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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. HONESTLY!

    Why ask why?

    For your answers are up the magicians sleeve!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  2. Steven

    As always, there's a lot of bickering on this message board over whether or not God exists.
    Not a great way to spend your time, as it's an untestable question.

    In any case, as long as the extreme religious right can be neutralized, there will be plenty of room for the atheist and the church goer to flourish in harmony.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Edweird69

      Sure it's testable. I do not need a complete knowledge of the universe to prove to you that cubic spheres do not exist. Such objects have mutually-exclusive attributes which would render their existence impossible. For example, a cube, by definition, has 8 corners, while a sphere has none. These properties are completely incompatible: they cannot be held simultaneously by the same object. It is my intent to show that the supposed properties of the Christian God Yahweh, like those of a cubic sphere, are incompatible, and by so doing, to show Yahweh's existence to be an impossibility.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      Steven, you're right, a god's existence would be empirically untestable, unless it manifested itself in our universe in some way and demonstrated that it can bend the natural laws etc....
      But, what gets me, is that you're saying that it is a waste of time to think about things that are empirically untestable. I guess we should just do away with most branches of philosophy. Can you imagine how the world would be if we didn't think creatively about things?
      Science wouldn't exist.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      But if I can prove 1+1=2, that establishes that there is order to the universe and if there is order to the universe, how would that come about without a purposeful intent, which necessitates the requirement of a purposeful mind that is all knowing and all powerful? I can't come to terms with the concept that physical laws of our universe are the result of random chance – how could they stay consistent. How does randomness give way to constant laws that define our physical world?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Edweird69

      @Bob the Tomato – But, your question begs the ultimate question. Who created god? If takes a god to make something from nothing, then it would take a god...to make a god.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  3. tony

    Believe in the Bible as written, become completely confused.

    Too many evangelicals have missed the Bible 2.0 , and on, update system referenced in Genesis 1:14. " Look to the lights in the firmament for signs". That way you know what the "up to date God" wants you to know. And ask any astrophysicist for a record of the signs to date.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Mike

      So you're saying that people can burn in hell if they don't interpret a puzzle correctly or solve a riddle?

      ...Really? Communication using twinlking lights in the night sky? Why not just have a booming voice erupt from the sky comprehensible in the listeners native tongue that dictates the rules? Why all of the sorcery and filtered messages?

      BECAUSE IT'S ALL MADE UP.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  4. Elmo

    And everyone gets a puppy!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  5. Liz

    Here we go again. Let's bash Christianity. I say take a break and bash Islam. Do the same as you did with the Bible, and attack the Koran. I would LOVE to read what you have to say about that book!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn loves all religions equally.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • MagicPanties

      USA is majority christian, so get a clue.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Fernando

      Jesus would never speaketh in the vile manner you hasteth. Go unto Him, sister, and pray for your venomous, depraved soul.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Beth

      Liz, nah, this article is pretty much set up for Christian bashing, and believers in the Christian supersti-tions deserve it.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  6. Kasper Gutman

    One god and so many opinions.
    "Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven....The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste." – Mark Twain

    November 18, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • snowboarder

      that twain guy was pretty keen.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  7. FreeFromTheism

    I suppose that the author is ignoring the possibility that the bible is simply bs and full of nonsense...
    Instead she prefers to 'wrestle' it.
    Way to go, lady. Good luck with that.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn is praying for her.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  8. Get Real

    Martin Luther said:

    There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason, especially if she enters into spiritual matters which concern the soul and God. For it is more possible to teach an ass to read than to blind such a reason and lead it right; for reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed." "Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees it must put out of sight, and wish to know nothing but the word of God.

    The concept of a Jewish or Christian god just does not mix well with reason, logic and science.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • wiliam tells

      THAT's the reason for F-A-I-T-H !

      November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  9. Geoff

    CNN article

    November 18, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  10. Mo

    I absolutely love this. This just captured so many of my thoughts and questions concerning Biblical laws, picking and choosing doctrine, etc. Some of these questions, I've asked pastors, elders, over and over again, and no one seems to be able to give me an answer that's COMPLETELY sound and all the way logical. Please, is there a way I can contact this author, I'd love to be able to read more from here.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn knows all there is to know about religion, so ask away.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Chad

      She blogs at http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/

      November 18, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • wiliam tells

      Biblical truths are, indeed, "written on our heart" by way of the Presence of Christ's Indwelt Spirit Who is ever faithful to "guide you into all truth" and "show (us) things to come" (John 16:13) but the problem is (as is woefully evident with this Article\s Author), too many people (believers) choose to eschew or disregard "sound doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:3) promulgating John 14:17 ignorance of the Doctrine of The Holy Spirit whose inevitable product is a darkened understanding (such as is evidenced by the Article's Author-)

      November 18, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  11. lionlylamb

    Are individual rights based on societal righteousness within the parameters of cultural soundness being the kindled line drawn and distanced by religious austerities? How far away from religious agendaships will the leveraging hierarchies be twained and marked in being and becoming mere factors of the mythological?

    Have the vesper pottages of amassed humanisms become complacently illiterate nowadays? Where then does the root-commodities of religious socialisms truly matter and 'riotizingly' materialize upon spatterings regarding irrational causations? I do shudder in the crowds' 'revolting' laments, for of crowded sarcasms does lay the tutors of indemnifications' coverings leaving no more the generosities of the lividness' racial trees of multi-faceted generalisms.

    Monotheisms do nowadays abound, for many variations of 'mono-isms' are but fetters, the bonds that do bind up and weigh shackled inward, towards errancies subjugated upon the propensities of root cause worthiness. The godless need the ungodly and vice versa and although goodly does prevail upon and thru all aberrancy, many are plated and some are filtrations while many are mere silhouettes. No one person should be upon another's backsides but raised by the shoulders of another to such heights as deemed wise, needed and sublimated. Goodness knows no boundaries yet many do not heed the goodly in others who share unendingly their deeded austerities.

    Monotheistic is what the gestations of ungodly and godless unwittingly portend they themself to be. They are their own gods so to profess and in their cu-mulative efforts they due themselves conjoin and gather their piecemeal subjugants forsaking all goodly 'proprietaries' relatively based in Godly characterizations. "I will not give in!" are the ungodly and godless stands even though they tend to belittle and make small their talking spheres of jubilation's acquitals. A pig knows only how to root and make rutts searching the grounds for its' nourishments. Are we all not but rooting for our source codes?

    November 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Jill

      lionlylamb, don't obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent. Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Ever the bastille notches the orchestra but Wendy is not green and horses will capitulate. Filter out the log from the turnstile and cry prevalently.

      So there brown stare. Feed your inner walnut and resolve. Subject your lemon to the ingenious door in the presence of snow and animals. Aisle 7 is for the monetary cheese whiz. Faced with the kitchen, you may wish to prolong the sailboat in the cliff. Otherwise, rabbits may descend on your left nostril. Think about how you can stripe the sea.

      Regale the storm to those who (6) would thump the parrot with the armband. Corner the market on vestiges of the apparent closure but seek not the evidential circumstance. Therein you can find indignant mountains of pigs and apples. Descend eloquently as you debate the ceiling of your warning fulcrum. Vacate the corncob profusely and and don’t dote on the pancreas.

      Next up, control your wood. Have at the cat with your watch on the fore. Aft! Smarties (12)! Rome wasn’t kevetched in an autumn nightie. (42) See yourself for the turntable on the escalator. Really peruse the garage spider definitely again again with brown. Now we have an apparent congestion, so be it here. Just a moment is not a pod of beef for the ink well nor can it be (4) said that Karen was there in the millpond.

      Garbage out just like the candle in the kitty so. Go, go, go until the vacuum meets the upward vacation. Sell the yellow. Then trim the bus before the ten cheese please Louise. Segregate from the koan and stew the ship vigorously.

      And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • snowboarder

      that was way too much jibberish to bother finishing.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Apple Bush

      That was very insightful. Not.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • lionlylamb

      Jill,

      "Copy-N-Paste" undulations are not my fortay so to say! I do write my Word, not copy them as many philanderers of word-isms do so attest!

      November 18, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • wiliam tells

      LionlyLamb: Your piece of non-sense is a perfect example of spouting forth a lot and saying precious little-

      November 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Jill

      lionlylamb, don't obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent. Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Ever the bastille notches the orchestra but Wendy is not green and horses will capitulate. Filter out the log from the turnstile and cry prevalently.

      So there brown stare. Feed your inner walnut and resolve. Subject your lemon to the ingenious door in the presence of snow and animals. Aisle 7 is for the monetary cheese whiz. Faced with the kitchen, you may wish to prolong the sailboat in the cliff. Otherwise, rabbits may descend on your left nostril. Think about how you can stripe the sea.

      Regale the storm to those who (6) would thump the parrot with the armband. Corner the market on vestiges of the apparent closure but seek not the evidential circumstance. Therein you can find indignant mountains of pigs and apples. Descend eloquently as you debate the ceiling of your warning fulcrum. Vacate the corncob profusely and and don’t dote on the pancreas.

      Next up, control your wood. Have at the cat with your watch on the fore. Aft! Smarties (14)! Rome wasn’t kevetched in an autumn nightie. (42) See yourself for the turntable on the escalator. Really peruse the garage spider definitely again again with brown. Now we have an apparent congestion, so be it here. Just a moment is not a pod of beef for the ink well nor can it be (4) said that Karen was there in the millpond.

      Garbage out just like the candle in the kitty so. Go, go, go until the vacuum meets the upward vacation. Sell the yellow. Then trim the bus before the ten cheese please Louise. Segregate from the koan and stew the ship vigorously.

      And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • jobseeker

      I'm in love with Jill and her response! Jill, do you have a blog? You are fantastic!!!

      November 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  12. damien

    OK, most of them are in church now. I think I've figured out how to send black flies out of their USB ports. This will be fun.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  13. REDFIREBALL

    Pagans do not mock me - they mock Jehovah - better you than me -enjoy :)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Reality

      Wrong again, we're mocking you!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • AvdBergism source of filthyRainerBraendleinism©

      Absurdity of smileys and false Christian Captain Crunch dog. NO DOGS! Who let them be out??

      November 18, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  14. Jordi Heguilor

    How can Ms. Evans believe that: " 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." and at the same time believe that: "(it is) the inspired word of God,..."?

    There seem to be a contradiction there.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • MagicPanties

      because god wanted it that way, of course.

      Just like he wanted to make it "look" there was evolution but there really wasn't.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  15. thegadfly

    This author of this article is clearly intelligent and thoughtful. Because of that, I find it odd that she can continue to believe in the Bible at all.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  16. REDFIREBALL

    Seek and you shall find –The media seeks deeper understanding - Jehovah is answering them :)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'REDFIREBALL' is an instance of the Secret Decoder Ring fallacy, a form of ad hominem.

      http://www.fallacyfiles.org/glossary.html

      November 18, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • snowboarder

      i thought i invented the "secret decoder ring fallacy".

      November 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  17. REDFIREBALL

    Pagan's have no clue how they feed to hungry righteous here.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • == o ==

      "Pagan's have no clue how they feed to hungry righteous here."

      Look, it's the disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer". Lol.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  18. richunix

    When the bIlbe is nothing more than stories of what men would like to see, one can see the errors of trying to be to biblical.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  19. mark

    go ahead a discount the possiblity that your ear to hear was cut off. All ppls on the earth have been found to have the Golen rule or natural law written on their hearts. Even small children easily understand right and wrong.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • snowboarder

      mark – nothing you say is true. children are taught right and wrong. when not properly taught they are purely selfserving. you need to take those blinders off and look around.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • mark

      snowboarder obviously you have hit one too many trees on your snow board.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • snowboarder

      mark – yet none of what i said is incorrect.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • wiliam tells

      Good on you, Mark! You hit the nail squarely on the head for indeed so, biblical truths are "written on our heart" by way of the Presence of Christ's Indwelt Spirit Who is ever faithful to "guide you into all truth" and "show (us) things to come" (John 16:13) but the problem is (as is woefully evident with this Article\s Author), too many people (believers) choose to eschew or disregard "sound doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:3) promulgating John 14:17 ignorance of the Doctrine of The Holy Spirit whose inevitable product is a darkened understanding (such as is evidenced by the Article's Author-).

      Keep up the good work!

      November 18, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'mark' is an instance of the Non Causa Pro Causa fallacy.

      http://www.fallacyfiles.org/glossary.html

      November 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  20. treblemaker

    One of the greatest lines of spirituality no one ever realizes was written by a Hollywood scriptwriter-"E. T. phone home".
    That is what we should all do-pick up the "phone" and call "home" (GOD)! each and every day. This way we allow God into our hearts. We turn our life over to the care of GOD as we understand him (Step 3), and our lives will become far more meaningful. Not only that, our outward mood and appearance that others see us will improve because our inward spirit is on the right path. That path was shown, whether you believe it or not, by the Messiah-the JEWISH messiah. The Holy Bible, though divinely inspired, is man's desperate attempt to understand the everlasting enormity of GOD. It is like a huge book of stories with important messages for us to learn by; the operating manual on how to live. Nobody can live by the book-being "biblical" is almost being inhuman. We all fall short, despite our best intentions, and that's why there is a Messiah.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • End Religion

      Didn't you get the memo? Religion is a man-made fraud. If you're seeing biblical messages in "E.T. phone home," you will fall for anything. Speaking of that, I am a good christian and I have some prime real estate for sale in Florida. It will go fast but I want it to go to a good christian home. Please send a deposit quickly.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:51 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.