Sermon 01-13-13: “Rachel Held Evans’s ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood'”

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This sermon, using Rachel Held Evans’s bestselling new book as our conversation partner, tackles some of the most challenging words in all of the New Testaments: Paul’s words about women “keeping silence” in church and not teaching men. What do we make of them—especially those of us who are United Methodists, who believe that women should be ordained and exercise leadership in church? Do we simply dismiss Paul’s words here as sexist? Is Paul an unwitting victim of the patriarchal culture of which he was part? Or is there another way of understanding these passages?

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, 1 Timothy 2:8-15

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Please notice that Stephanie Newton is not here today. That’s very deliberate. I told her that, since she’s a woman, she would have to remain silent in church. She actually gave me permission to use that joke! Today’s Vinebranch Bookclub book is Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans is a Christian author and blogger who grew up first in Birmingham and then moved to Dayton, Tennessee. She went to a Christian college there—Bryan College. And she lives there today.

I gather that she grew up within a very conservative evangelical tradition that had rigid and narrowly defined expectations about what a Christian woman could be and do. Her church taught her that a faithful Christian woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother; that her place was primarily in the home; and that when it comes to the Bible, our attitude ought to be, “God said it; I believe it; end of discussion.” As she got older—and she’s all of 31 now—she came to believe that Christians arbitrarily “pick and choose” what in the Bible to obey and what to ignore, especially when it comes to issues related to women. From Evans’s perspective, the Bible commands all sorts of things that Christians routinely ignore. Why make an exception when it comes to women?

I plead ignorance when it comes to many of the issues that Evans writes about. I grew up Southern Baptist, but we were a suburban church. I never experienced a church like Rachel’s church. I had some friends down the street, Wes and Tim, who came to my house to watch TV and listen to rock and roll, because both those things were prohibited in their house. They probably went to that kind of church. But I didn’t.

And now I’m a United Methodist pastor. So it’s no surprise what I believe about women in ministry. A woman is preaching and leading worship in the traditional sanctuary at this very moment. We do that sort of thing all the time in our church. That’s who we Methodists are.

Anyway, in the book, Rachel decides that for one year she’s going to take the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—“as literally as possible,” as least the parts that relate to women. She’s not going to pick and choose. One month, she focuses on modesty, and tries to live out everything the Bible says about that. The next month she focuses on domesticity. Then submissiveness. You get the idea. By doing so, she wants to discredit the idea that the Bible teaches one way for Christian women to be; one model for them to follow. That there’s no such thing as “biblical womanhood.” Thus the book’s title: A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

And Rachel is a good writer. She’s funny. At times, she’s deeply insightful. During the month in which she tried to become more “domestic,” she decided to read Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook and Martha Stewart’s Cooking School. She confessed that she wasn’t much for cooking or cleaning, so she wanted to learn to do it right. Martha says that we’re supposed to maximize our kitchen space by regularly organizing the contents of our kitchen drawers and cabinets. While reflecting on this, Evans writes,

Mom did this every now and then when we were kids. She’d put a Carole King tape in the stereo, empty all the drawers and cabinets in the kitchen, and clean the whole thing top to bottom while singing at the top of her lungs about the earth moving under feet and the sky tumbling down a-tumbling down. Amanda and I watched, bewildered, among the stockpots and frying pans. Shouting above the music, she told us, “It has to get messy before it gets clean”—a philosophy that pretty much sums up every meaningful experience of my life, from homemaking to friendships to faith. Sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards, and start over again.[1]

That’s good stuff, and the book is filled with nuggets like these.

One thing that bothered me about the book, however, were the experiments that she conducted as part of her effort to “take the Bible literally.” For example, Proverbs 21:9 says, “It is better to live in a corner of the rooftop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” So one month, she created what she called a “jar of contention.” She dropped a penny in a jar every time she did something “contentious.” She’s a big Alabama football fan, and during this year she watched them lose to South Carolina, and as she did so, she cursed at the TV… a lot. So a penny for every bad word in the “jar of contention.” At the end of the month, as penance for being a contentious wife, she literally sat on the rooftop of her house, just like the proverb says—one minute for each instance of contentious behavior.

She said that some of her blog readers reminded her “about a million times that the Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on the their roofs.”[2] I would say that’s an understatement: Not only does the Bible not “explicitly command” the practice: the Bible doesn’t even hint at it. No reasonable person would ever think, after reading Proverbs 21:9, that sitting on a roof is a “biblical concept.” The person who wrote the proverb is employing a figure of speech. It’s not meant to be taken literally.

If Rachel were reading this, she would probably accuse me of missing her point: Whether or not the Bible says to do this, this is just the sort of thing that we Christians ought to do if we’re going to “take the Bible literally.” Logically, what’s the difference?

The difference is that this isn’t even close to what it means to take the Bible literally. The “literal sense” of scripture means that we take scripture the way the biblical author intended it to be taken. For example, when Jesus told stories called parables in order to say something about God’s kingdom, we don’t have to wonder where on the Jericho highway the Samaritan found the Jewish victim who’d been robbed, beaten, and left for dead.” Parables are made-up stories. That’s how they’re meant to be understood, and that’s how we read them! Often the literal sense of scripture means that we understand scripture figuratively, the way the author intended. Throughout the book, Rachel makes this mistake.

Her book also fails to distinguish between the Old and New Testaments. The reason that we Christians no longer have to obey Old Testament laws related to food and purity and sacrifice is not because we pick and choose; and we’ve decided that those things are bad or silly or impractical so we can just ignore them now. It’s because we understand the entire Old Testament law has been gloriously fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So the Law no longer applies. One theologian explains our relationship to the Old Testament with this analogy:

When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travelers remain—and… must never forget that they remain—the people who made that voyage in that ship.[3]

My point is, even if we could interpret the Old Testament to require sitting on a rooftop—which of course we can’t—we would no longer have to. It’s true that we Christians “pick and choose” which scripture to obey, but our “picking and choosing” isn’t arbitrary, the way Rachel makes it seem. It’s based on what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere, she writes, “Despite what some may think, the Bible never condemns polygamy,” and only later—by the time Paul told Timothy that a church leader needs to be the “husband of one wife”—was polygamy not considered “the ideal.”[4] I’m sorry. This is just wrong. We know what the idealist marriage is. We look at the beginning of our Bible, in Genesis 2: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”[5] That’s the ideal, which Jesus himself reaffirmed in the gospels. But not only that. We see in the Old Testament that polygamy brings nothing but heartache and strife, time and time again. Polygamy was a disaster for Abraham when he took his slavegirl Hagar as a secondary wife. It was a disaster for Jacob when he married Leah and Rachel. It was a disaster for King David. It was a disaster for King Solomon. Through these stories, the Bible makes it clear that polygamy is far from God’s ideal for marriage. Does it have to spell it out more clearly than that? It communicates the truth about polygamy through its stories, even if there isn’t a command, Thou shalt not.

O.K., that’s fine. That’s all from the Old Testament. Paul’s apparent words about women remaining silent in church and not being permitted to teach men comes from the New Testament. And unlike the proverb about sitting on a rooftop, Paul isn’t speaking figuratively. I know that there are women and plenty of men, even in this church, who don’t like Paul because of today’s scripture. He’s a chauvinist, they think. Maybe he’s a victim of his time and place and culture, maybe he has plenty of good things to say about Jesus, and God’s love, and grace, and the gospel… but he seems to have a problem with women. So United Methodist pastors like me mostly just skip this part of Paul’s letters.

So congratulations, Rachel! You have forced me to talk about it! You baited me when you lumped Paul in with other theologians throughout the past 2,000 years who have subordinated women.[6] You said that Paul did it, too. Them’s fightin’ words to me!

So… Is she right about Paul?

No… Amen. All right, where we going for lunch? Oh, you want me to explain why.

Well, I admit that this scripture is difficult to understand. The most important thing that we can do when we encounter difficult scripture like this is to interpret it first in light of scripture that’s easier to understand. If our interpretation of the difficult text contradicts what we know the easier text is saying, then we can say, “Whatever this difficult scripture means, it doesn’t mean that.

So let’s look first at Paul’s own words at the end of Romans, in chapter 16. Here he singles out some friends and associates in ministry who have been helpful to him. In verse 7, he mentions a married couple, Andronicus and Junia. Junia is a woman. And Paul calls her an apostle. This was such a problem for male translators hundreds of years ago that they turned Junia into a man, Junias. We know for sure that that’s wrong. It’s Junia, or perhaps even Julia, and she’s a woman, an apostle—and not only that, she’s a well-known apostle. An apostle is an eyewitness of the resurrected Lord, commissioned by Christ to go and proclaim the gospel.

In verse 1 of that same chapter, Paul mentions Phoebe, a deacon. Paul entrusted her to deliver his letter to the Roman churches. As such, she would also have been responsible for reading his letter and answering questions about it on Paul’s behalf. Then he mentions his good friends, the married couple Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul calls his coworkers in Christ. In Acts 18:24-26, we’re told that Priscilla and Aquila took a man named Apollos under their wing in order to explain to him the full meaning of the gospel. Apollos became an important leader in the Corinthian church. Again, Paul’s friend, Priscilla, a woman, teaches a man, who himself becomes an important leader in the church. As one Bible scholar noted: None of these women is making coffee in the fellowship hall before church—not that there’s anything at all wrong with that! They are shown in scripture doing the important work of teaching, preaching, and making disciples.

Outside of Paul, we have the example of Jesus himself, who, in John 20, appears first to Mary Magdalene and commissions her to be the first apostle, who shares with the other male disciples the good news that Jesus was resurrected. [Laura Story…]

Given all of that, whatever else Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 14 and in 1 Timothy 2, he can’t be saying that all women everywhere for all time are unable to speak or teach in church. In fact, in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians, the very letter in which he says that women are to remain silent in church, Paul assumes that women aren’t supposed to be silent: that they both prophesy and pray publicly in a worship service! And there’s nothing in the world wrong with that!

How can we accuse Paul of being a chauvinist when he tells a culture that is already deeply chauvinistic, that already treats women as second-class citizens, that already treats women as property, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s radical!

What Paul is saying in these two controversial passages is part of a two-way correspondence. We don’t have access to any of the letters that the Corinthian church sent to Paul, or that Timothy sent to Paul. We don’t know for sure all of what was happening in Corinth. We don’t know for sure all that was happening in Ephesus, where Timothy served. Paul does, and he’s addressing specific issues that were of concern to those churches. We don’t know for sure what prompted Paul to address these issues and say these things—the Corinthian church did, and Timothy did, and I’m sure Paul’s words made perfect sense to them—but we don’t know for sure what they mean. But we have good biblical reasons and solid research to reject the idea that Paul was issuing a command—for everyone, in every place, and for all time—that women aren’t allowed to speak or preach or teach or play a leadership role in church.

And so we do reject that idea. Not because, contrary to Rachel Evans, we’re “picking and choosing,” not because today’s scripture isn’t inspired by God as much as other scriptures, not because we’ve decided that Paul is sexist and so we can just ignore him, but because we’re trying to be faithful to the scripture—and that means paying close attention to what women like Junia and Phoebe and Priscilla and Mary Magdalene were actually doing in the Bible. As for what many contemporary scholars think Paul means, I’ll post some stuff on my blog this week.

Even though I disagree with some of what Evans writes, there’s lots of good stuff here. The virtue of submission—the way Jesus teaches all of us, men and women, to carry it out—is a good thing, as she discovers. The virtue of gentleness—which is a fruit of the Spirit that all of us, men and women, are supposed to exhibit—is a good thing, as she discovers, whether we sit on our rooftops or not. Silence—the ability to stop yakking all the time so that we can hear God speak to us—is a good thing, as she discovered. And it’s good for both women and men.

Time and again, as she wrestles with the Bible, she describes being changed through the experience. In fact, toward the end of the book, she describes all the online criticism that came her way as some Christians learned about this project. People said some hateful things. But these words didn’t hurt as much as they would have in the past, she said, because in part immersing herself in scripture for the past year, she’d learned how to cope with them better. She went on to say that 70 percent dark chocolate with raspberries also did the trick![7]

So what about us? Rachel Evans had her year of wrestling with the Bible, and it changed her life. Why don’t we do the same. Why don’t we make 2013, not the year of biblical womanhood or manhood, but the year of biblical… Bible-reading and Bible study. The year of biblical discipleship. That’s better. And may we trust that God’s Spirit will transform us through the process.

[1] Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 28.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God—Getting Beyond the Bible Wars (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 57.

[4] Evans, 58.

[5] Genesis 2:24 NRSV

[6] Ibid., xxvi.

[7] Ibid., 285-6.

One thought on “Sermon 01-13-13: “Rachel Held Evans’s ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood'””

  1. Brent, I agree with a good deal of what you say here. We have to take scripture as it was meant to be taken, which is not always in a “literal” sense. And, we have to “mesh” scripture, reaching our conclusions through an effort to read ALL the Word of God, as opposed to bits and pieces, however strongly those “bits” may seem to be worded.

    All that being said, I don’t think it does justice to the two texts you cite to not take THEM into account. In other words, simply because there are other verses which reference SOME roles in “ministry” of women does not mean Paul cannot be read in THESE passages to say there is something different in the roles men and women should have in public worship services. Otherwise, why would he include these passages?

    While it might be pertinent to attempt to discover a historical context, what Paul says seems to have a broad application, given the terminology that he uses. “Like in ALL the churches of God’s people,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:33. If you were to consider whether what he meant was intended to be for other churches rather than based on what was going on in Corinth in particular, how much more clearly could he have made his point in that regard?

    I do think it is possible to consider that Paul could be engaging in hyperbole, a frequent literary device in scripture. (Just as Jesus says to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye.) So, in my opinion merely, I don’t think Paul means for women to be absolutely silent altogether. Nonetheless, Paul definitely is trying to make a point about a substantial difference between the roles of men versus women in worship services in the Corinthians passage. Again, why else would he include the passage, and in such “strong terms” (even giving weight to a hyperbolic expression–hyperbole is used as a means of EMPHASIS of a point)?

    So, what conclusions do I draw personally from Corinthians? As one, I benefit from something I heard someone else say on this subject, which is that at least Paul is saying “wives” should not contradict their “husbands” in public services, but take up the matter at home (which the husband could then “fix” the following Sunday if persuaded). This goes to marital harmony, as well as avoiding a certain amount of “tension” that such arguments in services (such as Sunday School) could engender. Beyond that, however, I do think Paul is saying that the “worship leader” or pastor should be a “man,” as opposed to a “woman.” It is just impossible to deny that men are different from women as a matter of “hardwiring.” So, God may have intended such hardwiring to lead to differing roles in public worship just as much as in the family, or otherwise. Those are my “two cents” on the point.

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