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. James

    Remember "The Family Feud" television game show? On one show, the category was "Biblical names people name their children." There was a Jewish family that lost. They came up with names like Joseph and Jacob and Issac and Abraham. The top answers were names like James and John and Peter and Paul.

    Ms. Evans seems to be either unaware or refusing to admit that when Huckabee refers to "biblical marriage", perhaps he is thinking more along the lines of New Testament teachings. Until Jesus, adultery was something that only a woman could do. St. Paul's teachings to men to "love your wives as Christ loves his Church" was radical at the time.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  2. Pastor Greg

    In many ways this article is as dangerous as the narrow and one-sided view often articulated by politicains and the like trying to make the Bible fit their social norms...

    Too much focus on the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Bible, which are certainly contextual. It's the moral standard offered in the Bible than should be our focus... Being a Christian doesn't have anything to do with growing out your hair or making your own clothing? Stop looking at Bibical figures (other than Jesus) as examples of appropriate Christian living. Why would anyone believe that the men and women in the Bible would get it right in regards to marriage, slavery or a bunch of other issues...There was only one perfect man in the Bible. Christian living has to play out in a sin-sick world which has always created much confusion.

    To siimplify, read the Ten Commandments (or even simpler, Matthew 22:37-40) and embrace the moral imperative, and let's stop getting confused by how we (human beings) have been messing things up since the beginning.

    Really not that complicated...God's Word is clear...Living it out is the tough part (Ask Abraham, David, etc)...and clearly the struggle continues...

    November 18, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  3. Scott

    Context, context, context...which appears to mean nothing to the author.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • mama k

      Context – it's different for each church and each Christian. Christianity does not allow people to arrive a a common view. It never has.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • mama k

      correction: "at a", not "a a"

      November 18, 2012 at 10:28 am |

    Satan knows the Holy scriptures better than all Mankind put together. He inspires non-believers to twist them to suit selfish wicked desires - Satan uses twisted scriptures as a tool to deceive mankind like he did Eve back in the Garden of Eden. Satan's motto: Seek your forbidden pleasures now and don't worry about the Heavenly consequences. Freedom of unbridaled pleasures - why worry about tomorrow? Satan will say, "Even JESUS said, "don't be anxious about tomorrow" right?" satan twists and churns for evil purpose –Satan was doomed the moment Eve sinned. Satan does not want to die alone.

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

      satan is an imaginary figure with which to frighten the children.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Edweird69

      Your god knew what would happen to Satan/Lucifer when he created him. But, he created him anyway, as a hungry lion devouring whom he can. If I created something that would devour you, would you worship me?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  5. Shoumayer Tekin

    That's what they usually do with those created not to be liked but hacked till dead that we see around. Inexplicable stuff? No asking necessary, the countryside though is fine instead. Ain't getting that satisfaction – don't you worry he knows them all inside and out what they are all about. How come role changes but some many selfconflicting obstacles when tex-mex etc. Alternatives etc? fine, there was never any claim or asking for anything anyway. Tks.

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


      November 18, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  6. Luis Wu

    Biblical. Translation – "mythical"

    The bible is ancient mythology. Nothing more.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  7. Colin

    Some nice young believers visited my house the other morning:

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    Mary: "Well, maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."

    Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"

    John: "In this town, Hank is the same as good luck. All good things are attributed to Hank'"

    Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."

    From the Desk of Karl
    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.

    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it plausible that it might be made of cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists don’t know everything, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind.

    from Jhuger.com.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • David

      A lot of words to say nothing.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Jon

      David says "A lot of word to say nothing".

      David gets exactly what Coln is sayng here about the Bible story...the Bible story is a lot of words to say nothing!...nothing worth taking on Faith.

      November 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  8. 200 TON HAMMER

    OK now this is a fact Hebrew Isrealite dress different from Christians and looking on line at the LEMBA tribe of south Africa

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

      We can still help you lose that extra 50 – even 75 tons, Hammer! Call today.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  9. Pedro

    Its always the same. Hate on Christians. Constantly. CNN is disgusting.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • == o ==

      The only kind of "trickle-down" that actually works:

      "Pedro" degenerates to:
      "Douglas" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert" who writes lovely things like 'que ers the ones who gave aids to america' degenerates to:
      "Taskmaster" degenerates to:
      "Ronald Regonzo" degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "tina" degenerates to:
      "captain america" degenerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "nope" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      and many other names, but of course I prefer to refer to this extreme homophobe as
      the disgruntled Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. writer boot camp flunkie.

      oh, the hate. yeah right.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  10. GO_GOP

    Remember he died for your sins and he will be back. You ignore him at your risk. Be afraid atheists, be very afraid. Judgement day is upon us.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • snowboarder

      fear is an effective tool.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Oh OK .. now I believe and repent. Thanks for threatening me into following your belief, I feel so much better now. The LOVE is overwhelming!!!

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

      Horses: If you have decided to get back into our fold, you are blessed and heaven awaits you. But in case you are being sarcastic, there is a special place in hell just for you. The choice is yours. Come embrace Christianity and be saved.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Gman

      Shake off the fear of servile predjudist under which weak minds are servilly crouched. Fix reasone firmly in its seat. Use it's tribunal to question every fact and ever opinion ever the existence of God. "Thomas Jefferson"

      November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Edweird69

      After drowning innocent babies in a great flood, the murderer is going to judge me? BRING IT!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • John Conner

      Fear? Really? I thought that The Bible clearly states that "perfect love casts out fear"...AND being that The Book of John states plainly that "GOD IS LOVE" how could He (love) cause fear when He casts it out? Also, 1st Corinthians Chapter 13 states that "Love keeps NO RECORD of wrongs"...again, God being "Love", how can he "recall" our misdeeds if He keeps no record of them? A word of advice: Don't let your politics poison your probity, nor your culture contaminate your character!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Pilate

      Afraid? What about hope?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  11. Bonnie

    jrbriaga is correct. And here's what Jesus says: "If you remain in my word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:31 & 32. Free from misconceptions and absolute falsehood. Also at John 8:38 Jesus says, "I do nothing of my own initiative; but just as the Father taught me I speak these things." Therefore, even the only begotten Son of God does not speak on his own, but only what God tells him and certainly, God also dictated to all the prophets and Apostles as well. Study Jesus's teachings and the truth will indeed set you free from lies and ignorance.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Gman

      As soon as you committed to blind faith.. Your ignorance is infinite.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  12. AJ Jacobs

    I'm a little perturbed that RHE blatantly ripped off my idea and passes it on as an interesting and original evangelical project. My book is much funnier and more insightful.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    The constant debate to justify biblical belief has continued for 1000's of years .. at some point a reasonable person simply needs to accept that what they've been taught into believing, no matter how deeply indoctrinated, is simply wrong and move on.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  14. Context is your friend

    Cue the atheists "commenting" on a Christian related article trying to make themselves feel intellectually superior...

    November 18, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Reality is your friend

      We don't need to make ourselves feel superior, believers do that for us. It's their own righteous indignation (like what you're showing in your post) that does it so well.

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

      Lol. I think James Madison, chief architect of our Const itution realized there was a context problem among his fellow Christians when he wrote this:

      During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

      (A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785)

      November 18, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  15. right4life

    Isa 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • billy

      So the sheep in the Bible were Satan's army? I didn't know that.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  16. Edweird69

    Why would any rational person want to spend eternity with something, or someone, they had to "be saved from"?? That is beyond me. I mean, if you can't trust him now, how can you trust him later?

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

      2/3 of the human race will fell like you and you can cuse God forever. You have 1/3 of the angels that feel the same way as you and you will be joining them. You spoke the truth, God is saving us from His justice. God taught you the Natural Law. And if you abuse he will give you the spirit you now have and cut off your "ears" to hear the truth.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • snowboarder

      mark – that is just plain looney

      November 18, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  17. o

    teh bible has been changed over and over again, with thousnads of different versions. I learned in public school, amongst christians that the bible was changed. Man change the words of god, so what you're reading today is man's words not Gods. Go back to when the bible was written in old Arimaic, thise were the real words of god. Today people claim to be christian but there actions suggest otherwise.

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

      O, do you really thing that Almighty God, who truly wants us to know Him and His Son, and who wants us to live forever in His kingdom, would actually allow mortal man to change His own word so that we would not be able to know Him in truth?

      Jesus said it well: "This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ." John 17:3.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  18. Wootings

    The only thing "biblical" about any religion is the sheer depth of the stupidity required to disconnect so completely from reality that you'd choose to believe in one.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  19. lindaluttrell

    Proof positive that zealots are doing what they have always done: Picking and choosing biblical verses that conform to THEIR beliefs and ideas...

    November 18, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  20. csalee

    Why do Christians claim to be the one true worldview? Ravi Zacharias talks about this:


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

      At best, he argues that Christianity is morally superior to other religions. It wasn't within the capability of humanity to one-up other religions? And the claim that Christianity has stood the test of time? The Bible wasn't assembled until the 1500s. Whatever did not stand the test of time was discarded. Whatever did stand the test of time was kept. Since then, there has been major reforms in the major Christian denominations, and denominations still disagree on which books are valid. If anything, Christianity has not stood the test of time, it has merely adjusted to evolving societies.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • TyronePalmer

      The scripture in Isaiah 44:6 tells the world and those who follow Jesus that there is only one God and no other.

      “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the First and I am the Last; Besides Me there is no God.'

      Jesus also said in John 14:6 'Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.'

      God created man with free will, you can choose to believe the testimony and obey the word that He spoke which is contained in the bible, or choose not to. There are promises that God made through Jesus of eternal life for those who believe in Him and those who don't are judged already because they have not believed into the name of the only-begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)

      November 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
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