“Biblical Womanhood” and the illusion of clarity: a response to Kathy Keller

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Sounding the shofar for Rosh Hashanah

Sounding the shofar for Rosh Hashanah

I have been overwhelmed and overjoyed by the positive response I’ve received to A Year of Biblical Womanhood thus far. Your reflections and reviews have brought happy tears to my eyes, and I am delighted to say that the three most popular responses to the book have been: 1) “it made me laugh a lot,” 2) “it made me want to explore the Bible more,” and 3) “I no longer resent the Proverbs 31 Woman.”  

Mission accomplished! 

I’ve heard powerful, encouraging things from stay-at-home moms, from conservative evangelicals, from biblical scholars, from plenty of guys, even from People Magazine.  I can’t tell you how much it means to see women celebrating one another with hearty shouts of “eshet chayil!” and embracing, some for the first time, the truth that they might not be falling short of “biblical womanhood” each time they let Sara Lee take care of dessert. 

Camille at Odyssee Mama summed up what I'm hearing from a lot of readers: 

"This book made me want to run to my Bible with a renewed sense of excitement to find the stories of women rarely mentioned in the Sunday-morning service. It made me want to do further research into several theological concepts mentioned. It made me want to meet a bunch of friends at Starbucks and have a lengthy conversation about our roles in the church and life. However, it did not make me want to start calling Charlie “master,” about which he was only mildly disappointed."

I'll be sending Starbucks an invoice for my services shortly.

Of course, not every review has been positive, and that’s okay.  Earlier this week, Matthew Anderson issued a constructive, charitable critique that I learned from and took to heart.  Unfortunately, as he notes in his review, not all responses have been so kind.

I suspected I’d get a little pushback from fellow Christians who hold a complementarian perspective on gender, (a position that requires women to submit to male leadership in the home and church, and often appeals to “biblical womanhood” for support), but I had hoped—perhaps naively—that the book would generate a vigorous, healthy debate about things like the Greco Roman household codes found in the epistles of Peter and Paul, about the meaning of the Hebrew word ezer or the Greek word for deacon, about the Paul’s line of argumentation in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11, about our hermeneutical presuppositions and how they are influenced by our own culture, and about what we really mean when we talk about “biblical womanhood”—all issues I address quite seriously in the book, but which have yet to be engaged by complementarian critics. 

Instead, what I have mostly received from this group are accusations that I hate the Bible and am a “silly woman” who doesn’t know the first thing about hermeneutics and is hell-bent on mocking the Bible.  As someone who loves the Bible, who believes the Bible is inspired by God, and who devotes a great deal of space in her book to communicating that, this response has been both hurtful and frustrating. 

Keller’s Review

Most notable among these critiques came from the Desiring God blog and The Gospel Coalition. The former, written by Trillia Newbell has already been analyzed by others here and here. But I wanted to personally respond to the critique issued by Kathy Keller, written in open-letter-style, over at The Gospel Coalition. 

To begin, I want to make it clear that I respect Mrs. Keller immensely. I know her hard work and service over at Redeemer Presbyterian Church far exceeds her job description and that many, many people have been blessed by her wisdom, experience, insight into Scripture, and grace. I look forward to reading her upcoming book on gender roles, and hope to one day enjoy a conversation with her face-to-face.

At the beginning of her review/letter Keller says, “I tried twice to get in touch with you when you were in New York City on the talk shows but wasn’t able to connect. So here’s what I would have said if we could have gotten the chance to open that dialogue.” 

I was surprised to read this, as I had not heard anything from Keller prior to her review being published. I promptly searched my email, phone, and social media sites for any word from her, but found none. I’ll give Keller the benefit of the doubt and assume our wires got crossed as a result of, you know, the HURRICANE, and/or busy schedules. But I want to make it clear that I wasn’t ignoring Keller in favor of appearing on “talk shows.” I did not hear from her personally until after her review was posted and that conversation will remain private. 

In her review, Keller says, “You began your project by ignoring (actually, by pretending you did not know about) the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries.” These rules, according to Keller, include the fact that biblical stories should not be applied prescriptively, that “Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete,” and that the reader must “look for the author’s intended meaning within the text’s historical context.” She points to my observation of the Levitical purity codes and my highly literal interpretation of praising my husband at the city gate as examples of violating these interpretive principles.

So let's talk about biblical interpretation...

Unpacking biblical womanhood

The purpose of my project was to unpack and explore the phrase “biblical womanhood”—mostly because, as a woman, the Bible’s instructions and stories regarding womanhood have always intrigued me, but also because the phrase “biblical womanhood” is often invoked in the conservative evangelical culture to explain why women should be discouraged from working outside the home and forbidden from assuming leadership positions in the church.  

This complementarian view of “biblical womanhood” involves some serious selectivity and requires a hermeneutical bias (we all have them!)  that relies on some specific assumptions regarding gender and culture.  For example, it emphasizes passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent”) while ignoring others like 1 Corinthians 11:5 (“every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered disgraces her head”). And more often than not, it imposes upon an ancient Near Eastern text Western assumptions regarding gender roles and the nuclear family, rendering the woman celebrated in Proverbs 31, for example, into little more than a happy homemaker prototype. 

But the biggest problem, as I saw it, was that those teaching this view of “biblical womanhood” refused to acknowledge that their interpretation—like all interpretations—involved a certain degree of selectivity and required a certain set of presuppositions. I wanted to challenge the idea that the Bible contains a single message about something as complex, beautiful, and mysterious as womanhood. I wanted to unpack, piece by piece, what we mean when we talk about “biblical womanhood,” and I wanted to do it in a funny, disarming way that turned the laughter on myself as an imperfect interpreter rather than on the text itself.  The goal was to hold up a mirror to our interpretive biases to show just how reductive and misleading the phrase “biblical womanhood” can be.

Richard Beck has described the book as a sort of “hermeneutical performance art” and explains that “by refusing to pick and choose, Evans reveals to anyone reading her book just how much picking and choosing is actually going on. She helps you see it. And laugh at the same time.” 

Is the Old Testament “biblical”? 

As I perhaps should have acknowledged more often and more clearly in the book, I am aware that as a Christian, I am no longer constrained by Old Testament law. But my project was an exploration of biblical womanhood—not Old Testament womanhood, not New Testament womanhood, not Jewish womanhood, not Christian womanhood….but biblical womanhood.  And so part of the reason for exploring everything from Leviticus 18, to Proverbs 31, to Song of Solomon, to the epistles of Peter and Paul, was to show just how much this phrase—"biblical womanhood"—really entails, and to not take the hermeneutical devices with which Christians are so familiar for granted. 

This is why I conducted so many interviews—with an Orthodox Jewish woman, an Amish family, and a woman in a polygamist marriage, a daughter of the Quiverfull movement, etc. (The fact that the organization through which I contacted the polygamist family is called “Biblical Families” reveals just how loaded the word “biblical” can be!)  The hermeneutical devices that Keller cites are not, as she might assume, as obvious as they seem. My goal with the project was to create something of a second naivety in order to open “biblical womanhood” up for further discussion, to, in a sense, start at the beginning again. 

As for my homemade sign: In the book, I am quick to note that, as a poem, Proverbs 31 was never intended to be applied literally or prescriptively, so there is no need to make giant posters with which to literally praise our husbands at the city gate (though it’s a fun exercise if you’re in the mood to be creative!), and that “the Bible doesn’t actually command contentious women to sit on their roofs, and rooftops in the ancient Near East would have been flat and habitable anyway” (p. 17). The overwhelming majority of readers seem to have understood that such exercises were meant to be hyperbolic and provocative, intended to bring some of the Bible’s most interesting word pictures to life, and to illustrate, Amelia Bedelia-style, the futility of a hyper-literal application of the text. 

Of course, I balance my more humorous activities with in-depth examinations of the texts in question, exploring the culture, context, and language employed by them in order to get a better sense of what they actually mean. For example: Where else in the New Testament do we find the Greek word praus (for “gentle”), and does that virtue apply only to women? Who was the intended audience of Proverbs 31, and what does its structure and diction teach us about its meaning? How do Peter and Paul’s versions of the Greco-Roman household codes differ from Aristotle’s and Philo’s? Does the Bible really teach that women are required to stay beautiful for their husbands or that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling? 

I asked, explored, and addressed all of these questions in the book, and am truly baffled by Keller’s accusation that I don’t take the historical/literary context of these passages seriously when I devoted so many pages—too many, my editor might contend!—to exploring them. As blogger Glennon Melton said of the project, “Rachel cares too much about the Bible to read what it says without wrestling with what it means.” Similarly, writer Ian Cron called the book “a comprehensive, impeccably researched, heartfelt, whimsical, scripture-honoring book.”  

I sometimes wonder if folks judging the book solely by its most provocative stories looked only at the pictures! 

In her review at The Huffington Post yesterday, Carolyn Custis James noted that "it's an easy dodge (not to mention a huge missed opportunity) when critics discredit Rachel and shove her work aside by accusing her of 'mocking the Bible' or 'using a faulty hermeneutic,' instead of thoughtfully engaging the issues she is raising."

What is biblical womanhood…really? 

So let’s talk about hermeneutics. 

I agree with Keller that it’s pretty clear that sitting on one’s rooftop is not a requirement of “biblical womanhood.”  

What is less clear to me is why complementarians like Keller insist that that 1 Timothy 2:12 is a part of biblical womanhood, but Acts 2 is not; why the presence of twelve male disciples implies restrictions on female leadership, but the presence of the apostle Junia is inconsequential; why the Greco-Roman household codes represent God’s ideal familial structure for husbands and wives, but not for slaves and masters; why the apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy about Ephesian women teaching in the church are universally applicable, but his instructions to Corinthian women regarding head coverings are culturally conditioned (even though Paul uses the same line of argumentation—appealing the creation narrative— to support both);  why the poetry of Proverbs 31 is often applied prescriptively and other poetry is not;  why Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob represent the supremecy of male leadership while Deborah and Huldah and Miriam are mere exceptions to the rule;  why “wives submit to your husbands” carries more weight than “submit one to another”; why the laws of the Old Testament are treated as irrelevant in one moment, but important enough to display in public courthouses and schools the next; why a feminist reading of the text represents a capitulation to culture but a reading that turns an ancient Near Eastern text into an apologetic for the post-Industrial Revolution nuclear family is not; why the curse of Genesis 3 has the final word on gender relationships rather than the new creation that began at the resurrection. 

Focusing on the most hyperbolic elements of the project, and totally ignoring the legitimate questions I raise throughout the book, Keller and others have chastised me as silly, unable to handle basic biblical hermeneutics.  But here’s the problem: In her review, Keller appeals to a common-sense hermeneutic of “biblical womanhood” to which I should have deferred, and yet fails to explain in any depth what this common-sense hermeneutic is. She suggests I have muddied the waters, but provides no real clarity in her response.  

This is why the phrase “biblical womanhood” has been such an effective weapon in the gender debates. By its nature, it implies clarity, simplicity, and finality. By its nature, it is immune to questions.


But when we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, values, marriage, and even equality), we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. And more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says. 

I have been told on more than one occasion that “just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s biblical.” That’s about as clear as mud, if you ask me! And it shows just how many assumptions go into any claim that this or that is “biblical” in the prescriptive sense. 

What frustrates me the most about complementarian conversations regarding “biblical womanhood” is not the fact that I disagree with a complementarian interpretation of the text but the fact that complementarians consistently insist that they are not, in fact, interpreting the text, but simply reading and applying its clear teachings, and that anyone who might disagree with their conclusions must simply hate the Bible and have no interest in faithfully living by it.  But this idea of a simple, unbiased, and patently obvious hermeneutic is an illusion. It is appealed to, but never explained; cited, but never explored or unpacked. 

…Which is one of many reasons why I wrote A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I wanted to unpack that phrase and ask what sort of presuppositions we are bringing to it. 

Complementarians are selective too…

The reality is, complementarians themselves struggle to interpret and apply their supposedly obvious hermeneutic consistently. 

In the complementarian manifesto, the Danvers Statement, egalitarians are accused of “accepting hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret apparently plain meanings of biblical texts,” resulting in a “threat to Biblical authority as the clarity of Scripture is jeopardized and the accessibility of its  meaning to ordinary people is withdrawn into the restricted realm of technical ingenuity.” 

On the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Web Site, Wayne Grudem warns that if Christians accept egalitarianism, “we will begin to have whole churches who no longer ‘tremble’ at the Word of God (Isaiah 66:2), and who no longer live by ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4), but who pick and choose the things they like and the things they don’t like in the Bible.”

So Grudem claims that any selectivity whatsoever represents an arbitrary “pick-and-choose” approach to Scripture and a threat to biblical authority, and that those who support functional gender equality in the home and church are simply bending the “plain meaning of Scripture.”  Egalitarians “pick and choose,” he claims, but complementarians do not. 

And yet Grudem would likely be the first to concede that the Levitical purity codes no longer apply, as the “old law” has been fulfilled in Christ—an interpretive assumption many Christians take for granted, but that nonetheless represents a measure of (deliberate and thoughtful) selectivity. (“Picking and choosing” are probably not the right words to use, as they sound more arbitrary than they should. We all “pick and choose” but most of us try to do so for good reasons, grounded in thoughtful hermeneutics and guided by tradition.) 

 Furthermore, Grudem and his colleague John Piper have struggled to explain where women practicing “biblical womanhood” should draw the line regarding teaching and leading.  In this post, I look at how Piper responded to a question about whether men should listen and learn from Beth Moore.  In his response, Piper cites the first half of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“a woman should not have authority”) as universally applicable, but disregards the second half (“she must be quiet”) by encouraging women like Moore to continue speaking.  If the first half of 1 Timothy 2 is so crucial to the complementarian hierarchal construct, why is the second half, (along with the silence command in 1 Corinthians 14:34) essentially ignored?  Why is it that complementarian women are forbidden from assuming leadership in churches, and yet permitted to speak? Nowhere does the Bible spell out Piper’s bizarre distinction between teaching and speaking or between leader and "shepherd-pastor." Does Piper’s response not “reinterpret apparently plain meanings of biblical texts” and rely on a bit of “technical ingenuity”? 

And don’t we all do this from time to time?

Hermeneutics: Simple and clear? 

Complementarians often say that what’s at stake in this debate is the authority of Scripture, an authority that is compromised whenever Christians fail to live by “every word” of the Bible. But Piper’s response reveals that not even complementarians live by every word of the Bible. Most complementarians do not require women to cover their heads in prayer (1 Corinthians 11:5) or to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11:5), or to avoid fine jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9), or to remain entirely silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34). And the hermeneutical construct that informs these distinctions is not nearly as simple as they make it sound. In fact, one of the more constructive criticisms I’ve heard from the complementarian camp is that, in the book, I did not make clear enough distinctions between how various complementarian organizations differ in their positions on biblical womanhood. 

Again, this idea of a simple, unbiased, and patently obvious hermeneutic is an illusion. More often than not, appeals to “biblical womanhood”…or “biblical” anything for that matter… represent an oversimplification, a reductive approach to biblical interpretation that fails to at least acknowledge its own hermeneutical biases. We all have these biases. We all have to interpret the text. We're all selective as a result. That's not the problem. The problem is denying that this is the case! 

So if I have muddied the waters with this project and this book, it’s because I have kicked up all those layers of “biblical womanhood” sediment that have gone unchallenged for so long.  I have challenged the supposedly straightforward hermeneutic that has conveniently rendered "biblical womanhood" into little more than a June Cleaver archetype. I have taken the complementarians at their word and tried biblical womanhood without selectivity, deferring to the text's "plain meaning"...and, ironically, they have called me silly for it.  

As much as we may resist this admission, the Bible is not simple, plain, or easy to understand.  We all struggle to interpret and apply it.  We all bring presuppositions to the text.  This reality does not reduce the value and sacredness of the Bible. Far from it! If anything, it reminds us of our own frailties, our own shared need for patience and grace as we work together to try and understand what the Bible really means.

It will not do to tell a woman that she is forbidden from preaching the gospel from a pulpit, and when she asks why, to simply tell her it’s because of “biblical womanhood.”  If the overwhelming response by women to this book has taught me anything it’s that Christian women are not going to take that phrase for granted any more. We are ready to unpack it, to scrutinize it, to debate it, to discuss it—not out of a hatred of Scripture, but out of a love for it!  

Hermeneutic of love

In the book, I make a brief but impassioned case for reading the text with the prejudice of love, a hermeneutic I believe was employed by Jesus, and, as many reviewers have pointed out, a hermeneutic that Augustine also favored.  This hermeneutic of love is not mere sentimentality, but one that looks to Christ for its definition— Christ, who did not consider power a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and became a servant to the point of death on a cross. 

It is simple on paper, but not so simple in application…and so I too am left to struggle with those passages that don’t seem to fit my bias and to inconsistently and imperfectly apply my own hermeneutic to the Bible and to womanhood.  Like I say in the book, “the Bible is centuries older than us; prepared to be humbled by it.”  I am humbled by it every day. 

I introduce this idea of reading the text with the prejudice of love at the end of the book on purpose, as the task of fleshing it out is beyond the scope of this particular project...though perhaps will be a part of future ones! Some may be disappointed that I did not conclude the book with a list of rules and acceptable roles. But that's the thing about love. It can't be systematized or rendered into a list of bullet points. It has to be lived. That is the challenge, and the call, for all who follow Jesus. 

And I'll be the first to admit, it's rarely clear and it's rarely easy. 

Biblical interpretation is a messy, imperfect, and at times frustrating process. I wrote this book with humor and with love because I think both are needed in the conversation, particularly as it pertains to something as complex and beautiful as womanhood. 

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