Barth on Gender


He almost got there. Reading §54 one can sense Barth’s trying to combat the patriarchy that has cast an oppressive shadow over theological reflections on the relationship between women and men. Primarily he is addressing this relationship in the context of marriage. He has the common sense to resist the trite typologies offered by the likes of Brunner who basically says that women are passive, receptive beings who are overly subjective and tend to individualize whereas men are active leaders who can remain objective and can focus on the universal (CD III/4, 154). He recognizes that these ideas do not describe all men and women and are not grounded in the command of God. Hence they are superfluous at best. He also resists Schleiermacher’s idea that a woman’s natural dispositions is fortunate because it is easier for her to experience the feelings of absolute dependence on God. Although Barth does have the common sense to laud Schleiermacher for praising women when there “have always been far too many male or masculine theologians” (155), he effectively does nothing to challenge the hierarchy. Now, I want to jump into Barth’s actual reflections.

Barth is very aware of Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28 that there is no longer male nor female in Christ Jesus and recognizes that there is to be no inequality amongst Christians. When discussing the case in Corinth concerning women covering their heads, Barth understands that it would be “foolish to try to make an inflexible rule of the particular interpretation of Paul in this instance” (156). However, and I believe this is his major mistake, he assumes that there is a proper role or essence of women. He surmises from his reading of this passage that the take home message is that “woman must always and in all circumstances be woman; that she must feel and conduct herself as such and not as man” (156). This actually is the ground upon which he critiques the feminist movement although he does recognize its utility. He does not believe that women should try and be anything else but women. If this isn’t bad enough he goes to try and argue the point Christologically. In Jesus Christ this order has been established and the women at Corinth are at fault for “trying to subvert this order, to treat it as outmoded and thus to discard it…Progress beyond this order can only be retrogression, a backward step into the old aeon in which the relation of man and woman is not ordered by Jesus Christ” (174).

Barth’s third step in this discussion is to discuss the order and relation between man and woman. He has been insistent that there is no inequality between man and woman, but here I think his argument breaks down. He prefaces this section by saying we must proceed with extreme caution as every “word is dangerous and liable to be misunderstood when we try to characterize this order. But it exists” (169). The order Barth refers to is this. Man and woman stand in sequence with one another. According to Barth, “[m]an and woman are not an A and a second A whose being and relationship can be described like the two halves of an hour glass, which are obviously two, but absolute equal and therefore interchangeable. Man and women are an A and a B, and cannot therefore be equated” (169). He goes on to say A and B do not exist in a hierarchy because they are undoubtedly equal. Furthermore, we cannot speak of man (A) without likewise speaking of woman (B) because they are constantly called to be in fellowship with one another as God has commanded.

“A precedes B, and B follows A. Order means succession. It means preceding and following. It means super- and sub-ordination…When it is a question of the true order which God the Creator has established, succession, and therefore precedence and following, super- and sub-ordination, does not mean any inner inequality between those who stand in this succession and are subject to the order. It does indeed reveal their inequality. But it does not do so without immediately confirming their equality” (169-170).

He follows this discussion by talking about how men must not use this order to exploit women and must occupy their position humbly and lovingly. But I have to ask the stupid question, what in the hell is he talking about? How can he say that we must not forget for one second that men and women are equal and then in the next paragraph claim that women must be subordinate to men? It seems as if he wants to have his cake and eat it too. It’s almost as if there were two Barths writing this text. The one more progressive Barth recognizes the tragic oppression of women that has taken place since the beginning of time and recognizes the sinful nature of patriarchy. But then we have the conservative Biblicist Barth who has to look back to Genesis 2 to determine the proper relationship between man and woman. Since man was made first Barth is forced to affirm that men do in fact precede women and are super-ordinate over women. Did it ever occur to him that the writers of Genesis might have been patriarchal and thus crafted a creation narrative in which they clearly conferred privilege and power to men? Did it ever occur to him that the same writers made Eve at fault for eating the fruit in the Garden?

Men and women are equal but a “mature woman is as such the woman who knows and takes her proper place, not in relation to man but in relation to the order” (180). Did he ever stop and consider that the order was set by men and not God? Also by creating this concept of an order he acts as if he is compelled to argue for male privilege because it simply exists. The order thus becomes an easy scapegoat that he can rely on to ground the subordination of women to men.


3 Responses to “Barth on Gender”

  1. Summer Says:

    LOVE this article! I have been reading Barth and he talks in circles almost all the time. I loved the way you extract the essence of his arguments and present it in such a clear manner!
    Thank you so much

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Good, I’m glad I could help. Barth is tragically wrong when it comes to gender, and I hope I distilled the logic of his thinking to expose the true idiocy of his position. Barth says that men are the same as women, yet women are supposed to be subordinate? Women shouldn’t be anything but women, yet he goes on to equate the essence of women with the historical roles women have been forced to assume by misogynistic societies?

  3. Summer Says:

    I agree, it was almost as if he wanted to stay clear of trouble from the feminist movement but talked his way right back into it…lol i am currently reading another article on barths views on gender…this time its from a womens perspective. Here have a look if you have time:

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