FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — “The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits–all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth” (from Rachel Held Evans’ new book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”).
This statement struck me when a friend and I traveled to Waco, Texas, to hear Rachel Held Evans speak during Baylor University’s chapel earlier this year. I had been following Evans’ popular blog for well over a year as she embarked on “The Project,” a one-year journey to understand true biblical womanhood. After hearing her message, I felt torn. On the one hand, Evans’ engaging communication style left me wanting to sit down with her over a cup of coffee and hear more of how she tackled her journey. On the other hand, I came away troubled by her statement that there is no “formula” for believing women.
I agree with Evans that knowing what womanhood looks like in today’s world and culture is difficult to see in practical terms, but I cannot swallow that the Bible does not give us a model of how to be a woman of faith. I’ve anticipated the release of her book, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” knowing that Evans and I would disagree, but also feeling that her book might serve those of us who teach and espouse a complementarian view of gender roles — specifically biblical womanhood.
Have we really, as Evans claims, made one picture of womanhood the ideal above all others?
“In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and sometimes troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed” (page 294). If that is the case, then we complementarians need to take this as a wake-up call! If Evans reflects the feelings of other Christian women, then we must do a better job of communicating the timeless principles and blessings found in God’s Word.
Through her easygoing writing style and storytelling ability, Evans chronicles a one-year journey to discover true biblical womanhood. Even the subtitle, “How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master,'” indicates the tenor of the book; she is funny, engaging, and pulls readers into her experiences. For “The Project,” as she calls it, Evans sought to study every biblical passage related to women, follow as many of the Bible’s teachings in her day-to-day life, and commit to her “Biblical Woman’s Ten Commandments.” Each month she tackled a character trait and a task or behavior related to the trait of the month.
Evans’ way of recounting her experiences will immediately draw in anyone who reads A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It is an easy read that is filled with funny stories of her antics, meaningful experiences with friends, and moments of discovery. But, weaved within these stories are little zingers that we need to be cautious of. Much of what Evans writes sounds good on the surface. Yet, statements like these should give us pause for concern: “The Bible’s not the place to look for traditional family values” (48). “Christians seem to think that because the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally. Jews don’t do this” (87). “We forget sometimes that the Epistles are just that … epistles” (259). Unless we read with discernment, these statements can influence our view of Scripture, gender roles and God. The wise reader will read Evans’ book with discernment.
Evans employs a classic feminist hermeneutic or method of interpreting Scripture. Through her interpretation she concludes that gender roles are the result of the Fall and much of the New Testament epistles are a blend of Christianity and culture (218-19). This method of interpretation has the tendency to skip over or discount certain portions of Scripture as being only applicable to the first hearers or the original culture. The result of such a hermeneutic concludes that for “those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose” (296).
Additionally, when Evans explores the complementarian or biblical womanhood view, she tends to depend on fringe groups rather than the mainstream of the conservative view, or she interprets based on the writings of a select few, rather than the body of literature as a whole. Visiting Quaker groups, Amish families, and quoting heavily from Debi Pearl and her volume “Created to be His Help Meet” lead to misrepresentations of what complementarians truly believe. There were times I found myself saying out loud, “that’s not really what complementarians believe or how they interpret that passage.”
One more thing to be aware of is her focus on the legal codes of the Old Testament. While she does tackle submission, modesty and Paul’s command that women are to remain silent, much of the literal behaviors she follows are based on Old Testament laws or instructions to the children of Israel. She depends heavily on the advice of a Jewish rabbi’s wife, which introduces yet another view of Scripture into the equation. Yes, this is where the now famous story of spending the night in a tent, clutching a walkie-talkie during her “manner of women” is hilariously retold. Evans’ attempt to literally enact what no longer has a place in the New Testament believer’s life adds to the confusion of what she attempts to prove. Contrary to Evans’ claim, Jesus did not consider he was defiled when the woman with the issue of blood touched Him (Matthew 5:24-34, page 170 in her book). We actually can learn about God’s protection and provision for women from these legal codes if we understand them in their cultural context.
I do think Evans discovered a taste of true biblical womanhood whether she admits it or not. She learned the joys of hospitality and how it feeds the body and the soul. She learned how honoring her husband affects him, even if she doesn’t greet him at the end of the day perfectly put together, slippers in hand, and a home-cooked meal on the table. She learned the transformation that comes from intentionally spending time with the Lord, not just talking to him, but also being quiet to listen.
After reading the book, I think that we as complementarians may be failing to communicate true biblical womanhood. If it is heard as a “list of rigid roles” (295) or antiquated lifestyle, rather than principles to be manifested in our life circumstances, we’re missing the mark.
As others have criticized, her writing seems to portray biblical womanhood as foolish, dated and impractical. But, reading deeper, the apparent mockery flows from a more peripheral interpretation, quotes taken out of context, or an overall misunderstanding of the complementarian position. I have to wonder whether Evans’ book can serve to spur complementarians on to better communicate the principles of biblical womanhood rather than offering a checklist of what to do.
I believe Rachel Held Evans, like many women, simply wants to know what biblical womanhood looks like in the 21st century. And, in one sense she’s right: There is not a one-size-fits-all model for the practical outworking of biblical womanhood that fits every situation. Scripture does not always speak to the specifics but it does give us principles that inform the specifics. Without qualification, Scripture does provide the model for a woman after God’s own heart to follow — even if that doesn’t fit into a neat little box.
While I am glad that I read A Year of Biblical Womanhood, it would be difficult to recommend it to a young woman still working out her theology unless she has the benefit of being able to discuss what she is reading. It’s the kind of discussion that needs to be processed in a community of believing women. Nevertheless, the discussion needs to occur. There is value in dialog. And, yes, I would still welcome a conversation with Evans over a cup of coffee. We may walk away agreeing to disagree, but, hopefully, we will walk away understanding each other better.
Terri Stovall serves as the dean of women’s programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. She co-authored the book “Women Leading Women.” This column first appeared at BiblicalWoman.org, a blog of Southwestern Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).