The Common Good
November 2012

Being Like Deborah

by Betsy Shirley | November 2012

What in heaven's name does "biblical womanhood" mean? Rachel Held Evans embarked on a yearlong journey to find out.

Since the establishment of The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987 and J.I. Packer’s 1991 article “Let’s Stop Making Women Presbyters” in Christianity Today, there’s been a resurgence of traditionalist theology among some American churches. Instead of advocating “male headship,” they now promote “complementarianism.” Instead of portraying women as intrinsically “serving, subordinate, and supportive,” they now advocate “biblical womanhood.” But it’s the same patriarchal heresy, just with new language.

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Rachel Held Evans, a Tennessee-based evangelical Christian raised in conservative Christian churches, decided to turn the tables. She vowed to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master is the often-hilarious, engaging, well-researched, deadly serious result.  (You can read all about her adventures at rachelheldevans.com). Former Sojourners editorial assistant Betsy Shirley, a student at Yale Divinity School, interviewed Evans in August 2012.

Betsy Shirley: So how does a nice, liberated woman like you find herself covering her head and calling her husband “master”?

Rachel Held Evans: I loved A.J. Jacob’s book The Year of Living Biblically, and always thought, “Boy, this would be a totally different book if a woman had done this.” I never dreamed of doing it myself until I started encountering Christian teachings that were advocating “biblical womanhood”—teachings about submission, submitting to your husband, and not teaching in church. I started thinking, “Well, nobody is actually practicing ‘biblical womanhood’ 100 percent.” That’s when I got the idea to have some fun and try to do all the teachings that relate to women in the Bible as literally as possible for a year.


In your book you write: “We evangelicals have a habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name.” When we talk about “biblical womanhood” or “biblical” anything, what are we talking about?

That’s the million dollar question. When we use the word “biblical,” I would prefer that we use it descriptively, to describe that which is found in the Bible, instead of prescriptively, meaning “here’s what God wants you to do.” Because when we use it that way—prescriptively—we tend to pull out certain passages that fit our theological presuppositions and leave the rest dangling.

How did you define “biblical womanhood” during your yearlong experiment?

“Biblical womanhood” in my experiment meant everything from the parts of the Bible we’d rather not talk about—profoundly troubling passages about women being considered property, spoils of war, and having more value in their virginity than anything else—to the passages we always drum up when we’re talking about biblical womanhood: Titus 2 and 1 Timothy 2 and passages about women being silent in church. But then there’s another side of scripture, where we have these amazing women who do bold, crazy things like Deborah, Ruth, Jael, Mary Magdalene, and Mary and Martha, women who really break what we consider to be the mold. And none of them look exactly the same. It’s complicated.

So what’s a gal to do?

My conclusion at the end of the year is that there is no one right way to be a woman of God. There’s no one path to “biblical womanhood.” There’s too much in contrast, too many different women in scripture, too many different cultures represented to say, “Biblical womanhood looks like ... bullet point one, two, three, four.”

Amen.

It’s liberating, really, because it means I need to follow Jesus as me. I don’t have to alter my personality, I’m not forbidden from taking leadership positions, and I don’t have to knit—which is good, because I suck at it. I just have to be myself fully committed to Jesus Christ. Which is the same for men. Or really anybody who wants to follow Jesus.

In your book, you explain that the “theological bulwark” of the biblical womanhood movement originated with groups such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood established in 1987. Why were these groups founded?

When I was researching modern day biblical womanhood movements within evangelicalism, or “complementarianism,” time and again it references second-wave feminism as this horrible cultural movement that was destroying the family. And so complementarian movements emphasize the nuclear family: women staying at home and not going to work, women not assuming leadership positions in the church, and women staying in their more “traditional” place. Theologically, their effort has been to take the parts of scripture that seem to support the pre-feminist, American, nuclear family, and point to those passages as “biblical womanhood.” And that’s one of my critiques: It’s selectively applying passages of scripture that support the June Cleaver ideal. But they’re not actually trying to bring back “biblical” womanhood, because nobody honestly wants to go back to the patriarchy of a Near Eastern culture where women were property, marriages were typically arranged, and men had multiple wives.

To folks outside of evangelicalism, it may come as a shock that some communities still use scripture to restrict or forbid women’s leadership in the church. Why do you think complementarian teaching resonates with some Christians today?

I think women want to understand what it means to be a woman and to follow Jesus Christ. I mean, since Jesus is a male, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus as a woman? Those are good questions that unfortunately have been answered with a long list of restrictions trying to manage women. A lot of people are trying to make a sincere effort to honor what scripture says; I just think they’re interpreting it wrong. Like the 1 Timothy passage where it says “I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” A lot of people sincerely think that must apply today, but haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the context. People forget that the point of the epistles was not to make new laws, but to apply Jesus’ teachings to very specific contexts. To take all of these letters and turn them into laws is misguided.

Do you see other dynamics at work in contemporary complementarian movements?

I do think there’s an element of power involved, but I don’t know that people are complementarian or conservative in this way because they’re grasping after power. There is a sincere desire to honor scripture and obey it. But it does conveniently preserve power for men, and it preserves the hierarchal structure that exists now. That’s a really difficult thing to chip away at.

During your project you observed that women of scripture seem particularly concerned with justice and that “the woman of valor, she opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” What does justice for women look like?

Women really are a key component to turning things around when it comes to worldwide poverty. Equipping them with basic things can be so powerful; some women just need that sewing machine or that farm equipment or that education. That’s what justice looks like for women around the world: not just their ontological equality, but also functional equality. I really think that the key to lifting women out of poverty is for them to be considered and treated as equals.

Is that the same as justice for women in the church?

I think so. A good example is Leymah Gbowee, one of the women from Liberia who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Gbowee helped end Liberia’s long, bloody civil war by organizing both Muslim and Christian women to protest. They did sex strikes. They camped out at the consulate. They stood in front of the soldiers. These women, under her leadership, stopped the war. And she got her start when she preached a sermon at her church. To me, that is such a great example of how women are capable of bringing peace to the world and lifting communities out of poverty; it’s just sometimes they’re forbidden from that platform. I feel that as long as we’re denying women the opportunity to speak and prophesy and lead, we’re not going to see the sort of justice for women we need to see. And that goes totally across the board—it applies in Liberia and it applies in Grand Rapids.

Your project takes some cues from A.J. Jacob’s book, but one of the ways you differ from Jacobs, besides being a woman, is that you’re a Christian and you believe the Bible is an inspired text. How did this shape your attitude toward the project?

I had this deep and profound desire to understand what this text means to me as a woman, which is a big question to ask because the biblical texts can be very troubling for women, and glossing over that is just not my style. I wanted to wrestle with it—like, why is this passage here that seems to treat women as property? Why is it that women could be considered spoils of war, right along with cattle and gold? On the other side, what does it mean that Jesus, when he rose from the dead, first spoke to a woman? What are the implications of that? And they’re huge, I think: He inaugurated his new kingdom in the presence of a woman whose testimony to it wasn’t even considered legitimate. So this wasn’t just story material to me; this is material that is shaping the story of my life, and I want desperately to honor it well, and not make it look silly or irrelevant.

After a year of “wrestling with the text,” are you walking away with a limp?

Yes, definitely. But I’ve learned to create a space of quietness in front of those passages of scripture that I don’t understand or don’t like. It’s no easier to read the story of Jephthah’s daughter now than it was before—it’s still really troubling and really upsetting. But I’ve learned to honor the fact that I’m probably supposed to react that way.

I’m so encouraged that the women of Israel used to honor Jephthah’s daughter and recognize her story as a tragic one. I’d like to see women get creative and come up with some new ways to honor the women from scripture who—in a patriarchal society—honored God amidst that. Under the circumstances they lived, their stories take on an even more powerful tone.

How can women—and men—encourage better conversation in evangelical communities about how the Bible is understood and interpreted?

I’d really love to see Christians take a cue from our Jewish brothers and sisters; they engage the Bible so differently than we do. Jewish folks seem to embrace the difficulty of scripture instead of trying to explain it away. They don’t talk about the “plain, simple meaning of scripture”; they see it as this beautiful, multi-faceted diamond. There’s a reverence for its complexity that I really wish evangelicals would reclaim.

Are there any commandments to women in the Bible that should be taken literally?

This will surprise people: I do think that wives should submit to their husbands, because Paul said that we should submit one to another as Christians. I also think that husbands should submit to their wives. It’s a great idea to focus on your own responsibility to submit to and to honor your spouse, so that’s actually a really important instruction to me, but it goes both ways—it’s not solely the woman’s responsibility.

What’s at stake for men in conversations about biblical womanhood?

Jesus taught that power was overrated. Christian men, particularly in the evangelical culture, particularly in the U.S., have a lot of power. And I think that if they were to, in the spirit of Christ, surrender some of that power by listening to their sisters interpret the Bible and sharing authority, they would experience that sweet liberation that comes with taking out the basin and the towel and serving. When men look to the example of Jesus Christ, I think it becomes pretty clear that they have everything to gain.

Now that your year is over, are you still on a quest for biblical womanhood, literal or otherwise?

I never wanted to be the one who took on “women’s issues,” but the project just ignited in me this incredible passion to see gender equality in the church and in evangelicalism. I feel pretty passionate about that.

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