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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. 99

    So what you are saying is the fundamentalists represent a good chunk of the 99%? I'm not sure where your comming from with this but believe me if you are born poor and to parents who do not have a high education level it's EXTREMELY difficult to get out of that situation. Don't feel superior to someone because they went to community college. They probably worked their tails off to get there.

    December 7, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  2. dissidentfairy

    It may surprise some of you to know that I actually agree with an Atheist on the news this morning. "A man in India is living in exile after being charged with "blasphemy" for debunking a "weeping Jesus." As a rationalist and an Atheist, not believing it to be true, he investigated the true source of the fluid, only to find sewage water percolating through the statue from a leaky pipe. People were actually drinking this contaminated water thinking it would cure them of their illnesses or bless them in some sort of way. The Catholic Church of course filed a complaint against this man, and the government pressed charges, so he was forced to leave the country.

    The man should be awarded a medal for saving lives! Not forced into exile by the Catholic Church. He can only return to his country without facing charges if he apologizes, but he Refuses, and I don't blame him. Apologize for what? First of all there is No such thing as a "weeping Jesus" statue. They are only man made idols and something detestable to God. And.....why should this man have to apologize for exposing the truth and stopping the spread of disease? The pathetic thing is, I have no doubt that the Gullible are still drinking that dirty water that's being encouraged and blessed by the Catholic Church!

    December 7, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • 99

      Look up the gangees river..more of the same. I don't disagree with a large part of atheism, I just disagree with man's alleged sense of superiority to man. It's more fabrication of a lie that some human beings are more worthy of resources than others. It just isn't so.

      December 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • the AnViL

      it's terribly funny to watch someone who clearly displays delusional thinking, knocking down someone else because of their equally delusional beliefs.

      hypocrisy much?

      December 7, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      AnVil: And to think I was just about to go down your list and methodically finish answering your copied and pasted questions!

      December 7, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • the AnViL

      they are not questions, meathead....

      it is a list of FAILED biblical prophecies.

      and i suspect you realize that you cannot refute them all – which is fine... no one ever expected you to. oh sure – you might have tried... you even began to....because you're pigheaded like that...

      for instance – if i tell you no one can fold a piece of paper in half more than 8 times.... you'll probably actually try it.

      zoop!

      December 7, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      AnVil: How long was infinity before the Big Bang? That's the key! Not how long it has been since the Big Bang! Reality has to be infinite not set in motion at a certain time. There's no such thing as nothing then something. Nothing never existed. It never did and it never will. You need to restructure your thoughts!

      December 8, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • the AnViL

      dear meathead

      not that infinity ever had anything to do with any text i've ever blessed you with... but for the sake of my own awesomeness i will answer your silly question.

      q/ how long was infinity before the big bang?
      a/ infinite.

      no one knows what happened before the big bang and it is highly doubtful that we will ever know... there are some interesting ideas on the subject – like the concept of things being cyclical... a big bang followed by a big crunch... so on and so on.

      you can formulate ideas all day long but you can never jump from "how" and "why" to "gods did it!".

      the bottom line here is – no one knows.. no one can know.. and there are no answers.

      you can speculate all day but it's very highly doubtful that you will produce anything of value on the matter.

      as for my thoughts... they don't need restructuring. your silly admonition is dismissed.

      ploop!

      December 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  3. Joe Peterson

    Well well simply the bible promotes marriage as between a husband and wife but allows polygamy....

    December 7, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • james

      sorry but the bible, God, Jesus,etc. does not teach anything but one man with one wife. Please read Matthew 19:7-9 to see what Jesus taught on this subject.

      December 7, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • sam stone

      james: bully for the bible. keep it out of our secular laws

      December 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • james

      sam, I do not have anything to do with keeping something out of the secular laws. I was just responding to Joe's comment. this country would be a lot better off if it had obeyed the commands that were written at Matt. 7:12 and 22:36-40. please just take a minute to read them and think about what they say. peace, j

      December 7, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • sam stone

      I LOVE MENS KOKS

      December 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  4. The clean tuth

    Everyone from atheists to fundamentalists and all in between have recomended I read the Bible. I have tried. I don't understand it. Therefore, though I am almost forty years old, and one has been in my house most of my life I still don't know what is in it because it doesn't make sense to me as I read along. I have no anger toward religion or persons of faith I just can't seem to follow it. I'm sorry Christians (and atheists)...I tried.

    December 7, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • james

      if you just want to learn what the bible really teaches go to jw.org, talk to Jehovah's Witnesses the next time they visit or go to the local Kingdom Hall of JWs and they will teach you free of charge with no obligation to join or be responsible to anyone except yourself and your Creator if and when you become a believer.

      December 7, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Todd

      TCT,

      It may be because are right now you are reading someone else's mail.

      December 7, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Zoey

      @james- the JW are not the be-all end-all of Christianity. Yet another reason to keep religion out of government. The Bible says one thing if you read the old testament, and something else if you read the new. None of it should be applied to everyone.

      December 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • james

      Zoey; all I said about JWs was that they would teach the commenter the bible for free. something you could use since you seem quite misled about old and new testaments. the old was for the jews and they could not obey. Jesus came to fulfill that law and make it easier to obey. see Matt. 7:12 and 22:36-40. a good place to start. and if you knew anything about JWs you would know they have nothing to do with the governments of this world except to obey their laws when they do not conflict with Jehovah's laws. peace, j

      December 7, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • I wonder

      I wonder

      I wonder if we should be encouraging more Christians to become J Ws. They are a pretty docile sort: they don't get into politics – they don't even vote; they don't over-breed; they rarely take up spaces in college enrollment; and they don't compete much in the financial/economic/business world. Those pesky front-porch invasions are annoying, but perhaps are a useful trade-off to get them out of public government.

      Heck, I'm about ready to start passing out tracts for them!

      December 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • james

      I wonder; i was thinking about the same thing and if everyone listened to you this world would have no more wars. j

      December 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  5. rufus tha doofus

    Denomination affiliation is strikingly tied with intelligence, education and income levels. Fundamentalist cults attract the least intelligent, least-educated and least successful people. But as them thar fundamentalists like to jest... gawwwwwwwd must 'a loved tha poor man cuz he mad so many of 'em. uhhuh, uhhuh, uhhuh...

    December 6, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Fact or opinion

      Do you have actual statistics to back this up, or is it just your opinion.

      December 6, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • the AnViL

      Fact or opinion:

      http://goo.gl/04Gat

      http://goo.gl/BnSOQ

      December 6, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  6. Miss Demeanor

    Fundamentalists accept every literal word of the bible and don't believe they can pick and choose from it... they have to accept all of it? And wives are supposed to call their husbands master AND be submissive? Hahahahahahahaahahaha. Boy are they screwed (so to speak)...

    December 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • texass slim jim

      It almost sounds like the bible was written by pervy old men... ahhhhm just a'sayin'. It's a good read if you like pervy books filled with murders, violence... you know, the kind of stuff Texans read to their kids....

      December 6, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  7. lol??

    Right on americultians, earth ain't biblical. To the moon, Alice!

    December 6, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  8. Madison

    Funny how the author missed the flip side of his argument that Republicans see a literal Bible. As Mike stated, a very broad brush. In those terms, Democrats can't see any rule, law or commandment that can't be rendered gray and subject to individual interpretation (see Bill Clinton). I guess that sounds a little judgemental, too.

    December 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Ol' Yeller

      What made you bring up Democrats and republicans? The author is writing about Evangelicals (and mentions John Stewart, whom I believe is a Jew). How did you get Bill Clinton out of that?
      It is this kind of thinking that cause 'biblical' people to be scorned by others... rather than forgive like the message of Jesus was all about, you want to divide and condemn. Forgiveness is only for those found worthy by the self appointed Judges using their own cherry picked rules..

      December 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • A true Christian

      "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Luke 6:36-38 RSV)

      I go though my life the way I hope and believe many Christians do. It's not my job to condemn others, to judge them, to force them to believe as I do, to tell them how to live their live. It's my job to love and try to understand them. I sometimes fail though.

      When I see other "Christians" (metaphorically) take their bible and tie it to the end of a long pole and beat others with it. WHAP my book says you can't love who you want, WHAP my book says you are not worth as much because you are female, WHAP my book says you MUST believe EXACTLY what I believe or you are going to hell, WHAP my book says I am righteous and you are evil.

      I find it hard to believe they are truly Christians, it seems to me they use the bible to hide behind. They fear anything different from them and hatred comes from fear.

      In the end I wonder who will be judged more harshly, they people they condemn or the people doing the condemning.

      December 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Tom Sawyer

      @A true Christian – Awesome post.

      December 6, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • lol??

      "A true Christian", you'll find out, moron, and no Bible needed! BWhahahahah

      December 6, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  9. gerri lemme

    I did read that book Holy Heresy. Un-freaking believable! I as a Catholic felt so good after reading it. Why can't priests be married? Why is the pope infallible? Why couldn't we eat meat on Friday? Why do we pay for the Church to get souls out of Purgatory? (contribution?) please read HOLY HERESY.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • dissidentfairy

      'Purgatory' cannot be found in the Bible and neither can 'Limbo.' Two ridiculous made up places that don't exist. Both are still money making opportunities for the Church even today! Recently someone I know, her grandmother died. I can't even begin to tell you how much money was donated to the Church on her grandmother's behalf. Only two people gave money to her family to help them defray the cost of the funeral, over 100 people gave monies to the Catholic Church instead.

      Why did they give to the richest organization in the world instead of to the family in need? Because nothing has changed! The church may not be handing out guaranteed certificates of salvation any longer but the sentiment and antiquated belief system is still there, and the Church is still prospering just as they did in the Dark Ages even without their heavenly certificate of guarantee. Also another nice perk for the donor, it makes them look good to the Church, and who knows, maybe their donation might even help to ensure their own salvation in the end. What a scam!

      This practice was-is just the opposite of what Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." In contrast, the Church taught, that the rich man could buy his way into heaven, whereas the poor man was left out in the cold....condemned to a life of limbo.....

      December 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • biobraine

      Heaven and hell are also two ridiculous made up places that don't exist.

      December 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      Which leads me to another thought, the immortality of the soul. Another fallacy the Catholic Church originated. The Bible does not teach that the soul is immortal. It says that the soul Can die. "The soul that is sinning it itself will die." Ezekiel 18:4. Why did the Church create the doctrine of the immortality of the soul? So they could create purgatory, and limbo, and even hell, so they could make more money! If the soul that is sinning dies then where was-is the money in that? There wasn't any! But...if the poor soul was stranded in purgatory or limbo in some conscious state of suffering then they could extract every penny from their grieving family to bail them out.

      December 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      Biobraine: I agree with you that hell doesn't exist in the literal sense of eternal torment! As a believer in God, I do believe that heaven exists, but, I don't personally believe that I'm going there. I think God's original plan was for us to live here on the earth and I feel it still is. I guess one could argue that earth is in heaven:) So maybe we are already there....except....we are reminded every day that we're not....

      December 5, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • biobraine

      There is zero evidence that any life on this planet possesses a soul. If you would like to undertake the mental gymnastics to explain why we are the only species that evolved to have one, when during our evolutionary history we first had one (or when God decided to give us one), and why it doesn't have energy or mass and there cannot be detected I would be interested in hearing it.

      December 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      Animals have souls too! So do the "flying creatures of the heavens" and the fish of the sea. In Genesis God refers to them as "living souls". Our souls are our life force. The Bible says that our soul is in our blood, which is probably why God seems to feel that blood is so sacred. The soul is the energy, or life force, that vacates our bodies when we die.

      December 6, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • biobraine

      So the soul has already seeped out by the time I take a bite of my burger? : ) Just teasing. I didn't expect you to tell me that all animals have a soul as well. I wonder how many people believe that. If a soul is a life force, why can we not measure it though? The only forces I know of are the gravitational force, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and the weak force. All matter/energy in the universe interacts. If we had a life force it would need to interact with the matter of our bodies to be of any use and we would be able to observe it. If there was some life force in our bodies that came out when we died, we would be able to measure it. I am too skeptical to have your faith.

      December 7, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • the AnViL

      there is no soul. when you die – the electro-chemical energy that once "powered" all your nerves dissipates out into the surrounding system – like smoke... or any heat-energy. it obeys the laws of thermodynamics – plain and simple.

      there is absolutely no mechanism to cause that energy to remain coherent.

      when we die.. we cease to exist on any level in any form, forever.

      deal with it

      December 8, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  10. Joe Crocker

    Take a look at the book Holy Heresy on Amazon... website holyheresy.com Says soooo much and answers so many questions.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  11. the AnViL

    just click Report Abuse and carry on.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  12. Giovanni Battista Con il cazzo nel culo e mi piabe molto

    THAT'S WHAT LIFE IS ALL ABOUT. WHAT PEOPLE DONT UNDERSTAND THEY CRITICIZE. I THANK GOD FOR THE FAITH AND COURAGE HE GAVE TO YOU TO KEEP ON UNTILLTHEY SEE THE TRUTH IN YOUR STORY AND REVELATION . NICE ONE KEEP IT UP. YOU PEOPLE WILL BURN>>>>>>>>>>>>!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Angus McNuggets

      Barely comprehensible gibberish with an aftertaste of hate . . . and you screamed it too. Well done!

      December 4, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • sam stone

      Gioivanni: F you and your threats

      December 5, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Leck mich am Arsch!

      December 6, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • you show em gawwwwwd

      RE: "YOU PEOPLE WILL BURN>>>>>>>>>>>>!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.."

      This is the 'hope' that fundamentalists embrace. The mere thought of it fills your heart with glee?

      December 6, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  13. malaka blacks

    negritos MIERDA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 4, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  14. telle vision

    this blog is horrible

    December 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  15. as.steroid

    Life is easy to live for a man who is without shame, a crow hero, a mischief-maker, an insulting, bold, and wretched fellow.

    December 4, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • amen to dat

      So therefore , brethren, let us joyfully shame them as is right before gawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwds eyes...
      Kin ahhhh heeeee-yarrrr an AMEN?????????????????

      December 6, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  16. as.steroid

    Let each man direct himself first to what is proper, then let him teach others; thus a wise man will not suffer.

    December 4, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • how so

      So, ummmmm, why are YOU directing OTHERS? Are you a self-appointed fundamentalist 'authority' led by gawwwwwwwwd to moralize?

      December 6, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  17. as.steroid

    Tasiṇāya purakkhatā pajā parisappanti saso'va bādhito
    Tasmā tasiṇaṃ vinodaye bhikkhu ākaṅkhī virāgamattano.

    December 4, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • telle vision

      right on brother

      December 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  18. as.steroid

    164.

    The foolish man who scorns the rule of the venerable (Arahat), of the elect (Ariya), of the virtuous, and follows false doctrine, he bears fruit to his own destruction, like the fruits of the Katthaka reed.

    December 4, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  19. as.steroid

    Can you help me find uran.us?

    December 4, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  20. Dubya

    Behind all this is Satan

    December 4, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • do you mean Santa

      How do you know? Did gawwwwwd text you? Maybe he meant Santa and simply misspelled the word...

      December 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Joanna

      I believe it's spelled "S-t-a-n"

      December 7, 2012 at 6:16 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.