Thoughts about A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
I had planned to wait until the last week of October to review this book—as requested by the publisher. The book’s official publication date is October 30, but it is already being widely discussed and criticized by people who have received “advance reader’s copies” (like me). Some complementarian bloggers are attacking it without reading it (based on what they’ve heard about it from others who may or may not have read it). This reminds me of the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I’d like to challenge people to either read the book or shut up until they’ve read it.
A Year of Biblical Womanhood is a delightful read—funny, sad, bewildering, shocking, thought-provoking. It’s Rachel Held Evans’ report of and reflections on attempting for one year to live as much according to biblical instructions about women, interpreted as literally as possible. She made every effort not to be selective, but to practice everything the Bible says about women’s behavior. Ironically, some complementarian bloggers are criticizing her for being insufficiently selective when they are the ones who have urged women not to be selective about conforming to biblical “standards” of womanly behavior.
The book’s subtitle is “How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master.” Each chapter describes her adventures as she researched specific biblical instructions both in biblical scholarship (she clearly read a lot of complementarian as well as egalitarian theology) and in practices of traditional Jewish and Christian traditions.
For example, the chapter entitled “April: Purity—The Worst Time of the Month to Go Camping” reports in detail on her twelve days living in a tent during and after her monthly “period.” The chapter “June: Submission—A Disposition to Yield” tells about her month of determined submission to her patient husband Dan who finally orders her to stop submitting to him! (Dan turns out to be one of the two real heroes of the story.)
Now I’m not going to go into much detail about the book. You should buy it and read it. And I won’t give away Evans’ big conclusion at the end of her year. (But it’s on page 294.) Instead, I’ll just mention her penchant for poking at complementarian inconsistencies and (occasional) outright nonsense. For example, on pages 253-254 she points out how John Piper and Wayne Grudem, the two founders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, fall into inconsistencies bordering on silliness in trying to apply 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 to contemporary life
Evans quotes Piper’s response to a question about popular female teachers like Beth Moore. He affirmed it’s okay for Christian men to listen to her speak unless they become too dependent on her as their “shepherd-teacher.” Evans concludes “In other words, a Christian man can learn from a Christian woman, so long as he doesn’t learn too much.” The she points out Grudem’s list of eighty-three items that a woman can and cannot do in the church. For example, “she can write a book about theology that is read at Christian colleges and seminaries, but she cannot teach theology at a Christian college or seminary herself.” (p. 254)
Don’t assume that Evans is snarky, though. She’s not. The tone of her book is mild and kind. Sure, she disagrees with evangelical complementarianism and is out to show its impracticality, but she doesn’t aim insults or hurl anathemas at anyone. And, you might ask, what about complementarianism’s biblicality (to use a non-word)? Well, read the book. Evans uses a lot of Scripture to show that anyone who tries to take it all literally will simply fail. She says “The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives.” (p. 293) Also, “The Bible does not present us with a single model of biblical 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.” (p. 294)
The model for Christian marriage is hers and Dan’s. It’s based on mutual love, respect and submission. Both seek the good of the other and of their union, not of themselves or some abstract notion of authority. In such marriages, there’s no need for complementarianism (as taught by some conservative evangelicals).
Needless to say, I agree with Evans whole heartedly. But I live in a different world than she does. I have never lived in that world of “male headship” fundamentalism even though I’ve seen it—sometimes close up. I know about it. I’ve read the books and talked at great length with its advocates. I taught at the same college as Piper and Grudem, arriving only a year or two after they left. Their influence was very strong among the students, so I made it my business to learn all about their views. Eventually I met them and we had mostly cordial relations in spite of our different opinions.
I grew up in an evangelical subculture that abounded with strong women evangelists, pastors, teachers and leaders. Both my birth mother and stepmother were licensed, if not ordained, ministers of the gospel. Among our heroes were two independent women church planters who started churches of our denomination all over the upper Midwest. Four the sons of one of them became powerful pastors and evangelists and kept their mother’s memory alive among us. Many of our denomination’s founders and leaders were saved under the ministry of Aimee Semple MacPherson. Kathryn Kuhlman was the lead convention speaker at one of our annual conventions.
Then I joined the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. (ABCUSA) which ordains women and has many women pastors and leaders including presidents of the denomination. My wife and I have been members of two Baptist churches pastored by women with other female pastoral staff members. The church we attend now has more women than men deacons and the church council has been led by women frequently.
All that is to say that I don’t live in Rachel Held Evans’ world—at least not in the one she’s struggling with in her book. I see it and hear of it, but I stay out of it. However, I see the damage it does to young women called to ministry. They are among my students and I watch them struggle to be affirmed by their home churches and families. Often they are not affirmed.
I simply don’t know why anyone, especially any woman, would want to be a part of that world. My advice to them is “Come out from among them and be ye separate.” However, I know how difficult that can be. In some cases it means losing friends and even loved ones.
Reading Evans’ book got me wondering about other possible books with similar titles. I wish someone would write A Year of Biblical Manhood. One thing such an author would have to do, of course, is lift his hands without anger or disputing (1 Timothy 2:8). That would be hard for many conservative evangelical men to do!
How about A Year of Consistent Feminism? Maybe one month would be devoted to lobbying congress to change the law to require young women to register for the draft! I don’t see it happening.
How about A Year of Obeying Jesus? But then, the author would have to give away all his or her possessions to the poor.
As anyone who has read my blog consistently for a long time knows, I am steadfastly against so-called “complementarianism” as it is taught by leading conservative evangelicals. In a truly godly marriage there is no need of it. And it reeks of male resentment, fear and desire for control. On the other hand, I’m no fan of feminism. Of course, much depends on what “feminism” means, but far too often these days it means implicit, if not explicit, belief in female superiority and requirement for men to become like women in order to be acceptable. It too often means the total obliteration of masculinity (I’m not talking about “machismo,” but non-threatening male ways of relating).
Some years ago I was asked to give a speech at a national gathering of egalitarian Christians. I was happy to do it. But I don’t think it benefits anyone to hear what they already believe. So I spoke on “Beyond Equality to Interdependence.” My talk was not very well received by many of the audience. I spoke about how feminist slogans like “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” are unchristian and how Christian egalitarians need to resist such anti-male attitudes. God created us male and female and we need each other. That’s true complementarianism.