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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. sisterchef

    I have always been puzzled by the was people who talk about "biblical" living or belief never refer to the Old Covenant and the New Covenant..that is, the Old Testament as a history of how people lived before Christ and the New Testament as the instructions for how they can live since the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ..which is the pillar of their faith, no? Jesus says that in order to be "saved" one must only, "love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as you love yourself." He didn't add any qualifiers like, "except of your neighbor is gay or black or poor or ,," So-called Christ-ians superimpose what Paul (a man, a mortal) said about women, and they add on things that are OT based in order to justify so much hatred and bigotry. Why? You either believe what you say you believe, or you don't; which is it? I ask..no one ever has an answer.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  2. HONESTLY!

    Every unknown demands questioning!

    “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

    ASK WHY!!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  3. Jiang Ziya

    All atheist implicitly accept the existence of God every day, yet every day they explicitly deny the existence of God.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Bostontola

      Profound.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Apple Bush

      @Jiang Ziya

      You are incorrect.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • jay

      "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."
      And yet you don't believe half of what you see with your own eyes on CNN every day......and you call us nuts. Listening to you religious nut jobs it's like listening to retarded poetry.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • snowboarder

      jiang – not so much.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Dan

      Not sure how your comment applies to the article, or to anything relevant. Do you deny that Christians are conflicted on how to interpret The Bible?

      They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • objectiveobserver

      atheists explicitly reject all gods, theists reject all gods but their own

      November 18, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      lol

      November 18, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  4. Bostontola

    It continues to be fascinating to watch religious people twist in ways that make a pretzel jealous to rationalize the bible. Why try?

    November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • RJ

      It's equally interesting to watch Atheists spend so much time and energy mocking something they don't believe exists. Why waste your time if it doesn't matter?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • snowboarder

      RJ – they aren't mocking an imaginary god. they're mocking its followers.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Bostontola

      RJ, as I said, it's fascinating. I don't care if anyone believes, I'm amazed by the diversity of belief.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  5. Fact Check

    trekker, we are so lucky that the one person in the universe with a complete understanding of God and the universe chose to log on to CNN to enlighten us. Praise God. I am so reassured by the truth which you revealed that there is one consistent and variegated holistic understanding off [sic] the whole bible to those who can reason. This clearly establishes the truth that those who disagree with you have flawed and faulty reasoning, so the fact that I think you are an arrogant twit proves that my reasoning is faulty, rendering further commentary a waste of time. I do wonder how the rest of us got it all so wrong.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  6. Eros

    Lilith would not stand for any of this nonsense from adam.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  7. Bill P

    This author says she "loves the bible", yet she displays significant lack of understanding. She applauded Stewart's retort to Huckabee regarding "biblical marriage" by pointing out the polygamy that was prevalent in times past. Did she forget to read Genesis? "For this reason A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his WIFE, and they will become ONE flesh." The fact that there was polygamy is not because God promoted it but because He allowed man to do it as he also allows man to also commit murder. God is not the author of sin. Allowing and condoning are two different things. She talks about the Bible being a collection of writing, poems, etc from a different culture than our own. No, it is THE inspired Word of God. It is the message that is relevant to every single human being on this planet.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • somthing's missing

      Sorry Bill. I can't buy it. You think it's relevant to every human being on this planet... why? Just because you say so? Or just because YOU say the bible says so? Nothing but a chain of self-interested dudes. No truth as far as I can see.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • pithy me

      not

      November 18, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Ruby

      You choose differently than the author, that is all. In fact, in your dilusion you seem to be making God in your own image. How pathetic.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Bill P

      something missing – The Bible does declare itself to be the Word of God. Through my own personal experience, I KNOW that it is. You can dispute this for yourself and you can declare it not to be for others. Your choice. But, that does not change what I know and believe. Here is the problem: unlike other so-called “religious texts”, the Bible asserts with certainty that it is the inspired (“breathed into”) Word of God. It was written by over 40 individuals over a period of 1400 years. Save for a few scribal errors, it is completely self-consistent across all 66 books. No other written text on this earth, proclaiming to have a God related theme, is like it. None.

      Ruby – You use the word “delusion” and “pathetic” – commentary from a person that has nothing to say. Here is delusion: from Second Thes 2:10-12, They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

      November 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  8. Charlie

    Essentially, God is within.

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

      that's not god.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Essentially, you don't if God is, what God is, or Where God is. So why pretend?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      We are our own gods, ergo, there is no god.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • somthing's missing

      God is within... the minds of people who think God is within. hat doesn't mean there is a god.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • mama k

      Some of our key founders were pretty Deistic. Listen to John Adams reflect on the founding of our government:

      The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

      Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.

      ( A Defence of the Consti tutions of Government of the United States of America, 1787 )

      November 18, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • somthing's missing

      @Mama K

      So what? Doesn't prove anything beyond a reflection of a historical moment.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Derek

      No...essentially, God is the collective wild imagination of a bunch of scientifically ignorant humans who lived thousands of years ago and had absolutely no understanding of the world around them, so the only way they could possibly accept the way things were was to invent something that controlled any natural mechanism they didn't understand. Two thousand years later, the vast majority of the world's population has disregarded the belief that dragons roam the sea, Zeus, Poseidon, and most other ancient gods (as these people thousands of years ago believed), yet the world inexplicably still clings to the thousands-year-old myths of God and Jesus.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • mama k

      True, something, but it's always interesting to see what was in the minds of the people who contributed to the key documents that we follow as law today.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • mama k

      (and to be clear on my last post – civic law, not religious law)

      November 18, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Ruby

      Panthiests say God is.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  9. Pilate

    When I washed my hands of it, I thought we could move on.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Ruby

      Rome told you to get this stuff stopped and you didn't. Now look at the mess – I hope you are sorry.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  10. Tax Damned Churches NOW

    these frightened, brainwashed tools can believe whatever they want just as anyone can have a hobby. The issue is why the rest of us should be paying to support their crystal cathedral country clubs via our increased property taxes and (slowly changing) letting them control our lives.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • somthing's missing

      Agreed. Churches make so much money no one will EVER convince me that they are "not-for-profit" enterprises. Tax churches and use the money to support Big Bird!

      November 18, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  11. lionlylamb

    A scattering is upon us in these trying days and Age. Leave your wantings behind and never take wind of one's longings for the weightiness of one's longings will smite even the most influential. Carry away nothing and leave. Head to the places inside one's being and do not keep ajar your door for many will want to enter in and should not. Your loving this Life is for the world to have and you should not heed the rumors from others as to just what is truly right. It is therefore best for mankind to simmer in their juvenile pottages never rationalizingly 'assaying' one's diffuse detriments, the very smallest of life's grains. As smitten breeds, our splendors reveal one's characters to be traitorous to one's analogous fold. Where then does Life really end and living truly begin?

    Who before this day's Age is found worthy of Goodly praises? Who after us will find peace set before them? Who in today's timeline is this "son of man" that many should fear him for his worthiness stance? Who above can see the below? Who that is below can see what be above? From the very smallest crevice to the most high chasms, the Sea of Nothingness is the Holy Spirit. May the elemental Gods find favor in this found son of man that he may not be afflicted with this world's power but rather he should carry upon him the angst from his manhood till his natural death.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Excellent post. Not.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  12. HONESTLY!

    There are several commandments regarding men, and their property. Yet their are no commandments regarding child M0LESTATION!

    WONDER WHY!!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • pithy me

      Perhaps it's time to add an amendment or two to the commandments.Google Christopher Hitchens' revisions.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  13. lionlylamb

    Who before this day's Age is found worthy of Goodly praises? Who after us will find peace set before them? Who in today;s timeline is this "son of man" that many should fear him for his worthiness stance? Who above can see the below? Who that is below can see what be above? From the very smallest crevice to the most high chasms, the Sea of Nothingness is the Holy Spirit. May the elemental Gods find favor in this found son of man that he may not be afflicted with this world's power but rather he should carry upon him the angst from his manhood till his natural death.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  14. truth

    To this day I still wonder why people worship relics of the past and hold progress back with stupid claims of "playing god" and "immorality."

    November 18, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • mark

      Every man was taught the Natural law. You think that this law written in all of us was caused by evolution? You can't hear, it's because God cut off your ears to hear. Wow to hyprocrites. Your spirit comes from God as a punishment for being a hyprocrite against the Natural Law.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • /lol

      mark – that made no sense.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Mark

      The rantings of an indoctrinated sheep.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Paul was a bottom

      "Every man was taught the Natural law. "

      What a load of BS.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • mark

      lol...after death it will make sense.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • snowboarder

      mark – after death, when the brain shuts down and begins to decay, there is nothing left to make sense with.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • pithy me

      Hey Mark..It's fun being a kook eh?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  15. Don Camp

    Sorry Rachel, though I am impressed with your knowledge of the details of biblical literature and your respect for the text, you are mistaken about how to read it.

    To begin, there is a biblical standard for marriage. It is the marriage of one man and one woman. It is declared in Genesis 2 and reaffirmed by Jesus. Yes, there were some cultural variations, such as polygamy. But it you will look closer, they are descriptions, not prescriptions. And, closer still, they rarely worked out well. (Could that tell us something?)

    As you say, interpretation is messy. But it is possible to approach the text with some common sense principles and arrive at "biblical" truth. One principle is to understand that most texts are culturally conditioned. That means a knowledge of the culture and the purpose of the writing is crucial to understanding. In your examination of the lifestyle of women living in a variety of cultures or sub-cultures demonstrates that it is the underlying principle rather than the details of how it is applied in life that matter.

    The second principle is that biblical texts are theologically conditioned. That is another way of saying that the texts have a theological context as well as a cultural and historical context. You refer to many of the rules for living found in the law that was given to the Israelites in the Pentateuch. As the text surely seems to imply, those were not universal rules but rather uniquely for the Israelites and related to their possession of the land of Canaan. For a Christian, many of those rules were made obsolete by the completion of them by Jesus and the replacement of them by the new principle of grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who directs and empowers believers.

    To ignore these principles of interpretation is to distort the text just as much as if you ignored the principle of reading poetry as poetry with all the rich meaning of figurative language and chose rather to read it like it was a science text book.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      So, why wouldn't the marriage thing be a culturally relative aspect of the bible as many other things one should understand as culturally relative?
      At what point is the bible not just a matter of interpretation? At what point can one say that, objectively, it actually says something for certain?
      It can't be done because, in reality, we make it into whatever we want it to be... people cherry-pick and reinterpret it to fit their own views.. that's why we have so many Christian denominations and so on.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • john

      seems like you are offended by this article because you pick and choose. Does you wife have a head covering? jewlry? long hair? all new testiment.....

      November 18, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Don Camp

      Free, nothing you read in the Bible or the daily newspaper or a text book fro any subject is free from interpretation. If you decide to read the newspaper as a simple report of an event, that is an interpretive decision. It means you are choosing not to read it as poetry, as opinion, or as argument. We choose the interpretive framework based on the genre of the text and the cultural and historical context in which is was written.

      That does not mean there is nothing objective. It simply means we determine objective (over figurative or culturally and historically conditioned) based on common sense and the knowledge we have of culture, history, authorship, etc.

      John, I am not offended by the article. I am critical of the author's exegesis.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  16. Steven

    I think it's pretty mean spirited for all you religious folks & atheists to be at eachother's throats on this message board. I see little reason to make any distinction between you. I'd say about 85% of the comments on this board deserve to be flagged.
    The point of this blog is to explore interesting questions about faith, not to ridicule anybody that doesn't share your opinion.

    Ok, you've elevated ugly trolling to an art form. Congratulations, I guess.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      Am I in the 15%? Please, can I be in the 15%?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • the AnViL

      steven wants to control things. he's frustrated and wants to restrict free speech.

      shot in the dark here... i bet steven considers himself to be xian.

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

      Freefrom... Yo, dude. You are in!!

      November 18, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  17. lionlylamb

    A scattering is upon us in these trying days and Age. Leave your wantings behind and never take wind of one's longings for the weightiness of one's longings will smite even the most influential. Carry away nothing and leave. Head to the places inside one's being and do not keep ajar your door for many will want to enter in and should not. Your loving this Life is for the world to have and you should not heed the rumors from others as to just what is truly right. It is therefore best for mankind to simmer in their juvenile pottages never rationalizingly 'assaying' one's diffuse detriments, the very smallest of life's grains. As smitten breeds, our splendors reveal one's characters to be traitorous to one's analogous fold. Where then does Life end and living begin?

    November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • snowboarder

      is this some kind of word game you play?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  18. HONESTLY!

    Prayer and Abracadabra are equals!

    Saying one, the other, or both will yield the same result!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  19. somthing's missing

    The Author correctly says "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" but she forgot the most important thing - the bible is mostly a work of fiction.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • clarification

      oh, well there's that too. lol.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • /lol

      not mostly, it is 100%.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  20. DeAnne

    Religion, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is a personal relationship and has different meanings for different people. I thought that was why America has freedom of/from religion...different strokes for different folks.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      It's not personal when it is being forced on people.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Pilate

      hippy

      November 18, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      Rational Libertarian – when is the last time religion has been forced on you personally?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • the AnViL

      if only that were true.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      Bobthe Tomato, well... I have to say every time I pull out a dollar bill.. when I hear the President finish a speech (and sometimes in between) and every time you hear a GOPer talk about their policies and how they're trying to turn our country into a theocracy.
      Yeah, so, all the time, really.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      You mean the dollar bill that has a pyramid with the all seeing eye over it? That's forcing God on you? You mean the president who has to put up with your philosophical beliefs, but you can't put up with him referring to something he believes in. Hey man, if that is oppression, people against religion are far more oppressive than those for it. Granted any set of beliefs will have people that are idiots and Christianity has their share, but saying you are oppressed just because someone mentions God isn't the same as being oppressed. When is the last time you were fired or railroaded from a job because of your beliefs – happens to Christians regularly? That's real oppression, when your life suffers for what you believe.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:49 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.