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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. The colosseum is full

    I think Racheal did a fabulous job in painting or defining the narrw view that the Religiious Reich has.. they have all but closed their eyes to everything but that which is between a womans legs and the the marriage and behaviour of those outside the Church!
    Geee !!!!!!!! 🙂
    theres' a billion Muslims who really! really! really! need JESUS ,and probably another 3 to 4 billion in the same predicament ...
    let's think about them and how to reach them in todays climate ... please.!!! 🙂

    December 11, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  2. brett

    Rachel Evans makes excellent points in the broad sense. The Bible is not meant to make bullet points to shoot others with to satisfy ones own ideology. Torah says not to add and subtract from it, but thats exactly what happens.
    Rachel needed to study the Torah with help from someone with wisdom before doing what she did. In dealing with details it is obvious she needed to understand Judaism better. Her own Christian lens distorted her understanding of halakhah. (how to walk it out)
    May I suggest Chabad.org for Rachel and anyone else who rightly wants to learn proper use of commands in the Tanach.

    Keep going Rachel, we are all striving for truth at this confusing time in history.

    December 10, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • The colosseum is full

      we are all pickers and choosers in life .. at least those of us with a choice...some in far away places have not had all the bloodshed to set them free such as in Islaminc nations or Communist ..Think of all the blood it took to liberate us from the totalitarian regimes of a One Church hirachy which existed in Europe for the last 1700 years.. I won't mention names so as not ot tear away from the subject. When it came to choices for me I selected a certain , that only God himself would approve; they are the ones written about in Jeremiah 31:31-34.. A discription of the New Testament. The apostle Paul even himself , supports this idea in Hebrews 8:8-12...
      This covenant is between God and the individual.. and Every Christian ought to be in such a covenant.. with God Himself..a clue for me was in what Jesus said in Matthew 7:6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you....
      Therefore I cannot tell you what they are; except I received them from the mouth of God.. who promises to give me a hundred ninty five... but enougth with all this boasting ... my only advice is to hearken diligently for the voice of the Lord , and in due time he will speak to you.. 🙂
      in short I have no choice but to hear and obey... The colosseum is full. 🙂

      December 11, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  3. Barbara Hagen

    It's a shame that Rachel Evans is writing about a topic for which she is not prepared. She doesn't know that the Old Testament is History and the New Testament is written for Christians. When Christ came to earth, he gave us instructions on how to live the Christian life. He taught us how to live as a Christian man or woman. We don't live under the old laws of the Old Testament.

    December 9, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      Barbara: I wouldn't exactly dismiss the Old testament or the Hebrew Scriptures as being purely historical. Paul said in the New Testament or Christian Greek Scriptures at 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is inspired of God." We may have been released from some of the old laws such as abstaining from pork and observing the Sabbath, but we are still bound by at least nine of the Ten Commandments! Also the Bible is very interwoven from Genesis to Revelation. Prophets refer to each other in certain books, prophecies are threaded throughout. Jesus Christ is quoted in most if not all of them, and there is a definitive theme that is intricately woven throughout the entire Bible.

      December 10, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • The colosseum is full

      She did okay... I can tell you ain't Bro. K. Hagen's daughter 🙂

      December 11, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • The colosseum is full

      What did Jesus say about abortion ? 🙂

      December 11, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Calvin

      Jesus said you can not follow him unless you hate your parents and forsake all you have. I guess you are using a non Christians computer?

      December 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • dissidentfairy

      Colosseum: The Bible is very clear that an unborn life is considered of value and is precious in the sight of God. It says if a man causes a woman to miscarry due to an altercation that the recompense should be "a life for a life."

      December 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @dissident

      I know this may come as a shock for you, but our laws aren't based on your bible.

      December 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • dissidentfairy

      HawaiiGuest: Yes I know! The Bible also says due to "lawlessness" the love of the greater number of people will cool off toward God! Unfortunately, people who live by their own rules and laws find that they eventually Fail....

      December 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Unfortunately, people who live by their own rules and laws find that they eventually Fail...."

      By whose view?

      December 13, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • dissidentfairy

      Sam: When people live by God's ethics and morals they fair far better in life than those who don't. He gave us a moral guideline to follow for a reason, it's because He knows what's good for us and what is not. He knows what will make us happy and what won't. Are people really happy when they go against their own conscience? (that's assuming they have one to begin with) Are they happy when they lie, steal. deceive, murder, cheat, treat other people badly? Do harm to themselves? If they have any form of a conscience at all the answer is No, they are not happy when they do those things.

      The people who treat others as they would hope to be treated are far happier and are not breaking God's laws.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  4. Jennifer 3

    The only right reason to take on a religion is because you want too.

    December 9, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • The colosseum is full

      some are compelled as I was...Jesus said we didn't choose him but he chose us..
      and I am glad to be chosen by HIM !!! 🙂

      December 11, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • sam stone

      What makes you think you are chosen by him?

      December 13, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  5. waitasec

    the opinion that the bible is the inspired word of god, is still an opinion...
    ...who cares about unverifiable claims????

    what a complete waste of time.

    December 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • The colosseum is full

      The Holy Spirit verified the bible to me.. 🙂 🙂 🙂

      but siince it's not verified to you then way do you bother is the question I ask.???? 🙂 🙂 🙂

      December 11, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • ETs???

      UFO's are an unverifable claim so far..but we still read about them. You are still "in here" reading along.

      December 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  6. Spent yesetrday in the E.R.

    After a few hours on a heart monitor...I believe in Jesus. Atheists as of today I firmly defect and would like to go play for the opposing team. Sorry. When its your turn you can disbelieve in God while someone yells "clear" to you while your lying on the floor. As for me and my house...I'm not concerned you think I look silly. Praise to you oh Christ (and please dont send me back there anytime soon).

    December 9, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Glad you survived – due to all the technology brought to you by mortal men. . . No god(s) involved or required.

      December 9, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • TR6

      This would be much more impressive if you had gone to church for your cure instead of the ER. Your story smacks of a lying christian blowing smoke

      December 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      If you were an atheist you must already have known that you didn't have a divine creator. So what changed? Why christianity of all the choices? This sounds like a poor alternative to the "no atheists in a foxhole" canard. BS.

      December 9, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • biobraine

      So why is it that you now believe in Jesus? I am interested in your rationale. Do you feel that he saved you from death? If so why doesn't he save everyone from a heart attack? Are you special? You were simply revived by medical science. Religion promises that you will live forever. Thats a pretty preposterous claim without any evidence. But, knowing our natural fear of death, those who invented and developed the religions added this in as a powerful incentive for belief. If there are gods, being that they have never shown themselves to us, I doubt that they would decide whether you get to live after you die based upon whether you believe in them or not. Ignore religion and have a better life without it.

      December 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  7. The Bandit

    East Bound, and Truckin. F–k all the yuppies of this country!

    December 9, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • sam stone

      wow, such vitriol

      December 10, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  8. psst's understudy

    whooooooooooooo. I am the 4500th comments. whhhhooooooooooooooooo

    December 8, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  9. psst's understudy

    I'm such a turd.

    December 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  10. psst's understudy

    My basic criterion for this page is that I laugh out loud, both when saving the post initially and when reading it back before webbing. Not just thinking, 'hmm, this is pretty funny', but making loud noises with my mouth. A lot of these will be incomprehensible to those who haven't suffered an overload of Scientology jargon. Your mileage will almost certainly vary ...

    SubGenius – at last, a battle we can get our teeth into!
    The ARSCC Entheta Activist Files – hints and tips for getting the best value from your entertainment dollar
    ARSCC internal memoranda – for the archivist (and the curious OSA investigator)
    Insider tales – stories from ex-members
    Stephen Jones
    Koos Nolst Trenité – tributes
    Also see: Tilman Hausherr's Scientology humour page – includes links to lots of others

    --------------------------–

    Q. Which lunatic apocalyptic millenarian gun-collecting UFO death cult will win in this Epic Battle, started when the Co$ raided Dennis Erlich? (Still the ONLY person EVER to get his SubGenius Membership FREE. Hell, even Ivan Stang paid for his!)

    A. Why, the one with the GOOD JOKES, of course.

    December 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  11. psst's understudy

    OBAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  12. psst's understudy

    There are no posts tagged “clam fart”

    December 8, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  13. psst's understudy

    Log in Cancel Sign up. Email. Password. Username. How old are you?years oldyears young. I have read, understand, and agree to the Tumblr Terms of Service.

    December 8, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  14. psst's understudy

    Hemorrhoids are weird

    December 8, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  15. psst's understudy

    I hope you realize my entire post was meant tongue-in-cheek, but I fear you may not. I assumed yours was too and so I was responding, I thought, in kind. I really did not mean to be rude, but you've definitely succeeded in injecting some hilarity to CC and probably to the room where adcom members read your application...

    The fact that it wasn't - well, if I worked for admissions I might even let you in just for having it there. They may not be so kind, though.

    If this was a serious post, I would just send a note to add to your file. I fear your calling to explain it might just make you a laughing stock of the admissions office

    December 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  16. psst's understudy

    I guess some people still have dial up

    December 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  17. psst's understudy

    come on malcom: KEEP UP

    December 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  18. psst's understudy

    I love Craigslist. you can find all sorts of stuff under "Casual Encounters" (M4M...)

    December 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  19. psst's understudy

    I also love baby LLAMAS. They are born with 9 inch koks!!!!!

    December 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  20. psst's understudy

    and my dick is so so small

    December 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
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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.