Book Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – quick, easy read; relatively short (just over 200)

Summary

The book is broken into eight chapters – The Beginning of Patriarchy; What if Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?; Out 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? – plus an introduction that is a tough read if you’ve ever experienced church loss. 

The chapters are broadly congruent with the name, though there is overlap with each, and personal narrative as well. The first two chapters focus on early church context/history. The medieval (her specialty) is interesting as is the Reformation impact on women. The next two constitute the issues of the ‘Biblical Manhood/Womanhood’ movement and the final chapter is really more of a conclusion/call to action. 

My Thoughts

This book is incredibly popular and mostly well received (many of the negative reviews come from hardline complementarians), but honestly, I’m not sure why. The book could have been three different, more fully fleshed out books. Perhaps the issue is more editorial than Barr’s. The three parts are her personal story (and that of her husband’s, a Southern Baptist (SBC) pastor who changed on women’s ordination and was forced out of the church), what I’ll call historical/theological developments, and issues with the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). 

Her personal narrative is hard, it is always brutal to be fired/forced out/leave a church community under negative circumstances. The loss of community can be devastating and happens far more than we’d like to admit and too often people impact do not return to any church. It is truly unfortunate that she could not leave on friendly terms and was basically shunned, this is one of the damaging impact of the CBMW, making women’s ordination a first order theological issue. That being said, and this is an unpopular opinion, they are the ones that changed their view and could no longer subscribe to their church’s confession; the SBC uses Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M). While there should have been an amicable leaving of the church, I’m not sure what they expected to happen. This reminds me of those occasional news stories where someone sues a Catholic school for being fired for not agree with Catholic doctrine. I understand the urge to reform the church, but this is not a new issue, instead it is one that has been forefront in the SBC since before the conservative takeover. I have experienced the pain of lost community, but if your convictions change and are against your church, it is time to find a new church. It is with no sense of irony that she writes as an employee at Baylor. One of the departments at Baylor is  Truett Seminary, which is affiliated with the Texas Baptist Convention and the World Baptist Alliance, both of which supports the ordination of women. 

Which leads me to my next point, her Biblical/theological arguments for could use some work. There are number of fairly known ones that people use, include the Baptist groups above, and a few that require serious discussion and consideration. She did not use these; and I’m not sure why. Similar, while her discussion of medieval history or the history of women in the church was interesting, I don’t feel it made the point she think it made. I don’t think there is anyone who denies that there were women who preached/prophesied/had a following, I think there are just those who argue that they shouldn’t, and since most of her examples were condemned as heretics, this didn’t make a strong argument for her point. The idea that getting rid of monasteries/convents took away religious opportunities is an interesting and compelling one.

Finally, chapters six and seven cover some of the damage that has been done by groups like the CBMW who elevate ‘complementarianism’ to the Gospel. I think most of her critiques/conclusions are good, except she seems to be making the mistake of equating ‘Calvinism’ with CBMW. I guess because they are broadly reformedish (or at least ‘Calvinist’ in soteriology). In the Presbyterian strain of American churches, the largest, third and fourth largest of the five denominations ordain women as elders; in the Reformed grouping of churches, two of the three (with the largest included) ordain women as elders. In one critique, she is surprised that John Calvin writes on one theological topic the way he does, solely because she assumed he would disagree, I guess do to her misunderstanding of the various strains of reformed churches. I don’t want to digress too much, but this is a common problem when someone you disagree with says something basic and you find yourself ‘surprised to agree’, as if everyone involved didn’t at least agree on the basics of the Gospel. Similarly, she seems to confuse Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) with Arianism. ESS is wrong, but more aptly described as unorthodox or heterodox than full on heresy, such as Arianism. Now, Grudem is wrong to support ESS (as are a few of the other presidents of CBMW), but I do think a distinction between ESS and modalism needs to be made. Criticism is valid, as one author (I forgot who) pointed out that if you have to change our view of the Trinity to support your view of women, your view of women may be wrong. 

Overall, it really depends on what you are looking for in this book. It is great as a personal narrative, but somewhat surprising in the theological category, especially with her department being adjacent to a seminary. If you want strong arguments for women ordinations I’d recommend Michael Bird’s book on the subject, or the compilations book ‘How I changed my mind on Women’s Ordination’, or go read the scriptural proofs as put forward by any of the denominations that ordain women. I much more coherent and pointed critique of the CMBW would be Aimee Byrd’s ‘Recovering From Biblical Womanhood’, which is excellent. I’d certainly say if you are pastor/leader in your church, regardless of the position you take, you may want to read this due to it’s popularity. This book has enters the discussion often on the topic of women, so that it interest you, you would put it on your list. 

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