taking the words of Jesus seriously

“But you only work part time?”

“So how many hours does that take you away from home during the week?”

“Oh, you breastfeed? I figured you didn’t do that since you worked.”

“Is your husband okay with you making more money than him?”

These are just a sampling of the questions I have been asked over the past twenty years. A pastor’s wife who continued to pursue my own career even while I had children perplexed many in my evangelical community—including some of my college students. One student was particularly vocal. He was theologically conservative and expressed concern about my choice to continue teaching as a wife and mother (especially as a pastor’s wife). He challenged me so often in the classroom that I took to rewriting lecture material, trying to minimize his disruptions. I wasn’t successful. Once the student suggested that I clear my teaching material with my husband before presenting it to my classroom. This both angered and unnerved me. It angered me that he thought it appropriate to suggest that I submit my teaching materials to the authority of my husband. It unnerved me because every semester I worried about how my vocation as a female professor clashed with conservative Christian expectations about female submission.

When I read Russell Moore’s attempt to distinguish “Christian patriarchy” from “pagan patriarchy,” the experience I had with this student came to mind. According to Moore, “pagan patriarchy” encourages women to submit to all men, while “Christian patriarchy” only concerns wives submitting to their husbands. Moore has softened his discussion of patriarchy over the years, emphasizing in his 2018 book that, in creation, men and women “are never given dominion over one another.” Yet he still clings to male headship. While he writes that “Scripture demolishes the idea that women, in general, are to be submissive to men, in general,” he explains wifely submission as cultivating “a voluntary attitude of recognition toward godly leadership.” Thus his general attitude remains unchanged: women should not submit to men in general (pagan patriarchy), but wives should submit to their husbands (Christian patriarchy).

Nice try, I thought. Tell that to my conservative male student. Because that student considered me to be under the authority of my husband, he was less willing to accept my authority over him in a university classroom. No matter how much Moore wants to separate “pagan patriarchy” from “Christian patriarchy,” he can’t. Both systems place power in the hands of men and take power away from women. Both systems teach men that women rank lower than they do. Both systems teach women that their voices are worth less than the voices of men. Moore may claim that women only owe submission “to their own husbands,” not to men “in general,” but he undermines this claim by excluding women as pastors and elders. If men (simply because of their sex) have the potential to preach and exercise spiritual authority over a church congregation but women (simply because of their sex) do not, then that gives men “in general” authority over women “in general.” My conservative male student considered me under the authority of both my husband and my pastor, and he treated me accordingly.

Christian patriarchy does not remain confined within the walls of our homes. It does not stay behind our pulpits. It cannot be peeled off suit coats like a name tag as evangelical men move from denying women’s leadership at church to accepting the authority of women at work or women in the classroom. 

READ: Jesus Invited Women to Take Their Place

Patriarchy by any other name is still patriarchy. Complementarians may argue that women are equal to men, as does the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 amendment to the “Baptist Faith and Message”: “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image.” Yet their insistence that “equal worth” manifests in unequal roles refutes this.

Historian Barry Hankins quotes the “key passage” of the controversial statement approved at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in June 1998: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” The claim is certainly that women’s work (from housework to childcare to answering phones) is valuable and worthy, but when that same work is deemed unsuitable for a man to do, it reveals the truth: women’s work is less important than men’s. Moreover, just as men are demeaned for doing women’s jobs (which often come with less authority and, consequently, lower pay), women are restricted from doing men’s jobs (which garner both more authority and higher pay). In this way, Christian patriarchy models the patriarchy of mainstream society. Our pastor valued the work of a woman less than the work of a man, just as the economy of my hometown values the work of women less (almost $20,000 per year less) than the work of men. Russell Moore is right to prefer the term patriarchy because, realistically, it is the right term to use. But he is wrong to think that the Christian model is different.

Indeed, regarding the treatment of women throughout history, the present looks an awful lot like the past. How little the wage gap between women and men has changed over time both frightens and fascinates me as a medieval historian. Judith Bennett describes this startling reality: “Women who work in England today share an experience with female wage earners seven centuries ago: they take home only about three-quarters the wages earned by men. In the 1360s, women earned 71 percent of male wages; today, they earn about 75 percent.” This historical continuity—what Bennett calls the “patriarchal equilibrium”—lends superficial support to the idea of biblical womanhood. When examined carefully, however, the historical origins of patriarchy weaken rather than bolster the evangelical notion of biblical womanhood. A gender hierarchy in which women rank under men can be found in almost every era and among every people group. When the church denies women the ability to preach, lead, teach, and sometimes even work outside the home, the church is continuing a long historical tradition of subordinating women.


Content taken from The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr, ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.

About The Author


Beth Allison Barr (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she specializes in medieval history, women's history, and church history. She is the president of the Conference on Faith and History and is a member of Christians for Biblical Equality. Barr has written for Christianity Today, the Washington Post, and Religion News Service, and is a regular contributor to The Anxious Bench, the popular Patheos website on Christian history. https://www.facebook.com/bethallisonbarr/

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