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. Nancy

    I very much enjoyed the reading of this article/blog. Extremely well written .

    November 18, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  2. Dana

    "It has served us well, this myth of Christ" – Pope Leo X

    November 18, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  3. theorycraft

    So atheists, while you spend all your time decrying how magical religion is and how loony its followers are, have you taken some time to look in the mirror and accept that you've become pompous, cynical, intolerant hypocrites with no clear concise belief system? Darwinism would say ending all war and suffering is impossible. Modern psychology would say your morals and value system simply conform with whatever social group you identify with. Science would also disprove love, place men above women, and advise you to only trust yourself.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Thomas

      If god doesn`t like the way I live, let him tell me, not you.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • dave

      Im an atheist and i am not any of those things. Science does not have the ability to 'disprove' feelings i have toward people, nor to 'place' women above men. Wars over religion are unnecessary and inhuman so why make excuses for them?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • snowboarder

      crafty – ending all war and suffering is impossible. if we were still living in an agrarian society a man's physical abilities would certainly make him superior to a woman, but in a modern society the contribution of a woman can easily equal a mans. and yes, morals come from society. a quick glance around the world will show you that morals exist everywhere, regardless of any particular religion or lack there of.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Chuck

      We are not intolerant, we are just standing up in bigger numbers and saying we won't be ruled/controlled by religion of any kind. I'm fine with religion kept to yourself and your brethren, although personally I think you could spend your time in a more useful manner. "Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church".

      November 18, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • theorycraft

      @snowboarder I appreciate the reply. just want to clarify one thing. I never said men were superior to women. Just that men would get women to do whatever they want simply because at the end of the day, men have more strength and looking just at science, the story would end there. Obviously if you look around the world, women are smarter than men. That's why they sit at home while men go out and do all the work haha.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • snowboarder

      crafty wrote "looking just at science, the story would end there."

      but that is simply nonsense. of course it would not end there. your view of "science" is unreasonably narrow.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Pilate

      Religious people are the ones with the problems. Defend your beliefs, if you can, without resorting to fantasy.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • theorycraft

      omg snowboarder.... i wish we could chat but I'm starting to lose track of my own posts. I'm not sure what you meant by 'your view of science is unreasonably narrow'

      this will probably be the last post but I believe that all's fair in order to survive.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  4. scot pederson


    Many of those laws you refer to were Hebraic Laws and not Mosaic Laws, HUGE difference. It's also important to understand that Christians are under the New Covenant which Jesus himself said "I did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law". Under the Old Covenant the Jews were under God's commands, which by the way Jon Stewart never ever endorsed Polygamy. Under the New Covenant Christians are under the Grace of Jesus Christ who atoned for the sins of those who put their trust in him as their savior. We still follow the 10 Commandments, but we don't live under the Hebraic laws and rules you bring up which numbered 613 total.

    So when Christians refer to "biblical" we refer to mostly what Jesus & the Apostles taught. We are no longer compelled to sacrifice animals for example because Jesus shed blood is perfect.

    I suggest reading books of Authors who preach sound doctrine such as John McArthur, Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, Ravi Zacharias if you want to truly know what the scriptures say. People like Joyce Meyers are part of the Prosperity Gospel which truly picks and chooses verses to develop a self-serving interpretation.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  5. Kate

    People realize that these rules and laws in the bible are consistent with history thousands of years ago, in a time when the value of women wasn't placed much higher than animals. Yet they still feel the need to obey. Why? Fear! The church has told them that unless that obey these antiquated rules and laws that great harm will befall them. So long as people believe that the writings in the bible are inspired by God, they are afraid to let them be what they really are.....stories, histories, fairy tales written by ordinary men.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Karen

      Kate, you are right on one account- It is history- TRUE history. His Story. And I tell you, before I came to really know His Story- I was afraid- afraid of death, insecure, intimidated, afraid of life. But when I really heard the ruth of His great love for me, and received His Story into my heart, – there was no fear. "perfect love casts out fear". I not only heard about Him, but experienced Him and found Him to be a very very real God. But realize, I was not broke and disgusted, I really was doing find in my counseling career and wonderful friends/family- but there was still the fear. So I know without a doubt Jesus Christ came, lived and died for me. He loves me and I live free in Him. And guess what- as I keep living for Him and experiencing His love and grace daily- those desire for those things that I use to do- get less and less. I lean on His grace more and more- I am not perfect- but He loves me and you right now at this very moment.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Kate

      Some people need a crutch to get through life. I'm happy if this works for you.

      November 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  6. Name reason

    A sign of that era....in historical context only....

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  7. Fredsta

    An utterly brilliant article! God bless Rachel Held Evans, and CNN, and the internet. Her revelations are fundamental to a functional wisdom. "The truth shall make you free!" (My own cut-and-paste favorite)

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  8. JennyTX

    Everyone seems to think their religion is "right" and all others are "wrong," yet nobody has any proof.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • mark

      Actually there is proof. We are all judged on everything we have ever done. If our sins against the Natural Law are serious, God in his punishment cuts off our "ears" to hear the truth. Treat others in the way you would want to be treated and God will restore your "ears".

      November 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  9. trl

    Matthew 7:6 "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, least they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you." 1 Peter 3:15 But IN YOUR HEARTS honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who ASKS YOU for a reason for the HOPE that is in you; yet do it with GENTLENESS AND RESPECT,

    November 18, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  10. Michael


    "If God (or Yahweh, more accurately) did not support slavery or polygamy, why is solomon spoken of highly for having 700 wives..."

    Simple! Any man who can put up with being late all the time and dealing with all the estrogen laced tirades of 700 women (combined with all those shoes –est 700 x 36 - is a saint).

    November 18, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • God

      I, God, appreciate your sense of humor.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  11. Hutterite

    This was a great article. I admire the author for trying to point out how most people lawyer the bible to meet their own needs, and then claim infallibility because they have done so. Some of these people have very bad intentions toward others. We need to start demanding more than 'the bible says so' from anyone who wants to influence our social or political system, or the rights of others.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  12. JT1962

    elizabethmy, no one hates you because of Jesus. YOU are technically not hated. What is hated is that percentage of Christians who use THEIR interpretation of the Bible to justify treating others as 'less than' them. I don't have to go into the details. You can find more than enough examples just by doing research here on the internet. And this article didn't attack Christianity. If that's what you got out of this article, then I pity you for your lack of reading comprehension skills. Try to have a great Sunday,.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  13. Hellskitchen

    Ya Rachel Held Evans it's good to know that you're a moron! Seriously, the biblical part is abortion! You cant be a catholic and a democrat, they have violating principles based on the most important commandment: though shalt not kill... Pretty simple, don't over analyze it, Your wrong.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Chris

      And how many Republicans support the death penalty?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • annebeth66

      Are you trying to refer to the commandment "thou shall not kill?" Its funny that God did not consider that to be the most important commandment when the #1 is "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" but thou shall not kill is listed as #6.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  14. Naeem

    But yet if you look at the history of the Bible, it stands out that Jesus taught about being nice to others, kindness,forgiving
    but never taught trinity, or atonement, these practices and rituals were later taught by Paul, who at first did not like Jesus, and only later saw Jesus after his crucifixion andthen created the Bible, how far they have come indeed!

    November 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  15. Jim

    Another attack from the Democratic CNN, against Christianity.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • mama k

      Christianity attacks itself. It is a built-in trait. Good morning, Rumpelstiltskin.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • sybaris

      Jim, there really are other channels on this dial

      November 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  16. mark

    I pay over 40% in combined taxes...and we still have poverty? A majority of our poverty is women having children without husbands. Is that biblical? Fornication is a serious sin. If you disagree, wait a moment after you die and see what happens. Add the abuse of alcohol, drugs and just pure laziness, you have about 95% of all poverty. So point is this, I get to pay over 40% and climbing so ppl can sin as high as the sky. Jon Stewart, death is a great equalizer, it takes an man's arrogance and cuts it to the ground.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • mike

      How do your taxes help people get out of poverty? It's their employer who should be paying 40% more.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • mark

      Ok Mike, companies do pay big taxes. So go ahead and increase their taxes more and then you and me will get to pay higher prices. get real!

      November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • mike

      I meant pay the employee receives for doing their job. That would get them out of poverty.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • e

      Funny how it is the woman's fault when the man vanishes from the picture. Women get pregnant and single all by themselves?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • mark

      Mike, I agree. But liberals are more concern with creating ppl to rely on govt so they can get their votes. Republcans would rather pay ppl slave wages than give up their second house and huge salaries. So allot sin is on business owners who pay ppl low wages and live like kings. They will receive the same wages as liberals.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • mark

      hey e, fornication is a sin. I am sorry you didn't realize the man is quility too!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • annebeth66

      You state that "a majority of our poverty is women having children without husbands," but it takes a man to get her pregnant in the first place. Maybe if some of these men would care for the children they father instead of running off to the next woman, we would have a decrease in the number of out of wedlock births.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  17. Tali3

    He statement that then bible's concept of marriage is polygamy is not true. I think she came to this conclusion by reading the Old Testament. In those days, they had many wives, but that was before the ten commandments. Another point is that people were not actually practicing christanity. The were involved with many other religions back then. The model of marriage is taught by Jesus Christ in the NEW testament. In the new testament, he gives the laws on marriage on what can be done and what cannot be done, and the penalties. Jesus did not teach polygamy.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Dan

      Interesting. Just when I thought I've heard all the different interpretations of the Bible, I find another one.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • SP

      Tali, polygamy is condoned by the Bible long after the 10 commandments. Two easy examples: David and Solomon. David and Solomon lived long after Moses who supposedly got the 10 commandments from God. In addition, the New Testament says nothing against polygamy. Moreover, the Bible states the God is the same always. The God of the old and new testament is the same.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • Christine


      November 18, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • sybaris

      Tali, why did your god change its mind?

      November 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • physnchips

      So are you willing to drop other old testament laws about gays?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  18. isa

    Rachel claims to know her bible and be a christian but i find that statement false just like someone who can play basketball can recognise someone who says they can play but really cant.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  19. MASTER INFORMER of "spiritual" LESS-INFORMED cristian-type TEABAGGING teabaggers of the uninformed CULT-type ignoramuses


    November 18, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  20. Russ

    What did Jesus say the entire Bible was about? In a word: Him.
    Check it for yourselves... Lk.24:27,44 & Jn.5:39-40.
    Over & over & over again.

    Unless we understand that, we miss everything... as this article so amply demonstrates.
    The Bible is not primarily about us & what we must do; it's about Him & what He has done.
    Being biblical is not following the rules; it's knowing the One who made them & kept them: Jesus.


    November 18, 2012 at 9:46 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.