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)

    Adam and Eve did not feel self-conscious about being naked until after they sinned

    November 18, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • roy

      Well of course with all that spooge all over the place.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • richunix

      you forgot Steve. Adam, Eve and Steve!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:52 am |

    Serpents use to have hind legs until Satan used one like a ventriloquist - now snakes crawl on the dust on their belly

    November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • End Religion

      Where did you get your religious joke book? Oh.... you're using the bible. I get it!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  3. Jesus Christ Son of God

    What aren't all you sheeple in church right now, putting money in the tills to support the lawsuits against the catholic church? I will have my dad send you straight to H3LL!

    November 18, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      If it gives your life meaning to put down and make a mockery of other peoples beliefs so you can have some meaning to your life, kudos for you. But maybe you should realize that most people don't live in the same time zone as you, oh witty and smarticle one.....

      November 18, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Jesus Christ Son of God

      BobThe Blob – I am putting you at the top of the list. I'm not making a mockery of other people's beliefs, they do that themselves. Look at those gay guys in the top pictures, where they are all sitting around discussing little boys.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      Really, that is why you picked your name for this blog to be Jesus Christ Son of God. Or why you pretend to be Him, in your post. No one has exclusivity on idiocy; but, don't use that to justify yours.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Beth

      BobThe Tomato, I just fried you in an omelette. How do you like them digestive juices?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      Well if I gotta go....an omelette isn't a bad way to do it......

      November 18, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  4. Christian7

    Anyone that calls God imaginary has committed a logical fallacy. You can not prove a negative by saying no evidence exists. You can not prove that God does not exist because you lack the ability to look everywhere in all dimensions.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Reality

      Your premise is illogical.

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

      christian7 – nonsense. man has invented innumerable deities throughout history. that is an undeniably fact. your god is just another of them.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Jesus Christ Son of God

      I am imaginary, so therefore, my dad is imaginary. There's the proof you sheeple with no brain.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • End Religion

      The universe and everything in it, seen an unseen, known and unknown, was created by a large pink polka-dotted elephant that pinched its trunk and farted us into existence. Some theorize your god, Elephus, who was not created but has always existed, may even have blown a blood vessel in its right eye because it took so much raw power to force existence out of its bung hole.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Christian7

      Reality, Premises are not logical or illogical. They are true, false, or indeterminate.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Christian7

      snowboarder, With great certainty man has made up deities. Now, how does that prove that God, as described in the bible, is also made up? That is call over generalization. Just because some gods are made up does not mean all are made up.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Reality

      A premise is an assumption that something is true.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • snowboarder

      christian7 – considering that your assertion is that all gods are made up, but yours, i'm just going to point at you and snicker. you deserve it.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Christian7

      Reality, In that statement I did not make any statement about any premises being true or false. I was only writing about the logic of saying that God is imaginary. The logic does not depend on whether God exists or not. Saying God is imaginary makes a claim that is impossible to determine. He could exist with out you knowing about it.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Christian7

      Reality, A premise can also be false and indeterminate; therefore, you could assume it is false too. Logic does not assume anything. It take all possible values and concludes based on what the values of the premise could be.

      If a then b
      if not a then c.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Jon


      Are humans limted? Is human logic limited? Is human logic relative to, say, horse logic? Can human logic claim knowledge of any absolute truth outside of human logic...logc which may be lmited?

      November 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Simran

      Anyone who claims that God is real is also commiting the same fallacy. You cannot claim its existence based on ancient texts, not until you prove the positive.

      November 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • End Religion

      Since no one has proven Elephus does not exist, we must all acknowledge he does exist. You can not prove that Elephus does not exist because you lack the ability to look everywhere in all dimensions.

      November 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • OTOH

      End Religion
      "Since no one has proven Elephus does not exist, we must all acknowledge he does exist."

      You're relevant!

      November 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm |

    2 Timothy 3 - "But know this that in the last days men will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of Jehovah"

    November 18, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • End Religion

      Fuck Jehovah! Get me a beer!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  6. Jon

    First, as just an aside, I do wish Atheists realized that when they post shrill fundamentalist-sounding comments in a thread not even about their pet subject, the result is going to be the same as if a Christian fundamentalist posted his shrill comment. There are intelligent Atheists... I'm not seeing them here.

    Second and more to the point, Ms. Evans is right on. The last election cycle was massively painful for any Christian not adhering to the two or three point "Christian Right" agenda, which they invariably labeled "biblical values." Gov. Huckabee was foremost in those ranks, though even more painful was seeing an aging Billy Graham thrust forward by his very Right-wing son Franklin to do the same. Ads appeared across the country in newspapers and even church bulletins (!!) featuring Billy Graham's face and comments about voting "for Israel" "biblical marriage" and (my favorite) a strong defense! Good grief.

    The Christian Right will not change. It is up to the young, minorities, women, and even a minority of us aging white males to find a new way to both live and express our love of Jesus Christ which simply leaves out the Christian Right. They are unrepentant and locked into an unrealistic, fearful place. They've forgotten perfect love casts out fear. We can pray for them, but we can no longer afford to wait for them.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Jake

      It is logically impossible to be a "fundamental atheist". Atheism is simply a denial of a crazy idea.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • End Religion

      Religious folks are imbued with an allergic reaction to reason. So, fuck Jehovah, get me a beer!

      November 18, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Christian7

      End Religion,

      What reason are we failing to understand? Please state what reasoning we are failing to understand?

      People with excellent reasoning skill like Newton, Faraday, Plank, Von Braun and many other of the top scientists throughout history believed in Jesus Christ. Are you claiming to have better reasoning ability than all of them?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • End Religion

      "People with excellent reasoning skill like Newton, Faraday, Plank, Von Braun and many other of the top scientists throughout history believed in Jesus Christ. Are you claiming to have better reasoning ability than all of them?"

      Yes. Now please kindly abandon your faith. I have told you I have incredible reasoning ability and may I also note god speaks through me and has demanded you leave the faith. Please don't upset god.

      November 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm |

    All races of man originated from Noah's various sons

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

      "once upon a time..."

      November 18, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Reality

      It's Sunday, why aren't you in church?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  8. lionlylamb

    Spiritually does the emotionally sanctified in all manner and mannerisms of humanistic languages feeling for just the goodness of Life in their livid nurturing natures.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • snowboarder

      lamb – are you just stringing random words together?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • End Religion

      It's known as "word salad." He and the Hindu Hater are professionals. At least that nut redfireball can communicate.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:03 am |

    At one time all humankind spoke one language (Hebrew?) - we speak different languages since jehovah confused communication between humans building the Tower of Babel (in defiance of Jehovah)

    November 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  10. Apotropoxy

    Here's the official method of aborting a fetus under biblical law:
    "If a man believes his wife has had intercourse with another man and has become pregnant as a result, he shall take her to the tabernacle where the priest will mix holy water with dust off the floor where animals are slaughtered for sacrifice and force the woman to drink it. If the fetus is not the husband's her womb will expel the fetus and her uterus will drop." (Numbers 5:11-21).

    November 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  11. Jesus Christ Son of God

    See that picture of me on the top right of the article, looking at the lamb? I'm actually looking at my dinner. Getting ready to start the bar-b-que pit now. Having me some lamp chops for dinner. Sure does eat good.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Get Real

      Yes! Let us feast upon the lamb of god. And boy, his blood tastes real good. Just talking about the cannibalistic ritual of un-holy communion!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  12. Daytonaken

    I don't question Mike Huckabee one bit. Ask him specifically on any Biblical issue, and he will tell you what Jesus would say. You can't do that in one add.

    Jesus does not support polygamy, nor men sleeping with men, nor the murdering of life.

    If you cheered John Stewart, you have no real understanding of Jesus. You just have an admiration for a witty guy that is clueless of Jesus facts.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  13. LouLow

    Theses are the same voices that were being shouted out in the crowds as he was being led to calvary. Same voices just a different generation. Take it as he did. We know the outcome.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  14. Simran

    It is so strange that Science seems to threaten God, when in fact, there is not a single mention of the word God as far as science is concerned.

    Even more specifically, why do the followers of Abrahamic religions in particular, seem to be the ones most engaging in debates whether or not God exists, and trying to prove their point, and blame science of being empiricist? The religions that arose in the Indian subcontinent by and large have always felt no threat by scientific developments.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Christian7

      Threat of scientific developments? Who? Countries that have large Christian populations have had the greatest Scientific discoveries and best technology. Britain, Germany, the United States.

      Here are some samples:
      "I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."– Issac Newton

      Both religion and natural science require a belief in God for their activities, to the former He is the starting point, and to the latter the goal of every thought process. To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.
      — Max Planck (German theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory)

      It is no longer enough that we pray that God may be with us on our side. We must learn again that we may be on God's side.
      — Wernher von Braun (Lead Rocket Scientist for the Apollo Saturn V that successfully made it to the moon and back)

      November 18, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Simran

      In 1998, a study by Larson and Witham appeared on the leading journal Nature ("Leading scientists still reject God"), showing that of the American scientists who had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, only about 7 percent believe in a personal god. Religious believers form about 40 percent of the less eminent scientists in America.
      • A study in Britain, undertaken by R. Elisabeth Cornwell and Michael Stirrat, involved sending a questionnaire to all 1,074 Fellows of the Royal Society who possessed an email address, offering several propositions and asking the scientists to rank their beliefs on that point from 1 to 7. About 23 percent responded and preliminary results indicate that, of these, 3.3 percent agreed strongly (chose 7) and 78.8 percent disagreed strongly (chose 1) that a personal god exists. A total of 12 Fellows chose 6 or 7 to indicate that they were believers, while 213 Fellows chose 1 or 2 to indicate that they were nonbelievers.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Simran

      The list of atheistic scientists is so long, I will just send you to the wikipedia link for the same:

      Just to bring out a few common names: Thomas Edison, Niels Bohr, Peirre Curie, Sigmund Freud, Stephen Hawking, the Oppenheimers (plural), Ivan Pavlov, Carl Sagan, Amartya Kumar Sen, James Watson, Steven Weingberg.....

      November 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |

    Satan the Devil cannot CREATE - only DESTROY

    November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • End Religion

      I happen to know that Satan makes some awesome mix tapes when he's bored. You have been refuted yet again.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |

    Satan was once a beautiful powerful angel –it went to his head - he loves to be worshiped.

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

      So does God.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Satan

      I'm.... too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt. So sexy, it HURTS!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • Get Real

      The mythical Satan is the good guy- he had the balls to challenge a mythical god who delights in torturing and killing innocent people. Satan told god he was insane when he asked Abraham to kill hi own son.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  17. QMAX1234

    Wow, this person doesn't know know Bible 101. Many of the questions he asked or brought up about biblical marriage and Women speaking in Church are easily answered. Polygamy was allowed but not encouraged by kings in the OT but was strictly forbidden in the NT, while women talking in church referred to learning as Rabbis which was unheard of back in those days. Rachel Held Evans needs to learn about Christianity and the Bible before posting false opinion blogs. If this was about Islam CNN would never allow someone to speak against the Quran.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  18. Choices

    There are basically two groups of people here. Those who choose to believe in the Bible as the Word of God, and those
    who have chosen not to believe in it at all. There is nothing I can say here that would cause people in one group to change
    their mind and join the other group.

    You can chose to believe in Creation or in Evolution. You can choose to believe in God or not.

    There are right choices and wrong choices, but everyone will be making choices. These choices
    will determine and individuals future here right now and also in the hereafter.

    As for me, I chose to believe the Bible, in Creation, the Flood and the 2nd Coming of Christ. I choose to believe in the
    seventh-Day Sabbath (as given to all mankind centuries before any Jew).

    I am not interested in the opinions of man, or of tradition. Call me a fool, call me crazy, I am not surprised. You see, as a Christian, I expect all sorts of ridicule and persecution. It comes with the territory.

    All of us are making choices everyday, that is the only point I am making.

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

      you really belive in the flood?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • snowboarder


      November 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Get Real

      How evil it is to believe in the flood that murdered innocent children and the imaginary god that that did the flooding!

      November 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Sparky8

      As good old Ben Franklin put it.." Religion has killed more people than smallpox!"

      November 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • rational minnesota

      It's not about what you choose or believe.

      It's about the incontrovertible mountain of evidence.

      Science – and therefore evolution, billions of years, etc. – is the better option because it requires no faith, only acceptance of testable, repeatable, and falsifiable evidence.

      You have chosen to believe against all common sense and logic.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  19. Ralph Monkman

    The bible is such a messy and contradiction filled text that for any rational and MORAL human being aetheism is really the most common sense approach.

    November 18, 2012 at 10:34 am |

    Jehovah God is the only One we know of according to the Scriptures who never had a beginning - the Alpha and Omega - our limited human minds can easily imagine never ending but what about never having had a beginning? The only thing I know of that never begins or ends is a CIRCLE -- everything God created appears to be circular or cyclic right?

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

      The universe appears to have a beginning. Leaves are hardly circular. If I were argue "god didn't create basketballs" I would have to guess a religious person would disagree, so then didn't god create moving boxes? Those aren't circular.

      You are practicing 8th grade level logic, friend. Not that we'd expect more from a nutter.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:45 am |
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About this blog

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.