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My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’
The author argues that there are many meanings of the adjective 'biblical.'
November 17th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’

Editor's Note: Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger from Dayton, Tennessee, and author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”

By Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

On "The Daily Show" recently, Jon Stewart grilled Mike Huckabee about a TV ad in which Huckabee urged voters to support “biblical values” at the voting box.

When Huckabee said that he supported the “biblical model of marriage,” Stewart shot back that “the biblical model of marriage is polygamy.”

And there’s a big problem, Stewart went on, with reducing “biblical values” to one or two social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring issues such as poverty and immigration reform.

It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian, I cheered Stewart on from my living room couch.

As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God, I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective like Huckabee did. I hate seeing my sacred text flattened out, edited down and used as a prop to support a select few political positions and platforms.

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And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics - that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.

But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Nowhere is this more evident than in conversations surrounding “biblical womanhood.”

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Growing up in the Bible Belt, I received a lot of mixed messages about the appropriate roles of women in the home, the church and society, each punctuated with the claim that this or that lifestyle represented true “biblical womanhood.”

In my faith community, popular women pastors such as Joyce Meyer were considered unbiblical for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul's restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 ("I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent"), while Amish women were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 ("Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head").

Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to avoid wearing nice jewelry as the apostle instructs them just one sentence later in 1 Peter 3:3. Despite the fact that being single was praised by both Jesus and Paul, I learned early on that marriage and motherhood were my highest callings, and that Proverbs 31 required I keep a home as tidy as June Cleaver's.

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This didn’t really trouble me until adulthood, when I found myself in a childless egalitarian marriage with a blossoming career and an interest in church leadership and biblical studies. As I wrestled with what it meant to be a woman of faith, I realized that, despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” from the Bible, any claim to a “biblical” lifestyle requires some serious selectivity.

After all, technically speaking, it is “biblical” for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, “biblical” for a woman to be required to marry her rapist, “biblical” for her to be one of many wives.

So why are some Bible passages lifted out and declared “biblical,” while others are explained away or simply ignored? Does the Bible really present a single prescriptive lifestyle for all women?

These were the questions that inspired me to take a page from A.J. Jacobs, author of "The Year of Living Biblically", and try true biblical womanhood on for size—literally, no “picking and choosing."

This meant, among other things, growing out my hair, making my own clothes, covering my head whenever I prayed, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church (unless I was “prophesying,” of course), calling my husband "master,” even camping out in my front yard during my period to observe the Levitical purity laws that rendered me unclean.

During my yearlong experiment, I interviewed a variety of women practicing biblical womanhood in different ways — an Orthodox Jew, an Amish housewife, even a polygamist family - and I combed through every commentary I could find, reexamining the stories of biblical women such as Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, Tamar, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla and Junia.

My goal was to playfully challenge this idea that the Bible prescribes a single lifestyle for how to be a woman of faith, and in so doing, playfully challenge our overuse of the term “biblical.” I did this not out of disdain for Scripture, but out of love for it, out of respect for the fact that interpreting and applying the Bible is a messy, imperfect and - at times - frustrating process that requires humility and grace as we wrestle the text together.

The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Held Evans.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (4,657 Responses)
  1. David Ouellette

    Yes, I believe in God and in things of a spiritual nature, but the U.S.A. overdoses on religion. There's your problem.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  2. elizabethmy

    I'm so tired of CNN and other news outlets attacking Christianity. When are you going to put up a degrading article about Islam or Judaism? Everyday, I see an article mocking or completely misrepresenting Christianity. People just assume that they know what it's like to be a Christian. We are told we are bigots, idiots, stupid, haters of women, and more. Jesus said, "They will hate you because of me." He was right, of course.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • Dan

      Is she not being honest by addressing the problem? Problem being, people pick and choose what they want to believe? I'm having so much fun sitting back and watching you Christians throw each other under the bus.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Colin

      I have engaged in debate with Christians for years and Ican tell you they are not all stupid. There do seem to be a couple of themes common to them however. First they fall for the trick of circular reasoning. " I believe the Bible is the word of God because the Bible says it is the word of God". Second, they tend to be woefully ignorant of who wrote the Bible and how it was gradually complied into what we see today. Thirdly, they tend to be weak on science and natural history.

      These traits are not specific to Christians though, it applies equally to Muslims, Jews and others who believe in the supernatural based on old writings.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Nick

      elizabethmy: I'm having a hard time seeing how this is a "degrading article" that is "attacking" Christianity. It appears to me to be an article written by an Evangelical Christian who is evaluating the nuances of the scripture and modern practice. Please give your specific examples of how the article does what you are experiencing from it.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • David

      I'm kind of wondering where Rachel Held Evans is 'attacking' Christianity. She's telling you what her experiences are. Do you think she is lying?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • mama k

      Christians mostly insult each other. That's built into the religion. One Christian can argue any side of any argument and support it from the Bible. But some Christians do realize this flaw. Some early American Christians who realized this were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, and others.

      During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

      (James Madison – A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785)

      James Madison was the chief architect of the U.S. Const itution

      November 18, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • irie44

      Well here's one fact you can't deny, Christians have killed more innocent people in the name of their "God" than all other religions combined. You may also want to take a look at the Vatican, the most corrupt organization humanity has ever known. Take a look at what happened to John Paul I, who was finally going to expose them for what they were (at least he followed the teachings of Jesus).

      November 18, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • ninedeep

      How was she and/or the article degrading Christianity. She is doing the opposite. She is pointing out the huge problem that people hypocritically use a small part the bible to promote their agenda, while ignoring the rest of it.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • elizabethmy

      No, she's not addressing any problems. She has simply created one by ignoring that Christians do not follow old testament law. Whatever it takes to get noticed and make money, I guess.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • BradW

      Have you ever read the xtian bible from cover to cover (both old and new testaments)? If you had, you might understand what the article is about and how wrong you are and how right the author of this article is.

      Fact is that the vast majority of xtians in the US have never even read their bible from Matthew through Revelation!

      November 18, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • joncohen08

      In case you didn't notice, Jews read the Bible too (and this woman even talked to Orthodox Jews). Jews have the same problem of how to deal with the Bible's contradictions as Christians. As far as Muslims, it should be pretty easy for you to find Islamophobic articles.

      It baffles me when Christians in the USA think they are persecuted.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      You're not here often are you?? You're only paying attention to the articles about christianity due to your personal bias. However, outrageous claims deserve to be called out. You have no evidence that your jesus friend said anything.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • End Religion

      Most cults have a persecution complex. This complex is written into its tenets so when you are challenged on the cult's ridiculousness you can claim prophecy. You may be being ridiculed because you're christian, but mostly you're being ridiculed because religion in general is fraud for the foolish.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  3. csalee

    Here's a great article (in my opinion) on whether Polygamy is Biblical.....
    http://theresurgence.com/2009/11/02/is-polygamy-biblical

    November 18, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  4. bill pike

    this is like CNN article stating obama was a progressive christian-which means you choose how you want to live, let babies be killed, gays marry--and since you are a progressive chrtistian that is ok. I was raised in a family that was anti-God so I can relate with no rules. IF you ever hear God's voice you will never again pick and choose. How about this? My son at age 5 came to me and told me that at the service that night God was going to heal his eyes-he was cross eyed and surgery was scheduled the next week. I was so wrong-as a dad did not want him disappointed so I told him sometimes God heals and sometimes he doesn't. My 5 year old-if you have kids you know everything is real with a 5 year old-my 5 year old said, "dad God told me he was going to heal me". The minister was preached to thousands and stopped to say "a young man here tonight just had a touch of God and his eyes are healed". They were healed-straight. We took our son to Dr. Berry the next week--we believe in doctors-she examined his eyes over and over and told us "his eyes are perfect he even has hawk vision". Like a said–if you ever hear God's voice you won't pick and choose or be "progressive". FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON...............

    November 18, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Edweird69

      So God healed your son's crossed eyes, but let 10,000 babies starve to death at the same time. He has a warped sense of priorities, don't ya think?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  5. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    The danger of being religious, regardless of which fairy tale book you choose to FOLLOW, is that you are just taking someone else's word for it with NO evidence and no accounts from independent sources to corroborate the spurious claims of the monomaniacal, unilateral "holy book." Given that humans are just so damn suggestible, this is very dangerous. "Oh you want me to drink that Kool-Aid? Sure! I don't care if it's laced with cyanide. I trust you."

    November 18, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  6. Laurie Bowen Brown

    One problem I have with this article is she is mixing living under the law ( old testament law) and living under grace ( Jesus dying for our sins on the cross) The old testament laws were done away with when the perfect sacrifice, Jesus, died for our sins, thus only the laws inthe new testament apply to us today...also, their are laws for the Jews and laws for the Gentiles...I commend her for searching for answers, as God calls us to do just that, through prayer, wisdom, and discernment. I hope all Christians get into His word and learn! But we are under a new covenent since Jesus died for our sins. Even Paul said everything is ok for me but not everything is good for me...not an exact quote...and Paul also asked, why is that I do not what I want to do and don't do what I should do...we all sin, for ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God...that doesn't mean that we should keep sinning. We have the Holy Spirit to help us as the old testament didn't...just my thoughts on this article...another New testament book to read about women preaching is Jude 🙂 Seach and ye shall find...God said that 🙂 God Bless 🙂

    November 18, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Edweird69

      Nonsense! Jesus said himself he didn't come to change one ioda of the law. God is supposed to be the same from beginning to end, the alpha and the omega. A perfect being can never change his mind, because if he changes, that negates the definition of his existense.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Simran

      So there are laws for the Jews and laws for the Gentiles – And I am guessing there are laws for Laurie and laws for Bowen and laws for Brown......
      Just how many law books are there in total??? Can you find the one for Satan?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  7. Tim Brown

    If you're looking for a contradiction on every page you have found your book.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  8. lostisland

    The danger of being religious is that it makes you stupid. Enough Said.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Edweird69

      Yep... one sentence, and you summed it all up. So true.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Marcus

      That is a mean and unfair generalization. There are many intelligent Christians. The smartest people I know personally are Christians.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • n8r0n

      Marcus,

      I don't doubt that. Christians tend to surround themselves with other Christians, so you probably have a low bar.

      I have genius level IQ, and tend to surround myself with other bright people. In my circles, the Christians are the least intelligent people I know.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Kate

      I might not use the word 'stupid'. I'd use 'brainwashed'. Science has proven that emotion will trump logic nearly every time. When you begin brainwashing a child at an early age, as we do when we begin sending our kids to Sunday School or other religiious classes when they're toddlers, it's very hard to overcome. Some do. I would bet that many of us 'spiritual rather than religiious' folks went through that same process. An inquiring mind and education have helped us overcome our early brainwashing. Many people find it easier to just go along with what they've always known. It takes a bit of courage to break away from a belief system that tells you you will be going to hell if you don't continue to accept their rhetoric.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  9. joe

    All Christians - don't worry about this article or atheists postings. There is nothing to be done as this is all prophesized. In the end they'll call the good evil and the evil good.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Tim Brown

      Nah we just call stopid, stupid.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Edweird69

      When enough people believe a "prophecy', then they will make it come true. Humans create what they fear the most.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      I love it when stupid religious freaks start talking about "prophecy"! Don't you realize how easy it is to "prophesy" about how "the end times" will be filled with many "turning away" and "calling good evil"? "If anyone says we're lying then the end times are near. Be very afraid. Ooooooohhhhhh"

      November 18, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  10. REDFIREBALL

    REMINDER TO POTUS - Jehovah God and Jesus Christ (Michael) observed EVERYTHING - "those found guilty will be brought to justice."

    November 18, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Tim Brown

      WTH is "Jesus Christ (Michael)" ? Are you writing from the psych. ward?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  11. Religon if a fear of death

    The whole "bible" is a made up story especially the new testament. All of the papers were gathered and put together by church believers and roman senators to pick which ones could help keep the empire together the rest were thrown away. The majority of bible believers don't even know and follow their precious book nearly as much as an atheist or agnostic would.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  12. ACTS 2 38

    tom LI

    "No, no, no. But a nice run-on sentence. Did you breath at all while typing...?" Proper Grammar won't get you to heaven, only the truth will. John 8:32 – And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. God bless you!

    November 18, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Dana

      You are delusional.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  13. Dana

    Religious people pick and choose what they want to believe from their fairy tale. Nobody could possibly believe that entire book.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  14. the AnViL

    people should have the freedom to believe in whatever imaginary men in the sky that pleases them, but they should do so in the dark, hidden away in private. once discovered/identified and enumerated – they should be prohibited from voting, holding public office, purchasing/owning firearms, and teaching public school.

    those who seek to apply their delusional religious beliefs onto the rest of society, depriving people of their liberty, equality, freedom and rights – should be deprived of that which they seek to limit or deny others.

    all religious organizations that seek to influence political discourse in any way should immediately forfeit their tax-exempt status.

    tolerance of religious idiocy has to end. enough is enough

    November 18, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • n8r0n

      I just think religious people should be banned from using cell phones.

      Either you believe in science or not. Miracles of modern physics should be a privilege for those who are willing to admit that an invisible being didn't magically conjure the world into existence.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  15. Philojazz

    Quoting from the article: "The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own."

    The author could have ended the piece right there, actually,

    November 18, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • CatSh

      You can also add that most experts on Bible history and text believe some of the books in the New Testament are forgeries, several passages have been altered over the centuries ( not just mistranslated) , and all the original inspired text has been lost so there is no way verify the accuracy of what we now have.
      If I recall, that line about women being silent doesn't appear in older copies of the Bible.
      The Bible is a beautiful book of holy texts. But it should be approached with thoughtful consideration, prayer, and WISDOM.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  16. TownC

    This article points out the need for modern prophets and modern revelation! The Bible was written for a specific people during a specific time. It is God's word, but we need specific guidance from God for our troubled times. Go to Mormon.org to learn how God has revealed his will for us.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • n8r0n

      I'm glad that God's will wasn't that Mitt Romney become President.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • joe

      someone else's will was done in the election

      November 18, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • n8r0n

      Joe,

      yeah, the people's will. that's kind of how it works in a democracy.

      we don't live in a theocracy, thankfully, despite what conservatives want to believe.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  17. MeAtheist

    We should worship a different god every day of the year!

    Let's start tomorrow with:

    Xipe Totec
    Other Names: "The flayed one."
    Description: The Aztecs celebrated his festival on February 22 by skinning prisoners alive to help the growing corn.
    Rules Over: Agriculture, west, goldsmiths, self-torture to give penance.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Dana

      That's as good as any other one.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Rick

      What does this have to do with this article?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  18. Jesus Christ Son of God

    Will someone come get me off this cross and quit reading this trash?

    November 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • Arlen

      "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

      November 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  19. Colleen Kelly Mlelor

    Well...I thought Thoreau did the unthinkable when he lived in nature with any creature comforts, alongside Walden Pond, for a year. He kept a journal and was one with nature, but my God, girl (and I mean the phrase respectfully,) you've outdone him: Tented out during your 'unclean time', kept head covered, kept silent. Whew!!

    Just one problem I have with the very literal translationisits of Pure Bible (and I was raised Catholic): When they decry abortion–even in instances where it's deemed necessary to save the woman's life, they HAVE made a choice to end the life of the mother. No other way to slice and dice it. They have, in effect, aborted the mother for that is thr end-result of their decision to do nothing to alter her pregnancy. None of these positions are easy, and that's why I quake at the seemingly-simple positions of a Paul Ryan who aspires (with national leadership) to be the moral barometer for all.
    What happened to the young Indian doctor in Irish Catholic Ireland recently stands as good example that there aren't flat, cross-the-board answers in this realm. She died (and so did the fetus) becasue hospitals don't perform abortions in Catholic Ireland. They did make a choice: They aborted the mother.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  20. jonat

    Much bigger damage done by being "political correct".

    November 18, 2012 at 9:27 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.