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. Jill Levin

    Articles like this about any other religion (say Islam for example) would be condemned by CNN as hate speech. CNN carries the water for Christian haters today ... Very shameful.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Mary

      Well said Jill. So sad to see the level of hate and anger directed at Christians today.
      Stand fast, continue to pray and remember....ultimately God wins 🙂

      November 18, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  2. try this...

    ..."biblical living" is not in the Bible... "Christian is used THREE times, and not by Jesus or his followers...the term JESUS used was "DISCIPLES" if you wanted to live the way the bible "says".
    By the way... it is not a (one) book.... it is a collection of 40 authors in 60 small books over a period of 100 years.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  3. Why_Bother

    The bible is part of history. We live in the present days and times. The relevence of something written thousands of years ago should have very little to do with common days. Although many "facts" of the bible are in fact myths it still is followed devoutly? Humans have learned a bunch over time, almost fully based on science and proven facts, yet we still remain archaic in thought or religion. The world is round, and not the center of the universe, the bible is old and a heck of a fairy tale. Modern humans are much less gullable now than we were then

    November 18, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Ellie

      I have noticed a trend with CNN. Whenever they post a "Christian"article it is always something negative towards Christianity. I agree with the other post who said that if the article was about Islam or any other religion they would call it hate speech? CNN's bias against Christians and Jews is very evident in all their reporting.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • ncdude

      "Modern humans are much less gullable now than we were then". That's bull crap. Since Oblumma took office more and more people are going to church and trying to live right. The book of Revelation is coming to past. "The relevence of something written thousands of years ago should have very little to do with common days". That's bull crap too. It's needed now more than ever. Look around. The US problems stem from the fact they have tried to take God out of almost everything. God blessed this country and now look at it. This country was built on the belief in God. Thank God everyone is not an atheist like yourself. Christians will always be around no matter what the muslims and atheists try to do to them.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Cliff

      Those who forget (or ignore) the past are doomed to repeat it. "As it was in the days of Noah...".

      November 18, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  4. Ed B

    I like her concept but you must always rightly divided the word of God in other words the law of the old testement does not need to be applyed.Only the spiritual princables of the new testement... what is missed most is God's grace and mercy and His unconditional love for His people. Never did God tell us anywhere that any particular party or goverment was to force His spiritual princeables on people. And we can only expect one that has his eyes open by the love of God to live by them. We are only to show His love and not force other people who do not know Him on a personal level to live by His princables. Only those who know His grace and Love are expected to live by His ways. I pray you taste and see that His is a good Good that loves you.....

    November 18, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Jen

      What are princables????? Do you mean principles? Yikes. Also, learn how to spell applied, testaments, governments and to form sentences to a first grade level and I might takes what you say seriously.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • RG33

      So you are saying that the Old Testament is not The Word of God and its principals (as teachings) should be ignored? (Or that it IS the word of God, but still should not be taken literally?)

      November 18, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  5. LasPos

    There "IS NO" way a God or god can be proved or disproved. Much of what we believe has been handed down to us by our parents or an authoritative person who was handed down that information or belief by another person or authoritative person and so on (mostly through indoctrination of a young mind that cannot decide what is correct or incorrect), this is the case in all religions. If the mind believes that something is true and some advantage can be gained from it, then this is what will make you happy, this has the same effect as smoking a cigarette, taking a drug or sitting in a house of worship.

    However, if you feel this omnipotent religious figure, does it for you, then you should be happy with that, if your belief is that the world started form a big bang, then that is your panacea.

    I reserve the right to have my own belief, whether it is a world that is 4000 years old and was created by a (G) god or that I evolved from a single cell organism over billion years. I choose the latter and refer back to my opening statement. I spent 26 years as a Christian on my knees searching for a God that seemed to me, never spoke back, and had difficulty understanding why a baby suffered a debilitating painful cancer, when there was a loving God sitting milliseconds away with a healing solution.

    So I say let the Huckabee’s or Evans’s or any others have their opinion, I have mine.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Eric

      You do realize that what you allege happens to children via religious indoctrination is what can easily happen in our public schoolrooms since we do not pay very close attention to what goes on in them?

      November 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  6. Chris

    Basically what you are saying is that the Bible is one of the worst proofread books in history. The real question you should ask yourself is why didn't God do a better job getting his message across? Would have been so hard when a monk was transcribing to say, hey that part contracts that other part and makes me look like a jerk?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  7. crowebar11

    Rachael: Many, many times I have wanted the Bible to be the starting point you talked about, only to find people for the most part have already made up their minds and are now not open for discussion. What I keep thinking is GOD is still talking.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  8. Rev

    Very thoughtful article. In some way every Christian "prioritizes" the Word. Myself, starting from love God and your neighbor as yourself, and then working my way down. It is a struggle to follow Christ through 2000 years of rose colored lenses.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  9. leslee

    Enjoyable article, but what an abrupt ending. The conclusion is no conclusion.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:27 am |

    WHT PGAN COMMENTERS DO NOT REALIZE - You are just confirming what the media already strongly suspected: evilness gravitates towards the leadership of evilness. CNN knows much more that pagans realize - including POTUS. Satan's will wants to be done until jehovah stops it. But Jehovah uses Earthly tools to accomplish his Will also. All humankind is not caught in the vice grip of powerful invisible struggle. People have one of three choice: (1) make positive things happen, (2) just watch the negative happen, or (3) end up asking "what happened" when judgement day arrives.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  11. Reality

    Death's debt is then and there

    Paid down by dying men;

    But it is a promise bare

    That they shall rise again.

    Al-Ma'arri- 1000 CE/AD

    November 18, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  12. gager

    Religion, a useless harmful and destructive cult.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • nope


      November 18, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Karen


      November 18, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  13. Raz Mor

    Thank you for sharing your story. I just want to let you know Christian came from the root name Christ. All the commandments now for Christian are on the New Testament.

    Heb 8:13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

    The Law and the Prophet are just until John.

    Luke 16:16
    The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.

    After John, Christian will be Judge by the Gospel which is the New Testament only. Paul said "MY GOSPEL"

    Romans 2:16
    In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.


    November 18, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • gager

      There is no god so all is b s.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:26 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 8:31 am |
    • truth be told

      Ignorance and vulgarity is not an argument.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Raz Mor

      Elmer, you are right. To fulfill. But fulfill what? Do you know what will be fulfill when he said that?

      November 18, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • ElmerGantry

      @Raz Mor,

      You are the bible "expert"! Please enlighten everyone.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Raz Mor

      actually God does not want Christian to follow the Old Testament.

      Acts 13:39
      And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could NOT be justified by the law of Moses.

      Matthew 5:17
      17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

      Is Jesus under by Moses law?

      1 Timothy 1:8-9
      But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; 9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

      Is Jesus is righteous? He is, then the law of Moses is not for Jesus.

      And what about that Jesus need to fulfill?

      Luke 24:44
      Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything WRITTEN ABOUT "ME" in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

      November 18, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  14. Charlie

    Thoughtful and incisive blog, Rachel. But the larger problem that Evangelicals have, is their belief that the Bible is the "Inerrant and Inspired Word of God". By not refusing to honestly acknowledge the Bible's many contradictions, some of which you skillfully point out, Evangelicals are displaying an enormous Blind Spot: the very fact that the Bible contains these contradictions is rock-solid logical proof that the Bible is NOT "Inerrant". And, if one assumes that God does not willy-nilly change his mind, it's also rock-solid proof that the book is NOT the "Word of God". As you point out, it's a collection of writings by many different PEOPLE over thousands of years. It has value, but its value does NOT tower over all the other books of the world, and it does NOT have all the answers to all the situations of modern life.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Eric

      Charlie, you and Rachel are caught in the exact same trap. Not realizing that God inspired the words that the human authors wrote down. Before they got written down in the Old Testament they were orally handed down from one generation to the next.

      Now, you can forever argue about errors must have entered into this entire process. But that only stands as a useable argument as long as you do not accept that God is real, and that God can do exactly what He has said in the Bible that He can do. I agree, if if were only people, on their own, writing all that stuff down, then it would be useless to help anyone.

      November 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  15. xeno

    I find it incredibly ironic that there are so many Christians on here berating this woman for studying and reflecting on her religion in a dedicated and deep way. Does she threaten those that believe the path to heaven can be bought with enough NOTW merchandise?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • No

      At the end of the day, you'd be surprised how many people will end up siding to something like this and dismantle their beliefs because they are fragile beings who are just looking for an excuse to fail.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • gager

      With a real effort you might find how the world really works.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • truth be told

      So might you.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • jojo

      Nothing fails like prayer.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • zoom

      Atheism is only unhealthy when you reveal your non-belief to a Christian. The “not healthy” part is how so called Christians make it their mission to destroy you and your life.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  17. Tired of this bs

    Hey, CNN-
    When do we get articles that don't hate on Christianity but hate on other things you guys support, like...oh, I don't know, Gay rights.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • The Moderator

      That's why we let Richard Quest keep his job.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Marie

      No kidding. I can't even get a comment through that refutes the author's position.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • yeah, what the bigot said

      I agree. Let's add civil and women's rights to that list as well.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Graystone

      The world is turning away from God and will continue to do so. Jesus himself said, "The end cannot come until he has been rejected of this generation." Thus, these events are just fulfilling prophesy. We who are saved should be thankful we are saved. And as the world waxes weaker, we should was stronger, in preparation for his return...

      2 Timothy 3:2 – This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; 5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof... 6 For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, 7 Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. 8 Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. 9 But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • mjbrin

      there is no hate here. love this piece. is it possible you hate that you haven't tried to live as the bible really describes and do pick and choose yourself?

      November 18, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • jessica30

      I don't think this article hates on Christianity. I think it is written by someone who has thoughtfully read the bible and seems very committed to her faith. I can respect her faith because she tries to see how women of different cultures interpret the Bible and live accordingly.

      Its called compassion and understanding... something missing from so many of the Evangelical Faiths these days.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  18. The Moderator

    If the Bible approved of two guys dressing up like Adolph Eichman and gettin' it on with whips and chains, CNN would only publish positive articles about Christianity.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  19. Abby M

    To "Prophesy" means to speak for God. Sometimes it means to talk about the future but it is really about returning to God, following God.

    November 18, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  20. Marie

    Wow at whoever is editing these comments – so much for free speech. WHO are you working for?

    November 18, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • The Moderator

      You shut up! I am the moderator. And you better agree with the CNN group think!

      November 18, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • gager

      Free speech is not the issue . Cnn has no requirement to allow free speech.

      November 18, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Rachel you are too smart...

      Yeah! I'm going over to foxnews so that I "express" myself freely!! (Now if only they had a comment section after each article...)

      November 18, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • mjbrin

      rewrite what you said then. would love to read your comment

      November 18, 2012 at 8:40 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.