Examining the role of Southern Baptist women

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Editor's note, 3/15/24: An earlier version of this story included a mention of Barr being denied access to official archive materials of the Southern Baptist Convention, part of her studies rendering her "persona non grata" in the eyes of the SBC. She misspoke. The archive materials in question were the personal archives of Paige Patterson, a prominent figure in the SBC; the official archives of the SBC, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, were helpful in Barr's research. "I am exceedingly grateful for their assistance as I would not be able to do my research without them," says Barr in an email. We've removed the incorrect segment in all print versions of this interview, and attached this note to the show transcript.

Beth Allison Barr lives in Waco, Texas, and she is what’s popularly called a born-again Christian. She’s a Southern Baptist who was raised evangelical, married a pastor, and had two children. But being a feminist professor of medieval history can sometimes put her at intellectual odds with the community around her.

“One of my favorite medieval prayers is of a woman named Margery Kempe,” said Barr, speaking to Anne Strainchamps. “There’s this moment where she finds herself surrounded by people who are very unhappy with her. In fact, she fears for her life. And she says, ‘God, you brought me to this place for love of you. Be with me and have mercy on us.’ And that has become a prayer that I pray all the time.”

Barr is the author of a book that is not winning her many friends in the evangelical world. It’s called “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.”

Speaking on “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” for an episode about politics and faith, she told Strainchamps how her church changed around her growing up as an evangelical, and how her work as a historian both gave clarity to the problems within the Southern Baptist convention and strength in the belief that Christian faith is bigger than any one political moment within the church. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Anne Strainchamps: I grew up secular, so a lot of the world that you’re describing in your book is not so familiar to me. But I wanted to start with what you love about your church and your faith. What you loved about it growing up.

Beth Allison Barr: So I still identify in faith. I’m still married to a Baptist pastor, so in fact, I’ll be at church tonight. And so I think, just from that, it shows that there’s something more than just the negative parts that are out there and the problems that we see. 

In fact, I don’t think I would have written ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood’ if I didn’t love my faith. I have very fond memories of the church that I grew up in and the church that I still am in today. But that doesn’t make me blind, or that doesn’t make me unable to recognize the problems that are in it.

AS: And thinking specifically about the problems in the church and the church’s attitude toward women…at what point did you become aware that boys and girls were getting mixed messages, that there were very different gender roles within the church?

BAB: I know now as a historian that my experience was at the very beginning of the hard gender shift. When I first grew up, I remember women being more present and women being more active, but I actually remember when there was a shift in our church. 

I was a teenager in the late 1980s, early 1990s. What I didn’t know is that about 10 years earlier, when I was 4 years old, there had been something called a ‘conservative resurgence’ in the Southern Baptist world. The goal of the conservative resurgence was to take over the Southern Baptist seminaries, as well as begin to take over the churches and start pushing them more towards what they called a biblical understanding of gender, which was reinforcing male authority and female subordination. And this starts trickling into the churches. 

And in fact, in the 1990s, we started seeing a wave of publications coming out that started reinforcing this ‘biblical womanhood,’ including John Piper and Wayne Grudem publishing their book, ‘Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.’ And really the movement just exploded after that point.

AS: It’s such a fascinating both history and concept to me, because I didn’t grow up with this idea, so even the phrase ‘biblical womanhood’ was new to me. Tell me what’s subsumed in it.

BAB: That’s a very good question. So I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for how I define biblical womanhood. I’m not exactly sure why, because it’s pretty much the way it is defined —that God created gender roles for men and women. Men’s gender roles are to lead, women’s are to follow male leadership. And that’s pretty much it. That’s what biblical womanhood is. 

If I can quote Dorothy Patterson — whose name probably isn’t familiar to you, but she is the wife of one of the major movers in the conservative resurgence, and her husband is connected to Paul Pressler, who’s the judge in Texas who has all of the sex abuse allegations against him right now — she wrote a really significant book for pastors’ wives. And one of the things she said in it is that as a pastor’s wife, the job was to hold the ladder for her husband to climb. And in some ways that is the image of biblical womanhood, that you hold the ladder. You hold the family together, you hold the ladder so that your husband can be successful.

AS: Well, the other really problematic aspect of this — as you write — is that women are not allowed to lead in church. They’re not allowed to be pastors. You were told not to teach. Am I right?

BAB: Yes, that’s exactly right. I was trained in women’s history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So I had this very disjointed world where on the one hand I was an evangelical pastor’s wife, and on the other hand I was in the women’s studies program at Chapel Hill. And so it was just really interesting, so I kind of saw both sides of the coin. I saw what it looked like on the outside, and then I also saw what was going on on the inside. 

I think that helped me understand how strange it was to make an argument that women, simply because of their gender, because of their bodies, that they are not able to teach men. And I was able to see the danger behind that. I mean, if you tell men that there’s something about women that they cannot learn from them, what is that telling men about women? And what is that telling women about their own worth if they are told that, by design of God, their voices don’t matter as much as men’s voices?

AS: I imagine that you’ve gotten pushback just on the title of your book: ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.’ Has it caused a kerfuffle in the Southern Baptist Convention?

BAB: I know that my name has been in the conversation of a lot of what’s going on. They were unable to ignore me, which I’m really glad about. But at the same time, I don’t think any of them were willing to listen to what I had to say. 

In fact, since ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood’ has come out, what we have seen in the SBC is we have seen even harder stances on women — not only can women not be senior pastors, but what’s moving forward, it’s called the Mike Law Amendment, that women should not have any sort of pastoral in their title. That is about as hard-lined as one can get. 

I think the next step moving forward from that is this idea that to be a biblical woman, that women should not even work outside the home. I mean, I think this is kind of the natural progression of where this is going if you subsume women completely under male leadership.

AS: Can we talk some about the harm that letting patriarchal attitudes like this persist, in any institution? Because it’s one thing to limit women’s roles, but when you begin to constrain any set of people, it’s a short walk from subjugation to submission to actual harm. There’s been a big sex abuse scandal in the SBC, in the evangelical movement, as there has been in other churches as well. Where are things right now with movements like #ChurchToo?

BAB: Yeah, no, you’re exactly right. And that’s one of the arguments that I make in ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood.’ It’s one that’s also gotten me a lot of pushback. I argue that when you teach that there is something about any group of people that simply because of the way they are born, that makes them worthy of being under the authority of someone else, that it’s a dangerous attitude. And in fact, that’s exactly what we have seen. 

We have seen a system that has built on male authority and male power, and has been trained to protect that male authority and male power, which means that when there are problems, and because there aren’t any women at the table, there aren’t any women who are involved in these higher decision-makings, that when there is a problem, the goal of the church is to protect the pastor and to protect the men in leadership instead of to protect the victims. 

In the Guidepost Solutions report, by the firm that was hired to investigate the sex abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention, there is this really horrific letter in there where Paige Patterson, who’s one of the architects of the Southern Baptist Convention, writes telling a church how to make sure that if they are sued for any sort of sex or child abuse, that they will win that case. The concern is not about being sued for this, the concern is about how to win the case. He tells them to bring in an outside firm, even if they don’t agree with them, just to do an hour-long training module on how to protect your children and how to protect against sex abusers. And he said, ‘If you do that, then that will help. That’ll go a long way in the court to protect you from being sued.’ That whole attitude just shows the problem with this, that the goal is about protecting systems, protecting people in power.

AS: Protecting men.

BAB: Protecting men instead of protecting the victims, the women and the children, and anyone, actually, who is not in that power. It’s not all men. As we know, patriarchy privileges only some men. And so anyone who’s outside of that privileged power is not protected in this system.

AS: Well, and then women’s faith got sort of held up. There were women who were told they should just work on forgiving their rapists.

BAB: That’s exactly right.

AS: Which seems to me like such a perversion of a woman’s faith.

BAB: When ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood’ first came out, I had a lot of people who were in the church that we were in who reached out to me, and I had a lot of really good conversations. A lot of them were happy to know just what had actually happened, et cetera. But I remember this one woman, and it really surprised me. And when she reached out to me and the first thing she asked me, she said, ‘Beth, I just have to know, I just have to make sure you’ve forgiven them.’ Before anything else, that was the question. 

I was like, ‘Yep, this is the world. This is the world where what matters most is not the harm that has been done, but if the people who the harm has been done to, they have to have the right attitude. They have to forgive.’ I mean, it’s so damaging, but that is what we are taught. And I’ll put myself out there. And that is what we are taught.

AS: I’m curious, what do you say to a woman who comes to you and says, ‘I read your book. I can’t do this anymore. I’m leaving the church.

BAB: I mostly just tell her I’m sorry. That I’m sorry for what has happened to her, I’m sorry for the experiences that she’s had, and that my hope inside is that maybe one day she might be interested in returning not to that church, but to a different sort of faith. But at the same time, I totally understand why she’s walking away. 

People ask me all the time why I didn’t walk away, and I think part of it’s because I’m a historian, and I know that the Christianity that we see in modern American evangelicalism is a very small blip in the long river of Christian history. 

I work with people whose faith is deep and strong, and all the way back to the very earliest moments of Christianity. I read their faith and how it makes them better, that they believe that God is calling them something bigger and better than this world. And it enables me to know that God is bigger than white American evangelicalism. 

And so I think that that is part of it. I’ve never had a faith crisis through this whole thing. What I have had is a crisis with how people have portrayed the faith. And so I think that’s where my beef is.

AS: That’s beautiful. Near the end of your book, you say that, when you finish classes, finish teaching, you often end with a kind of benediction. What do you say to your students and what would you say to us, to our listeners?

BAB: What I always say to my students is, ‘Go be free.’ And that really is what I want for women in the evangelical church, as well as beyond. 

I mean, patriarchy hurts all of us. And patriarchy hurts men too. And it’s just really time for all of us to be free. And so that actually is my prayer for beyond the church as well.