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. Luis Wu

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people get sucked into the fantasy world that is religion.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • pithy me

      Some people are sucked in-most are indoctrinated from birth.

      November 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  2. Liqmaticus

    Thank you Rachel for this article. This needs to be heard far and wide to ALL Christians out there. I was urging a local pastor in my area to reconsider the message he was conveying to his church via Facebook. He said, "Those who vote for Obama have the blood of aborted babies on their hands." When a pastor says something like this I immediately flee from that persons sermons. I think to myself what other false teachings is he/she serving. Republicans are no better Christians with some of their ideologies.

    As usual the Bible lays it out clear!

    Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (New Living Translation)

    "13 If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it;[a] but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing."

    November 18, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      You should report him to the IRS.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The IRS has proven in the past that they will not uphold the tax exemption laws concerning religious organizations and political impartiality.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  3. Kris

    I am a Hindu, but I like the practical aspect of Christianity in the sense that you strictly lead a moral life in this life time (this has been diluted in Hinduism over time esp. in Kali Yuga). Hinduism has unparalleled wisdom and gives a macro-picture (i.e. reincarnating until you give up all material desires and pleasures in search of God), but it seems impractical in a particular incarnation of a human being. For example, we hear in Hinduism that our life is a dream of God. With all trials and tribulations, and experiences of pain and suffering all over the world, its very hard to accept the supposed truth. With Christianity, although the reincarnation aspect seems to have purposefully removed so that people do not become 'lazy' in search of God in this life time, the practical and strict rules governing functions in this life (hard work to lead a prosperous life, improving moral values, etc) are appealing. Over incarnations, if one leads a moral life and chooses a spiritual path that he feels is right for him, he is sure to find God. I think a combination of Christianity (micro: this life time) and Hinduism (Macro-scale) is the best for humankind as both religions, despite their dogmas and some imperfections, by and large are most tolerant. At least I try to follow the best of both.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • somthing's missing

      Great post. Christians can learn a lot from Hinduism and Buddhism. It was a positive sign that Christians supported a Mormon for Prez, even though the Book of Mormon contains many many passages "like the book of Malachi" which contradict the bible. Still, the christian support of a man whose religion is commonly referred to as a "cult" shows that christians are becoming less dogmatic and more open to other beliefs. Mixing the best aspects of other religions is a good idea.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Kris

      There should be a "golden middle path" between Hinduism and Christianity.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  4. trekker

    i'm astounded at the lack of biblical knowledge that the author of this opinion piece displays. the bible is a record of things that are wrong and not condoned by God as well as proscriptions about the right thing to do. for example, polygamy is written about in the earlier days of the old testament to show how people were living then, but it was not condoned and encouraged by scripture. so too, science and faith are not at odds in any way. God created the universe, and any Christians who deny true facts of science (not scientific conjecture and scientific opinion and theories-not-yet-proven parading as "fact") are not biblical. most Christians should and do embrace science and it's proven findings (although there is a very vocal minority that the media chooses to portray as the majority rather than the fringe that it is). it is so easy for even a first year theology students to show all the errors of reasoning and the straw men in most of the author's statements. for example, when reading the whole bible, women are 100% equal with men in all ways, including exerting top leadership positions over men (Deborah, Priscilla). another example, a small percentage of Christians are called to sacredotal celibacy, but 99.9% are encouraged to marry - there is no discrepancy involved, and they are not just some ideas in the bible that we pick and choose between to believe - there is one consistent and variegated holistic understanding off the whole bible to those who can reason well and who have minimal training that churches should be doing in sunday, but mostly are not. ever hear of complexity theory? some things are vastly complex (which can falsely appear to be contradictory to the shallow/casual observer), but totally consistent when viewing the whole. and i could go on and on. it's shallowly thought out pieces like this that unintentionally (i choose to believe) distract many.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Sam I am

      Are you kosher? That is clearly spelled out in Leviticus. If you aren't, by your own written word, you are going to hell. Good luck with that. By the way, the term Christian is not even bilblical.......

      November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • clarification

      "polygamy is written about in the earlier days of the old testament to show how people were living then, but it was not condoned and encouraged by scripture."

      polygamy is obviously a normal way of life in both OT & NT.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Fernando

      I can introduce you to many experts of bible interpretation who will swear that you are wrong. Some will very convincingly argue that your activities will condemn you. I don't see why Christians are so enthusiastic about going to battle with Islam, when they have so many battles going on within their own religion.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • pithy me

      science and faith are not at odds in any way.God created the universe?WHAT?There is ZERO scientific proof that god created the universe.ZERO.Thanks for the softball.

      November 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm |

    "why" the single word hated by any religious leader!
    I wonder why.
    Don't you?

    November 18, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • lionlylamb

      "Who" being the most frustrated word by science,
      Who created Creation?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Ruby

      You don't know? Why don't you know?

      November 18, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  6. lionlylamb

    Four Biblical Quotes to Keep on one's Mind

    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!"

    If one does make an attempt to "literally believe" the above four verses of KJVB scripture you might then slowly begin to understand the Truth in God's Word!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Edweird69

      Here's some more quotes for you:
      1. God is satisfied with his works
      Gen 1:31
      God is dissatisfied with his works.
      Gen 6:6
      2. God dwells in chosen temples
      2 Chron 7:12,16
      God dwells not in temples
      Acts 7:48
      3. God dwells in light
      Tim 6:16
      God dwells in darkness
      1 Kings 8:12/ Ps 18:11/ Ps 97:2
      4. God is seen and heard
      Ex 33:23/ Ex 33:11/ Gen 3:9,10/ Gen 32:30/ Is 6:1/
      Ex 24:9-11
      God is invisible and cannot be heard
      John 1:18/ John 5:37/ Ex 33:20/ 1 Tim 6:16
      5. God is tired and rests
      Ex 31:17
      God is never tired and never rests
      Is 40:28

      November 18, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The second one says it all really, and basically says that the whole god thing is bogus, we are our own gods and masters of our own destiny.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Apple Bush

      Ed, great post. What you should understand about Mr. Lamb is that he thinks there are tiny entities inside our body driving our white blood cells around like bumper cars. Those are our personal god.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  7. Sushi Kanji

    We not open on Sunday.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:17 am |
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    A good breakfast will make you feel great! All bagel breakfast sandwiches $3.99 and includes tea, coffee or juice.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  9. Jesus Christ Son of God

    Someone, please, nail me back on the cross, and then burn me on it. Would be better than listening to these religious sheeple trying to say that I exist, or that god exist.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      That's right, it's better to put them down so you can pretend to be on higher ground and more enlightened.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Apple Bush

      No need to pretend. Fact is fact.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  10. Making an Observation

    Its quite interesting readying the various comments in this diatribe. It would appear that the people making comments are people of faith, yet they attack one another (most likely all worshipping a form of Christianity) with their opinions with vicious discontent !?!?

    November 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • cindy lou who

      you make poor observations

      November 18, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  11. HeavenSent

    I have to come on these articles on the weekend so Scotty doesn't steal my handle to spew lies about Jesus' truth. The FBI returned my couch, but the cushions smell like bug spray. Horrors, earth quakes, floods, disasters are God's wrath against all of us.


    November 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Simran

      Come on fake HS! The real Heavensent left this blog like ages ago. Get over it now and get a life on the weekends.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Jesus’ wisdom is roaring it's ugly head throughout the world. My 12-year-old daughter stopped smoking but her kids won't stop. It makes me smile to know that people will be tortured in hell for eternity.


      November 18, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  12. cindy lou who

    sunday morning...cnn Christian hatred.....say it isnt so!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Edweird69

      Actually, we feel the same about that religion, and all others, 24/7. Not just Sunday.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • cindy lou who

      we love you edweird

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

      I think Edweird69 got it right.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • lolxtians

      I love seeing christians talk about people hating on religion, as if nothing bad has ever come from it. religion is the very basis of hate, you are taught to hate anyone not like you through your false beliefs and ideas.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:25 am |

    The earth is flat and the center of the Universe!!

    Believe it or burn for all eternity!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Do you realize that the Church never preached that the earth was flat?

      November 18, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • the AnViL

      there are a lot of references to 4 corners.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  14. Jesus Christ Son of God

    Father, forgive all the sheeple who are not in church, on their knees, praying to my likeness on the wall, on a cross, for they have no brain.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Edweird69

      Huh? Maybe I don't have a brain, because your post makes zero sense to me.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • BobThe Tomato

      Edweird, your brain is fine, Scorners and mockers never make sense, they just grow up to be bullies.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  15. Ray Hill

    ...as a recovering teenage Baptist evangelist, now Atheist, I have always been concerned about preachers of all kinds reading the bible like they read the want-ads in a newspaper. Few homilies are offered in the context of the scriptures quoted. A few words taken out of context can mean anything the speaker chooses but the understanding within the context is a different matter. I do not know if anyone actually reads these notes but I hope someone will take the 19th Chapter of Matthew and explain it to the rest of us in the context in which it was written...

    November 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Edweird69

      Congrats on your recovery. I'm in the same boat. You will always live with it, but you deal with it on a daily basis. That's what I have done, and my life has improved dramatically over the years.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  16. Kasper Gutman

    Has anyone considered Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Everyone is welcome and the rules are not complicated . May you all be Touched by His Noodly Appendage. – Kasper

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

      Oh how I love hs noodly appendages! All hail to FSM. Lunch time!

      November 18, 2012 at 11:25 am |

    2 plus 2 equals purple!

    The majority knows that!

    To question them is an abomination!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
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    Pass the dutchie on the left hand side!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:08 am |
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      Only at the Corner Cafe
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      November 18, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Corner Cafe

      You are hired!

      November 18, 2012 at 11:27 am |

    A large minority suffers from the mass hysteria of the majority!

    November 18, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  20. sunndown

    The first great gift is the ability to think, reason and make choices. I think it is what makes up "god-like". Religious people need to be careful that they are worshiping God, not the Bible. Many worship the Bible because it is easy to manipulate its many messages. If God wanted to run our lives, we would run on instinct and survival skills. We are expected to do better. We are suppose to think, reason, and make good choices. It's what separates us from the rest of the animals.

    November 18, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Edweird69

      Your post is contradictory. First you said we had the ability to think. Then you said there's a god. A total contradictory.

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

      I don't appreciate you implying that President Obama, a professing Christian is stupid.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Marcus

      I don't like you implying that President Obama, a professing Christian, is stupid.

      November 18, 2012 at 11:22 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.