Literal Biblical Womanhood

A number of people have asked me lately if I will be reviewing Rachel Held Evans new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which follows her attempts “to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.” I am not going to read and review it, though my reason may sound underwhelming. I am behind on a number of projects to which I had previously obligated myself, including another book review. I also took on two ministry opportunities this fall which are taking up a great deal of the little bit of extra time I have when my family doesn’t need me. Not to mention, I’m working on finishing my own book! Though somehow that keeps getting shoved to the bottom of the pile.

All that to say, I won’t be adding anything new to my pile for the next few months. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts to stay focused on my massive To Do list, I was distracted by this article on NBC news today about Evans’ new book. In it, Evans said this, which resonated with me.

“People were throwing around this phrase, biblical womanhood, as if that’s something any of us are really practicing,” she told TODAY’s Natalie Morales on Monday. “That’s the challenge, looking for any person of faith who loves the Bible, trying to figure out what parts of this book apply and should be followed literally, and which parts may be culturally influenced, and how do we decide.”

How do we decide what parts of Scripture are for today? Not all parts of Scripture are to be literally followed today, right? Most of us at least agree on that. But there are divergent perspectives within the larger evangelical movement on how we know what is required for today, especially in terms of application to women. It is tempting for me to rely on my own cultural understanding as the basis for what does and does not apply to me in Scripture. But the Bible transcends cultural context. The Bible makes audacious claims about itself. It claims to be living (Hebrews 4:12). It claims to be trustworthy (Matthew 5:18, 2 Peter 1:20-21). It speaks to events that occurred well before it was first written and to those that will occur long after it was completed.

How any of us decide to receive the Word is a fundamental act of faith. I remember well my early days at college when I first faced head on my belief (or unbelief) in the trustworthiness of the Scripture handed down by the church for two millennia. Could I trust it? How did I know it was true? What about the questions others regularly raised? I studied how we got our texts for a bit, but then I realized at some point that I could not study my way out of the need to take a step of faith on the reliability of Scripture.

So I took that step of faith. I believed that the Bible was what it claimed – the living, trustworthy revelation of God to His people, a revelation that transcends any particular cultural context. Yet, still I had to wonder what to do with peculiar passages that seemed totally irrelevant for me today. I realized early on in my wrestling over Scripture that I did not want to rely on myself to determine what was and what was not relevant for me today. I knew it was foolish for me to choose to accept the parts I liked and reject the parts I didn’t. Thankfully, the Bible does not leave us as orphans to navigate that. In fact, the Bible gives great insight to us on how to interact with itself. The most important Bible interpretation principle I know is that THE BIBLE IS THE BEST COMMENTARY ON ITSELF.

Consider Deuteronomy 22:5, which forbids women wearing men’s clothes and vice versa. Though it more likely was addressing what today would be considered transvestism, when I was growing up, this verse was used to forbid fundamentalist Christian women from wearing pants. We attended a church for a while that bought into that thinking. At some point, I read the next verse in Deuteronomy 22 on not taking the mother from a bird’s nest though you could take the young and the following one on building a parapet on your roof top. Once I got to the verse on not wearing garments with a mixture of wool and linen, I knew something was skewed in how that church was presenting Scripture. Thankfully, in my own study I one day came to understand that Jesus was the only one who ever could obey the Old Testament Law as God intended. He did obey the Law perfectly, and His death on the cross changed permanently the role of the Law for all who followed.

We have no need today to write off Old Testament law. Jesus addressed this head on in Matthew 5.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

There are many wrong ways to think about Old Testament laws. They aren’t to be written off, ignored, or abolished. Instead, Jesus FULFILLED them. He brought them to completion, and they are now done. Not only did He fulfill them, Jesus boiled them down for us so that we could continue living in the essence of what they were meant to convey. He summed this up with the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) and Greatest Command (Matthew 22:36-40).

Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. 

Matthew 22  36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Edited on Tuesday to add — I hesitate to criticize much in Evans’ book since I haven’t read it, and that would just be irresponsible on my part.  But much was made in their advertising about her sleeping in a tent during her cycle each month in light of instructions in Leviticus 15.  If the point of that was to reveal something about literal Biblical womanhood, then that misses that Scripture itself already tells us no one today is required to follow Leviticus 15.  I am curious how much of what she attempts at Biblical womanhood falls in this category, which is not literal Biblical womanhood at all.

Upon Christ’s death on the cross, He ushered in the New Covenant, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy in Jer. 31:31-34.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah several times in his detailed discussion of all Christ’s death accomplished for us. If you are not familiar with that passage, I encourage you to read through Hebrews 8-10.

It’s not rocket science. The Bible spells out for us quite clearly how we are to interact with the Old Testament Law. If we allow the Bible to instruct us on itself, we save ourselves a lot of headache and stress.  Much of our “literal” Biblical womanhood quandary becomes obsolete.  In summary, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil law pointed toward Christ and was fulfilled in Him. The New Testament reaffirms the summary moral code of the Ten Commandments. Jesus even intensifies it in His Sermon on the Mount. The essence is summed up in the Greatest Command and Golden Rule. Much of the epistles then flesh out what this looks like in the New Covenant, and we can trust those instructions.

*I have notes from an excellent class on Scripture that I hope to share next week.*

22 Responses to Literal Biblical Womanhood

  1. Luma Simms October 23, 2012 at 5:13 am #

    “The Bible is the best commentary on itself” Yes yes!!

    I know I keep saying the same thing but it's key: Women need to learn how to read and study the Scriptures! My greatest hope, desire, and prayer for women.

    I don't know if you got a chance to read this from Kathleen Nielson: The Word and Woman

    I know you're really busy, but thanks for taking the time for this, Wendy. 🙂

  2. Rebekah Daphne October 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Absolutely. I was just thinking about this the other day while in the shower (because, duh, that's where I do most of my deep thinking). How Jesus did not abolish the law, but fulfilled it, and THAT is how we are to look at the law as Christians. To me, that's helpful in distinguishing between “old” and “new.” The laws instituted in order to set Israel apart or to atone for sin, like not cutting the beard or having a period of impurity after childbirth– they were good for the Old Covenant, but are not binding on us anymore, because now we are set apart in Christ and all our sins are atoned for in Him! The laws that call us to imitate God's holiness, such as loving our neighbor, not committing adultery, etc– we follow those, because Christ has given us the power to do so. It's a freeing attitude, not a burdensome one.

  3. Anonymous October 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    “the Lord declares: I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.”

    Amen. Let’s pray for deep desire for study, prayer, abiding
    Ps 51:6 desire truth in the innermost being, in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom
    Isa 58:2 seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways.. delight in the nearness of God.
    Ex 33:13 I pray let me know Your ways that I may know You
    1 John 2:14 the word of God abides in you 17 abide in Me, and My words abide in you

  4. Elizabeth@Warrior Wives October 23, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    I just finished Evans' book last week and while she's an engaging writer, I think she really misses the point. She tries to follow many things from Jewish traditions and from the Old Testament (like the tent thing) and doesn't address the excellent points you made in your last paragraph at all.

  5. Pam Hogeweide October 23, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    I read the book too and did blog a review (I'll post the link at the end of this comment)

    Just as we need to be thoughtful about taking the Bible literally so, too, we need to do the same with her Biblical Womanhood book. In some ways it seems gimmicky–like sleeping in her tent when she was on her cycle, which I believe she did for only one month– obviously women of faith today are not doing this. But Rachel is a smart, savvy woman. So why did she do these things? Why did she hop up on her roof when she felt she had become contentious in her marriage? Why did she take cooking lessons from Martha Stewart and learn how to sew?

    To me, it was a literary device in the flesh, a hyperbolic way of deconstructing the idealized true Christian woman. That's what I got out of it at least.

    btw, I've been a subscriber for a while. First time commenter. Love your stuff. What is your book about and do you have a publisher? Self-publishing? I'm always curious what other writers are up to!!!

    Here's the link to my review :

  6. Kristen October 23, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    I have begun reading this book, and have also read Ms. Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town. One thing that is quite clear to me is that the author is very, very well-versed in evangelical theology and is completely familiar with the idea that certain Old Testament laws are fulfilled in Christ and no longer apply. Her observance of some of these laws is therefore quite deliberate and done neither by accident nor out of ignorance. I am not quite sure yet where she's going, but she is certainly not just “missing the point.” I am wondering if part of the point she intends to make is that almost every Christian out there is going to respond with a different version of “you're doing it wrong,” and to want to tell her how to live biblically in the “right” way– and these “right” ways are still going to differ from one another. That perhaps we all ought to hold what we believe to be the “biblical right way” to be a woman a little more loosely.

  7. Wendy October 23, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Thanks Kristin and Pam for giving insight from what you have read!

    In general, I hope women who are interested in the topic of Biblical womanhood (whether they've read this book or not) understand the difference in Law, Wisdom, and apostolic instruction in the New Covenant. We do not read Leviticus 15, Proverbs 31, and Ephesians 5 with the same lens, per the Bible's own instruction.

  8. Wendy October 23, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    And to follow up in the event I wasn't clear with my own comment–there are good Bible reasons we are no longer bound by Leviticus 15 that clearly do not apply to Ephesians 5.

  9. Lore Ferguson October 23, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

    I was hoping you'd have something to add Wendy, and you didn't disappoint!

    I was given an advance copy to read and review, and while I found it to be engaging and humorous (much like Rachel is in real life), I was sad to see how the concept of the fulfillment of the law by Christ was not touched on at all.

    My pastor has been preaching through Matthew 5 for the past few weeks in a series entitled City on a Hill. So much of that chapter is focused on the intent of the heart—and this was what seemed to be missing from much of the book. Not the intent of Rachel's heart, but the heart of those she is characterizing as in the “biblical womanhood” camp.

    I think that were she to visit a bit what she would see is not a caricature of old Testament laws pasted on modern day women, but instead the hearts of women fully alive in the knowledge that Christ fulfilled every one of the laws. I would have loved to see her handle the reality that the law was given as a measuring stick to point out how short we fall of the holiness God demands—and how Christ alone is the only sufficient righteousness.

    Thanks again for your faithfulness to the word. So appreciate your voice in the blogosphere. Deeply.

  10. Meg October 24, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    Hi Wendy,
    This was really helpful. The issue on how to handle the OT law comes up in lots of domains of life so I really appreciated reading your thoughts on it. You have a gift for speaking from the Bible clearly, so thanks for taking the time to write on this topic!

  11. Wendy October 24, 2012 at 1:34 am #

    Pam, my book is tentatively titled “The Gospel Centered Woman.” I will likely self publish, which I did with my Ephesians bible study. I prefer to go through a respected, mainstream publisher. However, none have picked this manuscript up so far, a fact that I am pondering to figure out meaning. 🙂

  12. Hannah Anderson October 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm #


    I'd stumbled across your review yesterday and so it was neat to see you here today too. There's a question that has been rolling around in my head over this whole thing and I was reminded of it when you said that Rachel's “gimmicky” approach was a literary device. I agree that it is but something's happened in the last couple of days that's given me pause over the wisdom of using this device. Would love your feedback.

    In house, the device works–poke fun at the stereotype and thus abolish the stereotype. But externally, in the broader media, it's not working the same way. Because people don't have a context for the gender debate, they have no way to appreciate the nuance. And suddenly by taking the conversation into the public–like on the Today show–a watching world simply sees a woman poking fun at Scripture. The majority of the comments on the articles I've seen don't result in questioning complementarianism as often as questioning the validity of faith and Scripture itself. Do you think this literary device is going to be problematic in the long run?

  13. Laura Eder October 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    Excellent post to shift our focus back to Jesus' work on our behalf. Can I also affirm and congratulate you on drawing a boundary on your time by NOT reading and writing a review on the Evans' book?

  14. Wendy October 26, 2012 at 1:58 am #

    I'm trying! I'm cheating on this one though by talking about it without reading it. I imagine I will read it at some point. I just can't right now.

  15. Wendy October 26, 2012 at 3:20 am #

    I understand what you are saying, Hannah.

    I've been slow in articulating my concern, mainly because I'm trying to figure it out in my own head first. I have appreciated Rachel's writings in the past, especially as she has brought attention to beams in the eye in the treatment of women in the conservative circles which I run. She raised my attention to troublesome issues in Real Marriage and more recently to disturbing discussions of Esther. Truly, there are large beams in the eyes of many who hold to a complementarian position. It's good to face these problems head on.

    I know she's egalitarian. I disagree with her on several points, and that is OK. But now, at least in the media around this book if not in the book itself, she gets into something precious that really transcends women's issues — the trustworthiness of the Word. It's meaning. It's clarity. It's perspicuity. The Bible says important things about itself — it gives us the tools we need to understand it. And it's irresponsible to discuss Biblical anything and ignore those tools. A very basic tool is that the law is fulfilled in Christ. Jesus emphasizes this clearly. Paul pounds this point in his writings, especially in Galatians. Any student of Scripture who reads the NT should understand that point. It's really hard to miss (which is not to say that many conservatives don't miss it — many in fact do and it should be corrected).

    I am concerned much less about what is being discussed about women in the news right now. The concern that is growing for me is what may be misrepresented about Scripture. If we're talking about literal Biblical womanhood, we start in Genesis 2 — in perfection as image bearers of God. Then I recommend time spent studying Ephesians, where Paul lays out our spiritual inheritance via the gospel as the key to once again being the “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1) that He created us to be (Gen. 2). Proverbs 31 gives insight/wisdom/understanding (not law) which is best received under the press of the Holy Spirit who helps us apply it in ways that are actually wise in our own lives as opposed to the one-dimensional, silly conclusions some bring when they try to convict you in place of the Spirit.

    If nothing else, this discussion has solidified in my own head how I should receive Biblical instruction. On anything.

  16. Kim Shay October 26, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    I read Evans's first book before I made the decision to read her second. I wanted to get an idea of what her hermeneutic and worldview were so I could decide if I wanted to read the other one. I got enough from the first book to know that I would probably end up getting on my angry horse every other page. Life is too short, and there is too much about God to learn for me to take up valuable time reading something I know would be completely unedifying to me. From what I have read, and from the ridiculous interviews she has done, I made the right decision. I am thankful for those who have braved it. Now, I want to get back on the business of knowing the Word better. I will wait with anticipation for the day when someone asks Evans, “Where is your ultimate authority in life? Where do you get your wisdom and knowledge?” I'd be interested to hear her response.

  17. Hannah Anderson October 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Totally on board with your point about being made in the image of God. From my perspective, the problems within complementarianism (an egalitarianism for that matter) come from not being biblical enough–not valuing the full and complete scope of revelation. It's not so much a problem of simply picking and choosing the “right” passages as finding an overarching hermeneutic that accounts for all of them.

    I had a teacher in college who taught us that you don't yet have the right interpretation of a text if you have left over pieces–like a puzzle, you're not done until everything fits. I think having the bigger picture like you articulated is precisely what's necessary in this debate.

  18. Wendy October 27, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    I like that teacher. That's a good way of putting it.

  19. Lynn Bell October 31, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    This is my first time reading your blog, and I'm really impressed with the positive and constructive tone, both of Wendy and your commenters. You have obviously created a respect-filled environment in which to discuss difficult issues. Thank you. It's rare!

  20. Wendy October 31, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    Thank you for that encouragement, Lynn. We really try over here to do that.

  21. Flyaway November 1, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    Do you think Evans is a perfectionist? I have never worried or even thought about Biblical womanhood. I just study the Bible so I can learn how to be what God wants me to be.

  22. leslie November 2, 2012 at 2:57 am #

    Well, I'll weigh in, a little late, because I just finished the book today and kept thinking about how I wished you would change your mind and do a review!
    I loved the book, personally. I feel very caught between complementarianism and egalitarianism, as I understand them, and don't really identify with either. But Rachel's book gave me a lot to think about. It was engaging and funny, heart-warming and thought-provoking. So, obviously stuff like sleeping in a tent during your period and sitting on the roof for cussing is silly. It's good for writing about, it provokes some interesting spin off thoughts… but nobody does that; nobody (I don't think) is really out there saying that's what it means to be a Biblical woman. But throughout the book I really started thinking about how much people in the church today who know better, who know that the law is fulfilled in Christ, still try to read the Old Testament way too literally and pick out all kinds of standards to apply to us today. Rachel interviewed polygamists (not Mormons, professing Christians) which is an extreme example, but she also did things like a stint of dressing hyper-modestly (there are plenty of Christians who point to the OT to claim women must wear only dresses so gender roles are properly defined) and she did a fascinating look at Proverbs 31 and how we tend to turn it into a laundry list of things to do, rather than a beautiful poem which should really make us feel uplifted and honored as women. There was really tons of good stuff. I have no idea how it would come across to someone with no background with the Church or the Bible, but I am honestly mystified how people have read it and taken away the idea that she is mocking or challenging Scripture. On the contrary, it's clear throughout that she loves God and she loves the word. Her interpretations of NT passages on submission, etc are of course controversial, and should be, but she really is looking at how we should interpret those passages rather than advocating for ignoring them. I keep hoping I will see a Complementarian response online that addresses her points instead of just attempting to totally discredit her faith and her commitment to the Bible, because I would be interested to hear some pushback on some of her conclusions… but it really was a great read.