Complementarianism,  Egalitarianism,  Theology/Bible

Saint Paula Is No Exemplar of the Faith

I thought it might be helpful to address yet another serious accusation from Beth Allison Barr about my representation of her work. On social media yesterday, she reacted to a critical review of her book that a colleague and I commented about online. The review offers a trenchant critique of Barr’s praise for “Saint Paula,” a medieval catholic woman who abandoned her children. Colin Smothers and I both commented that our jaws hit the floor when we read that part of Barr’s book.

Barr’s response was sharp. She writes,

Y’all, I’m a kind person. But I’m also a fighter. And I have hit my limit with @DennyBurk & @colinsmo. There behavior toward me has been despicable. They failed trying to smear my orthodoxy; they failed trying smear my church; so now they are trying to smear me as a mother. [source]

All because they are afraid of #MakingBiblicalWomanhood. Telling. [source]

Y’all, I have never endorsed child abandonment. This is such a desperate attempt again to try to get people to not read #MakingBiblicalWomanhood. I will not let @colinsmo and @DennyBurk (who jumped in the thread) get away with it. [source]

There are a number of misleading claims in these remarks, and I won’t respond to all of them. I will, however, respond to two.

First, she claims that we attempted to smear her as a mother. That’s simply no part of what we wrote. You can read our very brief remarks for yourselves, and you will find that no such thing was written. Neither was any such thought in my heart. I’m sure she is a fine mother who loves her children, and we have zero questions about that. Nor is this a criticism of her personally. Rather, our comments were about her book.

Which brings me to her second claim—that she has not endorsed child abandonment in her book. This claim is demonstrably false. On pages 78-79 of The Making of Biblical Womanhood, she commends the example of “Saint Paula.” The vignette appears in the midst of her criticism of a woman’s retreat in which a speaker exhorted women “to be stay-at-home moms dedicated to childrearing and keeping the home” (p. 78). Barr writes about reflecting on that teaching while reading from a book on medieval women:

As I sat on the front porch of the cabin, reading essays about women who broke free from marriage to serve God, whose preaching brought thousands to salvation, and whose words openly defied the patriarchy around them, I couldn’t escape the irony. Not far from me, a roomful of women were being told that their highest calling as Christian women was to be wives and mothers—which implied that women who found meaning or calling apart from being wives and mothers were defying God’s call for them. Yet I knew medieval women who were told the exact opposite—women’s primary calling was to serve God first, which for some meant eschewing traditional family life and for others meant working around it (pp. 78-79, underline mine).

And then she comments on “Saint Paula” in particular:

I wondered what the speaker would think of women like Saint Paula, who abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life. Paula’s story tells of how she set sail for Jerusalem—after the death of her husband—on a pilgrimage, leaving three of her children alone, crying on the shore. Maybe the speaker would have claimed that Paula was not following biblical womanhood, as she did not exemplify Titus 2. But Paula seemed to believe she was practicing biblical womanhood, drawing strength from Jesus’s statement that “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Saint Jerome, her biographer, tells us that as the ship drew away from the shore, Paula “held her eyes to heaven . . . ignoring her children and putting her trust in God. . . . In that rejoicing, her courage coveted the love of her children as the greatest of its kind, yet she left them all for the love of God.” Paula founded a monastery in Bethlehem and worked alongside Jerome to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The Bible she helped translate became the Vulgate, the first major translation of the Bible into an everyday language outside of Greek and Hebrew. It became the most commonly used Bible throughout the medieval era (p. 79, underline mine).

Barr holds forth “Saint Paula” as an exemplar of a more liberated womanhood. She presents Paula as a positive contrast to the narrow teaching of the complementarian woman leading the women’s retreat. Paula is a woman who broke free from the patriarchal restraints of marriage and motherhood to answer the call of Jesus on her life. At least that is how Barr presents it. There is no getting around the fact that Barr commends the example of “Saint Paula,” even claiming that Paula was “drawing strength from Jesus” to leave her children crying on the shore.

Other reviewers have highlighted how horrific this scene is from Barr’s book. For example, Wendy Alsup writes,

But the story of the widowed Saint Paula, who left her abandoned children crying on the shore as she sailed for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, left me sick to my stomach. Barr succeeds in showing that notions today of the ideal Christian woman have strayed far from those of medieval times. But she doesn’t show that the medieval model was more faithful to Scripture in all of those differences. History tells us how things were, but it cannot tell us how things should be.

Kevin DeYoung expresses similar concern,

Barr lauds the example of St. Paula, “who abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life.” After the death of her husband, Paula set sail for Jerusalem on a pilgrimage, “leaving three of her children alone, crying on the shore” (p. 79). For Barr, this is the kind of womanhood we need more of in the church. I think most Christians today, outside of the enclaves of highly educated Westerners, would agree that if female liberation looks like mothers abandoning their children alone and losing all sense of calling as wives and mothers, then the cure for biblical womanhood is worse than the disease.

Likewise Jordan Steffaniak, who begins his review by saying that he wanted to like Barr’s book, is unsparing:

Barr holds up Saint Paula as an exemplar. Barr retells Paula’s story about how she abandoned her children for the “higher purpose of following God’s call on her life”. After the death of her husband, she left her children “alone, crying on the shore” setting out to serve God (79). By my lights, this is not a story to be emulated, admired, or promoted. This is a story of direct disobedience to God’s will for parents to care for, love, and provide for their children. Paul tells us that a failure to provide for one’s family is worse than being an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). To think that this is even remotely near a positive example is extremely concerning. Quite honestly, it’s disturbing. So, to be frank: I don’t care if Paula helped translate a Bible. The ends never justify the means. We are not utilitarians.

These reviewers express the exact same concern that I felt when I read this section of Barr’s book last year. It was the exact same concern that Colin and I expressed on social media yesterday. Paula’s abandonment of her children is a scandal and should never be held up as exemplary in any way. And yet that is what Barr’s book does.

Barr has claimed once again that I have misrepresented her work. I don’t believe that I have. But if readers are still skeptical, I encourage you to read her book for yourself. I’ll even paste the relevant pages below. It’s all there in black and white.


UPDATE #1: I just received an email from Barr’s publisher asking me to remove the two images of pp. 78-79 from this post. The publisher also asked that I remove one of my tweets with the same two images. I thought that sharing them was within “fair use” guidelines, but her publisher says that is not the case. So I’ve deleted them and apologize for the error on my part. The relevant excerpts are still printed above. Also, Amazon has an image of page 79 on their site, so you can still see it there if you are interested. Or you can just order the book and read it!


UPDATE #2: Readers on social media have suggested that Paula’s children were all grown when she left them. Therefore, no harm and no foul that Barr commended Paula’s example. The problem with this argument is twofold.

First, Barr doesn’t give any hint at all to her readers that the children were grown and living as adults. On the contrary, she presents them as dependent children. Readers can’t tell from Barr’s account that any of the children were grown. Her presentation of Jerome’s narrative was deficient in that sense. Barr sets forth Paula as a foil to contemporary complementarian women who believe that their “highest calling as Christian women was to be wives and mothers.” In contrast, Barr commends Paula as an example of liberated womanhood that eschews “traditional family life” (p. 78). Even if Paula’s children actually were grown, there is no way that you would know it from Barr’s account of Paula’s life. That is why so many reviewers (listed above) have read it precisely the way I have. Barr has a responsibility to make this clear, otherwise it reads like she’s commending Paula’s abandonment of her children. And that is in fact how her book reads.

Second, Jerome authored the account that we have of Paula’s departure from her children. Jerome explains that Paula had four daughters and then finally gave birth to a boy named Toxotious. Jerome describes the “abandonment” scene this way. Notice how Jerome depicts Paula’s youngest child in contrast to his older sisters:

She thought more and more each moment of forsaking her home. Disregarding her house, her children, her servants, her property, and in a word everything connected with the world… Not to prolong the story, she went down to Portus accompanied by her brother, her kinsfolk and above all her own children eager by their demonstrations of affection to overcome their loving mother. At last the sails were set and the strokes of the rowers carried the vessel into the deep. On the shore the little Toxotius stretched forth his hands in entreaty, while Rufina, now grown up, with silent sobs besought her mother to wait till she should be married (p. 197, emphasis mine).

As you can see, Jerome contrasts “little Toxotius” with his older sister who is “now grown up.” Jerome’s account therefore suggests that her “little” son was not all the way grown yet (whatever “grown” meant in the fourth century). Jerome goes on to describe Paula’s actions as an abandonment of what would normally be a mother’s duty. His words are stark.

Among the cruel hardships which attend prisoners of war in the hands of their enemies, there is none severer than the separation of parents from their children. Though it is against the laws of nature, she endured this trial with unabated faith; nay more she sought it with a joyful heart: and overcoming her love for her children by her greater love for God… (p. 197, emphasis mine).

Unless one argues that Jerome considers it “against the laws of nature” for a mother to leave her grown children for a long journey, this seems like a pretty clear indication that Toxotius was an immature boy when she left him.

According to Jerome, Paula’s friends and relatives had reproved her as derelict in her duty to her children long before she left them. She had given away so much of her wealth to the poor that Jerome says,

So lavish was her charity that she robbed her children; and, when her relatives remonstrated with her for doing so, she declared that she was leaving to them a better inheritance in the mercy of Christ (p. 197, emphasis mine).

Even though Jerome loves Paula and commends her example, it is nevertheless clear that he regards her abandonment of “little Toxotious” as “against the laws of nature”—an act that can only be justified by the direct calling of Jesus on her life. Based on Jerome’s account, I think Paula was wrong to do what she did. Indeed, I think it is scandalous (1 Timothy 5:8). Kevin DeYoung is spot-on in his evaluation of this episode,

If female liberation looks like mothers abandoning their children alone and losing all sense of calling as wives and mothers, then the cure for biblical womanhood is worse than the disease.


UPDATE #3: A thoughtful reader has asked whether I really believe that Barr supports child abandonment. Given her strident response on social media denying that she supports child abandonment, shouldn’t we just take her at her word? Why continue to press this point when she says that she has “never endorsed child abandonment”? This reader concludes, “It doesn’t seem likely that she would commend abandoning children.”

I would agree with this reader if we are talking about her personal views and how she conducts her own life. I would assume that she’s a wonderful mother, would never abandon her children, or advise anyone else to abandon their children. But all of that is irrelevant to the matter at hand. I have not leveled any critiques against her personally but have only given my evaluation of her book—in particular, her presentation of Paula. Her book commends Paula’s example.

And this is where I think Barr’s response—along with many of her supporters on social media—is sadly mistaken. They do not seem to distinguish criticism of Barr’s book from criticism of her personally. I’ve only done the former but not the latter.

If Barr didn’t mean to commend Paula’s example or only meant to commend part of it but not all of it, that’s great. She is free to clarify that. Nevertheless, she failed at expressing such caveats in her book. The book presents Paula as “drawing strength from Jesus” as she “abandoned her children for the higher purpose of following God’s call on her life” (p. 97). Those words suggests divine approval of Paula’s abandonment. This is not a neutral way of describing what Paula did.

Just like for all of us, Barr’s work has to stand on its own two feet. No one’s work is above criticism, and the criticism that reviewers have levelled on this point is entirely justified in my view.

One more word about the social media firestorm that has erupted over this. As near as I can tell, this eruption is entirely of Barr’s own making. On Wednesday, Colin Smothers shared the London Lyceum review of Barr’s book and highlighted the Paula episode. Colin simply said that his jaw hit the floor because Barr’s book had commended Paula’s abandonment of her children. I replied briefly, “Me too. Couldn’t believe it.” Both of us were commenting about her book.

No one paid much attention to our brief remarks for over 24 hours. That changed late the following night when our mentions began blowing up. Barr screenshotted the tweets and began alleging to her followers that we had personally attacked her and had smeared her as a mother. None of that was true, but she posted several tweets and threads fanning such false claims on her feed. Many of her followers believed it.

I would simply ask readers to pay attention to what we have actually written. We have criticized her book, not her personally. What she wrote in her book is not above criticism, not least her account of Paula.