"Biblical Womanhood" and The Jar of Contention


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Transient

So my big announcement about Book #2 caused quite a stir on Wednesday, and I was absolutely thrilled by the conversation that followed it.  We touched on everything from birth control to selective literalism to the infamous Proverbs 31 Woman to “Christian ninjas”…and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this multi-faceted, complicated, and deeply personal topic.

I’ve updated the FAQ section to include some of your questions from the past few days.  I should also note that the title “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” is a tentative one. The fact that the phrase “biblical womanhood” evokes such strong reactions, particularly in women, is exactly why the title may need to be changed. 

It’s also EXACTLY why I decided to write this book. 

“Biblical Womanhood” has become a hot topic in recent years, particularly in the evangelical community where we’ve seen the formation of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (and Christians for Biblical Equality) as well as hundreds of books and conferences and curriculum on the topic. If, like me, you grew up in this environment, you know that the biggest difference between my year of living biblically and A.J. Jacobs’ year of living biblically is that the notion of “biblical womanhood” has become a very real presence in the lives of Christian women today and is something we contend with on a regular basis. This is a bit of a stunt, yes. But it’s also a serious search for something I’ve been chasing after for years.

 I love the Bible and I believe it contains truths that are relevant today. But which truths? 

I’ll admit that I am at once fascinated, infuriated, and intimidated by the notion of “biblical womanhood” for it implies that the Bible contains a sort of blueprint for what it means to be a woman of God.  The problem, as many of you mentioned, is that “biblical womanhood” includes both the Proverbs 31 Woman who rises before dawn each day to make breakfast, and Jael who drove a tent peg through her enemies’ chest. The Bible not only gives us passages that instruct women to care for the poor, but passages that describe women as property and spoils of war. Even Sarah, who is described in 1 Peter 3:1 as the model of submission, won a rather fateful argument with Abraham about the future of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:10-12).

Then there are issues of interpretation. It bugs me that the same criteria often used to apply universality to Paul’s instructions about women in leadership in 1 Timothy 2:12 (appeal to creation, headship, etc.) exist also in the Corinthians 11 passage about head coverings, but are rarely used to support continuation of that practice.  Advocates for “biblical womanhood” often call for a return to the nuclear family, but rarely a call for a return to polygamy. Even my own list of "Ten Commandments" is inherently selective and brimming with contradiction. 

I have searched the Bible for a blueprint for womanhood and have yet to find one. I’m still early in my journey...but I find that strangely liberating.  

***

You’re probably wondering about the “jar of contention.” 

 As I mentioned before, each month I’ll be focusing on a different virtue, and October is “gentleness.” 

So far, the biggest mistake I’ve made is starting this project during football season. 1 Peter 3:4 says that a woman’s beauty should come from a “gentle and quiet spirit.” But there’s nothing gentle or quiet about how a Southern woman watches SEC football…especially after last week.

I don’t want to talk about it. 

Anyway, the book of Proverbs repeatedly warns against the “contentious and vexing wife.” She is compared to “a constant dripping” and a “ring of gold in a swine’s snout.” He who would restrain her “restrains the wind and grasps oils with his right hand.” It is better to live “in a desert land” or even “on the roof of a house” than to live with a contentious woman, say the writers of the Proverbs. So to kick some of my less-than-gentle habits, I have made a “jar of contention,” which works a bit like a swearing jar.

Each time I am caught in the act of gossip, nagging, complaining, exaggerating, or snark I put a penny in the jar. At the end of the month, each penny represents one minute I have to spend doing penance on the rooftop of my house to simulate what it is like to live with a contentious woman.

So far, there’s 26 cents in the jar, largely a result of the Alabama game on Saturday and the fact that snark seems to be a rather crucial element of my sense of humor. Who knew? 

***

So, which would be hardest for you to avoid—gossip, nagging, complaining, exaggerating, or snark? And what do you think about the controversy surrounding the phrase “biblical womanhood”? Got any ideas for a better title?

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