your own church context. But I am writing you to tell you that the subculture in which you find yourself is shaping you not only by the words you hear in a sermon or from a Bible study leader, but also from casual comments, programming choices, attitudes, and lifestyle decisions of those in your Christian circle. 

Even if the content wasn’t focused on teaching about gender roles and expectations, decisions like these in the churches my family attended created a web of unwritten rules that taught me who I was allowed to be within that particular subculture:

  • Women’s programming focused on events like teas and craft projects.
  • Ministry to women based primarily on some combination of Proverbs 31 and Titus 2:3-5, emphasizing roles and attitudes unique to women.
  • The elevation of marriage and motherhood above all else. (If you’re not sure if this is the case in your community, ask a single friend at church if this is true.)
  • Women not permitted to preach, teach teens or adults, or have any kind of involvement in organizational direction or policy discussions.
  • The expectation that women will do all childcare and most, if not all, teaching of children younger than middle- or high-school age.
  • The idealization of 1950’s suburban gender roles as the truly Biblical way to live.
  • A heavy emphasis on authority and submission.

I spent years in conservative circles, because they claimed to be, if not the one true church, at least the most Biblically-faithful one. I valued my role as a wife and mother, and I wanted to honor Jesus with my life. There were gifts of being in this conservative world: I learned to love the Bible. I found purpose in taking seriously my relationship with Jesus. (I still do.) I found companionship with other mothers, some of whom have become lifelong friends.

But the boundaries lines in that world meant I had to dial down my leadership gifts and my desire to learn about theology and church history. I heard from men and women alike variations of “What are you reading that for?” if I mentioned a book or topic that wasn’t on the prescribed list for women. (It wasn’t an actual list, of course, but a grouping of blessed, discussed, and celebrated titles within women’s circles that included syrupy Christian books long on emotion and short on Biblical content or G-rated Christian novels that were sermons in the form of stories.) I was marginalized, branded as a problem, or dismissed entirely when I tried to move outside those rigid boundary lines.*

My own reading of Scripture led me to wonder over the years if my church leaders were really interrogating the questions of gender roles, or whether they were simply maintaining their own comfortable kingly status quo. It wasn’t Scripture that led me to support complementarianism, to be honest. My support was primarily pragmatic. I used to believe that if women led, men would abdicate involvement in the church. Though in the complementarian world, I was told that men were the protectors and women needed to be defended, underlying my belief was the idea that I needed to protect the men by playing my prescribed role. Meanwhile, I carried a great deal of shame about who I was as I absorbed every cue from my subculture telling me that the ideal Christian woman was submissive, quiet, soft, modest, and sweetly pretty – a damsel who needed rescuing by a dashing prince. I didn’t fit that mold. Though I am bright, I believed I needed to hide my lamp under a bushel so as not to intimidate the men at church. 

Because I supported the complementarian system for the first half of my Christian life, I played a role in perpetuating it. I am sorry I did that, because I can tell you there are many older women like me who wish they would have embraced the freedom from complementarian role-playing – freedom God was offering them all along. You don’t need to wait for the crises of midlife to receive that freedom. 

I understand these are different days, and that you might not feel the strictures of conservative Evangelical social boundaries in the same way women of my generation did. But I know the power of peer pressure, and I want to alert you to its effect on you. I want you to shine! I’m connected with many women from all over the country (and world), and hear younger women like you who are trying to figure out this stuff. You want to live the way your peers and mentors at church say is good and right. Maybe the complementarian formula is working for you. (Beth Allison Barr confessed to that very thing in her book.) If your husband is a moral and kind man, and your church leaders are not bullies, the formula may indeed work for you.

But I can tell you that it isn’t working for some of the women in your circles. Power imbalances in relationships are a fertile breeding ground for abuse. Your church can’t have true community if everyone knows they must play an assigned role…or else. Some have elevated complmenentarianism to a first-order dogma, as though it is a central tenet of the faith like the virgin birth or the resurrection. It is not, nor is a complementarian lens the only Biblically-faithful, wholly-orthodox way in which to read God’s Word.

I have spent the last couple of decades recovering what I traded away in a fruitless quest to find true community in those circles. The love offered to me there was conditional on me playing a role God never asked me to play, which is to say, it wasn’t really agape at all. I want more for you, my younger sister, and for your friends at church. I’m cheering you on as I pass the baton to you. The closing words of Beth Allison Barr’s book are my prayer for us all: 

What if we finally stood together, united by our belief in Jesus instead of divided by arguments over power and authority?

What if we followed the example of Jesus, who let Mary of Bethany sit at his feet like a male disciple and who overruled his disciples to make sure he heard the words of the woman of Canaan? What if we realized that, even when the male disciples pushed women away, Jesus always listened to women speak? Complementarianism is partriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus. 

I don’t remember when I started it, but for a long time now, I have been dismissing my students from class with this phrase: Go, be free!

…Jesus set women free a long time ago. 

Isn’t it time for evangelical Christians to do the same? 

 

*Thanks be to God, my husband never bought that party line, and encouraged me to read, write, learn, and lead. “I didn’t marry one of those docile Christian women for a reason,” he told me. 

Cover photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

 

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5 thoughts on “The Unmaking of Our Biblical Womanhood”

  1. Incredibly insightful. As a woman in the intended audience I can say I relate a lot to this article. Michelle, thank you so much for writing about this perspective!

  2. What an encouragement to younger women! The root of the word ‘encourage’ is ‘cour’, heart. We need to hearten one another and that is exactly what you have done Michelle. But we also need to recognise that this does take the ‘courage’ to loosen the hold of, I like the word hierarchicalism, upon us, or even to recognise that hold. In that way we give each other courage, as together we take hold of the hope set before us.

  3. Jesus treated women with a respect, sensitivity, compassion, and understanding that was unheard of in his day. In the stories from the Bible we will be looking at in this class, we see Jesus over and over again healing women, teaching women, comforting women, and encouraging them. Often he would tell them their sins were forgiven, commend them for their faith, and commission them to go tell others about him.

    In short, he went out of his way to treat them as just as worthy to follow him and serve him as his disciples as any man. Even “immoral” women, despised and condemned by the world, were delivered from shame and disgrace when they came face to face with Jesus,

    In John 8:1-11, Jesus saves a woman from a brutal execution by stoning. Finally, John, tells us,”Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

    In John 4:6—30, We see Jesus with another woman who was considered immoral. She was also considered “unclean” on racial and religious grounds. She was a Samaritan.
    She was the wrong gender, the wrong race, the wrong religion, and she had the wrong lifestyle. But it was to this “disgraceful” woman that Jesus revealed some of his deepest Truth. He offered her Living Water, which would give her eternal life. He told her to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” And he told her that he was the Messiah, long before he told any men.

    Luke 1:26-56: The story of Jesus’ mother Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, just before their babies were born. While this story doesn’t show Jesus himself loving and blessing women, it shows how the angel Gabriel blessed and encouraged Mary, and sent her to Elizabeth so the two women could bless and encourage each other.

    Luke 7:36-50 Jesus praised this woman for her great act of worship and the deep love that she showed: “She wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.”

    Luke 10:38-42 In that day, only men were allowed to sit and listen to religious teachers. Women were expected to stay in the kitchen and prepare food for the men. But Jesus welcomed women as well as men to sit at his feet and listen to him.

    Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” but Jesus said, “ Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

    Luke 18:1-8: The Persistent Widow In this parable, Jesus used a woman as an example of faith, perseverance, and courage.

    John 20:1-18: The first person to see Jesus after he rose from the dead was a woman. Jesus gave her great honor by seeing her first, speaking to her, and giving her a message to pass on to the men:

  4. Excellent reflections! Thank you for this in depth look at equality. Much of what you shared is a big reason I chose to stay single, instead of marriage to a man. A tough journey, but somehow genuine and vulnerable.

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