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. Colin

    And NOW a bonus round for extra points.

    A quick five question test to help understand Catholicism.

    Q.1 The statement “I believe in God because the Bible tells me to and the reason I follow the Bible is because it is the word of God” is:

    a. Circular reasoning at its most obvious;

    b. The reason 99% of Catholics believe what they do;

    c. Specific to the Judeo-Christian parts of the World and totally rejected by all other parts of the World; or

    d. All of the above.

    Q.2 The best theory we currently have is that Universe was created about 13.7 billion years ago in what is (somewhat misleadingly) called the Big Bang. To understand this we should:

    a. Simply declare that, because we don’t know what caused the Big Bang, the Hindu god Brahma must have created the Universe.

    b. Simply declare that, because we don’t know what caused the Big Bang, God must have created the Universe.

    c. Adopt the Australian Aboriginal belief that the Universe was created by a great snake in the Dreamtime; or

    d. Accept the limits on our current knowledge and just stop there, without invoking a magic act by any god to fill the current gap in our knowledge.

    Q.3 Likewise, we know that life on Earth evolved over the last approximately 3.5 billion years and likely began in a planet wide “organic soup” of complex organic chemicals in the primordial oceans, in an increasingly well understood process. As such, we should:

    a. Look for any limitation in our knowledge and, when we find one, jump up and say “aha, scientists cannot yet fully explain (for example) how DNA synthesis first occurred, therefore the Judeo-Christian god did it.”

    b. Look for any limitation in our knowledge and, when we find one, jump up and say “aha, scientists cannot yet fully explain (for example) how DNA synthesis first occurred, therefore the Hindu god Brahma did it.”

    c. Simply read our Bibles and find the answers there; or

    d. Continue our scientific research and experimentation and not make the bald faced assertion that any god, ghost or goblin must have conjured up life through some inexplicable act of magic.

    Q.4 Probably the most fundamental tenet of Catholic faith is that God sent his son Jesus to Earth to die and save us from the original sin of Adam and Eve. We now know that Adam and Eve was a myth. As such, any thinking Catholic should:

    a. Honestly and courageously question this and any other aspects of their faith that don’t make sense.

    b. Make up some euphemistic nonsense like “well, we didn’t mean that literally” after having done exactly that for the last 1900 years until science comprehensively disproved it.

    c. Just ignore the blatant contradiction and sweep it under the mat; or

    d. Hold on to the myth because it makes them feel good.

    Q.5 Please choose your favorite Catholic superst.ition from those below. For the one you choose, please say why it is any more ridiculous than the rest of the garbage Catholics swallow and give an example of a non-Catholic belief which is just as stupid.

    a. Grocery store bread and wine becomes the flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because a priest does some hocus pocus over it in church of a Sunday morning.

    b. When I pray for something like “please god help me pass my exam tomorrow,” an invisible being reads my mind and intervenes to alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to meet my request.

    c. You can pray to a dead person for something. This dead person will then ask God to fulfill your wish. If this happens twice, this dead person becomes a saint.

    d. A god impregnated a virgin with himself, so he could give birth to himself and then sacrifice himself to himself to negate an “original sin” of a couple we now know never existed.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:10 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". Most believe in hell are like you, they didn't believe it existed. You will be believe when you get their and then you will know God had cut off your ears.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • 200 TON HAMMER

      Hebrewisms of West Africa please explained that one

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

      I believe you left out a few : " All of the above" options.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Colin

      Thanks Mark. I guess the proof was there before my very eyes (unless of course God gauged them out).

      November 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • mark

      Correct Colin. God taught you the natural Law. Abuse it and God gave you your present spirit.

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

      You simply asserting something is not proof mark. Actual proof please. Hell is fake.

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

      Dave, from where you are its fake because you do not ear. You were taught the Natural Law, that is not fake. Every man has it. You abuse it and God will cut off your ears. If you want proof, death is not far away from anyone.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Croco3

      In Genesis 1, God created light = day (and called its absence darkness = night) on the first day; even though the sun and the stars were not created to separate day and night until the 3rd day.

      God tells Noah to get on the boat, with 2 animals of every species; everything that is left out is assumed to be destroyed by the flood. What about marine life????????

      November 18, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • kendrick1

      It has always been hard to understand why people who pretend to be intelligent say they believe God doesn't exist spend so much time and effort villifying that which they themselves believe doesn't exist! Tilting at windmills?

      If, perchance, someone told you they loved you, how can you be sure they really do?

      November 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm |

    Satan appeared before the Heavenly Hosts. Jehovah asked, "where were you?" Satan answered that he just came back from roving about the earth. Jehovah asked< "did you observe the righteousness of Job?" Satan defiantly answered, "Yes, he is righteous because you gave him all the riches of the world right?" Jehovah said, "No." Satan said, in front of all the Heavenly Hosts, "Prove it to all of us present here- prove you are worthy of universal sovereignty (instead of ME)"

    November 18, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  3. 200 TON HAMMER

    What's the difference between Hebrew Isrealite and Jewish people's and Christians????

    November 18, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • OxyFlush

      We can still help you lose that extra 50 tons, Hammer!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • 200 TON HAMMER

      Why was Abraham called a HEBREW and not a Christian in Genesis chapter 14:13 and Jonah 1:9 they where not Christian they where Hebrew who had a covenant

      November 18, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  4. George Marshall

    In fairness I know of no atheists who have "become pompous, cynical, intolerant hypocrites with no clear concise belief system" I certainly know of some religious fundamentalists who fit the description.

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

      i know, thats the point. the most fervent atheists have become the thing they rage over...

      November 18, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • George Marshall

      Theorycraft I hope you are not advancing that goofy and justifiably absurd notion that notion that belief in a god and no belief in a god are both religions. That defies any dictionary definition of religion and is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  5. Context is your friend

    I know I'm not the only Christian on CNN that gets continually frustrated at so called Christians that take passages out of context and go with it to the absurd. Is my church the only one that promotes real textual study and not just feel good messages to bring in parishioners?

    I guess if the article was well reasoned and supported, it wouldn't be as controversial and CNN wouldn't get their ad revenue.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • mama k

      The writings in the Bible easily allow each church, each Christian to adopt a different context.

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

      Same here. This is how hereisies start.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  6. mre2

    "As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God..."

    Please, the Bible you speak of is a collection of stories written by a collection of iron-age storytellers and animal herders, translated and rewritten to meet the specifications of an English monarch and his attendant church at the time.

    Over many centuries, faith-based belief has proven to be very dangerous and destructive to humanity.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  7. oconn

    It is unfortuante that this author claims to follow what a "Biblical lifestyle" would look like. She is referring to the Old Testement, disregarding that through Jesus Christ we no longer live under Old Testement laws, trying to earn favor with God. It's not about living a "biblical lifestyle" and following a bunch of rules it's about having a real relationship with the Lord. If only the truth were shared in the right context, many people would be running toward Jesus rather than away from him.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Edweird69

      Horse puckey! Jesus said himself he did not come to change one ioda of the law. If the law changes, that means god changes his mind, which is a total contradiction of the definition of alpha and omega.

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

      Jesus said " I did not come to Abolish the Law, But to fullfill it." At its core the law states, the wages for sin is Death. Jesus fullfilled the law by offering His Life for ours to pay for our sins, thereby fullfilling God's Law, other wise we would all have to be put to death because we ALL sin. Here is a fun fact, the word sin came from an old archey term meaning to miss the bullseye. God never intended us to feel pain, or live in an unperfect world, but in order to maintain freewill he gave us the choice to chose to live His way, which is filled with joy and love for ALL PEOPLE regardless of thier sin, or to go off on our own. The BIBLE is not a rule book, but a book about A Father despretly trying to reunite his family and save his children from a cruel world. One last fun fact, the word Testament means like covenet or contract, which means an agreement between 2 parties. So in essence the bible consists of The Old Contract, And the New Contract. in the old contract there was a long set of rules we needed to follow to get into heaven, but nobody could. THe New Contract states, Jesus paid for your sins past, present and future, and all he asks in return is you try to get to know him, and i promise if you do you will fall in love. I am not a pastor,or a bible scholar, i dont even go to church, and believe me brother i SIN, I am a construction worker. But Jesus loves me, i don't just think it, i know it cause he SHOWS it. God does not consider the severity of your sin or even the number of them, he doesn't keep a check list. And Jesus was known and still is known as the friend of sinners, never has he looked down on someone for thier sin. He looks at sinners as someone would look at a person who has fallen down, and he runs to them and stands with and outstretched hand, but because of free will you must choose to take his hand before he can help you. He wont just barge into your life. PLEASE dont make the mistake of Blameing GOD for the things Man does, Specificlly those men who run around using HIS name. AMEN.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  8. Marcus

    Can you please publish your next controversial opinion piece on Christianity and the BIble at a time other than Sunday morning? Many of the people who spend lots and lots of time studying the Bible (pastors) are busy preparing for services and therefore are not able to participate in the debate.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Edweird69

      Yeh, they're too busy brainwashing in one place, to take time to try to brainwash in another.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Marcus

      I guess you don't belief in fair debate.
      I listen to everyone. Do you respect all people enough to listen to their views?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  9. zlop

    Eating Jesus and drinking His Blood,
    Death Cult Cannibals are Christians.

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

      Generalize much?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  10. James

    Why would we really need to follow a collection of books called the bible anyway? It is an ancient text written for the other side of the world for a different people and different time. Jesus may or may not have existed as we see him in the bible.
    I've never seen Jesus in my life, he's never spoken to me, so why devote my life and believe he still exists over 2000 years later simply based on old texts from a people who had many crazy ideas and laws that we find reprehensible today? Christianity is one of the largest cults accepted by many people today.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  11. i did not go to church today or ever

    Take off the bible belt and let all hang out

    November 18, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  12. scientificpoetry

    What rational person would decide to live by a bronze age book written by ignorant men? The answer... a fool...

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

      Rationalism is itself a rationing of. One snowflake amid a mountaintop full of snowflakes is where our universe does sit. The Cosmos is immeasurably full of universes in a never-to-end state of being.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  13. Gawd

    It's incredible how much time people waste with their fairy tales.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  14. lionlylamb

    Mathew 6:33 "But seek ye first the kingdom of God!"

    Luke 17:21, "The kingdom of God is inside you!"

    John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world!"

    1Corinthians 3:9 "For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building!"

    The troubles with trinitarians, those who belly-up to one god times three is, they read but only into it and get very little out of what they make 'go-spellingly' in amplifications of unblessed pleasings. Their preaching in devilish tongues beatifies only the dumb-hearted relics of their christiandumbness's idiosyncratic marmoset redundancies. Their godly moralisms are but self-centered and self-censored upon redundant principles that are archaic in cultured relics being those old fuddy duddies who fumble ever for their next glass worth of wine! Drunk and in temperamental stupors are the emotionally fallen in christiandumbs folds becoming likened to sciatic pragmatisms unworthy of even one toasting for, but rather against!

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

      It's amazing that people still believe and quote this piece of garbage. Use it as a guide if you have that much trouble being a good person. Don't take it literally. None of it happened.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  15. Fredsta

    AND I'm absolutely loving the comments! Carry on, brave citizens in the Land of the Free! This is exactly the give-and-take that makes us grow wise as a nation... (well, some of us, anyway...)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  16. Chris

    How dare she use her brain to find inconsistencies in the Bible!

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

      I think what most people are upset about is her not taking the time to actually learn the context of a lot of things. Not just her, but many of the people she grew up under.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  17. csalee

    Very interesting article “Does this book actually condone slavery?”


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

    Another article that takes the Bible and fails to include redemptive context into interpretation. There is a reason why some passages are followed strictly and others not... Context. Context. Context.
    She is right in that we take passages out of context and value them over others and listen to some passages but not others. There is a reason... We have poor hermeneutics .. Which our other here has also demonstrated

    November 18, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • mama k

      The writings in the Bible easily allow each church, each Christian to adopt a different context.

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

      Well said.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  19. Julia

    Preach on! This makes me want to go back to church!! Can you please start a church in Dallas or McKinney, TX? 🙂

    November 18, 2012 at 10:03 am |

    Satan has succeeded in making many people feel doomed - so these same people join Satan in mocking Jehovah, Jesus and true believers. It is their only source of temporary relief from feeling the pain of inevitable destruction by the hands of the righteous. Satan has been at this game since Man's beginning. Satan is very jealous - he is a "narcssistic sociopath." Satan is a master psychologist and has observed impwerfect man's weaknesses for melleniums. No man today can outfox the Devil, only Jehovah and Jesus can do that. The Congress and Media need to keep faith and trust in God to do the right thing if they want to win over the Devil. No human is "doomed" like Satan would like you to believe. Jesus died to erase our doom. Jesus did not die to atone for Satan's sins. There is NO atonement for Satan and the Demons. Jesus DID make one last ditched effort by ministering to demons before returning to his Father in Heaven. Guess how many demons joined him? None. How many humans will make the same error in judgement?

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

      This SATAN you speak about was created by the SAME GOD you speak about! And this GOD KNEW Lucifer would fall from heaven and rebel to create all these problems in the world today! According to the bible your bible God loves violence, evil, darkness and all these things otherwise he would not have created them. Satan killed far less people than God accordiing to the bible.

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

      Freaking hilarious. God must be a weakling if he can't put satan in his place? OR god is one evil sob to allow satan to exist.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:46 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.