A Reply to the Danger of Calling Behavior ‘Biblical’

Recently, Rachel Held Evans’ article “My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical'” was published on the CNN Belief blog.1 I’m going to reply. My goal is not to take hammer to fingers, but to point out inconsistencies in her positions. My assumption is that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 ESV). Therefore, the Bible does have something to say, directly or indirectly, on most life issues. There should be no problem with calling a position biblical and be willing to have our positions challenged by the Bible.

Evans ultimate objection to calling something biblical is that all Christians must “pick and choose” biblical interpretation and application. She illustrates her objections in a reductionistic fashion that would allow a Christian to use such reasoning to either believe that anything or believe that nothing is biblically acceptable.

Note that in her objections to those claiming to hold to “biblical positions,” she will “pick and choose” which subjects to deal with. For example, she opens the article agreeing with the non-Christian antagonist comedian, Jon Stewart, against Christian, Mike Huckabee, by picking and choosing to pit a biblical view of marriage and abortion against poverty and immigration.

But that’s just the beginning.

On “The Daily Show” recently, Jon Stewart grilled Mike Huckabee about a TV ad in which Huckabee urged voters to support “biblical values” at the voting box.

When Huckabee said that he supported the “biblical model of marriage,” Stewart shot back that “the biblical model of marriage is polygamy.”

And there’s a big problem, Stewart went on, with reducing “biblical values” to one or two social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring issues such as poverty and immigration reform.

It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian, I cheered Stewart on from my living room couch.

Jon Stewart is a comedian. He’s got jokes; funny ones. He has given me many laughs, but good jokes aren’t good exegesis. Stewart and Evans present a big charge against Huckabee that conservative Christians like him ignore issues like poverty and immigration reform. Should they be asked why they are so interested in poverty and immigration reform while being soft on abortion and gay marriage? Why side with the unbelieving Stewart and let him get away with that type of interpretation?

As far as biblical values, is immigration reform even implied as such a value in Scripture? Poverty is certainly a biblical issue. Even Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us. Not that the poor should be ignored, but an aborted baby cannot be brought back from the dead. There is no hope for those babies. Marriage is used in the Bible as an analogy for Christ and His church. Jesus is the groom and His church the bride. That analogy breaks down when marriage is redefined to have two grooms or two brides.

Yes, the Bible does matter to Evans as evidenced by her next statement.

As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God, I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective like Huckabee did. I hate seeing my sacred text flattened out, edited down and used as a prop to support a select few political positions and platforms.

Calling something biblical is not about flattening out the text. Calling something biblical is about using the Bible to describe how a Christian arrives at a particular position. In Acts 17, Paul and Silas were teaching the Bereans. The Bereans examined Scripture to see if what was being taught was biblical. Granted, the Bereans did not use the word biblical though that describes exactly how they tested the doctrine being taught. Using the Bible to support one position or ten positions does not support the assertions that one is flattening, editing or using it as a prop.

And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics – that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.

But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.

How does Mrs. Evans, who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, use the Bible to shape her worldview? The Bible takes a position on many things even if it is not properly a “position paper.” 1 Timothy 3 tells us that the inspired Bible is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. If this is true, and it is since it is inspired by God, is one to believe that the Bible does not speak to any of those items in Evans’ list?

Actually, what Evans is doing is defining biblical as if it only has a “single prescriptive formula” which leads to just one explicit and precise position on each topic. She is implying that the Bible says more than one thing per topic. Fine, that the Bible says more than one thing per topic does not rule out calling a position biblical.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Amazing that Evans believes that the term biblical is a loaded term. Preferences and presuppositions can get in the way of biblical interpretation; agreed. The assertion does not follow that since a bias may affect biblical interpretation that the term biblical should not be used. What preferences and presuppositions does Evans personally have that get in her way? Is she saying that there are no valid biblical positions for the Christian to arrive at from a God-breathed book that is good for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness?

In which areas does Evans ends up more committed to what she wants the Bible to say than what it actually says? Do her own preferences cause her to reduce the Bible to her favorite positions or is that problem only reserved for people like Mike Huckabee? If so, what’s the point of her article? Did her own biblical preferences motivate her to write the article?

Nowhere is this more evident than in conversations surrounding “biblical womanhood.”

Growing up in the Bible Belt, I received a lot of mixed messages about the appropriate roles of women in the home, the church and society, each punctuated with the claim that this or that lifestyle represented true “biblical womanhood.”

In my faith community, popular women pastors such as Joyce Meyer were considered unbiblical for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”), while Amish women were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head”).

Mixed messages on a definition does not mean there is no definition. Did Evans attempt to reconcile the two positions between Meyer and Amish women? Should her comments be taken as rhetoric in support of her own preferences implying that those other positions are wrong?

Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to avoid wearing nice jewelry as the apostle instructs them just one sentence later in 1 Peter 3:3. Despite the fact that being single was praised by both Jesus and Paul, I learned early on that marriage and motherhood were my highest callings, and that Proverbs 31 required I keep a home as tidy as June Cleaver’s.

Notice here that Evans is setting up false dichotomies from Scripture. What about a few verses later in 1 Peter 3:7 where husbands are given a charge about how to treat their wives? Despite the implication, singleness is praised, but that does not mean one should not marry. Marriage is a high calling for both men and women. Hopefully, whether she is a mother or not, she agrees that motherhood is a high calling.

This didn’t really trouble me until adulthood, when I found myself in a childless egalitarian marriage with a blossoming career and an interest in church leadership and biblical studies. As I wrestled with what it meant to be a woman of faith, I realized that, despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” from the Bible, any claim to a “biblical” lifestyle requires some serious selectivity.

When Evans writes of “serious selectivity” is she referring to her earlier charge that we “end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says?” Funny though, there are many women who are not egalitarian who have good careers and are interested in church leadership and biblical studies.

It is not clear why Christians have to “pick and choose” rather than attempt to reconcile our understanding the best we are able within a both/and paradigm. Yet, since Evans is admitting that she (we) “pick and choose” from the Bible then why is she pointing out everyone else’s seemingly faulty picking and choosing?

After all, technically speaking, it is “biblical” for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, “biblical” for a woman to be required to marry her rapist, “biblical” for her to be one of many wives.

So why are some Bible passages lifted out and declared “biblical,” while others are explained away or simply ignored? Does the Bible really present a single prescriptive lifestyle for all women?

Speaking of flattening text, how about flattening the meaning of “biblical”? If Evans were to act as Juliet in a rendition of “Romeo and Juliet” would she actually kill herself at the end? Of course not! She understands that “Romeo and Juliet” is a work of fiction and would be read and acted out as such. While the Bible is not a work of fiction, it does contain different types of writings (as she mentioned in her article) and is given as progressive revelation.

We also don’t live in Old Testament times within God’s covenant community. Would Evans pick and choose Old Testament Messianic prophesy over its New Testament fulfillment and write a book claiming we just don’t know if and when Christ is coming for the first time? Would she explain away or ignore the New Testament concerning Christ in favor of particular Old Testament passages? Since she professes to be a Christian, how does she know that she has picked and chosen rightly concerning the Messiah?

And who is claiming that there is a “single prescriptive lifestyle for all women?”

These were the questions that inspired me to take a page from A.J. Jacobs, author of “The Year of Living Biblically”, and try true biblical womanhood on for size—literally, no “picking and choosing.”

This meant, among other things, growing out my hair, making my own clothes, covering my head whenever I prayed, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church (unless I was “prophesying,” of course), calling my husband “master,” even camping out in my front yard during my period to observe the Levitical purity laws that rendered me unclean.

If there was literally no picking and choosing, did she dress and live like Eve in the Garden of Eden only eating fruits and vegetables that she grew? Did she forgo all modern technology during the times when she “literally” tried biblical womanhood? Did she follow the rhetoric she praised by Jon Stewart and become a polygamist or at least get her husband a female servant for a time? Again, I am amazed that someone would make a literal mockery out of a book that they believe God inspired.

During my yearlong experiment, I interviewed a variety of women practicing biblical womanhood in different ways — an Orthodox Jew, an Amish housewife, even a polygamist family – and I combed through every commentary I could find, reexamining the stories of biblical women such as Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, Tamar, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla and Junia.

This seems like a healthy exercise in trying to understand Scripture. But?

My goal was to playfully challenge this idea that the Bible prescribes a single lifestyle for how to be a woman of faith, and in so doing, playfully challenge our overuse of the term “biblical.” I did this not out of disdain for Scripture, but out of love for it, out of respect for the fact that interpreting and applying the Bible is a messy, imperfect and – at times – frustrating process that requires humility and grace as we wrestle the text together.

Exactly who teaches that the “Bible prescribes a single lifestyle for how to be a woman of faith?” I cannot wrap my mind around how Evans says it is out of love that she “playfully” used the Bible to “try true biblical womanhood on for size.” “Mocking” is the word that comes to mind.

Imagine if Evans got Grandma’s much loved and sought after secret family apple pie recipe. Since the term “just like Grandma used to make” is overused, Evans tells her Grandma that she is going to playfully make fun of her apple pie this Thanksgiving? Would that be loving and respectful? Why do something similar with God’s word? Were God’s old covenant commands for His people meaningless words that we can use today for our playful experiments?

Why not do such an experiment with the New Testament and “literally” do all that Jesus did like a playful crucifixion or playfully act out various times in which He healed others?

The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.

Finally, Evans leaves readers with the “pick and choose” charge in the abstract.  Evans seems to answer her “why” question in earlier in the article when she wrote, “we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions.” So what are we left with? Is the Christian life informed by each person’s own preferences and presuppositions, by the Bible, or both? Does the Bible inform our preferences or vice versa? Since Christians can also pick and choose their preferences and presuppositions they are left with their feet planted in mid-air if they are not biblically grounded

For example, was it on a biblical basis or upon personal preferences and presuppositions that Evans went after Mark Driscoll for being a bully? If she went after Driscoll based merely on her personal preferences and presuppositions then Driscoll could simply stand on his own preferences and presuppositions and neither would have an objective way to claim who is right or wrong. The same goes for Evans’ charges against Huckabee which is an example of her own picking and choosing.

I agree that Christians need to elevate the conversation by using their Bible as a starting point for dialogue. Yet, I would add that Christians first need to check their own preferences and presuppositions against the Bible by destroying (yes, their own) “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV).

For what it’s worth…

Mark

  1. Rachel Held Evans. My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’. religion.blogs.cnn.com
Tags: , , ; Categories: apologetics,Christianity,Culture,morality,relativism,theology
The above article was posted on November 21, 2012 by Mark Lamprecht.
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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Jim July 17, 2014 at 8:20 pm

You’ve missed the central question: why does CNN post a journalist’s speculations about the Bible rather than the reasoned considerations of an actual biblical scholar? Otherwise your analysis is quite good.

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