This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series: ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood’ (Barr)
- ‘The beginning of patriarchy’
- ‘What if biblical womanhood doesn’t come from Paul?’
- ‘Our selective medieval memory’
- ‘The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women’
- ‘Writing women out of the English Bible’
- ‘Sanctifying subordination’
- ‘Making Biblical Womanhood Gospel Truth’
- ‘Isn’t it time to set women free?’
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr, Brazos Press, 2021.
In chapter 4, Dr Barr considers the effects of the Protestant Reformation on the role and status of women. For Barr, the Reformation, for all its achievements, laid the groundwork for the patriarchy that has been so prevalent in the church ever since.
Patriarchy, Barr often reminds us, is a ‘shapeshifter’. It took one form in the Middle Ages, and another in the Reformation and post-Reformation period. Whereas in the earlier era, singleness was celebrated as God’s ideal, in Reformed teaching and practice marriage, child-rearing and home-making became the ideal for women. Women were placed under the authority of their husbands.
Following Lyndal Roper, Barr sees the Reformation as ushering a new patriarchalism:
‘Marriage guaranteed women stability and significance, but their increasingly subordinate role confined them to low-status domestic work, increased their dependence on their husbands for economic survival, and curtailed their economic and social opportunities outside the household structure. Women were encouraged to be chaste, modest, obedient, and passive, while men were encouraged to be aggressive, domineering, controlling, and active.’
And this subjugation of women, according to Roper, had more to do with with politics and economics than with the word of God.
To be fair, Dr Barr acknowledges that the impact of the Reformation on women can be interpreted in a variety of ways. She quotes Merry Wiesner-Hanks:
‘Some see it as elevating the status of most women in praise of marriage, others see it as limiting women by denying them the opportunity for education and independence in monasteries and stressing wifely obedience, and still others see it as having little impact, with its stress on marriage a response to economic and social changes that had already occurred, and not a cause of those changes.’
But Barr is clear in her own mind that at this time women’s alternatives to marriage decreased, home-making and wifely obedience were emphasised, and opportunities for women to engage in professional work became more limited. Concerning this last point:
‘As the household became more firmly established as a woman’s space, professional work became more firmly identified as a man’s space…Professional status was more clearly identified, often requiring more intentional training, and trade regulations were more clearly established by civic authorities. None of these trends favored women working for pay.’
Even when a woman did have a job, her primary identity was her marital status. Amongst complementarians, this continues to this day: even a highly-qualified woman will identify herself primarily a ‘wife’, ‘mom’, and so on.
At this point, Dr Barr quotes the author of a resource associated with the ESV Bible:
‘The union of one man and one woman in marriage is one of the most basic and also most profound aspects of being created in the image of God’ (Barr’s emphasis).
From this, Barr infers that from the evangelical perspective marriage ‘completes us.’ Now, I happen to think that churches of all stripes should consider the needs, value and contributions of single people more. But it is absurd, on the basis of one brief quotation (and one or two pieces of anecdotal evidence), to dismiss the complementarian position as demeaning to single people. Complementarians know that our Lord himself never married, and that the apostle Paul was (and presumably had always been) single. The best-known compendium of complementarians writings (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) begins with a Forward addressed to ‘Single Men And Women (And The Rest Of Us’). I rather think that the shoe is on the other foot: that Barr is in danger of demeaning marriage and married people, given the lofty teaching of Genesis 2, Ephesians 5 and other biblical passage.
Barr notes, quite reasonably, that single women have featured largely in foreign missions, but still under the authority of men. Given the Reformation emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’, women as well as men should have been given equal opportunity to represent that priesthood through ordination. (I think I’m being faithful to what Dr Barr is suggesting at this point; if so, then it raises all kind of questions about whether there should be any separate group of individual ‘priests’, whether male or female).
Some Reformation women insisted on taking a fuller part in the teaching ministry of the church. These include Katherine Zell, who
‘demanded that she be judged “not according to the standards of a woman, but according to the standards of one whom God has filled with the Holy Spirit.”’
Then there was Anne Askew, who argued, against Bishop Bonner, that
‘she had the right to speak God’s Word and teach men, as long as she stayed out of the official preaching space.’
But such women were resisted. Zell’s wish was refused.
Anne Askew was ‘burned at the stake for heresy.’ A little more context would have helped, I think. We should note that the fact that Anne Askew was a woman played little part in the accusations against her: these were mainly to do, not with her womanhood, but with her eucharistic views. The accusations against Askew came from the Roman Catholic, not the Protestant, side. And Anne Askew’s moving testimony, and record of sufferings, are faithfully recorded in that staunchly Protestant work, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Still, it cannot be denied that Protestants generally taught that wives should submit to their husbands. Barr quotes a Church of England homily, dating from 1563:
‘Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the woman, as Christ is the head of the Church. Here you understand, that GOD has commanded, that you should acknowledge the authority of the husband, and refer to him the honor of obedience.’
But the question here is not so much whether this represent some novel mysogynist teaching, but whether it fairly represents the teaching of Scripture, to which it makes such obvious reference.
In the medieval world, says Barr, some taught that the biblical prohibitions to women preaching only applied to married women. Exceptions might, then, be made in the case of single women such as Mary Magdalene and Thecla. But, in Reformation teaching, all women were excluded.
Medieval preachers, Dr Barr tells us, made much less of Paul’s proscriptions for women and his household codes. But much more was made of these in the Reformation period. In one medieval sermon, Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:15 is applied to all Christians, whereas Lancelot Andrewes, preaching in 1657, uses it to teach the subservience of women:
‘The medieval sermon author uses Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:15 to encourage all Christians to face the pain of repentance and penance so that they might be reborn into the joy of salvation. Andrewes, in stark contrast, uses Paul’s words as evidence for the divinely ordained subjection of women and their divinely ordained calling as—if I may use a modern term—homemakers.’
Barr turns to the question of why such Pauline texts were used differently in the Reformation period. She answers:
First, the preaching program put forward in the thirteenth century and reinforced in the fifteenth century dictated teaching focused on the basics of the faith. It actively discouraged preaching to ordinary people on more complex and potentially controversial topics.
Second, the theological emphasis on redemption through penitence as rooted in the sacramental community of the medieval church profoundly shaped how preachers preached Paul in medieval sermons, emphasizing women’s faith as more important than their sex.
Finally, the medieval reality was that most men would never be priests, placing them—strangely enough—on more spiritually equal footing with women. The spiritual headship of a husband didn’t matter so much in a patriarchal world where both husbands and wives had to go as individuals through a priest for the necessary sacraments. But it did matter in a world in which patriarchy was already the norm and women potentially had as much spiritual power as men did. Patriarchy had to shapeshift to adapt to the new Reformation world.
‘The emphasis on Pauline texts by early modern reformers was born into a secular world already supported by a gender hierarchy. Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure. Instead of Scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world.’
Dr Barr is right to ask us to consider how the relevant texts have been read in various historical eras. As Tom Nettles remarks, it is probably the case that the relevant Pauline texts were referred to less by medieval preachers than by their early modern counterparts. But, Nettles adds,
‘If medieval sermonic use of Scripture becomes the canon of interpretation, one would be hard pressed to argue that justification by faith on the basis of imputed righteousness is the Pauline and consistently biblical, presentation of how sinners will find acceptance with God on the day of judgment. Does the lack of consistent use in medieval sermons render irrelevant the careful attention given to a text in the twenty-first century?’
In the medieval period, Barr maintains, men and women gathered on opposite sides of the church. This gave both opportunities for interracting with members of their own sex, while still observing accepted gender norms. Following the Reformation, however groupings were by family and not by sex, thus limiting such interraction. Congregations were no longer addressed as ‘Good men and good women’, but rather were addressed through their male heads.
In summary: Barr’s main point is that the kind of Christian patriarchy that has existed since the Reformation has more to do with societal norms than with biblical principles.