Speaking Up for Beth Allison Barr ... Again

My Long Response to Kevin DeYoung's Review

You can either read the 2000 word article or watch the 20-minute video of my response to Kevin DeYoung’s review of Beth Allison Barr’s book.

By now you might have heard of Beth Allison Barr’s book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, well, it has caused a bit of a fuss. There’s been a tsunami of sales, support, and buzz around the book, and a few negative views. 

I’ve read Beth’s book, I’ve made a video with her and some colleagues about Christianity and patriarchy. What I like about Beth’s book is that it shows how a lot of complementarianism is a twentieth century invention even while it rehearses some aspects from the Bible itself. The Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement is partly a product of its white middle class suburban environment and its culturally derived ideas of masculinity drawn from John Wayne to William Wallace.

As a theologian, biblical scholar, and priest in the church of God, as well as a husband and father, I have a deep and abiding interesting in the treatment of women and the ministry of women in the church. I’m very, very interested in a post-patriarchal account of Christian masculinity. This is why I’ve taken an interest in Beth’s book and its reception among evangelicals.

The most popular negative review of Beth’s book comes from pastor and theologian Kevin DeYoung writing in Themelios. Truth be told, I think he scores a few points on Beth; a few things Beth says about the Arian controversy probably need better nuance. Still, on the whole, I think the thesis of Beth’s book still stands. Certain aspects of complementarianism are more cultural than biblical. There’s a lot of things women were permitted to do in the Middle Ages that complementarians today would not permit women to do. On those points, Beth is still standing.

But there are several aspects to DeYoung’s review that left me baffled and quite frankly infuriated.

I have three main points of contention with DeYoung’s review.

Number one, gaslighting. I’m not joking, I’m serious, and I’m pretty ticked off.

Let me give you DeYoung in his own words:

The Making of Biblical Womanhood straddles several different genres. It is part personal history, with Barr’s own painful interactions with patriarchy (as she sees it) looming large in the background (and in the foreground). Woven throughout the book is the story of Barr’s husband being fired as a youth pastor for challenging his church’s leadership over the role of women in the church. We also hear of disrespectful male students in her classroom and of a scary relationship she had with a boyfriend years ago. Barr acknowledges that this experience with her boyfriend, along with the experience of her husband’s firing, “frames how I think about complementarianism today.” These “traumatic experiences” mean that she is “scarred” and “will always carry the scars” (p. 204). Those sympathetic to Barr’s perspective will likely resonate with the personal narrative, considering it one more reason to dismantle patriarchy once and for all. Others, however, might be curious to know if there is another side to these stories (Prov 18:17: The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him) and, more importantly, might wonder whether the author’s scars get in the way of giving complementarianism a fair hearing.

Sweet mother of Melchizedek! Beth, in her book, wrote about an incident where she was assaulted by a former boyfriend and several other incidents of misogyny. To which, DeYoung casts aspersions on the veracity of her account on the grounds that there’s two sides to every story. Furthermore, he implies that victims of assault, misogyny, domestic violence, and spiritual abuse cannot be trusted to give a reliable account of the ideology of their abusers because they are emotionally too close to the issue.

So, imagine this, Dr. DeYoung is in his office, a fifteen-year-old girl from his church comes to see him, and says she’s been assaulted and abused by a youth leader. Dr. Kevin taking his cue from Prov 18.17, tells her to wait there, he calls up the youth leader in front of her, he gets off the phone and tells her, “Well, the youth leader said he didn’t do it, and he said to say you’re a liar and a skank.” Is that what a pastor does? Of course not! I like to think DeYoung would agree with me!

Let me say that Prov 18.17 is good legal advice when it comes to due process in matters of contested legal testimony, but it is positively irresponsible and heartless as a pastoral response to sexual assault or domestic abuse. Yet Dr. DeYoung invoked Prov 18.17 to cast aspersions on Beth Allison Barr’s account, but it could be applied to any woman who claims that she’s been abused, assaulted, or violated.

Now I’m not gonna trade in hashtags like #BelieveAllWoman, life is too complex for hashtags, but I will tell you this. When a woman recounts an incident of assault, abuse, or misogyny, the proper response is not to quote Prov 18.17, but to show some empathy, to grieve at that injustice, offer support and solidarity, and commit that it never happens on your watch. But instead of that, Dr. DeYoung casts aspersions on her claims of abuse.

And if that were bad enough, because she might have been abused or mistreated in the past, he casts aspersions on her ability to critique the ideology of her abusers. That’s like saying Frederick Douglas had such a bad experience as a slave that he can’t be trusted to critique the theology of southern confederate slave-owners.

If you read the final sentence of DeYoung’s fourth paragraph it basically amounts to this: Maybe Beth is making up the stories of abuse, but if not, then she cannot be trusted because she’s too emotionally scarred to offer an objective and fair critique of complementarianism.

In other words: You can’t trust women if they claim to have been abused and you can’t trust women to critique complementarianism if they’ve been abused. That is gaslighting, telling women that they cannot be trusted when they report abuse or critique the ideology that justifies it.

Now maybe I’m overreacting like Reagan in Grenada, but I’m absolutely dumbfounded why anyone, a pastor of all people would write that. Surely, as a pastor of a church with women, Dr. DeYoung deals with situations of domestic violence, child safety, and victims of sexual assault. Surely he has some shred of compassion for these people, but he doesn’t show it.

I hear Dr. DeYoung’s new book Men and Women in the Church has got a lot of good reasons why women should not preach in church. But I also hear that he doesn’t have one single thing to say about domestic violence, sexual assault, or misogyny (disclaim, I haven’t read the book and I’m referring to what readers have said about it). When it comes to women and the church, the most burning issue is not whether they can preach or be elders, the most pressing issue in the practice of church is the high rates of domestic violence, assault, and spiritual abuse in churches. If you don’t believe me, have Bourbon and Doughnuts with Aimee Byrd. May I add too, that if you do a google search on Kevin DeYoung and feminism, you’ll find several pages of articles he’s written. If you do a google search on Kevin DeYoung and domestic violence, you will find nothing!

I sincerely wish that complementarians were just as energetic and concerned for the protection of women as they are for the submission of women.

Now, I’ll give Dr. DeYoung the benefit of the doubt, I’m hoping someone will point this out to him, that he’ll be mortified and apologetic, he’ll be like, “What the hell was I thinking.” I chose to think the best of him here. But either he or the editors at Themelios need to remove the final sentence from his fourth paragraph.

And they wonder why they are given such a hard time!

Number two, credentials, Dr. DeYoung makes a big deal about how often Beth mentions her credentials as a historian.

This is playing the man, not the ball as they say in soccer. I think Brazos editor Katelyn Beatty put it well:

Number three, Christianity has a masculine feel.

DeYoung defends John Piper’s account of Christianity as having a masculine feel.

Piper argues that God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. He argues that the Son of God came into the world as a man, that the priests in Israel were men, that the apostles were all men, that men are given the responsibility to lead, protect, and provide. Piper acknowledges that emphasizing a “masculine ministry” can be seriously misunderstood and misapplied. He also underscores several times that a “masculine ministry” is for the flourishing of women and that women contribute in fruitful partnership to the work of ministry.

You can watch and read Piper’s sermon on Christianity and its masculine feel. Truth be told, I have a soft spot for Piper, he is a man that burns people with the passion of his faith, I’ve tried in my own way to build a bridge between John Piper and N.T. Wright together on justification by faith. However, on this issue, Piper scores a 28.6 on the heresy-o-meter and it is only supposed to go up to 10!

If all Piper means is that God is our loving Father, he appoints men to serve in self-giving ways in the church, to cherish, nurture, and nourish women as sisters in Christ, then that’d be fine. But the problem is that the language of “masculine feel” that he introduces does not accent that, rather, it complicates things and contaminates even complementarian teaching.

We have to remember that gender language for God is analogical. When we say that God is our Father, we mean that fatherhood, in its benevolent and loving sense, reveals the character of God.  If there’s something good about earthly fathers then there’s something infinitely good about our heavenly father. God reveals himself as Father as a figure of authority and love, to be feared and fled to. But it is an analogy or an approximation, it is not an exact description of God, because of the limitations of human language and its inability to express the infinite being of God. So fatherhood language in the Bible does not mean that male authority is intrinsic to God and defines him, much less the nature of Christianity. The Bible also uses maternal language for God: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I (God) comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13) and “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I (God) will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15). God can also describe himself and act out of motherly love too.

Let me be clear, this does not mean that God is some kind of gender-neutral deity, the cosmic monad without a gonad. You cannot replace Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with Creator, Redeemer, and Renewer – that would be the heresy of modalism. But also, you cannot say that Fatherhood or masculinity is part of God’s essence. It is part of the economy of revelation, God reveals himself as Father, but you cannot say that God is male in an ontological sense. The reason is, as Mary Daly, a radical feminist put it, “If God is male, then the male is God.”

Here’s the other thing, the reason the Romans despised Christians was because they considered it to be a servile and effeminate religion. The church father Origen quoted the pagan scholar Celsus that the reason he despised Christianity was that it was a religion of women, slaves, and children. It was a religion for the powerless, dumb, weak, the dregs, the have-nots, the never-weres, the dishonoured, the disgraced. It’s leader was the ultimate loser, crucified on a Roman cross. So let’s be clear: as far as the Romans were concerned, Christianity had an effeminate feel. And they were right! Christianity is the religion of the Nazarene, not Nietzsche. It is not the religion of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, it’s the religion of Felicity and Thecla (martyrs of the church).

To say that Christianity has a “masculine feel” is not an error of branding or a misunderstood label for what Piper wants to say about male headship and service. It introduces a fundamentally alien concept and problematic account of the church. If the nature and character of Christian religion are shaped by the maleness of God the Father and Jesus Christ, it means that the Body of Christ is a male body, it means the imitation of God is a masculine enterprise (Eph 5.1), and being a partaker of the divine nature requires women to become male (2 Pet 1.4). It would be like the last verse of the Gospel of Thomas where the Thomasine Jesus says, “everyone woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of God” (Gos. Thom. 114). Obviously that’s not what Piper means, but still, the two ballpark’s are uncomfortably close together.

I have complementarian friends, colleagues, and students, who are great people and fellow-servants in the church. I know from them that there are better types of complementarianism than what DeYoung is putting up here. If gaslighting, playing the man not the ball, and “Christianity has a masculine feel” are the main features of your complementarianism, may I suggest something else. On that score, Beth Allison Barr and Aimee Byrd have got some good alternatives for you!

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