An Open Response to Beth Allison Barr

man standing beside woman

The essence of our heart’s theology is how we think about God when circumstances are different than we expected.

Lisa Hughes, Unmet Expectations 

In any article we read, we can see within it a glimpse of the author’s understanding of God. Whether an author acknowledges God or not, their words convey, at least in part, their belief system. We know from Luke 6:45, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks”—or in this case, the fingers type. 

Beth Allison Barr has clearly expressed her heart’s theology about God in her recent write-up, “An Open Plea to Reconsider the Impact of Complementarian Theology.” As the title indicates, Barr lays out her understanding of why complementarianism is harmful to women and society. She argues from two points, neither of which stem from Scriptural truth. Nevertheless, while examining her position, I will assume, out of Christian charity, that she and I embrace the same perspective on the authority of Scripture.

First, Barr notes that her personal experience of complementarianism has been both beneficial and, at times, hurtful. She is quick to add that even the benefits were largely more favorable to the men around her. Beth describes the dichotomy this way:

I know what it is like to be both crushed and empowered by complementarianism. I know what it is to feel trapped by “God’s plan” for women—to lose my identity in what I felt I was supposed to be rather than who I wanted to be; to feel compelled to prioritize the idea of submission and family over my own aspirations and calling; to be broken down by immature, narcissistic men who wield their “God-given” power poorly.

I also know what it is like to be welcomed by male leaders and allowed to have a voice because I was “safe,” even an asset, as an educated woman with a career who still supported male headship and female submission. I know what it is like to be affirmed, loved, and valued within the “beautiful vision” of complementarianism. I know what it is like to benefit from the support of men because I was willing to support their authority.

Next, Barr offers a nebulous example from Roman history to apparently illustrate how a woman’s adherence to a traditional role in the home leads inexorably to her abuse. She describes a Roman leader who had his pregnant wife beaten because he was “mildly upset” with her. The beating resulted in the death of the submissive wife and their unborn child. The man, due to Roman culture, was not charged or punished. Justice for his wife and child was ignored. 

Beth then references a second account of a Roman man who dearly loved his wife. The couple enjoyed a beautiful and satisfying life together. The husband expressed great sorrow upon his wife’s death. Beth, however, decries this example as patriarchal revisionist history written by men bent on painting a positive picture where none exists for women. She scorns the fraudulent account of a pagan marriage that demonstrates the helplessness of women in Roman society:

Because Roman patriarchy was built on inequality—the subordination of one sex to the other—the potential for violence and abuse existed alongside the potential for comfort and happiness. Some women had good husbands with happy marriages and control over their finances and family. Some women gained freedom from male guardianship through legal loopholes and became powerful property owners in their own right.  For these women, Roman patriarchy cost them little, just the backdrop to their everyday lives.

Barr goes on to contend that in Roman Culture, the happiness of a few actually fueled the violence meted out on many. Here is where Beth draws a false equivalency by arguing that Rome, a pagan society, did not express well the role of Patriarchy. Beth’s own experiences along with the observations of a host of contemporary women support what she sees in history so that the need of the day is to cast off the confines of complementarianism. However, I submit that even if a pagan couple were to express complementarianism perfectly, they would still be lacking in their efforts and disobedience before the Lord because his purpose and his standard is rooted in dependence and submission to him. Our drive and motivation as believers does not come from our own efforts—it is the work the Lord within us as we submit to him. 

Barr asks three questions of women who hold to the principle of Biblical Complementarianism:

  1. Are you willing to consider that your positive experience within a patriarchal system like complementarianism may not reflect the experiences of other women?
  2. Are you willing to consider that the problem isn’t flawed individuals but rather a flawed system that creates ungodly disparities between humans created in the image of God?
  3. Are you willing to consider the possibility that your support of a system that privileges male power and emphasizes female submission might make you complicit in the harm it does to women who are not as lucky as you?

I’m not even going to delve into the way these questions are framed other than to say, her intent is clear: if you answer these questions in any way other than how you have been led by her to answer, you are part of the problem. 

But let’s Biblically answer these questions.  

1. Should we be willing to consider our positive experience may not reflect the experience of others?

Absolutely. I have also experienced “both sides of the coin,” as Barr calls it. Early in my marriage, my husband did not have a biblical understanding of leadership. He frequently confused leadership with being controlling. He did not know how to love me as Christ loved the church, and it expressed itself in his domineering control that ranged from what I did to how I thought. I also endured, during this same period of time, a pastor who thought I was weak and pathetic and had no problem telling the other women in the church his opinion of me. Most women have pressed against rotten leaders in one way or another, men who do not act worthy of their calling in the home and in ministry.  

I’ve also been guilty at times, and have seen women permanently shipwreck their homes because they refuse to respect, listen to, or attempt to follow their husband when he is doing what he believes is right for his family. 

Just because a system is difficult for sinful men and women to live by doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown out. We must carefully consider who established the design and why. That leads to the second question.

2. Should we be willing to consider that the problem isn’t flawed people but rather a flawed system?

Absolutely not! The question is a direct attack on the Designer of the system under whose authority we exist. Scripture declares that man is sinful, and man desires his own way that is, by nature, opposed to God. Mark 7:21–23 says “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart that evil thoughts come, sexual immorality, thefts, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evils come from within, and defile a person.” 

From this verse we no doubt see the root cause of men who would use complementarianism for evil purposes. If they are prideful, enact wicked things against women, indulge in evil thoughts, or deceive or misuse their wives, daughters, or sisters in Christ, then the sinful behavior comes from within, not without. This same list applies to women. If they are arrogant and think they need not live according to the role God has established, that sin comes from within. 

The very question Barr asks implies God is faulty in his establishment of the roles he has prescribed for godly living.

God, the Creator of this world, has the authority to prescribe how the world’s inhabitants are to live. The Apostle Paul refers to Genesis while outlining how authority in the church and in the family is to be structured (1 Tim 2:13). God created man, woman, and marriage from the very beginning. This structure and authority is reflected in Christ’s treatment and love towards the Church. It is to be later reflected in the glorified Church, which will be established in eternity.  

Nowhere does Scripture state or imply that the woman is made less because she was created to aid and assist her husband in fulfilling his role as provider and protector of the home. The woman is given the role of “helper.” This is same word used in Scripture to describe how God helps us—God is the helper of Israel (Hosea 13:9). Deuteronomy 33:26 states, “There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty.” Similarly, Christ told his disciples in John 14:16 that he would leave, but the Helper would come in his absence, the Helper who would enable them to understand the mysteries of Scripture.

These roles and structure of authority come from the hand of a good God who does what is right and what will benefit us the most. To imply the structure is wrong is a clear attack on the authority and goodness of God. If the structure is wrong, then we have no hope as men and women, but if the problem is the sinfulness of man, then we have hope in Christ. 

3. Can we admit our support of complementarianism aids in the harm of others?

No, I cannot and will not say that. God has established how men and women are to function within the home and the church. His purpose and his plan is perfect. What is flawed is the hearts of men and women. The reality is that the harm that happens is when men and women do not submit to and depend on God and attempt to make these systems work on their own. The “systems” were not designed to function outside of God’s provision and work. We are to submit to him first. It is in our submission to him that men become good leaders and women become fulfilled in their role in the home. 

In our submission to God, our focus shifts from “feeling trapped by God’s plan” to thriving and loving what we thought we could never enjoy. In their submission to God, husbands and pastors learn how to lovingly lead their homes and churches—to love them the way Christ loves the church and to die to self.

In submission to the Lord, my husband turned from demanding his own way to seeking what is best for myself and the children. He’s not afraid to make the hard decisions—decisions with consequences that sometimes seem overwhelming to me. We talk about these things, and he listens to my input, but ultimately he determines the final course of action. 

In submission to the Lord, I have learned (and yes, it must be learned) to trust and follow his lead. I know he is prayerfully aiming to make the best decisions. I can support him, and when necessary, help pick up the pieces when those decisions don’t turn out as we had hoped. I also must realize that “my choice” would not have been guaranteed to turn out any better. Ultimately we have to entrust those things to the Lord.  

Therefore, any “system” in the hands of sinful man can be misused and abused. I, submitting to and enjoying the fruits of God’s created design, am not responsible for those who abuse a right structure of authority. The answer is not to destroy the design, the answer is to hold sinful men accountable and to teach women to think rightly about what God has established. 

I do understand that for some, the husbands will not submit to leading as God has prescribed—they are controlling and selfish, and that is a very difficult road to walk. However, God can and will sustain a woman who submits to the Lord and submits to her husband “as unto the Lord.” There is a lot in that statement—it will keep her from following sinful directives from her husband and will enable her to respond in obedience to the Lord above anything else. It moves her focus from “my husband is failing” to “Lord, I will follow and trust you in my marriage.” Such a wife will need to seek wise biblical counsel to know how to proceed. We know there are times a woman needs to separate—but that should not be the first option. Each and every situation needs a response suited for each and every situation. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to difficulties in marriage. 

Throwing out God’s design evidences a lack of understanding, trust, and acceptance of who God is and the authority he has over us. Barr’s position evidences an unwillingness to accept that God will do what is right for women even in difficult circumstances. He is able to be trusted with the pain many women do experience.  

In this letter, Beth Allison Barr has revealed the essence of her heart’s theology of God. Our responses will reveal our own.  

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Author man standing beside woman

Jennifer Buck

Jennifer graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1987. She and Tom have been married for nearly 35 years. They have served at First Baptist Church Lindale for 16 years. They have a married son and two teens still at home. One of Jennifer’s greatest joys is teaching women how to know the Lord and to live dependently on him.