Rachel Held Evans’ year of ‘biblical womanhood’

My first encounter with “biblical womanhood” happened in college, when there were whispers around the dormitory about whether God wanted young ladies at a Christian university to run for student body president. Apparently, there were rules about such things, rules that the apostle Paul wrote down in a letter to Timothy approximately two millennia ago.

Rumor had it that biblical womanhood required stepping aside to allow godly men to take the lead. This sparked a few late-night, dorm-room debates, as some of my classmates argued that those instructions applied only in a church setting, while others noted that there weren’t a lot of godly men beating down the doors to plan our banquets and pep rallies that year. If I remember correctly, the point became moot when a woman ran uncontested.

Over the next few years, I found myself drawn into more and more of these conversations, especially as my girlfriends and I began getting married and starting families of our own. Many were influenced by evangelical complementarianism, a movement that began as a reaction to second-wave feminism and found some of its first expressions in the writings of Edith Schaeffer (The Hidden Art of Homemaking) and Elisabeth Elliot (Let Me Be a Woman). Hailed as model wives and homemakers, these women are highly esteemed in the Reformed tradition, where the oft-repeated saying is, “As many people were brought to the Lord through Mrs. Schaeffer’s cinnamon buns as through Dr. Schaeffer’s sermons.” But behind the winsome prose lies an uncompromising conviction: the virtuous woman serves primarily from the home as a submissive wife, diligent homemaker and loving mother.

The theological bulwark of the movement can be found in the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Led by conservative pastor John Piper and theologian Wayne Grudem, the CBMW produced two pivotal documents that extended the influence of the movement beyond the confines of the Reformed tradition: The Danvers Statement and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. According to the Danvers Statement, the acceptance of feminist ideology among Christians has led to a “threat to Biblical authority as the clarity of Scripture is jeopardized and the accessibility of its meaning to ordinary people is withdrawn into the restricted realm of technical ingenuity.” The statement says that rather than following the prevailing culture, women of God should pursue “biblical womanhood.”

Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.

After all, technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father, biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist, biblical for her to remain silent in church, biblical for her to cover her head and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives.

This is why the notion of “biblical womanhood” so intrigued me. Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman? And do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I? I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in this world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole. This is the reason I have trouble making small talk and sitting still, and it’s the reason I woke up one morning with a crazy idea lighting up every corner of my brain. What if I tried it all? What if I took “biblical womanhood” literally?

As it turns out, there are publishers out there who will actually pay for you to jump down rabbit holes, so long as they believe said rabbit holes are marketable to the general public. So on Oct. 1, 2010, with the support of my husband Dan and a brave team of publishing professionals, I vowed to spend one year of my life in pursuit of true biblical womanhood.

This quest of mine required that I study every passage of Scripture that relates to women and learn how women around the world interpret and apply these passages to their lives. In addition, I would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme.

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. A year of biblical womanhood would mean, among other things, rising before dawn (Proverbs 31:15), submitting to my husband (Colossians 3:18), growing out my hair (1 Corinthians 11:15), making my own clothes (Proverbs 31:21–22), learning how to cook (Proverbs 31:15), covering my head in prayer (1 Corinthians 11:5), calling Dan “master” (1 Peter 3:5–6), caring for the poor (Proverbs 31:20), nurturing a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4) and remaining ceremonially impure for the duration of my period (Leviticus 15:19–33).

Some practices I would observe just once. Others I would try to observe all year. Each month I would focus on a different virtue: gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valor, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence and grace. As the leaves began to turn and day one of the year of biblical womanhood loomed before me, I found myself inexplicably drawn to Proverbs 31:25: “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come."

When I considered the sheer absurdity of someone like me doing something like this, the best I could do was laugh at the days to come. And there was something strangely liberating about that.

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I’m glad to see Rachel’s book getting talked about here, because I’ve been following her blog these last few months and am really looking forward to reading it. It’s a fantastic project, and I commend her for having the strength to grow in her understanding of the Bible.

One thing about this passage that did trouble me, though, was Rachel’s connection of a literal translation with “there would be no picking and choosing.” As a humanities grad student I am fully aware of the fact that often a word-for-word translation isn’t the best way to translate a text’s true meaning, even with something as dry as legal codes. Cultures change, and that means the significance of different practices change with it. For instance, covering your head in prayer probably doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it did to Paul. And ritual impurity due to menstruation (even if I believed it applied to non-Jews) is very different when you do it alone, than it is when it’s part of a richer culture. (As a friend of an orthodox Jew, I know her association with the practice is very different from my own.) Because of this, I believe there is a choosing when we choose to take the Bible at its literal level.

That said, I think the experience of taking on all these new practices will be an important one, and a powerful read. Can’t wait for the book!

By putting into practice all sorts of Old Testament rituals that the New Testament says are no longer in force, Rachel obscures the issue. And I’m not sure that that is not her intent.

What I mean is that I’m not sure that the purpose of Rachel’s experiment was not to avoid what the New Testament says about women and specifically, wives. There is no lack of consistency here, with Paul and Peter (the apostle to the Gentiles and the apostle to the Jews) saying the same thing: that wives are to quietly submit to and respect their husbands. 

Should wives cover their heads? In cultures where this is a sign of respect for the husband (such as first century Corinth), yes.

Can wives take positions of leadership in the church? It is more typical for men to take on these roles, but the New Testament might leave room for women to as well. (If someone wonders how I come to that conclusion, please write me.) But wives are never to be placed in a postion of authority over their husbands in the church.

The New Testament at least makes all of the above clear. But I don’t think Rachel wants clarity for either herself or for those who read her book.

That’s how it seems, anyway.

(This is in reply to Koob’s comment.)

I’ve not read the book in its entirety, but I have read excerpts. I’ve also been following Rachel’s blog where she and other readers have discussed her project. I’m a little hesitant to judge a project without having read the book, but I don’t think her job is to obscure anything. While I don’t always agree with Rachel’s interpretation of the Bible, I sense in her a servant’s spirit. A sister in Christ. However you want to put it - she’s not perfect, but her heart is good and I believe she is trying to work for good rather than obfuscate what Holy Scripture teaches.

I’m also uncomfortable with this idea that what Scripture teaches is clear or simple, particularly when the “clear” meaning seems so in line with what a lot of people are taught by culture and are inclined to believe. Yes, Paul and Peter implored wives to submit to their husbands in particular cultural contexts. But Christ encouraged Mary to learn at his feet with the male apostles rather than banishing her to the kitchen. it was women he appeared to at the grave. The curse of Eve was removed through His death. And there are the many women who Paul sent out and asked the churches to support, or who headed their own churches (Junia in Rom 16.7, Phoebe in Rom 16.1-2, Nympha in Col 4.15, etc.)

My point isn’t that this paints a rosy picture for egalitarianism or feminism. I happen to believe both philosophies are basically true (though not perfect), but I can see how people reading the Bible might come to different conclusions. My point is that there is much to commend both views, and the truth is to be found by struggling with all these passages. God’s word is useful for rebuking, for helping us grow, and those who think they have it all figured out in a neat set of beliefs were often the ones most challenged by Christ’s teachings.

Rachel, you grabbed me with your opening paragraph and then floored me with the punch line: “the point became moot when a woman ran uncontested.” I know a lot of Christians would point to Deborah (Judges 4-5) at this point and argue that the only reason God raised up a woman is that no man was willing. I tend to think instead that the reason no man took charge (whether in Deborah’s time or at your school) is because when God works in people’s hearts to raise them to leadership he does so regardless of whether they are male or female. After all, he is no respector of persons. (Acts 10:34.)

I really appreciate that the year you spent exploring the Bible’s teachings has led to a serious study of what it means to follow God. As you say, “biblical” is a word that gets tossed around with various intents. When it comes to manhood or womanhood, rather than pursue a biblical model - whatever that means - I think we are to pursue Christ and a Christ-like model. A Christ-like woman or man is a person who is being conformed to the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29.) I’d rather be that than try to conform to someone’s notion of “biblical” manhood.

Thanks for helping me think through these things, Rachel.


Hasn’t this been done before? “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs comes to mind. I’m not sure what the point of these projects are, especially from a Christian. Shouldn’t we be able to do a better job at hermeneutics rather than promote a naive (at best) approach to God’s Word? I don’t get it.

I am saddened that I did not get in on this discussion back in October when it took place. I’m also saddened by the increasing prevalence of the rejection of God’s best for women. It is ironic that those who reject complementarianism believe that their end is that of valuing or respecting womanhood, and their means that of destroying God’s conception of it. Rachel Held Evans’ “project” that involves misapplication of Scripture and her college experience are not a hermeneutic. And, it is very alarming to me that no one seems to take issue with a statement like,
“Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman? She would do well to recognize that.”
Moreover, Held-Evans admits that her attitude toward “trying biblical womanhood” was patronizing and flippant from the outset: “When I considered the sheer absurdity of someone like me doing something like this, the best I could do was laugh at the days to come. And there was something strangely liberating about that.”
You don’t “try biblical womanhood” any more than you “try” Jesus. Either you believe it and commit to it with all your heart or you reject it outright. Rachel’s project was that of a clown. She knows it, too. But then she also knows that circus acts sell.

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