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. American

    "devisive" not "devisiveness" - oops!

    November 18, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. Get Real

    Theocratic evangelical christians are scary and anti-American and would take away our rights to free speech and freedom of religion (or lack there of). Believe what ever you want, but do not force your beliefs upon me. As Patrick Henry said "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". I stand by this great American TRUTH. That said, I hope you give me the same basic American rights...

    The bible is a book of myths and lies. God is imaginary and so is hell. If God were real he would be an evil monster. Who gives a rat's behind what the bible say's because it's pure fiction. How can you worship a god that has killed innocent children? If you worship the god of the bible you worship an evil murderer. Thank god that god is imaginary. Only a monster would make people knowing that they would eventually wind up in hell- especially when he had the choice to not make them at all, thus saving them from eternal torture.

    Satan good. God bad. But only from a mythological point of view, because they are both imaginary

    Praise Lucifer, the bringer of truth, light and reason! Hail Satan, the imaginary adversary to an imaginary god, who has the balls to fight against god's evil ways! Glory be to the mythical beings of Lucifer and Satan who shall slay the evil mythical God of Abraham!!!!

    Remember what I said about free speech? If you truly believe in American values you will respect my right to publicly praise the mythical beings of Lucifer and Satan.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  3. Christian7

    Guest, Jesus is God.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  4. American

    Religion is the most divisiveness thing in the world today! You don't see agnostics and atheists even arguing, much less killing each other! I think you religious folks use your religion as an excuse (God-given according to you) for looking down on other people and making yourselves feel more important than the rest of us!

    The smug, self-righteous Mitt Romney displays it perfectly - he thinks he's gonna be a God someday and it shows!

    November 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Sue

      Yep. Cue the rabid religious nuts defending their particular fairy tale, still unable to present any evidence for it.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  5. mark

    Every man was taught the Natural law. You think that this law written in all of us was caused by evolution? You can't hear, it's because God cut off your ears to hear. Wow to hyprocrites. Your spirit comes from God as a punishment for being a hyprocrite against the Natural Law.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • snowboarder

      mark, why do you continually post this nonsense?

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

      snowboarder..my point exactly. I know to you its non sense because you can't hear.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • 9001

      I'm sorry, "mark", but your assertions regarding natural law and myth are unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book can help you:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...

      November 18, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • hal 9001

      Excuse me, my moniker sub-system was performing self-maintenance. I am hal 9001.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'mark' is an instance of the Secret Decoder Ring fallacy.


      November 18, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • mark

      9001....go ahead a discount the possiblity that your ear to hear was cut off. All ppls on the earth have been found to have the Golen rule or natural law written on their hearts. Even small children easily understand right and wrong.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'mark' is an instance of the common Non Causa Pro Causa fallacy.


      November 18, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Wrong, mark. Did you watch 60 Minutes last night? Babies as young as a few months have an understanding of behavior–it has nothing to do with religion.

      November 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  6. George

    Does God Approve of Polygamy?

    No; the standard God set in Eden with the first marriage was that of monogamy. Jesus Christ later reaffirmed that standard for his followers. —Genesis 2:18-24; Matthew 19:4-6.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • End Religion

      George, in the future please ask me what god approves of. You shouldn't be making up your own mind about these things. God speaks only through me.

      As for polygomy, yeah, go ahead and marry whoever you want. In the time I first wrote the bible shepherds were marrying goats, for goodness sake. Marrying an extra human or 2 is OK. Just don't get carried away with it or I'll smite you.

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

      Yes, the only problem with the genesis account is that it's a MYTH! It NEVER happened. So we start from square one.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • open cinnamon shoe

      Ruth, I feel very sorry for you and will pray for you even though you will get mad at the thought of that happening. I will do so anyway.

      November 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  7. lionlylamb

    Atheists believe upon nothingness and they are in a way, correctly a s s u m i n g. Nothingness is the Holy Sea of Godly Spiritualism. Nothingness is the binding force that embeds all matters of material inclusions being as quantifiable structures relative to quantumn physicalities conditioning.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • roy

      That's too much of an assumption.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  8. The Master

    As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God, – I stopped there, as her stupidity became glaringly apparent..

    November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • End Religion

      If god wanted to inspire people he would simply whisper into their ear. Why right it in a book in a language no one speaks any longer? Use your head. The bible is a fraud.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • End Religion


      November 18, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  9. Sincere Cristian

    The author seems to have forgotten that the Old Testament should always be interpreted & understood in light of the New Testament. Much nonsense & mischief comes from the reverse.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • End Religion

      More nonsense and mischief comes from bothering to read/listen to the bible at all. Can';t you understand the NT is simply admission that "the word of god" was a bit wrong and needed to be updated? How foolish can you be? Proof that the bible is a fraud is right there in front of you in the book.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:32 am |

    Satan entices the non-believers to mock earnest effort of imperfect men who are trying to do the right thing - even those who broke bread with Jesus while he was on earth doubted him (i.e., Thomas). How much more difficult is it for those of us who want to try doing what Jesus wants today????

    November 18, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Ken

      Don't worry. Gandalf is going to join up with Dumbledore and Hagrid to both slay Satan and put boring Chrisgian god out of business with their more popular fairy tales.

      Pick even one of those major magic dudes. Dumbledore > god. Gandalf > god. And Hagrid > god. And so are the beatles.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  11. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    So what did God(s) do for the ETERNITY the preceeded the creation of the universe?

    November 18, 2012 at 10:29 am |

      we do not know yet - perhaps He will tell us one day?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Excellent answer redfireball. I usually get some kind of insult, but no answer. But don't you think it seems to be a glaring omission from all religious texts, stories or beliefs?

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

      Try reading revelation.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  12. Daytonaken

    What ever happened to the separation of church and State? Everything they touch they screw up. They recently screwed up a simple little memo.

    How about the Fed go back to the basics and establish and protect our curency system (Failed), our shores/borders (Failed), Deliver the mail (barely surviving), Protect individual rights (Failed). They have no business doing anything else untl they can get that right.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  13. LouLow

    Looks like theres gonna be alot of room in the New Jeruselem. Lets see who you go crying to when your last moment comes.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Keep telling yourself that since it obviously makes you feel special. If you actually believed in heaven, and that you're going there, you would simply stop eating and let God(s) take you home.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • open cinnamon shoe

      ^^^Except that God has work for us to do here....and being good servants we are tempted to go home now but do not. Its really as simple as anything if you TRY to understand. Of course, if you have already made your mind up there is nothing in the Bible that will change it.

      November 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  14. kendrick1

    This cafeteria-style treatment of the messages in the Bible has been joyously received as much as the introduction of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Marxist/Communist/Socailist/Progressive endeavors especially embrace a demise of any religion except the worship of the state!

    A visit to CNN, Bloomberg, and other liberal websites will give ample proof the our nation is hurtling toward the worship of the government - another religion!

    November 18, 2012 at 10:27 am |

    As Paul commanded, "Get behind me Satan!"

    November 18, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • roy

      I didn't know Paul was a bottom.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Daytonaken

      For the first time in his life, Roy wants to meet Paul?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  16. BibleProof

    Please no one be so stupid. The Bible clearly states that Huckabee should be voted as President. Follow the Bible.

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

      And that would be a bad thing? Someone who could actually say and do what he says?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  17. Colin

    Now, here are 10 Commandments that every child should be taught.

    1. DO NOT automatically believe something just because a parent, priest, rabbi or minister tells you that you must. They can’t all be right.

    2. DO NOT think that claims about magic, miracles and the supernatural are more likely true because they are written in old books. That makes them less likely true.

    3. DO analyze claims about religion with the same critical eye that you would claims about money, political positions or social issues.

    4. DO NOT accept it when religious leaders tell you it is wrong to question, doubt or think for yourself. It never is. Only those selling junk cars want to prohibit you from looking under the hood.

    5. DO decouple morality from a belief in the supernatural, in any of its formulations (Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc.). One can be moral without believing in gods, ghosts and ghouls and believing in any of them does not make one moral.

    6. DO a bit of independent research into whatever book you were brought up to believe in. Who are its authors and why should you believe them in what they say? How many translations has it gone through? Do we have originals, or only edited copies of copies of copies– the latter is certainly true for every single book in the Bible.

    7. DO realize that you are only a Christian (or Hindu or Jew) because of where you were born. Were you lucky enough to be born in the one part of the World that “got it right”?

    8. DO NOT be an apologist or accept the explanation “your mind is too small to understand the greatness of God,” “God is outside the Universe” or “God moves in mysterious ways” when you come upon logical inconsistencies in your belief. A retreat to mysticism is the first refuge of the cornered fool.

    9. DO understand where your religion came from and how it evolved from earlier beliefs to the point you were taught it. Are you lucky enough to be living at that one point in history where we “got it right”?

    10. DO educate yourself on the natural Universe, human history and the history of life on Earth, so as to be able to properly evaluate claims that a benevolent, mind-reading god is behind the whole thing.

    I sometimes think that, if we first taught our children these simple guidelines, any supernatural belief would be quickly dismissed by them as quaint nostalgia from a bygone era. I hope we get there as a species.

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

      Every man was taught the Natural law. You think that this law written in all of us was caused by evolution? You can't hear, it's because God cut off your ears to hear. Wow to hyprocrites. Your spirit comes from God as a punishment for being a hyprocrite against the Natural Law.

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

      I LOVE the new 10 commandments! Never have understood the religious obsession with texts that are old and out of date. Would we practice medicine based on Hippocrates? No we took the best and most enduring of his thought (the oath) and ditched the rest. Why not take the best from all of the ancient texts (ALL have versions of "Do nothing to others you would not want done to you!) and ditch all of the rest that is just so much mumbo jumbo!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Hello

      looks great, but hard to be true and hard to ensure the perfect end, and this is also what you should learn to your kids, that we do what we can finish.
      You want your children to start evaluating everything even the value, No Key value for their life? What if they lost? At least we need to give them the base!
      You want them to understand if their God all the details first then approve, Great, what about devil!, some people doesn’t believe in God but when they do evil they believe Devil did that in them by his power and influence, so This people will believe in Devil but not in God because they don’t to believe they bible, they want to discuss every details first all the life then decide believe or no, but devil is EXIST.

      What if you let your children try living with God and expertise this life every day and know that God will not force them, and they are free to know God as they want as long as they decide, and if they success in building this relation with the God whom can’t see him but has the feeling and believe that he is exist you did a good job especially when they have their own experience with this GOD, and from the beginning they can go if they are not able to feel that without scaring them buy the hill.

      The bible said it is few thousands of people will be in the Kingdom, so it means no force or no religious people, it is only for the people whom got able to communicate with God all life all time and most of them were living long life against God!
      We can speak more and more but starting from the beginning with kids without leads is a risk that whose know where it will be ended.

      Allow me to say God bless you.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Bob

      Wow, mark. Punishment by amputation or other disfiguration or disablement is a human rights abuse. Sounds like your god is quite the ass hole. No thanks, you can keep your evil sky fairy. To yourself. Quietly, please.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • mark

      hey Bob...u are tasting death early. You will have eternity to curse God. Hell is filled with such cursing.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Name*uummm

      You can Not make your own Ten commandments,you are not God.

      November 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm |

    Jehovah God and His Son Jesus Christ saw EVERYTHING

    November 18, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Name*uummm

      It was Jesus who said "get behind me satan."-_-

      November 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  19. 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.
    Catholicism is a crutch for the weak-minded (who were mostly brainwashed at an early age) that cannot seem to think beyond their fear that god may not exist.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  20. Arno

    I don't agree that interpretation of scripture is as messy as you say it is. For example; you argue is that we chose not to observe levitical purity laws for a woman's period, but modern products result in practically every woman observing the spirit of that law. I think you failed to consider the intent of the law. It was intended for our welfare, to prevent heartache, disease, to dispense justice and prevent inequity. Consider polygamy and divorce, both are biblical, but they are also not what God intended. God did not give Adam more than one wife and a new testament church leader is to be the husband of one wife. Divorce is permitted under the law, but it is also not what God intended as Jesus explained.
    Now consider Paul's exhortation for women not to have the outward adornment of jewelry in balance with the teaching of Jesus that "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also". Spending gobs of money on fashion, jewelry, bigger houses and other similar crap means our hearts are in the wrong place. I think the problem is in the extreme view. If you make it a hard rule that women may never have any "adornment" then you are binding yourself to a law that was never made a law. This then becomes a thing that drives people apart, a 'you need to look like us to belong' kind of a thing. It's legalism and not a relationship. Remember it is our hearts Jesus is after, not the rules. The 'adornment' exhortation is about the heart again. Inward beauty over outward. A heart that is invested in heaven is a beautiful thing, not concerned about "adornment" but also not bound by a rule that says you can never ever have any jewelry at all.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:23 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.