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A Year of Biblical Womanhood: A(nother) Review

November 30th, 2012 | 10 min read

By Jake Meador

Editor's note:  My friend Jake Meador wrote this right around the same time I wrote my thoughts.  We don't often post multiple entries on books, but Jake's thoughts are worth considering and well stated. --MLA 

biblical womanhoodThere are two common literary tropes Rachel Held Evans is playing with in her latest book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The more obvious and less fortunate of the two is the satirical reductio ad absurdum. Tired of hearing evangelicals speak about a narrow, moralistic brand of womanhood as “biblical,” Evans decided to show how unhelpful the label is by being completely “biblical” and following every scriptural admonition given to women. She’s wanting to use the complementarians own logic to undermine their unhelpful, confining ideas about gender. Indeed, that’s a large part of why she wrote the book in the first place according to her comments in the book’s introduction.

The trouble with a reductio is that for it to be effective, you need to be describing your opponent’s logic accurately. Otherwise, you’re running to absurd ends with a logic that isn’t valid. Ultimately, all you end up doing is setting fire to a straw man. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Evans did. The complementarian argument is much more complex than mindlessly repeating “1 Timothy 2,” over and over like a horde of young, restless, reformed zombies hungry for egalitarian brains. But you wouldn’t know that if your only exposure to complementarians is Evans’ book. This is unfortunate because the complementarian case is far better than “it’s biblical.”

Having come to complementarianism very reluctantly and over a long period of time, I’ve heard the argument for it given many times and in many different ways. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with mentions the Pauline texts on women, but hardly any one applies them in the flat, simplistic way implied by Evans’ reductio. I know there are people out there who still use the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” line on these issues, but in my experience they are not nearly as prominent as they once were. More importantly, the major figureheads of the complementarian movement generally avoid this unfortunate and unhelpful line. What’s far more common is to find people trying to honestly wrestle with uncomfortable biblical texts in a way that assumes we are accountable to the text and bound by it as Christians. So we wrestle with issues like creation order and how that informs Paul’s argument for distinct gender-based roles. We also struggle to understand how issues of submission and self-sacrificing authority are central to understanding the Gospel. Most complementarians I know are not complementarian because the position is come by easily. In fact, most of us would say that we’d love to not be complementarian because it’d make our lives considerably easier. But after long, careful study of scripture (ironically, the very sort of study Evans’ endorses so enthusiastically in the book and on her blog), we’ve come to conclusions that can generally be associated with the label “complementarian.” Acting as if our position is adopted out of lazy assumptions and a lack of reflection about the word “biblical” simply isn’t honest.

Another point that is worth raising briefly: It should be a rule in Christian circles that when you argue against a theological view, you need to argue against the most capable, reasoned articulation of that view. If you’re looking to debunk complementarianism, don’t do it by telling us Debi Pearl is an abusive troll - we already knew that. Do it by taking on the careful exegetical arguments made by our most capable thinkers. That will earn a hearing. But misrepresenting our position and acting as if fringe extremists like Debi Pearl represent us is really dishonest and irresponsible. Having said all that, I’m happy to report that the reductio isn’t the sum total of the book. There’s far more going on here than just a poorly-constructed critique of complementarianism. It turns out that when Evans isn’t engaging in a polemic against complementarians, her book is actually quite good.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).