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. Max Bryan

    My advice, Rachel Evans, is to further examine the meaning before and after a text from the bible before forming an opinion. If you take the time to do your research, there was @ that time in the early church a division of a woman's role and responsibility when it pertained to the church. This caused strife and dissension among those striving to establish the church in a world that was grounded in the "old covenant" way of living. Paul (whom i might add for your benefit, was never married) was establishing Godly values for both women and men in an attempt to calm the chaos created by this issue. You say you tried "living biblically on for size" and that you did not do this out of disdain for the Bible but rather you did it for the love of it. While you have some valid points about conflicts in interpreting the Bible correctly and literally, please understand that publicly challenging the inspired word of God only complicates it's validity to people who are trying hard to believe in it's authenticity. Can't we just focus more on the love of Christ. If we all set our goals on that wouldn't the world be such a better place? Please refer to Romans 14:13.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      If the "inspired word of God" cannot stand on its own in the hearts of believers then may the real problem lies not with those challenging it but instead with the depth of faith with the believers.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  2. wifemomchristian

    Skepticism and the “Uniformitarian” Principle

    By Wayne Jackson

    One of the major concepts championed by the skeptical community is known as “uniformitarianism.” This is the notion that Earth’s processes, as they now are, reflect that which always has been. The late Dr. George G. Simpson of the American Museum of Natural History, and a professor at Columbia University, expressed it like this (in concert with two colleagues).

    “There is an important principle fundamental for paleontology, geology, or any science that has historical aspects: the present is a key to the past. That principle was the subject of bitter controversy a century or two ago, when it was endowed with the formidable name of the doctrine of uniformitarianism. It is now accepted as true by virtually all scientists, and without it there could be no really scientific study of any kind of history” (Simpson, et al., pp. 741-742 emp. orig.).

    The fallacy of this statement lies in its extrapolated generality. It certainly is the case that there exists a regular order to nature, a dependable cause-and-effect mechanism – as indeed the Bible itself indicates. In describing the post-Flood environment, Moses declared that “seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night” would be the natural order of Earth’s events for the balance of human history (Gen. 8:22).

    However, when certain scientists adamantly insist that the “uniformitarian” concept has always been inflexible, you may be sure there is a sinister motive lurking nearby. In their minds, the “uniform” principle rules out any supernatural intervention, such as the divine orchestration of miracles, as such were employed in facilitating the unfolding plan of redemption. Likewise, to the radical naturalist, there is no room for the providential operation of God in a behind-the-scenes manipulation of nature’s forces for the accomplishment of a sacred goal.

    The skeptic thus chides the Christian for his conviction that there have been, at times, significant exceptions to the uniformitarian principle. When such accommodates his own philosophical agenda, however, our adversary himself opts for “exceptions” to the “uniform” concept. Let me illustrate this in two ways.
    1.Some atheists, while conceding that the Universe is not eternal, allege that at some point in the ancient past, “matter” simply created itself from nothing. When pressed as to how this might occur, they are at a total loss to produce a viable theory. Does science witness “matter” being created today? It does not. Every serious student of physics knows that the “First Law of Thermodynamics” indicates that no matter is being created currently. How, then, does one argue that a “something-from-nothing” phenomenon occurred in the remote past? “Conditions must have been different then,” is the reply. In other words, “exception” becomes the appeal.
    2.Whence the origin of life? The disciples of Charles Darwin contend that life originated spontaneously; it simply burst into existence, the living from the non-living – all by itself! Evolutionists know, of course, that there is not a shred of evidence sustaining this speculation. Dr. Simpson, et al., confessed that:

    “. . . spontaneous generation does not occur in any known case. All life comes from life. That is one of the really great and fundamental generalizations of biology” (p. 261).

    But what did Simpson and colleagues really believe? Listen to them (from the same page of the previously cited text no less!): “Most biologists think it probable that life did originally arise from non-living matter by natural processes.” What was their rationale for this incredible leap in logic. It was this: “©onditions were clearly quite different” in the ancient world!

    What happened to the “present-is-the-key-to-the-past” mantra? If the present is the key to the past, and life is not being spontaneously generated today, then common sense would lead to the conclusion that life never did originate itself.

    The logical fact of the matter is this. If matter is not eternal, and it does not have the ability to create itself, it must have been created by a non-material Source. If there is no evidence that biological life has the ability to generate itself, rational thought leads to the conclusion that life commenced from a non-biological, eternally-living Source that is beyond the domain of the physical.

    The Bible reveals the Source as God! "In the beginning God. . . " Think sensibly, and believe it.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • The Central Scrutinizer


      November 18, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Jack

      You, sir, have added zilch to the conversation. You've taken two particulars from scientific thought and you've twisted them for your convenience. You are a typical fundamentalist bigot. But, hey, what else is new. Be gone!

      November 18, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Jack

      oh, pardon me. I referred to you as "sir." I missed the "mom" in your screen name. Of course, this only adds to how ridiculous you are. For a woman to defend the hateful stance against females depicted in the bible, is beyond me!

      November 18, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Russells Teapot

      gotta live it when someone takes atheists to task for alleging matter spontaneously came into being and use this to chide, all the while ignoring the fact that you (xtians) posit your god willed himself into existence, that he existed before his own potential to exist and we're the a hole?

      November 18, 2012 at 8:29 am |
      • wifemomchristian

        Never called anyone out of their name, or disrespected anyone at all. I am a female, and I'm perfectly fine with the Bible and how it represents women, as I stated in an earlier post... We are New Testament Christians. The Old Testament or the Old Testament law was made void when Jesus died on the Cross.. Read the new testament without twisting it to fit how you think it should. I refuse to try to fit in with mainstream people.. The Bible is my guide.. I want to go to Heaven. Have a great day.

        November 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  3. stevie68a

    Some bits of wisdom with tons of nonsense, don't buy bull!
    Teach ethics instead. Leave those lies to the dust heap of other forgotten religions.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • tmiletus


      November 18, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • ElmerGantry


      November 18, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  4. Lou

    EPHESIANS 1:4-5 Despite all of Jesus’ instructions to accept him as savior, Jesus also says God "predestined" those will be saved according to His pleasure.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • tmiletus

      Which just goes to show what a twisted sense of humor the Cosmic Muffin has.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  5. tmiletus

    From the first book of Bokonon, verses 2-4:

    And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.

    "Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.

    "Certainly," said man.

    "Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God.

    And He went away.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  6. carla hord

    Did Huckabee explain that at the time of Abraham before his people became the Jewish Nation, they were following practices of the people around them. God had not set up rules or guidelines and people were living according to what they liked or was the custom of the day. When approved marriage is spoken of , it is between a man and a woman – singular form.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  7. jayb18

    Weekly Sunday Catholic bashing story bought to you, once again, by CNN. Hey CNN. Why don't you start a weekly Muslim bashing story every Friday..theres plenty to pick from, wouldn;t you say?. afraid of something? what jokers..

    November 18, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  8. Lou

    The Order of Creation

    Genesis 1:11-12 and 1:26-27 Trees came before Adam.

    Genesis 2:4-9 Trees came after Adam.

    Genesis 1:20-21 and 26-27 Birds were created before Adam.

    Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 Birds were created after Adam.

    Genesis 1:24-27 Animals were created before Adam.

    Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 Animals were created after Adam.

    Genesis 1:26-27 Adam and Eve were created at the same time.

    Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22 Adam was created first, woman sometime later.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  9. sugarpunk

    Boy I am glad this is in the opinion section....because it is just that an opinion. People you better look to the sky, because the time is coming!

    November 18, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • tmiletus

      Is there something in the sky I should be looking for? Time for what?

      November 18, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Mr.C

      o.k. chicken little

      November 18, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  10. J.R.

    The bible is not "the word of God". It has one contradiction after another and I do believe people believe that God is "all powerful & all knowing"?? Well, then why would he write a book that is filled with contradictions that don't make any sense. Sounds more like a book that was WRITTEN BY MEN to control mankind and keep us in line with their lack of understanding of facts. Thanks to science, we have answered what centuries ago they could not. All of these modern day anti-gay bigots need to be silenced once and for all! Quit picking & choosing what you use from that book to discriminate while you INDULGE at Starbucks or commit GLUTTONY at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  11. Syd

    Religion is a horrible thing and will destroy us all.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • SCOTTA.

      yes syd man made religion will destroy us all and send us straight to hell. but true CHRISTIANITY will save us all!! AMEN!

      November 18, 2012 at 4:55 pm |

    Ephesians - "ALL scriptures are inspired and beneficial for teaching, reproving AND SETTING THINGS STRAIGHT" One cannot pick and choose which scriptures to accept and which to reject –it's an all or nothing proposition. That said, the Bible is simply a handbook for maintenance of humanking much like the owner's manual in your glove compartment. Where would man (and woman) be today since craetion of the first human pair without this God-given handbook? The Bible has been tortured and exploited by "the good, the bad AND the ugly" for centuries. For example, the Bible was misused to justify torturous deaths during the Inquisition of non-Christians (Jews and Moslems). "Confess your sins and testify the belief in Christ Jesus"? I doubt Jesus would approve of 90% of the methods used to "spread the good news of the kingdom throughout the whole inhabited earth" before his second coming. The door to Christianity was opened for Gentiles (non-Jews) after "God's chosen people" had first crack at it - fulfilling God's promise to the "seed of Abraham." Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not change it. A loving and merciful Jehovah God, and His reigning King Christ Jesus, invite ALL 7 billion humans on this deteriorating Earth to become willing subjects of their New Kingdom soon to rule the entire Earth after imprisoning satan and his wicked hoard. But the door is about to soon close. Meanwhile, both men and women should show the same tender mercies to each other that Christ showed us while on Earth. The pagans may laugh at this comment, but just remember: Satan your god knows the Holy Scriptures much better than all the priests and ministers on Earth combined. He knows what is about to happen to him and is very afraid like you should now be - Judgement of the wicked soon made that will never bend.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  13. tmiletus

    We are on the verge of destroying our beautiful planet. Thanks to so-called holy books that tell us humanity is a special form of life.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • American

      Notice how CNN never scrutinizes that comic book rag publication the Koran anf its false prophet, the Mislim dog Mohammad. Afraid of what the Kenyan Muslim President Obama might say.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  14. Mark Yelka

    My preference is no religion at all. Religion, with it's twisted explanations and dictates, is not as satisfying or believable as science. My mind just cannot accept the notion of gods. Gods come and go: Zeus, Ra, Odin, and others seem proof enough that religion creates gods to act as social controls and to try to explain the nature of existence. That job, I feel, is better left to scientific investigation.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  15. mdell27

    not sure how you can live according to the bible without getting arrested. especially after you stone your rebellious kids to death.. Deuteronomy 21:18-21

    November 18, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  16. ElmerGantry

    "getSomLearnin" stated,
    I can't believe CNN had the gall to post this article. For those who study and understand the Bible and teachings of Jesus, "living the bible" pretty much excludes the entire old testament. Christ fulfilled the mosaic law. All the rules from Leviticus, Kings, etc... are no more. Only the rules from the New Testament are to be considered. So the fact that this author is quoting laws from the OT, invalidates her argument.
    November 18, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse | Reply

    Matthew 5:17
    Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  17. Calvin

    CNN hates Jesus.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • John

      SO DEOS GOD.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  18. Brian Hartman

    The only laws that it makes any sense at all to call "biblical" are the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. That I know of, those are the only ones that come directly from God or Jesus, and thus have *some* basis for authority.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • tmiletus

      I take the name of the Lord in vain daily. Just to let Him know what I think of Him on the unlikely chance He exists.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • JimNasium

      Which version of the 10 commandments?

      November 18, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  19. tmiletus

    I hope the damage being done by adherents of all religions in the name of their own special Hairy Thunderer ends soon.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  20. wifemomchristian

    Here's the thing.. I see a very well written story.. but There's a problem.. The Bible does lay out a definite way, especially for women, for us all to live a biblical life. We have to remember though, that when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, the Old Testament just became a book of history, for learning and reproof. We are to live by the New Testament. Yes, women are to be silent, BUT if you read the passages around that verse, you would see that's only during service. .... If people would sit down and read the Bible for what it is, instead of trying to pull pieces out to suit their needs, life would be easier.

    November 18, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      Matthew 5:17
      Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

      November 18, 2012 at 7:46 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.