October 24, 2012

“Biblical Womanhood” is Not “Women’s Work”

(Photo Credit: FaithVillage.com)

Rachel Held Evans, the evangelical (perhaps “post-evangelical”) blogger and author has been hitting media outlets promoting her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” This week she appeared on NBC’s Today show and next week she will be a guest on The View. In these interviews and in news articles, Evans describes how she “set out to follow all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year to show that no woman, no matter how devout, is actually practicing biblical womanhood all the way.”

In her promotion of the year long “experiment” and resulting book, Evans has created a caricature of a “biblical woman” who does not even discern between Old Covenant and New. As reviews have already pointed out, the book at heart is not really about “biblical womanhood,” but “the validity of the Bible,” with which Evans “wrestles.”

As Evans discusses and promotes the book, her focus has been on the household tasks she performed during her “biblical” year. Of course this was not an experiment at all, but a distortion of what complementarians mean by “biblical womanhood.” But by showcasing the absurdity of this literalism, Evans perpetuates the harmful idea that biblical gender roles can be reduced to a list of tasks and chores.

I have experienced first hand what the reduction of “biblical womanhood” to a list of chores looks like. During college I had an internship at a reformed Baptist Church that placed a heavy emphasis on their complementarian views. The female interns were tasked with nursery duty, helping with wedding and baby showers, teaching children’s classes, and little else.

I had no problem with any of these jobs. I love children, and I can appreciate the tradition of wedding and baby showers despite dreading them. But after being practically barred from participating in the worship team and excluded from even observing a preaching class where male interns learned how to study and teach scripture, I couldn’t help but feel I got the short end of the internship stick.

Besides those frustrations, it was clear the young boys in the church had already developed a sense of superiority over women. One middle schooler assumed only a male leader could drive the car home from a field trip, and a second grader in my mid-week class was incredulous that I would teach without the male co-teacher. In a particularly alarming episode, a fellow intern informed me that vacuuming was a “woman’s job,” and that “women are lower than men.”

I don’t think anyone at this church intended to demean women, but that was ultimately the result of their task-centric definition of womanhood. If my internship experience accurately reflected the “complementarian” view, I want no part of it. But I am also not an “egalitarian.” I believe there are certain roles of leadership within the Church that are reserved for men, and plenty of others open to women. I believe there are significant differences between men and women, and generally speaking, yes, I think God designed women and men to “complement” each other. So if that makes me a “complementarian,” then so be it.

As my internship vividly illustrated, often the biblical gender role discussion is reduced to a power struggle and the division of household chores. We end up asking whose job is vacuuming the floors? This is not constructive, but it seems to me Evans has played into this temptation. To be fair, she does take on other practices such as gentleness and submission during her year long “experiment,” but much of the focus (at least in her promotion of the book) is on daily tasks like making sandwiches for her husband, washing the dishes, and sewing clothes.

These chores are not the point of the “biblical womanhood” issue. When it comes to such details, it depends on the needs of each particular family. And no, a 1950’s Cleaver-esque arrangement is maybe not realistic or desirable for most families. For a married couple without children like Evans and her husband, it is inconsequential who vacuums or cooks, especially if both persons work full time. To act as though the true essence of “biblical womanhood” can be reduced to a chore list cheapens and avoids the real issue.

I agree with Rachel Held Evans that “biblical womanhood is not as simple as it sounds.” But I don’t believe that is a good reason to give it up entirely. As a woman who grew up in an evangelical and often legalistic church, I can relate to Evans. I too have wondered what “biblical womanhood” means and how much cultural context has skewed our idea of it. I struggle with the Apostle Peter’s admonition to exhibit the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” I am not married, but the idea of one day “submitting” to a husband sometimes unsettles me a bit.

Over the past few years, I have landed on both sides of the “egalitarian/complementarian” debate. I do not lightly dismiss her writings on the subject, but I cannot with a clear conscience, interpret scripture as Evans does, and practice only what “help[s] me love God better.”

“Biblical womanhood” within marriage (which is basically the only context in which it is discussed, but that’s an issue for another post) may often include cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for children as an expression of “submission.” The Bible allows freedom for a couple to determine what works for their family, but it does set standards for how women and men are to relate to one another in marriage.The Bible’s instruction to husbands to love and wives to submit is far more relational than pragmatic. Though our cultural context has changed, the nature of marriage as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:25) remains the same.


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20 Responses to “Biblical Womanhood” is Not “Women’s Work”

  1. KShay says:

    I really appreciate this. I’ve been married for 25 years and my children are young adults. I, too, think that biblical womanhood is about more than marriage and children. As the mother of a young woman, I do see that being a woman of the Word affects her in her singleness. I agree, though, that this book doesn’t really answer any such questions, but simply creates more.

  2. Julene D says:

    Having read Year of Biblical Womanhood, I can say it has some serious problems : The word “biblical” in this book’s title has to be taken with a grain of salt – maybe the entire shaker. This author’s approach to the Bible is, to put it mildly, unorthodox. “The most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say, but, what am I looking for?” In other words, what’s already in your head is more important than what the writers of the Bible were trying to communicate. The Bible, for her, is a tool to be used however she likes, not the Word of God that believers are bound to honor. When she spends time trying to apply the purity laws in Leviticus to her own life, she is in fact making fun of the Bible, saying to the reader, “See how ridiculous we are trying to let the Bible guide our lives.” In fact, Christian women have never, ever, applied the laws of Leviticus (in fact, no part of the Old Testament Law except for the Ten Commandments). For a time she abides by the kosher food laws, even though the Gospels and Paul’s letters in the New Testament make it clear that Christians are NOT bound by those laws. The author is using a typical liberal ploy: pick some forgotten parts of the Old Testament, apply them to life, show how ridiculous it is, then draw the conclusion: Why bother to live by the Bible – after all, Christians don’t actually follow it ALL to the letter anyway. She never deals with the fact that Christians have put aside the ritual laws (food, animal sacrifices, etc) but retained the moral teaching

    Her take on Paul’s words about husband and wives is “spun”: she claims that since Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and since slavery no longer exists among Christians, that his words about wives being submissive to their husbands no longer apply either. That is faulty logic, since marriage was and is a universal institution, whereas slavery is not. Again, this is a familiar liberal ploy: point out an isolated verse from the Bible that Christians no longer observe, and jump to the conclusion that there is no point in being guided by the Bible at all.

    Aside from her unorthodox approach to Scripture, she has a habit of throwing non sequiturs at the reader, such as: “Right now thirty thousand children die every day from preventable disease.” She cites this in a long list of “data” designed to support her point that women “prophets” are being silenced in the churches. What exactly the death of children has to do with women’s role in churches is beyond me. Just when you think the author has, for several paragraphs, been making sense, along comes some “Politically Correct burp” like this, as if she has to assure the liberal reader, “Yes, I’m a feminist, and I’m full of data that show how cruel men are!”

    Although Evans obviously has a following, her very shallow book is hardly a serious contribution to the discussion of biblical womanhood and marriage, although liberals will eat it up, as it show an (ex-)evangelical joining their side. Most of the Christian women I know seem to get through the day without obsessing over what Paul said about women and whether they ought to follow the kosher laws, and they manage to negotiate the little conflicts that naturally arise between husbands and wives. They also manage to attend, and enjoy, church, as evidenced by the fact that the average church is about 55 percent women, 45 percent men – a fact that seems incompatible with sexism and patriarchy.

    Evans is a photogenic presence and getting a lot of mileage from it. Her look and her ability to charm an audience shouldn’t blind people to the fact that her take on the Bible, doctrine, and marriage are way out of line with Christian tradition.

    • MJ says:

      “Evans is a photogenic presence and getting a lot of mileage from it. Her look and her ability to charm an audience shouldn’t blind people to the fact that her take on the Bible, doctrine, and marriage are way out of line with Christian tradition.”

      A classic, lazy line of attack straight from the Limbaugh playbook. Obviously you’re pretty well-skilled at “spinning” information yourself.

      The entire conversation about this book is only a masked attempt by the religious right to defame a woman who presents a point of view different from your own. I must always skip the part of the Gospel that says, “When someone challenges your opinion, attack! attack! attack!”

  3. Tom Arr says:

    “Evans has created a caricature of a “biblical woman” who does not even discern between Old Covenant and New.”

    So do many Christians today, as they support the idea that the old covenant is still alive and active alongside the new covenant today, when in fact it is broken, dead, and obsolete.

  4. J P Logan says:

    My goodness, yes! I mean, is there anything that is NOT a “masked attempt by the religious right” to do something sinister? We must not be masking it too well, since liberals see our evil presence everywhere. I don’t know how we manage to hold jobs, given our constant involvement in conspiracies. We’re constantly told how stupid we are, then told how clever we are in hatching conspiracies.

    How truly pathetic to connect this woman’s comments on Evans’ book to Rush Limbaugh, as if that ends the discussion – it doesn’t even pertain to Rush Limbaugh. Take the words “hate” and “Rush Limbaugh” out of a liberal’s vocation and she’d be mute.

    You’re the one who’s narrowminded and intolerant – you can’t accept that someone doesn’t like Evans’ book. Grow up. Adults believe in freedom of thought and freedom of expression. You obviously don’t. Maybe you’ll be happy when the liberals extend their “speech codes” from the universities to the society at large. In the meantime, those of us who aren’t part of the liberal flock of sheep will continue to speak our minds, knowing that when we do, the best response liberals can come up with is “hate” and “conspiracy” and “Rush Limbaugh.” We’ve already won the war of ideas because the buzz-words liberals use would fit on a Post-It note.

  5. Kay G says:

    I’m not impressed with Evans’ way of interpreting the Bible. She takes the familiar feminist line that there was some kind of patriarchal conspiracy in writing the Bible, which gives her leave to put her own feminist spin on it. If a Christian woman regards the Word of God as merely a tool to keep women in submission to men, then I don’t know why she bothers with the Bible (or church) at all. In her view, the church today is a confrontation between interest groups competing to see whose interpretation of the Bible will prevail. I have no desire to attend church with women like that and I’m not sure why anyone would.

  6. Ben Welliver says:

    I don’t think I would enjoy attending church with women like her either. You can’t have real fellowship when you know that some of the people have a chip on their shoulder, waiting for the men in church to do something that will show how “sexist” we are. I could worship better alone in the woods than with a church full of shrill harpies waiting to go into attack mode. Feminism is going to be the death of the church, it creates suspicion and hostility everywhere. what a shame this author has such a following, she’s going to lead a lot of other women (and a few spineless men too) down the wrong path.

  7. Eric Lytle says:

    Apparently a sort of cult has arisen around this book since it came off the press. If you go on Amazon and read the reviews, note a LOT of five-star reviews that (a) don’t quote the book but just slobber all over it with praise, and (b) are posted by people who have never posted reviews before. Also, the author has managed to create a webstorm by posing as some kind of martyr because her publisher supposedly deleted the V word from her book. Not to sound cynical, but I wouldn’t rule out that her publisher went along with this as a publicity stunt. She clearly is good at manipulating the media. Too bad it’s such a rotten, theologically unsound piece of tripe.

  8. Ray Bannister says:

    Tony Jones, the self-styled “progressive” pastor, is hosting a limerick contest on his blog, giving Evans’ book as the prize. He and his contributors seem to be reveling in their use of the V word and the P-y word on a “Christian” blog. All that the contributors seem to know about the book is that poor dear Evans got (gasp!) censored by her Christian publisher, who removed the V-word from her book. The blog has the notice “Beware of salty language–but we’re all adults.” I don’t think so – nothing remotely adult about writing trashy limericks on a Christian blog. Come to think of it, nothing adult about liberal Christianity, period.

    I can’t credit Evans herself with this distasteful display of juvenile vulgarity, but it appears she has become the darling of the most in-your-face element among liberals Christians, and it was certainly she who turned her “censorship” into a public issue. I wonder if she’s proud of the fact that, thanks to her, the V-word is popping in lots of religious blogs. Not something I’d want carved on my tombstone.

    If you want a good laugh – or good cry – or something to make your stomach turn, the V-limericks are at
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones

  9. Ben Welliver says:

    Kristen, I read your article a second time. Here’s a few random thoughts:

    1) I grew up in a conservative rural Southern church – meaning, just the kind of church that you might think would take the “complementarian” side. However, we had women Sunday school teachers, women youth group leaders, and if people were being driven in the church van, no much cared if a man or woman drove. Occasionally when the pastor was on vacation, a woman lay preacher would fill in. In other words, it wasn’t like the church you describe in your article, and I don’t think churches like you describe are typical, even among evangelicals. I don’t think those churches force women to attend, so I guess we can assume the ones who attend there do so because they want to. I’m guessing the church you describe had more women attending than men – almost all churches do – including some married women whose husbands don’t attend. Those women choose to be there, which suggests they accept that church’s way of doing things.

    2) In my church we were, thankfully, blissfully ignorant of “complementarian” and “egalitarian,” so we just found that our system “worked” without analyzing it. I gather that nowadays lots of people, especially women, are analyzing what their church does, agonizing over whether it “demeans” women, or whatever. I think it’s possible to analyze something to death. Suspicion does not make for a happy spiritual fellowship.

    3) My wife and I find that “woman’s work” and “man’s work” have a way of sorting themselves out in a satisfactory way. My wife can use a hammer, drill, or pole saw, just as I can sew on a button, iron my dress shirts, and cook – but I usually leave the cooking, sewing, and ironing to her because she’s better at it, just like I’m better with tools. If our car had a flat, I’d change the tire, even though she is capable (and did it once when I wasn’t around). I certainly don’t look down on her for doing “woman’s work,” nor do I think what I do around the home is more important than what she does. Happy the home where these matters are not analyzed over and over. Happy the home were two people can accept differences and not assume that one person is looking down on the other.

    4) We know several married women who are “just homemakers,” some of whom have college degrees. You can get them very riled up if you imply that there’s anything demeaning about being “just a homemaker.” They don’t look down on women who work, but they know that many working women look down on them. They haven’t bought the familiarl feminist lie: only a paycheck makes you important. Believe me, their husbands may MAKE the money, but see if you can guess who makes most of the decisions about SPENDING the money. You could make a case that the Spender has a heck of a lot more power than the Earner.

    5) There are a lot of people in the feminist movement (men as well as women) who need a good kick in the pants. Marriage takes work even under the best circumstances, and it hasn’t helped that there’s a million books urging people to put their marriage under a microscope and try to discern if everything is “fair,” as if there was some way of measuring things and finding out what “50/50” entails.

    6) I gather that you are not old enough to remember the “pre-feminist” world. It was far from perfect, of course, but one of its beauties (not that we knew it at the time) was that there was no generalized suspicion and paranoia about “sexism,” just an awareness that – duh! – men and women are different and must manage to find ways to live with those differences. A woman might find her husband difficult (and vice versa), but she didn’t see the difficulties as symptoms of some Big Sexist Conspiracy – not Woman Versus Man, but individual wife and individual husband working at a marriage.

  10. Reblogged this on Curated Links For Soulfriend.org and commented:
    As one person noted, liberals and fundamentalists both have a unique ability to make the Bible look ridiculous but for different reasons. Were it not for the Biblical faith Rachel Evans hates, however, women like here would never have been allowed to be educated enough to even make such assertions. That is the irony of the whole matter!

    • Lynn says:

      regligion was not what gave women liscense to education. The bible says the opposite. It was women fight for there human rights that gave women the ability to gain an education

      • Norman L says:

        Don’t forget to give some credit to the men who caved in to all the whining. The “patriarchy” proved to be composed of wimps.

  11. Tim Vernon says:

    I get the impression that this Rachel Evans would like to be the Ann Coulter of Christian feminism, the “chick” who can look good on camera and sound really smart and make people want to yell “You go, girl!” (Let me say that I like Ann Coulter and that I do NOT like Christian feminism, or at least not the variety this woman is trying to peddle). She isn’t up to the task, because that syrupy “church smile” just doesn’t work well with the Coulter-style pugnacity, and, judging from the two really awful books she’s written so far, intellectual analysis is not her strong suit. To get anything accomplished, you have to be willing to get people to hate you, and I don’t think this Evans could handle that, which is why she operates via her “stealth feminism,” with those constant reminders “I really do love the Bible – really!”

  12. krwordgazer says:

    This seems odd to me. Having read Evan’s book, it’s clear to me that part of her goal was that if a group of women anywhere was interpreting “biblical womanhood” in a certain way, she was going to research and explore that interpretation. She consulted Amish, orthodox Jews, etc. In other words, it wasn’t all about evangelicalism, nor did she write her book to create “a distortion of what complementarians mean by ‘biblical womanhood.'” I think the fact that all the reviews by evanglical complementarians take it for granted that this was all about them, shows a certain amount of naval-gazing, with the result of missing the point.

    Since “ecumenism” is defined as follows by an online dictionary:

    “1. A movement promoting unity among Christian churches or denominations.
    2. A movement promoting worldwide unity among religions through greater cooperation and improved understanding.”

    I am confused to find a review like this here. Surely greater cooperation and improved understanding could be promoted by seeking to understand, from the book itself, what its purpose was? The message I am getting from the book is, “there are a great many different ways, historically and throughout various cultures, that ‘biblical womanhood’ has been and is being understood. In light of that, perhaps we should all cling a little less tightly to our assurance that our group alone has full understanding of what ‘biblical womanhood’ is supposed to mean.”

    • Ray Bannister says:

      I think we all understand perfectly well what the purpose of the book was – to make money and gain attention for the author. However, I can accept that, given that we all must make a living. Personally, if I had to go on The View to promote a book, I’d probably pass – sitting at the same table with those five – ouch! Certain people like Jesus can hobnob with the worldly types and not get polluted, but I don’t think this author has that capability. She’ll probably be watching that video of herself for the next 20 years.

      Her other, non-material purpose, is pretty clear: make “living by the Bible” look silly (and impossible) and thus lure a few more evangelical women into the feminist fold. The book’s cheerful tone may well reflect her true personality, but it’s obviously a mask for what the more hardline feminists do by ranting and accusing. The book gets plenty of digs in against “patriarchy,” all those horrid mean holding women back from Ultimate Fulfillment.

      • krwordgazer says:

        Wow, lots of uncharitable assumptions and judgmental conclusions being made here. I’ve gotta say my interactions on this “ecumenical” website have so far left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think I’ll stick around.

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