Today I’m starting my chapter-by-chapter discussion of A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. I hope you all have your copy of the book in hand so you can read along with me. I’ve already read the book once, but it’s definitely worth multiple readings; the text is rich from Rachel’s own experiences and sings with her unique voice. This series is less a review of the book and more a conversation about the issues Rachel raises. I’ve seen a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not she’s right, whether or not she’s done “proper” study, and whether or not she’s misrepresented the more conservative views. Rather than hash that out (again), I’d like us to talk about what it might mean for us to be “biblical” women. I believe that this is really what Rachel was after—not a treatise on her personal belief that a certain kind of woman is best, but a way for all of us to come to the table to talk. Feel free to jump right in with your comments.
Rachel doesn’t beat around the bush. She dives right into things in the first few pages talking about her conservative evangelical upbringing and her education on the role of women within the church and the family. I have to admit here that I don’t relate to that. I grew up among feminists; becoming conservative was my rebellion. Until I was sixteen, I had never even heard that women were supposed to “submit” to their husbands. I had to ask what that meant.
I did get the memo that women weren’t supposed to be pastors, however. I learned from a pamphlet handed to me at church that when women take on any role higher than elder, the church is in danger of succumbing to fertility worship and rampant homosexuality. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t true; false gods and Teh Gay were the Big Bads back then, and I wanted no part of things that might lead me astray.
Getting back to the book, Rachel says,
…I’d received a lot of mixed messages about the appropriate roles of women…each punctuated with the claim that it was God’s perfect will that all women everywhere do this or that.
“Mixed messages” is too polite, I think. In some sense I believe it’s intentional. Either way, though, I agree. I’ve heard those messages too, and I’m willing to bet so have you. I’ve heard the same people say that women were created not as inferior to men but to fit together like two halves of a whole—then turn around and use the exact phrase, “Women are not equal to men.” Yes, literally. Yes, in church. I’ve also heard the same people say that biblical womanhood isn’t all about being a stay-at-home mom who cares for the household, while simultaneously extolling the virtues of doing exactly that and guilt-tripping working mothers. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit that women should not abandon their families for their jobs, yet I’ve gotten sneers from more than one friend for continuing to stay home.
This is exactly why we need people like Rachel to spark discussion about these things. It’s not that there is anything wrong with staying home and caring for the household; if there were, I would not be doing it myself! There is also nothing wrong with ambition and hard work outside the home. There is nothing at all wrong about being married, being unmarried, having children, or not having children. None of those things are the sole source of our identity. Yet as women, there is constant pressure to define ourselves by what we do or don’t do, and there is judgment no matter what our choices are.
Just to be fair, men are often defined by their careers, and there is enormous pressure on men to be the wage-earners for the family; stay-at-home dads are unjustly judged. The difference is, no matter where a man works, he is praised for making the effort. Women are blasted regardless of their choice. I recently found myself feeling the need to defend my two college degrees that I’m not putting to work in gainful employment; I was afraid of being labeled, yet again, as lazy. I rarely talk about my passion for writing outside the context of “hobby” because it’s not a “real” job. Yet many of my Christian friends who work outside the home have been unfairly judged as being terrible mothers for having ambition or for enjoying the productivity they feel at work, and still others have been blasted for wanting to remain single and/or child-free. It’s a no-win situation. (More on this when I get to Rachel’s chapter on motherhood.)
This is exactly why I appreciate when Rachel lists the various things that are technically “biblical” in terms of womanhood and bravely asks the questions about what we do with that information. It’s what all of us should be doing in light of the confusing messages coming out of many of our churches. Whether or not we ultimately agree on the role of women within the family and the church, it’s important that we work through these issues so that we have a clear understanding of why we believe as we do. I consider myself just as “biblical” a woman as one who believes that she should submit to her husband and avoid leading/preaching to men at church. But we both need to know why we stand in our respective positions with more of an explanation than “it’s biblical to do it this way”—on both sides.
I hope you’ll join me in this conversation over the next several weeks as we learn and grow together. And please, please, please buy a copy of Rachel’s book. Agree with her conclusions or not, you won’t regret reading her words for yourself.
Just a note: While I was on the Launch Team for AYoBW, I was not paid and did not receive anything except an electronic reader’s copy of the book, in exchange for reviews. I was not asked to do anything else. It’s likely true that I was selected to participate because I was supportive of the project, but I was never told that I had to like the book. I’ve been excited to read it since I first heard about Rachel’s project while she was still living it. Don’t let the fact that I agree with Rachel prevent you from drawing your own conclusions; but don’t draw them until you’ve actually read the book.