Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

I was fairly confident prior to reading Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, that I would disagree with many of her conclusions. I’ve read the author’s blog from time to time, so I knew that her positions on gender roles differ from my own. In a nutshell, I believe that the New Testament teaches a complementarian position, while Evans describes herself as egalitarian. For definitions of these terms, you can read my previous post, “Evangelicalism’s Gender War.” 

The book has generated a level of controversy out of proportion with its actual content, as is usually the case with projects like this. Some of the controversy was apparently generated by Evans herself, when her publisher suggested she remove one or two anatomical references in order to make the book more palatable to Christian bookstores. Much of the controversy, however, was stirred up by reviewers who felt that Evans was misrepresenting, and even disrespecting, the complementarian viewpoint.

Despite my disagreement with much of what Evans has written, however, I also found portions of the book with which I agreed, and one or two ideas that challenged my thinking a bit. I’ll explain below why I find her presentation of egalitarianism flawed and unpersuasive. Before I do, though, I want to summarize the book and highlight a bit of what I appreciated about it.

The book revolves around the question, “What constitutes ‘biblical womanhood’?” To explore the subject, Evans decided to take one year of her life and actively seek to obey the various commands and models given in Scripture relating to women. She focused on a different aspect of “biblical womanhood” each month. For example, in October she tried to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit,” in keeping with Peter’s admonition to women in 1 Peter 3:4. Some of the other monthly topics included modesty, purity, fertility (no, she didn’t have a baby!), and submission.

The best part of this book was the way in which Evans highlighted how some of our modern perceptions regarding gender are entirely rooted in our own culture. For example, are all women required by the Bible to learn how to cook, or is that merely a cultural presupposition? Is raising children necessary in order to be a godly woman, and if so, what do we say to those who remain unmarried or involuntarily childless? I found her questions refreshing, even though I often disagreed with her conclusions.

In some cases, Evans effectively questions long-held interpretations of passages about women. The best example of this is her discussion of the well-known Proverbs 31. Is Proverbs 31 a prescriptive text, meant to describe in detail how all wives ought to act, or is it a descriptive ideal, meant to highlight to men that the very fabric of society depends upon skilled and valorous women? Her discussion reminded me that we evangelicals need to be careful in the way we apply ancient texts. It’s quite easy to import our own cultural baggage to the Scripture.

Let’s move on, then, to the aspects of this book that troubled me, and even angered me at times. 

First, Evans’ tone is sometimes disrespectful and flippant toward those with whom she disagrees. For example, when she describes her own evangelical background, she identifies evangelicals as people who are obsessed with the idea that everybody else is going to hell. She says she is “no longer convinced that everyone different from me goes to hell,” but that she still sees evangelicalism as her “religious mother tongue.” She hardly seems to notice that she has egregiously misrepresented most evangelicals. In the same context, she manages to compliment her own parents while skewering the religious tradition that nurtured her.

I wish I could say this is the only time Evans caricatures the opposite position into something completely unrecognizable, but she does it throughout the book. It always frustrates and angers me when an individual who feels she has outgrown her own tradition then feels the need to insult and degrade that same tradition. It’s one thing to disagree, and another to barbecue one’s spiritual forebears.

This leads to my second critique, which is that Evans fails to seriously interact with the complementarian view she attempts to discredit. It’s easy to spout off chauvinistic statements from Mark Driscoll and lead one’s readers to believe that his remarks represent the complementarian viewpoint. But doing so does not respect those complementarians who have spent a great deal of time and energy genuinely trying to understand what the Bible says about gender roles.

In addition, although her biblical exploration of womanhood is interesting, it bears little relevance to the debate over gender roles at church and at home. Most complementarians aren’t advocating that women sleep outside in a tent during that time of the month, or bear unlimited children, or dress like an Amish woman for the sake of modesty. As interesting as those experiments are, they are truly beside the point she’s hoping to make. In her attempt to subtly poke fun at the concept of “biblical womanhood,” Evans undermines her entire project with an array of red herrings.

The biggest problem with the book, however, relates to how Evans interprets the Scripture itself. First Evans acknowledges correctly that we all bring presuppositions to the biblical text. To some extent, we “find what we are looking for.” Every responsible exegete understands that total objectivity is impossible. However, the task of biblical interpretation involves attempting to remove as many barriers to correct interpretation as possible. We study Greek and Hebrew, examine cultural backgrounds, read the context carefully, and (most importantly) interact with other believers as we try to understand God’s Word.

However, Evans seems to throw up her hands in despair, giving up on the idea of even a partially objective interpretation of the biblical text. After stating that we often find in the text whatever we are looking for, she then says that she came to the text looking for “permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself, permission to be a woman.” In other words, she approached the text determined that it would say what she hoped it would say. From the start, then, the game was rigged. That’s a fatal flaw to the premise that this was a meaningful exploration of the Bible’s ideals regarding women.

I think Evans’ hermeneutic damages the way she interprets specific texts. For example, in addressing the texts that speak to wifely submission (Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Peter 3:1-6; Col 3:18), she rightly points out that the surrounding contexts also deal with slavery. Her point is that we no longer enforce slavery, because we recognize a progressive ethic in the Scripture leading us to abandon archaic and sinful structures like that. In other words, Jesus and His apostles, while instructing people how to live in the culture of their day, nonetheless subversively advocate the dissolution of those cultural norms. It’s obvious that the ultimate desirable ethic is found in Christ’s final kingdom, in which there will be no teachers, no marriage, and no slavery.

Her problem, of course, is that Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 also command children to be obedient to their parents. The big question, then, is this: If slavery is no longer the ideal, and wifely submission is obsolete, then should we do away with the obedience of children as well? If not, then why not? Is it simply because children are immature, and if so, how do we defend that position from the text? Could it be that there is a basic structure imposed upon the home and the Church in order to create order and peace, so that everybody is able to effectively serve the Lord? Perhaps the structure has nothing to do with one’s actual inferiority or superiority in an ontological sense, but instead has everything to do with each person’s proper role as God has defined it. That role might be rooted in basic affinities and abilities, but it might simply be an expression of the fact that God is asking us to submit to earthly authorities.

As much as Evans researched the status of women in the ancient context, she seems to have completely avoided doing the same regarding the status of ancient slaves. Perhaps there are reasons why the apostle Paul, in good conscience, could command slaves to submit to their masters. Perhaps, just as wifely submission has its limits, Paul knew that submission to one’s master did as well. (A case in point, of course, is the book of Philemon). Paul could be making the general case that we are to submit to all earthly authorities. Whether those authorities are just or unjust is not the primary concern in this context. Evans has also neglected to point out that Ephesians 5 contains an extended discussion of why wives are called to submit to their husbands, and relates the issue to Christ and the church. The same cannot be said for the relationship between slaves and masters. Paul seems to expand the household codes when it comes to marriage, while remaining rather terse when it comes to slaves. Those are significant points, but Evans doesn’t even attempt to address them.

I could not escape the conclusion, frankly, that Evans is deeply uncomfortable with the concept of authority, per se. She makes the blanket statement that passages like Galatians 3:28 abolish any earthly hierarchies. Yet Paul himself does not seem to believe such a thing when he consistently tells people to submit to authority. Is it possible that Galatians 3:28 is a description of our equality before God in Jesus Christ, rather than an abolishment of any sort of distinct roles or authority levels in His kingdom? I tend to answer that affirmatively.

In summary (as this is getting quite long), this book was a very mixed bag. Portions of it were delightful, amusing, and thought-provoking. Other parts of it were frustrating and misleading. On the whole, it was an interesting book that fell short of achieving its purpose. It’s clear that Evans is capable of the research and study it would take to produce a truly helpful discussion of gender roles. For that reason, I wish she had taken more time to understand those she criticized and attempt to answer them thoughtfully from the biblical text.

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Evangelicalism’s Gender War

I’ll start by saying that my church is complementarian in its understanding of gender roles. For those who are unfamiliar with that term, it simply means that we believe the Bible assigns different roles to men and women in the church and in the home. Most complementarians don’t believe that women are inherently inferior to men, but instead that they are called to serve God in different ways. At a popular level, most people associate complementarianism with the call for wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:21-33) and the prohibition against women teaching or exerting authority over men in the church (1 Timothy 2:11-14).

The contrasting position is called egalitarianism. Egalitarians generally (and I use the word “generally” because I am making broad generalizations here) believe that every leadership position in the church ought to be open to women and to men equally. In addition, they do not (generally) believe in different roles for men and women in the home. In other words, the call for wives to submit to their husbands is usually understood to be a culturally bound command, one that applied in Paul’s day but does not apply directly to today’s Christians.

The question of how men and women ought to interact at church and at home is a deeply personal and intensely practical one. It’s a topic that the Scripture talks about a good deal, whether or not we agree on how to interpret it. For that reason, I’ve been dismayed at the shape of popular discourse on this issue over the past few years.

Instead of debates about the biblical texts themselves, I’ve noticed that most of the public discussions about gender roles have turned into an evangelical “battle of the sexes.” For example, megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has taken a lot of heat for his seemingly chauvinistic remarks about women and about men whom he finds, well, unmanly. The pattern here is repetitive: Mark Driscoll says something that his critics consider offensive, they jump in to say he’s a bully or a jerk, and he either apologizes or defends himself. The same thing happened recently when John Piper said publicly that Christianity ought to have a “masculine feel” to it.

On the one hand, these discussions can be useful. They bring the issue of gender to the front of our minds and hopefully challenge us to rethink our own positions. The problem, though, is that these sort of attacks and counter-attacks never really address the root issue from the biblical text. Instead, they’ve degenerated to a discussion of who is “masculine” enough to lead the church and whether masculinity is better or stronger than femininity. Such discussions become confusing quite quickly. For example, what defines true “masculinity”? Do I need to be an avid hunter or bodybuilder to be considered a “real man”? If so, then my own masculinity (as an introverted and slightly artistic type) is suspect. On the other hand, if I believe in complementarianism, does that automatically make me a power-hungry bully who wants to make all women subservient to my authority? Does masculinity inherently threaten women by its very existence? Of course not.

The real issue, which is seldom discussed in public these days, is whether passages like 1 Timothy 2 and Ephesians 5 prescribe different roles for men and women. It’s simply not about whether men are better than women or vice versa. Unfortunately, that’s how it’s often been framed, or at least how each side is interpreting the other. Instead, we need to look carefully at the passages in question and ask what they prescribe in terms of gender roles. That’s really the substance of the debate that needs to be taking place.

Don’t be sidetracked by the caricatures and name-calling that’s dominating this discussion in the public square. The debate shouldn’t be so much about how one position or the other makes us feel, but instead about how faithful it is to the biblical text. That’s true of any theological debate, but particularly one relating to a topic that is so personally applicable.

The reason I hold a complementarian view is simple: I believe the biblical text warrants it. I don’t think I hold my view because I hate or dislike women. Just like most egalitarians don’t hold their view because they hate or dislike men. The recent public scuffles might have led some to believe otherwise.

At some point I hope to spend more time on this blog specifically surveying the critical passages, but this post is just a reminder (to me and to my readers) that the real goal is to study what the Scripture says. That’s where sound conclusions and applications come from, not from aligning ourselves with the loudest voice in the latest debate. It’s a serious issue with serious ramifications — it doesn’t require personal drama to make it relevant or important.

How do you feel about the topic of gender roles in the body of Christ? Are you confused by the recent discussions or interested in them? 

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