Woman & Men Lifestyle

The Unmaking of Biblical Womanhood

In the past several years, two battered cottonseed silos in Waco, Texas, surrounded by food trucks selling sweet tea and energy balls, have become a pilgrimage site for Christian homemakers from around the country, among others. The silos form part of an open-air mall erected by Chip and Joanna Gaines, the husband-and-wife stars of “Fixer Upper: Welcome Home,” a popular reality show. The Gaineses have built a commercial empire called Magnolia, by selling the trappings of a trendy, Christian life style. In 2017, a market-research blog found that they were some of the most popular celebrities among faith-based consumers. One afternoon in May, Beth Allison Barr, a medieval-history professor at Baylor University, who studies the role of women in evangelical Christianity, visited the store on a kind of research trip. We walked past a line of hungry tourists waiting outside a bakery that sells pastel-frosted cupcakes, and by boxwood hedges studded with lavender. “It’s like Waco’s Disneyland,” Barr said. “We evangelicals love it.”

The Gaines’s brand often seems to valorize aspects of traditional gender roles. This aesthetic, perhaps unintentionally, has resonances with the evangelical notion of complementarianism, the concept that, though men and women have equal value in God’s eyes, the Bible ascribes to them different roles at home, in their families, and in the church. The ideology promotes the notions of Biblical manhood and womanhood, conceptions of how proper Christian men and women should comport themselves, which are ostensibly based on scriptural teaching, and tend to encourage women’s submission to men. The Gaineses have never publicly advocated complementarianism; Chip has written about embracing his “supporting role” in light of his wife’s dynamic leadership. But their brand, for Barr, seemed to be an example of the way ideas about women’s domesticity pervade American Christianity. “It’s not so much what they do—it is how they are perceived,” she told me. “What they sell does play into the evangelical world view—family, domesticity, rugged manhood.” Many of the shopping spaces in the Silos appear to be curated by gender. Some sections sell leather baseballs, black “GOD BLESS TEXAS” banners, and copies of Chip’s best-selling book on entrepreneurship, “Capital Gaines.” In other areas, muffin tins and bundt pans are on display, and Jo’s beatific face shines from the covers of cookbooks. Jo also sells sweatshirts that read “homebody,” and “Homebody” is the title of her best-selling book. The catchphrase, to Barr, reinforced the traditional idea of where a woman should be.

Barr is forty-five, rawboned, and earnest. She is a conservative evangelical Christian and believes that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. But she is also the author of “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth,” a new book that uses historical analysis to challenge contemporary claims of scriptural gender roles. “This narrative that men carry the authority of God is frightening, and it’s not Christian,” Barr told me. As other historians have pointed out, the idea that women should be subordinate to men has deep roots in the Christian tradition. But Barr’s book argues that the modern version of complementarianism was invented in the twentieth century, in response to an increasingly effective feminist movement, to reinforce cultural gender divisions. “Women think all of this is the Bible because they learn it in their churches,” Barr told me. “But it’s really a post-Second World War construction of domesticity, which was designed to send working women back to the kitchen.” Barr’s book has become wildly popular among evangelical women; it soared to No. 26 on the Amazon charts and is now on its fourth printing.

Barr was taking her friend and colleague Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, to Magnolia that day. Du Mez, who is bookish and slight, is the author of the book “Jesus and John Wayne,” published last year, in which she charts the ways that, in the twentieth century, conservative culture hijacked evangelical Christianity. The women’s books, which are careful fact-based critiques rather than ideological polemics, have become a rallying point for evangelicals trying to cast off the influences of right-wing politics and American culture on their faith. “We’re basically applying the historical method to modern evangelicalism,” Du Mez told me. Du Mez, who is researching how domestic ideals are marketed to Christian women, perused the inspirational plaques. “These not only beautify the home, they also display a woman’s commitment to an idealized vision of faith and family,” she said.

Walking through the mall, Barr pointed out that the walls were covered with inexpensive white planks, called shiplap, part of a cheerful aesthetic that the Gaineses have rendered ubiquitous in certain white, evangelical circles in America. “Shiplap is a shibboleth,” Du Mez said. As we left the shop, Barr’s phone buzzed. A friend on the West Coast was texting her in distress. She’d just attended a women’s Bible study at her church, where, for ninety minutes, the leaders had attacked Barr’s book, claiming that her ideas were dangerous. The friend was distraught, but Barr was thrilled: the book was ruffling feathers. No matter what the pastor intended, by attacking the book, he was spreading the word to curious women. “These are the women I want reading it,” Barr said. Du Mez replied, “This is a win!”

The historians moved through a crowd of women wearing linen sundresses and eating popsicles, and approached a clapboard church with scalloped shingles which stood in the center of the courtyard. According to a faux-historical plaque outside, Joanna Gaines had discovered the abandoned church, which was built in 1894, in a nearby neighborhood, closed and boarded up. She bought, transported, and rebuilt it at the mall, where it became the centerpiece of an idealized Christian setting. Although the picnic tables and stores were packed with hot but eager fans, the cool church stood empty. Barr and Du Mez ducked inside and were alone. They looked around at the empty wooden racks bolted to the pews, which, in the past, would have held individual glasses for communion wine. “Isn’t it interesting that this is one place where no one is?” Du Mez said.

Some proponents of complementarianism trace their theological argument back to the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “The man is created first in the Old Testament, and possesses what the New Testament will call headship over his wife,” Owen Strachan, the former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which promotes the practice of complementarianism, wrote. (Barr told me, “This order of creation argument is just silliness.”) The letters that the apostle Paul wrote to early members of the church during the first century provide further fodder for complementarian claims. In his letters, Paul enumerates a set of rules that appear to grant men authority over their wives, to order women to be silent in church, and to forbid them from teaching the word of God. Barr argues, in “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” that the meaning of these passages changes radically, however, when they are placed in their proper historical context. She says that Paul is not listing Jesus’ commandments in these passages but, rather, Roman laws; afterward, he often contradicts or subverts them. In one letter, he writes, possibly in response to Roman conventions, “What? Was it from you that the word of God went forth?,” emphasizing, according to Barr, that these teachings are not God’s.

Barr also maintains that the early church was full of women who contradicted these teachings. Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ longtime companion, was often viewed as a preacher in the medieval church; Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, called her an “apostle to the apostles.” In the thirteenth century, St. Rose of Viterbo preached in the streets in support of the Pope. For nearly fifteen hundred years, scriptural interpretations of the role of women in the church and in marriages were more flexible, prone to shifting and evolving, than is commonly known. Barr told me that the presence of women as leaders in the church was more prevalent than people realize.

Elm Mott’s First Baptist Church, near Waco, has let women preach since the nineteen-thirties.

In sixteenth-century Europe, as the household became the primary social and economic unit, women were encouraged to remain within its confines. Even as the Reformation gave women greater freedom by making divorce possible, Protestant theologians began to equate being a godly woman with being a good wife. But, as Barr told me, “It isn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the aftermath of the scientific revolution, that gender roles harden in western Christianity.” After the beginnings of industrialization, as jobs moved into factories, a push began to keep women—particularly white, middle-class women—in the house. This was justified not with religion but with the science of the time, which held that women’s more limited minds were better suited to domestic tasks. During the Second World War, these same women briefly moved into the workforce in greater numbers, but, when men returned, they were pressed back into the confines of their kitchens, and gender segregation was actively policed through social convention. The women’s movement of the sixties began to fight these strictures. In the seventies and eighties, the political right, which was forging strategic alliances with conservative evangelical leaders, pushed back, arguing that women’s submission to men had Biblical precedent.

Among the earliest proponents of this idea was Elisabeth Elliot, a famous missionary and speaker. Elliot first became well known after her husband, Jim, was killed, in 1956, while living in Ecuador. (After his death, she went to live among the Huaorani tribe, whose members had killed him.) In the nineteen-seventies, Elliot grew frustrated by feminism, which she believed belittled women’s God-given roles as mothers and wives. In 1976, she published “Let Me Be A Woman,” a book of lessons for her daughter, Valerie, in which she claimed that women’s equality was “not a Christian ideal,” and laid out basic teachings for how to be a submissive wife. “You wives must learn to adapt yourselves to your husbands, as you submit yourselves to the Lord,” she wrote. She soon became a household name among conservative families, the way Gloria Steinem was among liberals. One of her most powerful champions was the conservative radio host James Dobson, who used her message to promote the idea that family harmony was based on male leadership. In 1977, Dobson created an organization called Focus on the Family, which combatted feminism by teaching women that their liberation endangered their families by interfering with the authority of husbands. “One of the greatest threats to the institution of the family today is the undermining of this role as protector and provider,” he wrote.

In 1987, two evangelical preachers, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, helped found the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a ministry that functions as a theological think tank for complementarian ideas. They also authored a popular book, “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” In 1987, along with other evangelical leaders, they drafted a document called the Danvers Statement, to catalogue the “tragic effects” of feminism, which, they argued, had caused “widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity.” They offered practical scenarios, in their workbooks and on their blogs. In a podcast about jobs and gender roles, Piper said that he found it difficult to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant commanding men “without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood.” In 1988, at a breakfast meeting at a Hilton Hotel near Wheaton College, in Illinois, the council’s founders coined the term “complementarianism” to describe what they believed to be the Bible’s teachings about masculinity and femininity.