Once The Making of Biblical Womanhood gets into the early modern period, we start to see more of the roots of “biblical womanhood.” Beth Allison Barr leads us through history, stacking the blocks that made our modern evangelical churches.  Although I have a lot of thoughts about each of these historical chapters, I decided to focus on just one: the Cult of Domesticity.

I first heard about the Cult of Domesticity in sophomore history class.  I remember reading about this gender role system of the 1800s, where men and women inhabited different but equal “spheres of influence.”  The men’s “sphere” was public; the women’s was the home.

Even as a young teen, I remember thinking, “How is that any different than what we have now?”

But then I forgot all about it – until Barr reminded me.

The Cult of Domesticity

“The further removed medieval women were from the married state, the closer they were to God.  After the Reformation, the opposite became true for Protestant women.  The more closely they identified with being wives and mothers, the godlier they became.”[1]

From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, social, political, and economic factors reinforced women being in the home and under their husbands’ authority.  By the 1800s, these had melded into a society that “emphasized piety, domesticity, submission, and purity as characteristics of the ideal Christian woman.”[2] 

Thus, the “Cult of Domesticity.”

Barr does an excellent job of showing how “biblical womanhood” is simply the Cult of Domesticity rebranded.  The four main components of the “cult” are piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.  Let’s look at what this meant to the people of the 1800s – as it’s quite enlightening.

The quotes at the beginning of each section tell what the people of the 1800s would have thought about each category.  Then I talk about how it has (or hasn’t) changed.

I do want to start with a caveat though: of course piety, purity, submission, and domesticity are important attributes of the Christian lifestyle; but they are universal qualities for both men and women, not something that only one should hear about.


“Women are naturally more religious than men and more attuned to spiritual matters.  This means they are better equipped than men to guide the spiritual education of children. It also means that women’s education should focus on cultivating this trait.”[3]

To be fair, the tide has turned in that women are not see as “more attuned to spiritual matters” than men.  Piety is emphasized to both, which is a step forward.

However, to this day, women in complementarian churches are only allowed to teach other women and children.  Men aren’t discouraged per say, but you kind of get the feeling that they should be serving elsewhere.  They are, after all, the leaders.

But when you think about it, it’s really very strange.  Why do we see men as the “leaders” when from a young age we only see the faiths of women?

Regardless, Barr shows that this restriction goes back several hundred years – and is not connected to the Bible explicitly at all.


“Women are not naturally sexual creatures.  Their minds and hearts are purer than men’s are, and sexuality is important only because it allows women to be mothers.  Women have to be covered and protected from the danger of sexual predators.”[4] 

I could talk a LOT about purity culture and the damage it has done to my generation.  But really, the crux of the problem comes down to having very similar beliefs as the people in the 1800s. Only men are seen as having sex drives; if a woman does, it still seems odd to us.  Most significantly, our bodies are controlled – we are the ones to cover up and seen as “immodest” when we don’t.  Which is especially strange, since Jesus literally told the men to pluck out their eye if it caused them to sin (Matt 5:29); he didn’t tell the women to cover up.

Now, I would say that it is important to be pure – pure of heart.  And pureness of heart will – I do believe – lead you to dress a little more “modestly.”  That being said…the Roman world was FULL of nudity.  I do wonder what they’d think of our reactions to spaghetti straps and yoga pants. (NEITHER of which are immodest.  Yes, I will die on that hill.)

But purity – of body, heart, and mind – should be emphasized for all believers.  I think we’ve made some strides towards that, but women still shoulder much of the responsibility in keeping others physically and mentally pure, as well as the shame when others stumble.


“Women are not designed to lead.  They do not have the mental capacity or the emotional temperament to lead in the political or economical realms.  They yearn to follow the lead of strong men.”[5]

Except for the “mental capacity” part, this is literally what complementarian churches preach.  Literally.

And yet, we are all told to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21).  Both husbands and wives submit to the other out of “reverence for Christ.”[6]  Does this look different between men and women?  Perhaps.  Paul spends the rest of Ephesians 5 giving examples of what it looks like in the Roman world.[7]

But in our culture, it might look different – and that’s ok.  The fact that both need to submit to the other is critical.  And it is not being taught.


“Women are not designed to work outside the home.  The Industrial Revolution moved work-for-pay outside the domestic space.  Women were to stay home and manage the household while men went outside the home and earned the daily bread.  This also means that women’s education should focus on improving domestic skills (the origin of home economics courses).”[8]

This is less emphasized from the pulpit in *most* circles – but it is very much emphasized in evangelical culture.  However, there has been a name change; instead of domesticity, we say hospitality.

Most women I knew growing up were stay at home moms or worked only when their kids were in school; it was clear from an early age that women were supposed to focus on the home and make sure it was an oasis of peace from the crazy world.  There are tons of Christian books about taking care of the home, and they are all geared toward women.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book geared toward men on how to be hospitable or how to clean up the house.

And yet, Christianity does demand that we all – men and women – welcome others into our lives in the name of Jesus.  To make an “oasis” for a crazy word is a good thing – but it’s something that both men and women should contribute to.

But Sometimes it’s Not as Subtle

But some circles do preach women-should-stay-at-home from the pulpit.  At one point in her book, Barr makes an offhand comment about John Macarthur telling Beth Moore to “Go home.”[9]  I didn’t know what she was referring to, so I did some digging.  And apparently, he clarified his thoughts in a sermon.

You can find the situation surrounding his comment, as well as his sermon explaining his words, in this article here.  It was shocking to see the blatantly misogynistic attitudes that spewed from him.  I was horrified – and even more so because it illuminated a great deal about my own church background.

Macarthur runs a seminary called Master’s Seminary.  I went to a church that was run almost exclusively by Masters Seminary graduates. Macarthur’s theology was the definitive position on everything. It was incredibly eye opening and painful to see what these men had been taught, if not directly, certainly implicitly.

Now I know why I cried every Sunday.  No, this wasn’t explicitly preached from the pulpit, and maybe the pastor of my church didn’t even agree with Macarthur.  But this was the dominant attitude nonetheless.  And I felt it deeply.

Why Am I Writing About This?

I don’t want to talk badly of others; I really considered not writing this post.  But I think it’s important to speak out.  This type of misogyny should come from another era. We should not be looking up to men like this.

But it’s also important to see it in its historical context.  A lot of complementarian thought does not derive from the Bible, but from social, political, and economic trends in the secular world.  The church may latch onto them, but that does not make them after God’s heart.

Seeing it in this light thus gives us a choice to interpret it differently.  I personally believe we should.  But you may not. You may still side with the fact that because it’s “historical,” it means it reflects God’s heart.

That’s ok.  It’s hard to write that sentence; but I have to.  Otherwise, I’d simply be trading one side of judgement for another.  We have to learn to accept that some people hold different interpretations of the Bible – and unless it’s a salvation issue, that’s ok, so long as it’s not spreading hate.

Which is the real key of all of this deconstruction: my salvation – your salvation – is not tied to complementarianism.  It’s time we stop acting like it is.




[1] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos Press, 2021), 103.

[2] Ibid., 155.

[3] Barr, 165.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barr, 165.

[6] If this sounds strange, you can read about the translation issues of various Bibles in chapter 5 of Barr’s book.

[7] Barr does an excellent job of putting these verses into historical context in her second chapter, p. 47-52

[8] Barr, 165-166.

[9] Ibid., 161.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments