'Too Bad You're a Girl': Testing the Biblical Teachings I Grew Up With

An (occasionally playful) attempt to live out all the Bible's instructions for women

Rachel Held Evans

You're not a "real" evangelical until you can give a good public testimony. And in a good public testimony, you've got to move from lost to found, blindness to sight, wretch to born-again in less than five minutes, with just the right amount of candor and wit, topped with a stirring call to action.

That's exactly what I did my junior year of high school when I was asked to give a testimony in from of my high school youth group. I stood before my classmates and talked about growing up in the church, about losing touch with God, and about finding Him again. I'm pretty sure I saw a tear trickle down more than one face.

When I joined the group after my testimony was over, a male classmate turned to me and said. "Wow. That was a great testimony. You're a really talented speaker. Too bad you're a girl."

Too bad you're a girl.

His words startled, then stung. I knew exactly what he meant.

I knew that as a girl, my options for teaching and leading in the church would be limited. By that time, I'd 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 it was God's perfect will that all women everywhere do this or that. In my world, women like Joyce Meyer were considered heretics 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 conservative Mennonites 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").

Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to refer to their husbands as "master" as he instructed just three sentences later in 1 Peter 3:6. By the time I was 12, I learned I could single-handedly ruin a boy's relationship with God by the length of my skirt or the cut of my blouse (Matthew 5:27-28), but that good looks and pretty clothes weren't all bad, because that's how Queen Esther saved the Jews. Despite the fact that singleness was praised by both Jesus and the apostle Paul, I'd been told over and over again by evangelical leaders that motherhood was my highest calling, and that Proverbs 31 required I forsake a career in favor of keeping a home as tidy and happy as June Cleaver's.

This, they said, was true "biblical womanhood."

I didn't think to question these mixed messages until I got married. Despite the fact that we had been instructed to impose a hierarchy onto our marriage and stick to traditional gender roles in the home, Dan and I found ourselves operating as a team of equal partners, dividing household chores and responsibilities based on practicality rather than gender. Egalitarianism just felt natural to us, and the less we fought it, the happier we were. This marital mutuality, along with a quarter-life crisis of faith, led me to question this whole notion of "biblical womanhood." Could it be that the Bible—an eclectic collection of letters, laws, prophecies, proverbs, poetry, and stories written across multiple centuries and in cultures and languages far different from our own—presents a single prescriptive model for "biblical womanhood"? And what about those passages that are hard to talk about? After all, the Old Testament allows a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, requires a woman to marry her rapist, and has several examples of polygamous marriages. The New Testament commands women to cover their heads when they pray. How does all this factor into the definition of biblical womanhood?

These were the questions that were rumbling around my brain two Octobers ago when I went off the deep end. Taking a page from A.J. Jacobs (author of The Year of Living Biblically), I decided to try biblical womanhood on for size—literally, no picking and choosing.

So in the fall of 2010, I started a yearlong journey in which I found myself growing out my hair, making my own clothes, covering my head whenever I prayed, caring for a computerized baby, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, calling my husband "master," and even camping out in my front yard during my period to observe the Levitical purity laws (even though such laws are generally understood by Christians to no longer apply). In addition to these intentionally hyperbolic and provocative exploits, I interviewed a variety of women practicing biblical womanhood in different ways—an Orthodox Jew, an Amish housewife, a daughter of the hyper-traditional Quiverfull movement, even a polygamist family. I combed through commentary after commentary, isolating and studying every passage from Scripture that relates to women, struggling through the troubling parts and reveling in the fascinating stories of women like Deborah, Ruth, Mary Magdalene, and Junia who beat the odds in a patriarchal culture to become valiant women of faith. I called it my "Year of Biblical Womanhood," and I wrote a book by that title that was released this week.

Some fellow evangelicals are unhappy with me for playfully challenging widely held assumptions about "biblical womanhood." They say I am mocking scripture, muddying the waters, and straying from the straightforward hermeneutic that had conveniently rendered "biblical womanhood" into the happy-homemaker archetype.

What they don't realize is that evangelical women like me have received mixed messages about womanhood for years. The only way to achieve clarity is to subject to scrutiny the careless ways in which people invoke "biblical womanhood." My project emerged from a genuine love of scripture and concern for the way it has been reduced to an adjective and used to put women in their place.

Like it or not, neither the Bible nor womanhood can be summed up in a list of rules or roles. And people of faith do both of them a grave injustice when we use one to silence the other.