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.
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 Christians at 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.
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Stephen Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA, where his main duties include leading worship, preaching, and working with youth. He also has written a number of worship songs that have been included on Sovereign Grace Music albums. Stephen is the author of the book Game Day For the Glory of God: A Guide For Athletes, Fans, and Wannabes, published by Crossway Books in September 2008, and The Greener Grass Conspiracy: Finding Contentment on Your Side of the Fence, published by Crossway Books in April 2011. When not shining his dad’s shoes, you can find Stephen drinking coffee or playing video games.
Find out more when you visit his blog, The Blazing Center.