For many, the shock of Rachel Held Evan’s death has begun to wear off. Yet, it still remains something I have a hard time getting my head around. She was larger than life in the evangelical Twitter community, willing to stay engaged in conversations unlike many evangelical celebrities. It reminds me of the death of Princess Diana. She died around the same age as Rachel, and it was hard to get my head around that death as well.
I am processing Rachel’s life and death in this post purely in terms of how she affected and influenced me and possibly those of you who read this blog. I only met her once in person and communicated with her some on Twitter. So I want to be clear what this post IS and IS NOT. I pray for her family who is experiencing a wholly different set of feelings than mine, who knew her in an entirely different way. I can’t imagine their gut wrenching pain, and I pray for supernatural comfort that is beyond human understanding. My experience with Rachel, of course, is much different, and I want to reflect on that here.
I remember well the day it dawned on me that challenging questions were not received fondly when they came from young girls. I was in 4th grade at my private school. My teacher returned a matching test she had graded. She had marked wrong the problem in which I had chosen option “h” because I had written my “h” too much like an “n”. I brought my test up to her to show her that all of the options were used only once, and my “n” was clearly marked in another place as correct. So by process of elimination, this answer must be the “h”. I would have a 100 on the test then. I was a fairly smart kid, and my grades were important to me. The logic was clear in my 4th grade head. And I was right.
I’ll never forget the essence of her reply to me. “You are always arguing about something.”
My logic was correct on this test. I had evidence on the test itself to back me up. But, in her eyes, I was just an impetuous child always looking for something to argue about. I’d argue with a power pole, at least that was the sentiment reflected back to me when I showed my teacher my test.
So many young women in my generation, particularly in the south, were taught to keep quiet with our questions. If the authority figure does something wrong, males who question seem viewed as future leaders. Females who question are troublemakers.
I was both a young female who questioned things who also HATED to make people uncomfortable. This created a running background of mental friction in my head for most of my life. This struggle followed me into adulthood, particularly after writing my post on the New Wave of Complementarians that got the conversation started on realigning with Scripture against patriarchy in conservative circles. One denominational leader actually called me on the phone. He had the character to figure out if I really was a troublemaker or not. We had a great conversation, and I have continued respect for him today. But other leaders questioned my motives. I was likely a troublemaker, in their eyes, seeking to sow dissension. I have felt the weight of the label, too sensitive to wear it proudly, but too innately questioning to be able to free myself of it.
Rachel Held Evans came to my attention when I was internally questioning things at Mars Hill without the courage to verbalize it. Mark Driscoll had a low bar for labeling a questioning woman as contentious. And I didn’t have the emotional confidence to bear up under such a label. If he had labeled me contentious in the early years (as he later did), I would have believed him.
Rachel began pointing out problems with Mark Driscoll’s language, and not that he “cussed” (which has always been a ridiculous distraction for those who don’t realize how much they are like Mark in his misogyny and malice toward others). Rachel pointed out Mark’s sinful misogyny long before the folks that propped him up did. She was the young boy in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the one with the courage to first say, “He’s not wearing any clothes.” As a questioner without the courage to verbalize my concerns, I will forever be grateful to RHE for leading the way. Like a Coastguard ice-breaker, she cut a path that made the way for others who followed.
But as Rachel began pointing out legitimate problems with the Neo-Reformed figurehead that was Mark Driscoll at the time, she used these problems to justify questioning the authority of Scripture. Because so many folks misused Scripture, and other well meaning folks disagreed on how to live it out in practice, the bottom line must be simply to love God and love your neighbor. Instead of other laws and instructions in Scripture hanging on that foundation, laws and instructions in Rachel’s paradigm lost their binding quality. In particular, explicit instructions concerning biological sex and sex in marriage were not binding today if they did not seem “loving” by a modern definition of love, one that often doesn’t involve self sacrifice. While Rachel gave me courage to voice my questions and concerns, she also inadvertently gave me clarity that the answer to these concerns was IN Scripture, not opposed to it. The answer was found by BETTER understanding how Scripture presents its Laws and instructions, not by writing them off as no longer relevant.
I wrote Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture specifically because of Rachel Held Evans. Rachel asked the questions that needed answering. She was right to question. I am in her debt that she led the way. But her answers (or lack of answers) taught many that Scripture was unknowable, without clear or binding instructions. And I remain deeply troubled by that outcome of her ministry.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est.
The Reformed Church is always reforming. I have loved that saying since the day I first heard it. It speaks deeply to my soul. I am a questioner. And hopefully my questions help myself and those around me realign ourselves back to Scripture. We should all be examining ourselves and the groups with whom we identify denominationally. We should be sharpening each other. We should be questioning each other, and we should be examining Scripture when the questions don’t have easy answers. This is inherent to reformed theology.
Such questioning and self-examination have long felt unsafe for reformed women.
Those of us who are a part of the reformed resurgence owe Rachel a debt of gratitude. When Mark Driscoll and James McDonald were the celebrity leaders in our movement and major figures at The Gospel Coalition, she pushed us to see our own problems and reform. We may disagree with her theological conclusions, but she was right to ask the questions she asked. I am grateful. Our movement is now stronger because she was willing to point out its flaws.