Perhaps I am not qualified to write about this? After all, I am a guy, and I have no clue what really goes on with women. Just ask my wife. But the topic of “biblical womanhood” comes up from time to time, and it concerns all of us in the Body of Christ.
A. J. Jacobs wrote a New York Times best seller a few years ago, The Year of Living Biblically, about his humorous, tongue-in-cheek attempt to follow all of the Bible literally for one year. In like manner, Rachel Held Evans titled her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”. Here she recounts her story of spending an entire year trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible as a woman in every intricate detail. Along the way, she interviews other women who try to follow a particular pattern of “biblical womanhood”. What you do not find in the book generally winds up on her popular blog. We introduced Rachel Held Evans here on Veracity not too long ago. How well did her one year experiment go? What is Rachel Held Evans wanting to say?
What is Biblical Womanhood?
According to Evans, many Christians urge us to consider the Bible’s teaching on “womanhood” and yet if you were to try to follow literally every single instruction in Scripture regarding living as a Christian woman, you would never succeed. “Biblical womanhood” is simply not as easy as some would lead you to think.
Here, Rachel Held Evans introduces the book and the challenges of “Biblical womanhood.” How about trying to live out the Levitical holiness code with respect to the female menstrual period as laid out in Leviticus 15:19-30 (ok, lady blog readers out there…can you help me out a bit on this one?):
About a year ago, Rachel Held Evans visited the College of William and Mary, and I unfortunately missed her visit. Some Veracity readers who visit her blog now will probably be disturbed by some of the things she has to say. But you do not have to always agree with everything someone says in order to benefit from one or two things that you might learn from them. Every now and then, Rachel has some wonderful gems in her blog that I really enjoy reading.
To say the least, Rachel Held Evans is indeed out there on the edge. Alas, some would say she has gone over the edge. Some even accuse Evans of promoting heresy. Others say that the “heresy” label is unwarranted, with some even accusing her detractors as simply being bullies. Nevertheless, a number of her critics have called her out on some things that she has overlooked or brushed over too quickly. Issues of “biblical womanhood” need to be understood within the context of all of Scripture, not just a collection of various Scriptural proof-texts put together in a disjointed fashion. Hermeneutics, is about the art and science of text interpretation, and it is imperative that good sound rules of interpretation be applied to the study of Holy Scripture. Kathy Keller, wife of pastor and author Tim Keller, has some keen insights into the dialogue that Rachel Held Evans is seeking to promote, challenging the way the book handles such biblical hermeneutics. Trillia Newbell, an African American woman author and blogger, is concerned that Rachel Held Evans is using her gifts at promoting dialogue to unwittingly put the Bible on trial, in her review for Desiring God Ministries. Right in that same vein, Aimee Byrd, the “Housewife Theologian,” adds her voice to those with serious concerns.
As counter-examples that are generally more positive about the book, consider New Testament scholar Ben Witherington’s cautiously encouraging review, or even Arminian theologian Roger Olson’s fairly enthusiastic review. The book has surely stirred up quite a lot of debate!
In her defense, I do not think that Rachel Held Evans intends to give us a full-orbed, theological anthropology of responsible “biblical womanhood” or anything well developed like that. She is mainly interested in trying to get folks to talk about things that perhaps never get talked about much, and doing it in a way that is funny and playful. However, these are serious questions being raised that deserve seriously well-thought answers, not pat answers. It might be tempting for a guy like me to rush in, pontificate on biblical “male headship”, and fail to give folks like Rachel Held Evans a genuinely fair hearing. She is still processing through her doubts, and many of her readers are struggling, too. A lot of women in the church wrestle with what they perceive to be a misogynist undercurrent running through the Bible that they nevertheless still love. Other women have simply had bad experiences as a woman in the church. In many ways, Rachel Held Evans serves as an icon, representing the type of angst, frustration, and bewilderment of those who on the one hand want to uphold the witness of Scripture but who sometimes have a difficult time making sense of everything in the Bible in a contemporary world conscious of feminist concerns. This subject might be too unsettling for some, but I find that asking the type of questions that Rachel Held Evans is asking can be really helpful for those who wrestle with their faith and those painful experiences.
One More Word About Doubt
Questions about “biblical womanhood” are indeed important, and so we should not dismiss them lightly. Sometimes the questions are motivated by doubt, sometimes by a desire to humbly know the truth, and sometimes by a sense of wanting to assert personal wants and desires above and over God’s perspective (for women AND for men). You really have to check your own heart as you explore these issues. I have known more than one woman who “did not like the Apostle Paul” because of “his views on women,” and I have known men who get a little too smug when it comes to being “the head of household,” but do we actually understand what the Bible is teaching, or are we projecting our own prejudices on the Bible, trying to make it say something that it is not really saying?
We need to do the hard work of discussing these issues with others with the Bible in hand. We may find that there are some differences and challenges that are indeed difficult to resolve. However, let us not stay there and become mired and stuck in our questions.
The danger associated with raising questions like those put forward by Rachel Held Evans, or the Emergent Church general phenomenon, or with a whole slew of varieties of what some call progressive evangelicalism, or even further out there, post-evangelicalism, is not the topic itself. We need these discussions. The danger is in the temptation and inherent tendency towards spiritual navel-gazing. When we do that, we risk elevating our doubts in such a way that they drown out the very voice of God. It is very easy to become so self-absorbed that we fail to hear the sound of the One who is calling us to draw near. In the worst case, you end up thinking you are hearing from God when all you are doing is hearing the sound of your own voice.
Let us consider doing the challenging work of digging into God’s Word and let the God of the Bible show us and teach us how to work through our doubts. God can handle it.
Are you interested in doing the hard work of making sense of what the Bible has to say about “biblical womanhood?” Evangelical scholars take different points of view, but there are two main camps of thought. Complementarians believe that God created men and women to complement one another. Egalitarians believe that God created men and women to be equal with one another. The reality is that even among those within the different camps, there can be differences in terms of application of agreed upon principles. There are extreme elements in both camps, as well as attempts to bring the two camps together. Sometimes,”agreeing to disagree” may be in order. If this language above is new or rather confusing to you, you might want to read the following primer post by Adrian Warnock to give you the lay of the land of the wide spectrum of views. Then you can evaluate where you find yourself on this continuum in views regarding what the Bible teaches. But please… do not just survey what the scholars say. Hopefully, the exposure to these views will encourage you to READ THE BIBLE!!
Perhaps the best place to understand the complementarian perspective is to read the resources from the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, featuring their scholarly yet readable Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, available for free, or simply start with their much shorter summary, Fifty Crucial Questions. On the egalitarian side of the discussion, the Christians for Biblical Equality have a number of helpful introductory and scholarly essays that articulate their perspective, or simply poke around on Rachel Held Evans blog (she is a “strong egalitarian” on Adrian Warnock’s scale), but if you want the super heavy duty stuff, you might want to read Philip B. Payne. Just let me know when you want to come up for air 😉 I have been studying this issue for over twenty-five years, and I find that there are good arguments being made on both sides. In a nutshell, while I find that complementarians are not always consistent in their scriptural applications, I would also argue that egalitarians are not often very realistic, nor do they fully realize the type of Pandora’s Box they are opening up. So do not just look at one side of the debate. Consider what the other side has to offer as well.
Having said all of that, let me add that for some women, this issue is not an abstract intellectual quandary. It is a deeply personal issue. My advice would be that in having conversations with people on this topic that you first listen to someone’s story before you go off quoting Scripture. A lot of tension we feel about these issues can be best handled by learning the art of listening first instead of always feeling compelled to hand out our doctrinal statement.
Now… that is about all of the estrogen I can handle for the moment. I am pretty deep in over my head already. I better stop before some woman beats me up. In meantime, you might want to consider yet these cautious reflections from Mary Kassian, professor of women’s studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mary Kassian offers quite a contrast to Rachel Held Evans (both are very strong women).