(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.