Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Immersion journalism, in which a person completely immerses himself or herself in a particular activity or lifestyle, is becoming increasingly popular. A.J. Jacobs did it when he tried to literally obey every command in the Bible for an entire year. This past year, Christian author Rachel Held Evans attempted something similar when she “vowed to spend one year of my life in pursuit of true biblical womanhood.” Her soon to be released book A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How A Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master chronicles her adventures.

What exactly would this adventure look like?

From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical code to the letters of Paul, there would be no picking and choosing.

In other words, she would try to obey all the Bible’s commands concerning women as literally as possible. On the surface this sounds like a good idea. She wants to know what the Bible really has to say about Biblical womanhood, and she wants to take the Bible literally. It’s all good, right? Well…not really.

Before I criticize any parts of the book, I do want to point out a few strengths. First, Rachel is a good writer and very readable. Second, she presses some good buttons when it comes to the complementarian position (i.e. God has given men and women different roles). Unfortunately, many complementarians aren’t careful or nuanced in their?application of certain passages, particularly when it comes to leadership/submission passages.

So Rachel, if you happen to read this, thanks for forcing me to think more clearly about my position. And you’re a good writer – better than me in many ways. And if I misrepresent you or quote you out of context, please correct me, because I hate it when people do that to me.

So, despite it’s strengths, I do have significant concerns/issues with the book.

First, Rachel states that her quest is to find true, biblical womanhood. The problem comes with her use of the word “biblical”. A true, Christian understanding of biblical womanhood should come through examining various passages of Scripture in light of their immediate context AND in light of their place in salvation history. The Levitical purity rituals given to the women of Israel do not apply at all to Christian women because they are a part of the Old Covenant. Yet Rachel doesn’t seem to make that distinction anywhere in her book.

During her menstrual cycle, she makes no physical contact with men, and camps out in the backyard in observance of Leviticus 15:19-31. She eats only Kosher food and tries to eliminate every trace of leavened bread from her house (Exodus 13:6-10). This is not Christian biblical womanhood in any sense. It could be considered Jewish biblical womanhood, but certainly not Christian. I wish Rachel had been more careful in distinguishing between Old Covenant commands and New Covenant commands.

Second, in many instances, Rachel interacts with and criticizes a caricature of complementarianism, rather than true, biblical complementarianism. For example, in describing submission to her husband, Dan, she says:

This meant relinquishing control over the Netflix queue, giving him the final say in restaurant choices, asking for permission before I made plans to go out with friends or start a new project, and trying to to remember to do all those annoying little things he always pestered me about.

In another section of her book she takes to calling Dan “master”, in accordance with 1 Peter 3:5-6, which says: ” For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.”

This description is not biblical submission. As a husband, I have a general sense (emphasis on sense!!!) of a responsibility to lead Jen and our family. This does not mean that my preferences and decisions are final. I do not have dictatorial power in our house. Jen and I consult with each other on just about everything, from what we’re going to watch to how we’re going to spend our money. Yet I still have a sense that I am called to step up and take the lead on certain things, like doing family devotions, providing for our family, and initiating fun family activities. My call to lead is not a trump card to be used when I’m not getting my way. It’s a call to serve my wife and daughters.

Now, does that mean it’s wrong for Jen to do devotions with our daughters or plan a fun outing for us? No, of course not, and she often does those things. But I want the burden of those to things to fall on me, and I don’t want Jen to feel like she has to pester me to make sure these things happen.

Now, to her credit, Rachel quotes an apparently popular complementarian teacher named Debi Pearl, who writes to women:

You are not on the board of directors with an equal vote…You have no authority to set the agenda…start thinking and acting as though your husband is the head of a company and you are his secretary.

That is absolutely awful, and does not accurately describe the biblical roles of men and women. Jen is my helper, and believe me, I desperately need her help. She is not my secretary. She fills in so many of my shortcomings. She keeps our house from becoming a disaster zone. She keeps a close watch on our budget. She helps me fullfil my call as a pastor in a way that I never could without her. I desperately need Jen as my helper.

Finally, Rachel didn’t do a good job of working through the passages in scripture which explicitly spell out roles for men and women. Ephesians 5:22-27 is a crucial passage in the discussion of gender roles. It says:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.?Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

Speaking of this passage, as well as 1 Peter 3:1-2 and Colossians 3:18-19, she says:

A little more research revealed that all three of the passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands are either preceded by or followed by instructions for slaves to submit to their masters…The implications of this pattern are astounding. For if Christians are to use these passages to argue that a hierarchical relationship between a man and a woman is divinely instituted and inherently holy, then, for consistency’s sake, they must also argue the same for the relationship between the master and slave.

I’ve heard this argument before. The argument goes that Paul was speaking to the male dominated household codes of the day, and that he didn’t intend these instructions to be normative for all Christian all times. Rather, Paul intended a progressive ethic, in which, eventually there would be no roles at all, only mutual love and respect between all parties.

What this argument fails to consider is that, unlike his instructions to slaves, Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives are directly tied to the permanent, unchanging relationship between Christ and the church. Husbands are to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and laid down his life for her. They are to sacrifice for their wives as Christ did for the church. Wives are to submit to their husbands just as the church submits to Christ.

Unfortunately, Rachel didn’t take this into account in her explanation of these passages. A more careful treatment of these passages, particularly Ephesians 5 would have been much more helpful. Her explanation of these crucial passages falls short.

I applaud Rachel for her dedication and commitment to this project. A year committed to anything is pretty intense. I’m not sure if I could handle that kind of project. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a helpful resource on biblical womanhood, I can’t recommend this book.?

Comments

  1. Deborah Bensen says

    I wouldn't recommend the book either. So often these issues are viewed as rules to follow, rather than heart issues, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to enable obedience, especially on things that our natural heart doesn't want to do. The duplication of the Spirit life (such as mimmricy of biblical truth) can't be done apart from His power working in a willing, yeilded heart!!
    Thanks Steve!

  2. Keo says

    Yes, the review is quite gracious. I must admit, I am familiar with Rachel's blog, so I understand why she used the word biblical to apply to all of the Bible as opposed to just the New Testament. I think the point of view she might be addressing relates to how may complementarians cite the whole Bible as a manifesto for the husband's hierarchy over the wife. It IS a worthy project to embark on. She's had numerous discussions on the word "biblical" on her blog, which I'd recommend you read. For example, is it 'biblical' to call my husband Lord? Because even though it is an admonishment from Paul to wives, you just said in this review that "This description is not biblical submission". What then is 'biblical', and it what sense are we using the word? So, yeah, that's my two cents, I hope it's edifying. Your review was to me.

  3. jen says

    Hey Stephen, have you read her Mutuality Week posts? They kind of explain her exegesis in more detail and could fill in some of the holes the book didn't fill.

    Also, she has addressed that many complementarians won't recognize the project as what their marriage is really like since, as you know, the project wasn't necessarily to describe an average complementarian marriage, but to explore the extremes of what life would look like if one took these scriptures literally. As you say, it really is a caricature, nearly a satire, but one with an expressed purpose, as often social commentaries have done successfully to transform cultures. Sure the inclusion of the Old Covenant needs a bit of explanation, but then, so does the word "biblical," as it doesn't specific which part of the Bible… perhaps we need a new term, advocating "New Covenant" marriage instead? I think part of the reason for doing all of them is that it would be impossible for everyone to agree on what still applies as "New Covenant" and what is "Old Covenant" from the OT. Sure there are some that are obvious when taken literally, but when you see some of the extremists like the Pearls and Quiverfull? There is some really scary stuff out there making its way into mainstream Christianity through the patriarchy movements. Men that don't see leadership as servant leadership like you do.

    Thanks for being one of the few men that really understand what it means to lead like Christ… there are several using the same scriptures you do who, unfortunately, use them to excuse their own desire for domination and power. In fact, from your description of your own marriage, you two would probably really enjoy these Mutuality posts… even if it's not how you would describe as your own views on marriage, you may have more in common with RHE than you might think at first glance. :)
    http://rachelheldevans.com/mutuality-household-co

  4. Stephen says

    Nice review. One little punctuation quibble: All punctuation goes INSIDE quotation marks, unless you're British. For example:

    CORRECT: And then she said, "Blah blah blah."
    INCORRECT: And then she said, "Blah blah blah".

    I think the book "Eats, Shoots &Leaves," written by a British author, has confused we Americans.

    :)

    • lisa says

      Good point, Stephen. I'm presuming your use of "we" in that last sentence is a joke? :-)

      And Stephen (Altrogge), complementarian has only one i. Easy mistake to make. I smiled as I imagined a "complimentarian" couple….
      "I like your hair that way."
      "Thanks. That's a really nice tie."

      Thanks for the review. :-)

  5. says

    Thanks for the review….I was wondering the same thing, why try to burden yourself with laws that have been fulfilled in Christ. For a good read that is recommended by Carson and other greats try Claire Smith’s recent book “God’s Good Design: what the Bible really says about men and women” published by Matthias media.

  6. anonymous says

    "…start thinking and acting as though your husband is the head of a company and you are his secretary."

    That's exactly how I feel in my marriage.

    • Philip says

      I am genuinely sorry that your marriage feels that way.

      Personally I feel in some circles that men have overemphasized and really hammered on and on on the role of women instead of worrying about what their own role is suppose to look like.

      Also I understand where both Stephen and Rachel are soming from. I do appreciate Rachel and this experiment just to show how easy it is for us to pick and chose Biblical passages that fit our wants and needs. I always enjoy being challenged as far as making sure we truly understand the Bible and apply it correctly into our lives.

  7. creativehomeschooler says

    Stephen,
    I haven't read the book, but it seems like it's a satire on the idea of "Biblical Roles" and not an actual resource for Biblical womanhood. Anyway, I think her entire point, from reading her blog, is that there is no such thing as "Biblical womanhood". The Bible doesn't teach "roles" based on gender. Ephesians 5 is about LOVE and UNITY in the marriage relationship, not roles. Roles are fluid and change with circumstances. And you left out Ephesians 5:21 in your example, "Submit to ONE ANOTHER out of reverence for Christ."
    I completely disagree with the idea that we have gender roles that are divinely prescribed to us. The healthiest relationships are those where responsibilities and decision-making are shared, where no one person has more responsibility or power than the other. And I'm not sure if you realize this, but your description of how your marriage works actually sounds egalitarian, and your "sense" of leadership/responsibility is largely symbolic. And as far as I can tell, you're a loving and caring husband, so you never actually wield the power you believe you've been given. So, that leads to this question…what's the point of having a leadership position that you never actually use?

    I think it's sad that Ephesians 5 has been reduced to a prescription for roles instead of a beautiful picture of the mystery of love and unity that happens in marriage. I don't read it that way and I am completely free in my relationship with Christ to pursue my giftings and talents, without worrying about whether I'm fulfilling some "role". And I realize that real life examples don't always prove the point, but my husband is my best friend and we have a very close and wonderful relationship. We love each other, and are always seeking to put the other person's interests above our own. We don't worry about roles at all.

  8. says

    I'm not sure using Debi Pearl as an example of complementarianism is actually accurate. Many women who identify themselves as such run fast and far away from anything she puts out, I being one of those women. This was a very gracious review. In reading Evans's first book, I would really question her views on inerrancy of Scripture (something she says makes her "head itch"). I don't know as if I could agree with a lot of her material because I don't sense I'm on the same page as her. Yes, she's a good writer, and she asks good questions. I just don't know as if I think her solutions are helpful.

  9. Josh says

    Hey Stephen,

    While I agree with your overall analysis and the effect of your message, I don't think you actually addressed her use of scripture and why its not meant to be taken literally. Instead you sort of insert your opinion as a juxtaposition. Not that I don't agree with your conclusion, because I do, I just don't agree with your reasoning. For example, the quote from Peter she uses

    "For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord"

    You respond to this by saying, "this description is not biblical submission. As a husband, I have a general sense (emphasis on sense!!!) of a responsibility to lead Jen and our family. This does not mean that my preferences and decisions are final. I do not have dictatorial power in our house. Jen and I consult with each other on just about everything, from what we’re going to watch to how we’re going to spend our money. Yet I still have a sense that I am called to step up and take the lead on certain things, like doing family devotions, providing for our family, and initiating fun family activities. My call to lead is not a trump card to be used when I’m not getting my way. It’s a call to serve my wife and daughters."

    I think that is not addressing her use of scripture and how something so explicit should be interpreted just as she says it. I think there is a deeper issue here of, how we apply the scripture in today's setting and considering historical contexts. I know this is dangerous for its subjective potential, but I think you are doing this without recognizing that you are. I'm not criticizing for doing this, in fact to some degree I think this most occur to properly understand scripture sometimes. My critique is not recognizing this issue. Anyways thats my two cents

  10. Duke Taber says

    You were much more gracious than I was. http://taberstruths.com/rachel-held-evans-new-boo… I believe that Rachel's whole agenda was not to discover biblical womanhood but to discredit complementarianism. Her whole premise was a charade. Not only that, but her use of crude language got her banned from more conservative Christian bookstores. It wouldn't surprise me if more light was not shown on Rachel's unorthodox beliefs in the future.

    • Janet says

      You mean by "crude language" the fact that she used the correct terminology for female genitalia (vagina) in her book *gasp*. What would you have had her say, "hoo-ha", "wee-wee", "down-there"? — You state it was for shock value. I don't know any adult who is *shocked* that a woman has a vagina.

      We're adults. We can handle correct terminology.

  11. Bethany M. says

    I haven't read this book yet, but I probably will because I am interested in hearing her perspective despite knowing that I will, most likely, not come down on the same side as Rachel. I don't want to make a value judgment of the book until I read it, but I feel that I can at least comment on how I feel about the "biblical role of women". I am a firm believer in complementarianism, and from the bits and pieces that I can gather about this book from different reviews and Rachel's site, I do feel that the view of complementarianism is, at the very least, mocked by the very premise of the book.

    The point of complementarianism, like all of life, is to glorify God with your. That means doing things, sometimes, that don't feel good or natural for the sake of transformation (and with the acknowledgment that I, in my sin, don't know right from wrong without God revealing that to me). Being made into the likeness of Christ should be our goal, not achieving our own "personal feeling of satisfaction". Is that hard? Yes. Do I like it all the time? NO! It does however call me out of myself, and into the arms or Christ, who carries me through all things, good and bad. I embrace the call of complementarianism because it is beyond my capabilities to love, honor, and think of my husband before myself (which is the call of Christ in all our lives, is it not?)

    Anyway…off my soap box now. Looking forward to reading the book, just to challenge my own thinking. If at the very least, to hear another perspective in the church. Thanks for the review.

    • Bethany M. says

      Realized that I missed a few words!

      "The point of complementarianism, like all of life, is to glorify God."

      "I embrace the call of complementarianism because it is beyond my capabilities to love, honor, and think of my husband before myself (which is the call of Christ in ALL our LIFE, loving, honoring, and thinking of OTHERS before ourselves, is it not?)"

      Sorry about that!

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