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Time to Bust the Myth of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans wrote a stunningly provocative book, published in 2012, titled “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”

In it, she vividly shows us how “biblical womanhood” is not a constant. It is a culturally constructed concept.

For those of you unfamiliar with her book, she spent a year living out as many different versions of “biblical womanhood” as she could find throughout the Old and New Testaments – from sleeping in a tent in her front yard during her period to covering her head and remaining silent at church.

Her book really helped me understand how biblical womanhood, to at least some degree, is in the eye of the beholder.

Today, the ideas we associate with biblical womanhood – you know, the ones you hear from Lisa Teurkherst on KLove’s Proverbs 31 Woman and Desiring God podcasts that emphasize women as submissive wives who prioritize children and home over career and who are content to teach children at church but remain under the patriarchal hierarchy of male teachers and pastors – are emphasized by modern U.S. culture, not because they are “biblical” but because they are culturally acceptable.

We, as evangelical Christians, have chosen to focus on these aspects of biblical womanhood, which also means we have chosen to ignore other characteristics associated with biblical women.

Yet, this idea that “biblical womanhood” owes as much (if not more) to cultural invention than it does to biblical text has made little headway among evangelical Christians.

Indeed, it often seems that the opposite has happened; rather than a cultural construction, “biblical womanhood” is viewed as integral to normative Christianity.

In a 2012 interview, for example, John Piper, Denny Burke and Tim Keller argued that male headship and female submission is not a secondary issue; it is a gospel issue.

In other words, what you believe about male headship and female submission is a litmus test for orthodoxy.

Those who support more egalitarian readings of Scripture, Piper suggests, are more likely to compromise the gospel. Those who accept “biblical womanhood,” in contrast, are more likely to be theologically sound.

Men lead; women follow. The Bible (not just a particular interpretation of some biblical texts, but the Bible) tells us so.

Just a few days ago, on April 27, Desiring God posted this remark by John Piper on Facebook: “Leadership is taking initiative. Who says, ‘Let’s …’ more often in your relationship? ‘Let’s go out to eat.’ ‘Let’s try to get our finances in order.’ ‘Let’s get to church on time next Sunday.’ Who says it most often? If it’s the wife, you have a problem, and the problem is with the guy. If it’s the guy, she’s probably happy because she doesn’t want to be the one to say ‘let’s’ over and over again. In general, leadership means a bent toward initiative under which women thrive.”

This post got 1,700 responses, mostly “likes” and “loves.” It was shared 430 times (at my last count). While I can’t prove that most of these likes and loves were evangelical Christians, I am probably right that they are.

Conservative evangelical Christians support male headship and associate “biblical womanhood” with marriage, family and submission.

As I have argued in previous posts, (Paul on Women: A Modern Obsession? and Paul Interrupted: A Medieval Perspective), only a handful of verses are used to define this notion of biblical womanhood: 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, Colossians 3.

These verses have become increasingly popular since the 1950s. They also have been increasingly used as the primary lens through which conservative Christians view women.

Yet, as I have also argued in a previous post, the emphasis on Paul’s writings about women – specifically 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Colossians 3, Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 – has been far less consistent throughout church history than modern scholars and even modern Christians would like to think.

Evidence from vernacular sermons in late medieval England shows that Paul’s writings about women have not always been in the forefront of Christian thought. Nor have they always been applied to limit female authority.

This lack of concern for either emphasizing female subordination or arguing against female leadership becomes even more apparent when we turn to “The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church.”

This collection of more than 1,000 saints’ lives, compiled probably in the 13th century and created to be read regularly during church services, has remained a significant part of Ethiopian Christianity since the medieval era.

Scripture is regularly woven into the stories of the saints, including at least 32 specific references to Paul and Pauline writings.

From stories about Paul in Acts to Scripture incorporated from Corinthians, Galatians, Timothy, Romans and so on, the writings of Paul form both a familiar and a critical part of this religious text.

Like the sermons in late medieval England, “The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church” is absolutely silent on the Pauline scripture referencing female subordination and limiting female authority. It is simply not there.

What is there, however, is clear support for women exercising leadership roles in medieval Ethiopian Christianity.

These medieval religious stories from Ethiopia absolutely ignored the Pauline proscriptions and household codes.

Instead of emphasizing female subordination, they emphasized women in leadership roles – as teacher, as preacher, as baptizer.

Complementarian definitions about “biblical womanhood” are strangely absent from “The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church.”

Could it be that the complementarian notion of “biblical womanhood” (especially the claim that women’s distinct personhood makes no room for women as teachers and leaders of men) is not only more recent but also a more Western perspective?

Could our modern notion of “biblical womanhood,” which confines women’s primary role to house and family and forbids women all leadership roles over men in the church, have less to do with the Bible and more to do with U.S. Christianity?

Think about it.

Beth Allison Barr is associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. A longer version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where she blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @bethallisonbarr.