That is a question that troubles many people, Christian and non-Christian alike. As my mother told me at times, in so many words, “I like what Jesus in the Bible has to say about women, but I am not so sure about Paul.” I have stumbled over this question myself, and I am a guy.
Is “Biblical Womanhood” a Bad Deal For Women? : Rachel Held Evans Speaks Out
Unless you have no clue what the Internet is, you probably have heard of Rachel Held Evans. Evans was a relatively young mother, of several young children, who tragically met her death at 37, earlier this year. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home, Rachel, who would probably prefer that title, instead of “Ms. Evans,” was regarded as a master communicator, in the world of social media, and she was a funny and engaging blog and book writer. She deeply cared about her faith in God, the health of the evangelical church, and how to work through periods of doubt, as a Christian.
But she had an edge to her. She would spar with leading evangelical pastors and leaders on Twitter. Her most controversial book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, simultaneously encouraged and disturbed many of her evangelical Christian readers. Rachel had her fans, but she also had her vocal critics. To her fans, Rachel offered a way of reading the Bible, that enabled them to look past a rather rigid, wooden approach to how the Bible treated women. Rachel presented a positive view of women, that offered to transcend the cultural limitations and misogynistic prejudices she saw, that were in the Bible. But she did this in a manner that also sought to retain many classic themes in Christian theology. Many felt encouraged, even relieved, to read Rachel’s book.
For example, to the delight of her fans, Rachel believed that God can call women to serve in any position of Christian ministry, that a man can serve in. Women should be elders and pastors of churches, just like men are. There is effectively no functional difference between men and women, at any level, at any measure, in the ministry of the local church. Bible passages that effectively restrict the roles of women in church, such as Paul’s policy of not permitting women to teach or exercise authority over a man, in a local church, as in 1 Timothy 2:12, can be safely set aside as merely a culture-bound restriction, that only applied to the church in Ephesus in the first century. Today, the trajectory of the Gospel has simply erased any and all differences between men and women, except for basic biology, …though in some circles, even that can be debated today, as the advances of medical surgery can make just about anything possible!
Conflicted Responses to Rachel Held Evans
However, for others who read Rachel, they felt ill at ease. To her most alarmed detractors, Rachel came across as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rachel was not merely recasting a different interpretation of the Bible, more acceptable to modern ears. She was attacking the very integrity and plain-spoken character of God’s Word itself. Such critics completely wrote off Rachel Held Evans as an unhinged, false teacher.
At the same time, more moderate readers of Rachel’s work appreciated her voice, opposing the discrimination of women, but were bothered by what appeared to be a diminished view of Scriptural authority. In her effort to make the Bible more palatable to women, as well as to the men who know, love, and respect them, Rachel was throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Rachel’s egalitarian theology was opening up the floodgates of doubt upon other vital themes in Scripture.
Is there are middle-ground here? Is there a way of recognizing the vital contribution of Rachel Held Evans, without abandoning a more balanced way of reading Scripture?
Wendy Alsup, a Christian who is a divorced mother, who once was a women’s ministry director in a large megachurch in Seattle, Washington, read Rachel Held Evans’ book, and she was caught in the middle between the two extremes. In her reflections on Rachel’s death, Wendy describes the sense of growing up in a rigidly conservative, legalistic evangelical church, where it was commonly thought that girls who question are troublemakers. The message was this: if you do not want to be a troublemaker, keep your questions to yourself.
That is not very good advice for women who read the Bible, in the shadow of #MeToo.
Thankfully, Wendy Alsup sees right through that kind of corrupt theology. But it still leaves the fundamental question open: Is the Bible good for women?
Does the Bible Required a Raped Woman to Marry Her Rapist?
What women are not troubled when they read about the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34), or the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and then also learn that in Old Testament times, the man who who raped a woman, was then commanded, by the Law of Moses, to marry the woman, whom he had raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)?
Why would God command such a law, in the Bible? At first glance, it would look like the Bible is really not so good for women.
Wendy Alsup’s personal story is instructive, in understanding why such questions are so important. Wendy was herself working as a women’s ministry leader in one of evangelicalism’s largest megachurches, only to have the whole thing implode, not too long after she left the church, when the pastor was asked to step down from his position, with charges that he was abusing his power and influence. Rachel Held Evans was one of the first Christians to publicly call out this pastor’s abusive behavior.
Wendy Alsup was grateful for Rachel’s willingness to step up and raise questions, particularly about abuse. Rachel Held Evans took a lot of heat for her vocal criticism, and for that, Wendy was grateful for Rachel’s voice. The hoped for accountability structure at this influential complementarian church was not working, and accountability was sorely needed.
But Wendy was also concerned that Rachel had indeed crossed a line, in the other direction, with respect to honoring Scriptural authority. Wendy’s response to all of this was to write her own book about “biblical womanhood.”
Tackling Tough Issues With Honesty, Biblical Fidelity, and a Strong Sense of Hope: Wendy Alsup’s Vision of “Biblical Womanhood”
In many ways, Is the Bible Good for Women?: Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture, is the book that many Christians, like myself, wish Rachel Held Evans had of written.
Wendy tackles some of the really tough parts about Scripture, honestly grappling with the question in her book’s title. Wendy makes her appeal to some of the best evangelical scholarship available, in order to find answers. For example, with respect to the Mosaic regulation, commanding that the rapist marry the woman he raped, Wendy points out that Ancient Near East culture was not very friendly to women, in such desperate, humiliating positions (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
But then one considers that marrying the raped woman was actually a way of protecting and providing for the raped woman, who would otherwise be shunned by her ancient community, or even killed by her family, due to the shame. The Law of Moses challenged the rapist to re-examine himself, repent of his wrong doing, make restitution to the woman by restoring her dignity and honor, and seek to try to make things right.1
It bears keeping in mind that rape, in those ancient cultures, were typically not involving unknown assailants, as commonly thought of today. Rather, the case of rape often involved persons who were already known to each other, to begin with. True, this ancient Hebrew prescription of the Mosaic Law was not as progressive as modern Westerners have come to expect. But as Wendy Alsup reminds the reader, the Law of Moses was never meant to be an end, in and of itself.
The Law of Moses pointed towards its eventual fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah. The Law itself was incapable to completely right the wrong suffered in cases of rape. Only Christ Himself can do that. Jesus fulfills what the Law intended to do.
The Law of Moses was a step in the right direction, in an otherwise brutal Ancient Near East culture, but it does not tell the whole story of God’s redemptive purposes. Part of the Good News of the Gospel is that we are no longer required to follow laws, such as this one, anymore. We furthermore anticipate that Jesus will wipe every tear away, and undo all of the evil done in this world. This is a big part of our blessed hope as Christians.
What about the prescriptive regulations about cleanliness following a woman’s menstrual period (Leviticus 15)? To be kept isolated after menstruation seems humiliating today. But in a culture where wild animals could easily enter a house, smelling blood, the protective aspect of the Law of Moses begins to become seen in a whole new light.
Keeping a woman in such a condition isolated from wild animals was probably a very sensible thing to do, even though the Bible does not explicitly spell that out for the average reader. Plus, these isolation regulations helped to protect against the spread of disease, in an era when modern medical knowledge was not accessible. As our knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern culture continues to increase, as we learn more about such early periods of human history, through archaeology and historical studies, we can gain some fresh insight into why some of the more bizarre sounding parts of the Bible are perhaps not so bizarre after all.
Wendy embraces a form of complementarian theology, that holds to a time-honored view of male-headship in the home, and in believing that the role of elder/pastor is limited to men only. So while Wendy is quite open to embrace scholarship, that might shed further light on difficult Bible passages, she rejects the suggestion that scholarship can itself be used to overthrow readings of Scripture, that are simply not available to non-specialists, who lack the academic training. Scholarship can help to illuminate those parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand. But scholarship can not be used to contradict a non-specialized reading of Scripture.
This might be still too much for some of Wendy’s more egalitarian minded readers.2 Even I would place a caveat on Wendy’s position, in that it is quite clear to me that some non-specialized readings of Scripture can still be wrong, in light of compelling evidence. Good biblical scholarship can help to bring such evidence to light. Nevertheless, Wendy appears to be correct and quite sober in how she handles the evidence, in articulating her positive, refined approach to a complementarian theology.
Less she gets misunderstood, Wendy is also quite uncompromising on critiquing bad elements of complementarian theology, that would seek to use the Bible as a weapon to harm women. Too often, critics of complementarian views of the Bible, lump all complementarians into the same category, particularly viewing all women who hold to such complementarian views as being “self-haters.” But this one-dimensional criticism is far too simplistic. Honoring differences in gender, through church office, need not imply that women are somehow “more easily deceived” than men, as some supposed traditionalists maintain. In particular, in my view, Wendy’s reading of Genesis 3:16 is spot on, avoiding some of the pitfalls found in the more popular interpretations of this critical verse of the Bible.3
Wendy also sees no conflict with Scripture, if a woman were asked to teach a Bible study, or a Sunday school, if asked by the elders of that local church, as it is the elders of that local church who are given spiritual authority for teaching, and not the Bible study leaders themselves, who are called to submit to that eldership authority. This view of women “teaching” is consistent with what any non-ordained, non-elder man can do, in a local church. You can find out more about what Wendy thinks at her blog, Theologyforwomen.org. Or better yet, read her book.
Wendy Alsup encourages the reader that the Bible is indeed good for women, but that it all begins by rethinking what “good” means, and looking at it from God’s perspective, as ultimately revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Just because we think something is “good” does not necessarily mean that God thinks that it is “good.”
If anything, the chapter of the book where Wendy makes a distinction between prescriptive versus descriptive passages of the Bible, is worth the price of the book alone.
Wendy may not answer every question to everyone’s satisfaction, as Is the Bible Good for Women?, is not a completely exhaustive look at every possible objection, regarding the Bible’s view of women. But Wendy Alsup is to be commended for writing a fantastic book that probes difficult questions, without offering weak and simplistic answers.
If I had to pick one very intelligent woman author, who presents an easily accessible read about “women in the church,” while possessing great theological acumen, and who holds a balanced view on this subject, that would appeal to the greatest cross-section of Christian readers, it would be Wendy Alsup.
If you get the audiobook version, like I did, she reads the book herself, which added to the gripping honesty and forthrightness of the book. As a male, Wendy’s book helped me to understand the hesitations some women may experience when reading the Bible, while at the same time, affirming a positive answer, that yes, the Bible is truly good news for women. Though published in 2017, Wendy’s message is still very fresh and timely, touching on the ever present themes in the work of the late Rachel Held Evans, a critical engagement in our day and age when topics on gender are front and center, in the minds of many Christians and skeptics alike.
I have read or cited a number of books on this topic, in recent months, but many of them are quite technical. Wendy’s book is more of an easy entry into the discussion, and it makes for a great read. If you, or someone you know, wrestles with what the Bible has to say to about women, then you really need to get this book.
1. There are actually other arguments that indicate that the command for a rapist to marry the raped woman, is not exactly how it first seems. For example, another example from Mosaic law indicates that the father of the woman must approve of the marriage, before consenting to it. If the father does not consent, the man who raped the woman must still provide material support for the woman he injured (Exodus 22:16-17). Furthermore, another instance of the Mosaic Law clearly prescribes the circumstances, where one can tell if a rape was committed, or not. If a rape was committed, the male perpetrator was to suffer the death penalty (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Some scholars even suggest that there is a Bible translation issue here, as the original Hebrew is ambiguous (listen to Tyler Vela’s Freedthink podcast). It is quite possible that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 may not even be addressing a rape situation. The point is that while Wendy Alsup takes a worst-possible scenario here, reading Scripture within the larger context is a more suitable way to understand controversial texts, such as these. ↩
2. See Marq Mowczko’s excellent website, offering an informed egalitarian alternative to Wendy Alsup’s moderate complementarianism. For a Bible study on YouTube, covering the same Biblical issues in detail, from another informed egalitarian perspective, see this video with Dr. Cynthia Westfall, at Bruxy Cavey’s church in Canada..↩
3. Wendy Alsup was interviewed on the Theology Gals podcast, put out by a group of Reformed Presbyterian women, where she explains the problems with the 2016 change in the English Standard Version, in Genesis 3:16. Wendy highlights the fact that the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), largely drove the translation change, while embracing a suspect view of the Trinity, namely the Eternal Subordination of the Son, an issue that divides the complementarian movement into basically two camps, that of a moderate complementarianism, championed by those like Wendy, and a more extreme version of complementarianism, championed by the CBMW. Wendy writes about the New Wave of Complementarianism, in her blog, and in an essay, in a new highly praised book, Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues, a compendium of essays edited by Joshua Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior. ↩