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. zlop

    Reason why God let Him Son be Crucified - Jesus was LBGT

    November 18, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • gobama2016

      "'Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgivness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.' [Mk. 3:29

      November 18, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Scott

      LOL Ok, now you're just trolling...

      November 18, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  2. Colin

    Step right up ladies and gentlemen, a quick 15 question quiz to help you understand Christianity and religion.

    Q1. The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:

    (a) Children’s fairytales;

    (b) Medieval mythology;

    (c) New age pseudo science; or

    (d) Christianity

    Q.2 I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am

    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;

    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly

    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or

    (d) your average Christian

    Q3. Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:

    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;

    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;

    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or

    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.

    Q.4 I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am

    (a) A victim of child molestation

    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover

    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions

    (d) A Christian

    Q.5 You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:

    (a) historian;

    (b) geologist;

    (c) NASA astronomer; or

    (d) Christian

    Q.6 I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am

    (a) A failed psychologist

    (b) A fraudulent geneticist

    (c) A sociologist who never went to college; or

    (d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.

    Q.7 The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:

    (a) Architecture;

    (b) Philosophy;

    (c) Archeology; or

    (d) Religion

    Q8. What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:

    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they must believe under threat of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;

    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is one god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;

    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or

    (d) All of the above.

    Q.9 If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:

    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;

    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;

    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or

    (d) my religious belief.

    Q.10 If I am worried that my children, who I love very much, will not believe something I tell them, such as "smoking is bad for you," I should:

    (a) have our family doctor explain to them the various ill effects of smoking.

    (b) show them a film produced by the National Inst.itute for Health on the topic.

    (c) set a good example for them by not smoking; or

    (d) refuse to give them any evidence of the ill effects of smoking, insist they rely on faith and then take them out into the backyard and burn them to death if I ever catch them smoking.

    Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free and my own salary is also tax free, at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am

    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker

    (b) A mafia boss

    (c) A drug pusher; or

    (d) An organized religion.

    What do the following authors all have in common – Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal:

    (a) They are among the most gifted writers the World has known;

    (b) They concentrated on opposing dogma and opening the human mind and spirit to the wonders of free thought and intellectual freedom;

    (c) They were intimidated by the Catholic Church and put on the Church’s list of prohibited authors; or

    (d) All of the above.

    The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:

    (a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;

    (b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;

    (c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions to distribute condoms; or

    (d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • 200 TON HAMMER

      Please explained Acts chapter 21:38
      Why was Paul called a egyptian
      If he is Hebrew Isrealite from the Tribe of Benjamin's Romans chapter 11:1

      November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • us_1776



      November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini, D.D. (h.c.) ©™

      @ Colin:
      Bravissimo divo!

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

      This is sad and just shows ignorance of Christianity and the bible.

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

      200 Tonn Hammer – well, you certainly put me in my place...

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

      Great Peter, what did I get wrong?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • kt

      ya, no one's going to read that essay you wrote. Try writing succinctly.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • dave

      Are you going to tell us how you really feel?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  3. krussell

    The one choice the article doesn't consider is to discard this bunch of contradictions. The bible could not be the word of any sane god. If you read it with an open mind you will see that within the wisdom and poetry it is a garbled mess of contradictions that no rational mind can justify or decipher.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  4. snowboarder

    this should be a fun comment section for a sunday morning.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  5. al

    How can she seriously say she was interested in Biblical studies when she doesn't even understand the basics of Christianity? That's clearly evident if she's trying to follow the Levitical purity laws. No church tradition has ever followed these laws because they were fulfilled in Christ and not for non-Jewish believers (see Acts 15).

    November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Jon

      How do you explain why so many Christians say that so many other Christians "don't even know the basics of Christianity"?
      And visa versa...

      November 18, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  6. Jand Meditz

    Rachel's parody style is under the guise of putting the Church in Her place. Chronologically we are a baby, toddler, child, tween, teenager, young adult, adult, mature adult. As I sense where Rachel lies in her journey dilemma which everyone experiences, Christ will provide answers, now or later. Seeking answers from within and outside her framework she will intersect with Pastor's that explain the how, why, what in respect to the Old Testament Law and New Testament Grace in light of culture. A Pastor is a Shepherd. This is an analogy. This is biblical.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  7. csalee

    Does Bible condone slavery?!? Ravi says no...


    November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  8. GenXcynic

    Actually, the better question to ask is why some feel the need to condemn any other interpretations as sinful and wrong, knowing full well that, like most comprehensive legal texts, contradictions abound.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • krussell

      Actually the better question is why a God couldn't provide a book that didn't contradict itself so often.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Chuck

      What Krussel Said!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  9. 200 TON HAMMER

    Jonah 1:9 what's a Hebrew Isrealite and acts chapter 21:38 why was Paul called a Egyptians ???? When he was a Hebrew Isrealite from the Tribe of Benjamin's

    November 18, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • OxyFlush

      We can help you lose that extra 50 lbs. today, Hammer!

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

      The scripture passage you reference states: And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” (Acts 21:37-38 NASB)

      Looks like disregarding the word "not", the fact that is was a question and Paul's response in the next sentence helps support your theory, but please read carefully before trying to stir up debate.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  10. Jim

    This article is defending the degradable speech against the Bible done by Mr Obama before he was president.
    The Bible is the root of all goodness and righteousness inherit by humanity.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • God

      a) What in the h are you talking about?
      b) take some English classes. You can't write.

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

      that's not true.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • hall 9001

      I'm sorry, Jim, but your assertions are ridiculous. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

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

      Are yousure we are talking about the same bible? The one the rest of us are reading condones killing disrespectful children, non-virgin women who get married, and anyone who works on the sabath.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  11. theorycraft

    also – ps: John and Christ were single because they believed a leader of a church should not have second priorities to distract them, such as a family. These were men, women should all get married and have kids. That kind of makes sense if you think about it. Reproductively speaking, women are much more valuable than men - as there are infinite sperm in the world but a finite number of eggs. If a man does not reproduce, it doesn't really change anything. If a woman does not reproduce, you can actually calculate the number of potential offspring that are eliminated because those extracted eggs cannot be replaced.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  12. MASTER INFORMER of "spiritual" LESS-INFORMED cristian-type TEABAGGING teabaggers of the uninformed CULT-type ignoramuses

    WHAT is THE DESTInation?

    November 18, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  13. Dearth Vanderbilt

    Throw the bible into the sea. World would become a utopia.

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

      Good stsart, but all the other books of truth and paths to the other gods would have to go with it.

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

    You are SO close. By your own words, the Bible was compiled over thousands of years, encompassing a variety of different genres, and we all pick and choose. If it is acceptable for us to, by choice, ignore entire tracts of scripture, how can you persist in the notion that it is inspired by God? You consider it acceptable to ignore some of God's word at your whim, according to the current state of society. If you abandon the notion of the divinity of scripture, and accept the Bible as the work of man, commensurate for the times of its authorship, the end result is absolutely identical.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  15. PLZBLogical

    It is truly amazing how many people post such negative and nasty comments for these articles about religion and belief. If you don't "believe" or agree, then why would you spend so much time and effort attacking those of faith.

    What does that say about you.......and based on your actions, who are you to judge?

    November 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Joe Madden

      Bible beaters always change the meaning of the bible to suit there needs. Don't worry this world will change from religious people to not because people abuse it.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Dearth Vanderbilt

      We are tired of the bible making this an uninformed, ignorant and dangerous world.
      I definitely don't want religious article on the front page of my news site.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • theorycraft

      communism, dark ages, probably lots of others, were not inspired by religion. Yet each resulted in ignorant masses in a dangerous world. Don't blame the bible for all your troubles. Without religion, corrupt people would find some other way to power and you would be bashing some other thing.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Jake

      Many of us believe that "faith" is a horrible thing for the world. It teaches children (before they are old enough to think objectively) to ignore factual evidence, to deny their instincts and instead to believe things that make no sense based on "faith". It teaches that "faith" is a virtue, when it is actually a very negative concept. It allows people to believe their religious views are better / right and therefore, they can fly planes into buildings to kill those who disagree. Get it?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:08 am |

    God gave you a brain to reason.
    If you use it, you may still believe in a god. But you certainly will not believe in any fairytale, or book of fables often referred to as the Bible New Testament, Old Testament, Torah, or the Qur'an etc...

    God wants you to ask why. Its only man that doesn't want to be questioned!

    November 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  17. Get Real

    Of course both are imaginary beings, but the true story is Satan is GOOD and God is EVIL. Satan tapped God on the shoulder and asked God please don't flood the earth and kill all those innocent children. God answered and said "Bra ha ha ha! I am allmighty god and can do what I want. It would please me to see those babies drown in agony! Bra ha ha ha!". Satan said "that's wack, dude! You are one cruel, sick, evil monster". So Satan left heaven and promised to help mankind against the evil imaginary God. Then one day all the people grew up and realized God and Satan are both imaginary and they went away hand in hand as boyfriends forever. That is after God asked Satan's forgiveness for all of the mean spiteful things he did. The End.

    For proof God is Imaginary visit http://www.godisimaginary.com

    November 18, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Dana

      God is imaginary until there is proof of his/her/its existence. I can't just sit here and dream up some incredible, absurd, magical thing and expect everyone to believe me.

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

      Dana, that is exactly how Christiananity got started.
      Mormonism and Islam too.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  18. pt

    This writer, like so many, seems to have missed the main point of Jesus' message of the NEW covenent, that faith, love, and charity are to be the focus of a "biblical" lifestyle above obsession with rigid observance of the law.

    “Matthew 22:36-40

    New International Version (NIV)

    Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    November 18, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Dan

      "Ephesians 6:5 – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ." From the New Testament. Looks like we're back to square one.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ pt – you seem to have missed the entire point of her article – different people pick and choose different parts of the bible to support whatever viewpoint they hold. As you have done with your post. Claim it as your opinion or viewpoint – fine. Unfortunately, many will take a certain section of the Bible, and claim that it is writ large in stone, and the LAW. I actually applaud the author for being intellectually honest in describing the the bible as a huge collection of many different writings by different people over a huge timeframe. Although, of course, by stating her belief that the bible is "the inspired word of God" she is really making a statement about her god – essentially as inconsistent, contradictory, and good and bad as the people who wrote it – in short, her god simply is people. (Not to be confused with Soylent Green, of course!)

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

      The Ephesians 6 passage doesn't condone slavery, but rather, since slavery existed at the time of the writing, was instructing those that were slaves and believed in Christ (that Christ was there eternal master) to serve their earthly masters just as if they were serving Christ. By doing this, they would give praise to God and set an example for others.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:03 am |

    Satan wants to make unrepentent "sinners" feel doomed - to feel unworthy and unqualified to feel any hope - because Satan is the only one doomed without hope.

    November 18, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • sheldoncooper

      Why does god, who loves his people, allow satan and hell to exist? God is all-powerful: why doesn't be blink his eye and destroy satan? Why doesn't god set the world right? Is it because Adam and Eve f'd up that all humanity forever suffers throughout life, and faces eternal agony unless we believe something for which there is absolutely no evidence? Something that can't be believed by the brains god gave us?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  20. Dana

    "The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike" – Delos B. McKown

    November 18, 2012 at 9:56 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.