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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. Mtex

    Rachel, at the end of the day...what is this article and experience accomplished? If you really love the Bible (and therefore a direct and undenied love for God himself) the fruit of your life's work should bring people close to Jesus and the reality of God's forgiveness offered to humankind at the cross. That's it.
    Upon reading the comments here, clearly, I don't see that happening. You wasted a valuable time with fruitless conclusion. Thank God that His Word will stand firm forever and frivolous stuff like yours will vanish with the wind of time.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • Oh Mighty Isis

      so let me get this straight: because the author read and studied the Bible and made an attempt to follow the guidelines it sets forth but came to a conclusion that you don't like, she wasted time. By all means, just follow blindly Mtex....

      November 18, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • mjbrin

      i loved the article. it pointed out some wonderful insights that women have been dealing with for generations. most importantly that many preachers pick and choose what is Biblical acceptable and very unwilling to even discuss all the passages in the bible. it is fascinating how you appear to be trying to silence her and judge her rather than having a discussion with her about this

      November 18, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  2. Martin

    The Bible could have only been assembled during an illiterate era. If it was new today, people would know better than to believe it. It is full of inconsistencies and falsehoods. It is fiction.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Chris

      Would it have been too hard to find a proofreader?

      November 18, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Cameron

      LOL. I am struggling to picture those illiterates writing, editing, and compiling 1,400 pages of text in three languages. Even if you consider it a hash (have you actually read it recently?), the various books are thoughtful and coherent.

      I think Rachel's point in the article was not to be prescriptive, but to challenge our prejudices and cultural assumptions, our lenses we use to "pick and choose".

      November 18, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Graystone

      The only thing false and inconsistant is your misguided understanding of it...

      November 18, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • mjbrin

      to "Graystone", remember judge not lest ye be judged. Jesus didn't try to silence people, he had many discussions and used parables as examples

      November 18, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  3. jeaniet

    the Old Testament is the linage of Christ, told in a manner that the people of the times could understand and believe. It also gave instruction for cleanliness and rules of living that would keep the people healthy and happy. The New Testament is the story of Christ's life and the teaching he gave at the time that would show the world how love and compassion for all people would always be better than the me, me, me world that we live in today and the prophecy shows us the chaos that occures when we do not live by those teachings–I do believe in God and that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, that whoever believes in him shall have life everlasting.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  4. MormonChristian

    This idea of "Biblical" is just what Jesus would have condemned as focused on ritual rather than action. It is more important how we treat one another, than what we wear or eat or know. The whole point of Christ's ministry was to turn on its head the religion of the day that was based on meaningless rules like how far you could walk in a day and get people to build a better world by loving and helping.

    The Bible is not just an old text with old customs, it is about how people of all ages have learned what really matters in life. How to love God and your fellow-man/woman with your heart and not just your words.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  5. J. Elms

    Big correction! The Biblical model for marriage is not polygamy. Polygamy was part of the historical cultures of the Bible, but by the time of the New Testament it was much more common for a husband to have only one wife. In fact, Paul wrote this in his letters, of those aspiring to spiritual leadership, that it be required that a husband have only one wife. The Bible is progressive, not digressive. Make sure to read the King James Version before you read any other version because some newer versions take out many important meanings to the original words. Note: Make sure you know what the Bible teaches before you write an article about it!

    November 18, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Powersoak

      And who was Paul, but a man. What authority did he have other than having his writings chosen and probably heavily edited by other men for inclusion in a book that has been mistranslated by other men, all with an agenda to promote a message that they wanted to reinforce? The central message that we are loved by our Creator and should return that love by loving one another gets overwhelmed down through history even until today by other men with agendas of greed and controlling the lives of others through judgemental and divisive actions and messages.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  6. John Stefanyszyn

    People pick and choose...each establishes what is right for one's own interest.
    Eve, the helper spirit of man, established that the tree (the way of justifying for oneself what was right) was good, contrary to the Will of the Creator who said that that tree was not good.
    Eve believed that she would not die, contrary to the warning from God that she would die if she took of that forbidden tree.

    People choose and pick and interpret the "bible" as a religious book for their own interest and way of life.

    Man desires to serve and magnify oneself...to be free to do one's own "rights", one's own will....as Eve and Adam did.

    This is the XES. As President Obama revently praised the "mark of liberty", which is on peoples forehead as their first way of life, their first religion.

    BUT it is Christ that will rule.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  7. Dawn Gray

    Great article. It explains a lot to me as to why I have been treated so poorly by many religious folks. It is very helpful to better understand why some of them are so mean and hateful. I am not a believer in the Bible and have never been baptized. I have lived my long life doing what I was capable of doing – as I was raised to do, which includes a few things that are more typically reserved for men. It has cost me socially, but I wouldn't give up my lifestyle for anything or anyone.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • cindy lou who

      a lost soul.....doesnt have to stay that way

      November 18, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • MormonChristian

      I am sorry you have known religious people who are hateful. They certainly are not true followers of Christ who preached forgiveness, love and not to judge. I hope you can look past the mistakes of others and feel the love of God through those who do follow his teachings. There is so much good in the world and in people if we know where to look.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  8. or

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWfdYqK2BoU&w=640&h=390]

    November 18, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  9. Marie

    Where is my comment? ..Test

    November 18, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  10. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    There is absolutely no danger in being Biblical, as con men make millions of dollars every day by preaching about the Bible.
    I think that there is one here today who would open his heart to having a blessing poured out on him.
    Today, we're going to march up to the collection plate so I can see how much money each of you brings into my–uh, the storehouse. No pictures of George Washington, please, ha ha, that's it, thank you, my brother.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  11. cindy lou who

    just checking for the usual sunday morning "I hate those evil Christians" article on CNN....just as suspected.....right on time

    November 18, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Guy

      I was just thinking the same thing, Cindy.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Your post displays some frightening signs of the Tea Party. The only "Hate" is for the extremeism of the religious right. Whereas the United States is a melting pot, therefore we "Compromise". The GOP has to realize there are people that dont prescribe to their version of christianity, of which I am on of them.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  12. msp27

    A helpful critique of Evan's book by another evangelical woman (Kathy Keller) can be found at http://thegospelcoalition.org/book-reviews/review/a_year_of_biblical_womanhood.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  13. John Keller

    Cut the Gordian Knot, Rach...

    November 18, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  14. Paul-A

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I wish that more evangelical Christians were as insightful and eloquent as you are.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  15. Thomas

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Held Evans."
    What do you really think CNN?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  16. veda

    the article is a danger not the Bible or GOD!!

    November 18, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Why is this article a danger? It goes against YOUR opinion?

      November 18, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  17. Reality

    "The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,
    The second, religious without intellect. "

    Al-Ma'arri
    , born AD 973 /, died AD 1058 / .

    He was a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth."

    Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/resalat-al-ghufran#ixzz1lI6DuZmZ and http://www.humanistictexts.org/al_ma'arri.htm

    November 18, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  18. Lou

    MATTHEW 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Jesus endorses the ma-ss mur-der, ra-pe, slav-ery, tort-ure and inc-est written about in the Old Testament.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Reality

      Matt 5: 17 is a single attestation found no where else in the scripture. It was apparently added to Matthew's gospel between 80-120 AD and therefore said passage is historically nil. See for example http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb392.html and Professor Gerd Ludemann's conclusions in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 137-138 and pp. 694-695.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • adh1729

      "Jesus endorses the ma-ss mur-der, ra-pe, slav-ery, tort-ure and inc-est written about in the Old Testament.": Lou can't even read the 10 commandments. I think Lou needs to go back to first grade. I think Lou should not pick up knives - can't handle them.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  19. OldMo

    Well, this is my third attempt at this so I'll just address one error this Evans character made. Yes, the Bible instructs the husband is to have authority over his wife but people always leave out the second part of that equation. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loves his church (body of believers). Christ suffered unspeakably and sacrificed himself on the cross for our sins after leading a sinless life himself. Men, do you think you can love your wives like that? Women, would like like a husband who loved and adored you like that? People twist things and suggest the Bible gives the right for ungodly men to abuse their wives but it instructs men to be godly and righteous and to love their wives to a degree that they could only strive for but not attain. A husband who lives his life according to the teachings of the Bible wouldn't abuse his wife.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • Jen

      Having authority is not equivalent to abuse. I have authority over my children but do not abuse them. However, if my husband believed he has authority over me like we do over our children (no matter how much he 'loves' me), it makes him a terrible husband. Therefore the bible is morally wrong on this issue.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      I agree with Jen. I love my wife, she and I are partners.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  20. Eugene Adkins

    The "biblical" model and definition has always been the same. Read it for yourself – Matthew 19:1-9...it goes back to the beginning. If a person wants to determine the "biblical" model of anything they must follow 2 Timothy 2:15. Jesus told people they were wrong because they did not know the scriptures (Matthew 22:29), and the same can be said today. Biblical ignorance of biblical values is not bliss.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:11 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.