Rachel Held Evans and the Hermeneutics of Love

*I apologize in advance for the length of this post. ;)*

“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere   

friend.” ~Abraham Lincoln

In his book A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs points to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as a summary of his main contention: it is possible to interpret texts and events with a hermeneutic of love—or a hermeneutic of hate. In the play, an evil man (Don John) plots to ruin a wedding by creating, well, “much ado about nothing” (many observe that in Shakespearean English, “nothing” sounded like “noting”—meaning ‘noticing’ and is probably an intentional pun) and tearing down a woman’s character. Don John sets up a situation in which one of his cronies (Borachio) appears to be making the beast with two backs with the bride-to-be (named Hero) while her would-be groom (Claudio) overhears. It works: Claudio believes what he thinks he is seeing and hearing, and publicly humiliates her at the altar the next day.

Only Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, believes Hero’s innocence, but it’s not because she knows, without a doubt, that Hero absolutely did not sleep with Borachio. It’s because she knows Hero very well—knows her character and that such infidelity is not in her nature. Therefore, whatever “evidence” Beatrice might encounter will be interpreted with a bias toward charity—or love. And that’s why Much Ado is a comedy, ending not just in one wedding (Hero’s and Claudio’s) but two. Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello involves a similar set up: Iago plants the notion of Desdemona’s infidelity in Othello’s mind, and, suddenly, everything Othello sees and hears—little things, much less than the apparent “evidence” against Hero! —appears to confirm Desdemona’s guilt. In the end, Othello smothers his innocent wife to death.

A hermeneutic of love is life-giving. A hermeneutic of suspicion is, well, not.

What was different? Not the supposed “evidence” that anyone was interpreting, but their orientation either to love or to suspicion—to interpreting the “facts” in good faith or bad.

The Christian blogosphere is currently buzzing about Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans has appeared on the Today show and The View and has been interviewed on NPR, in addition to many speaking engagements in churches and institutions of higher education across the country. There are negative reviews, and positive reviews, and reviews-of-other-reviews. There are long comment sections, “open letters,” tweets, Facebook threads, and YouTube videos. In short, there is “controversy,” and, for selling books and garnering pageviews, there’s nothing like it. Rachel herself has said that dealing in controversies has not been what has built her ‘brand,’ as I think we can call it, but this is a difficult case to make; certainly some of her widest-reaching posts have been among her most ‘controversial,’ and there is a sense in which her brand depends on her identifying as a (controversial) evangelical. If she identified as a mainline Protestant, for example, her calls for women’s equality in every sphere would strike no one as “dangerous”; the Pipers and Mohlers and Driscolls and Kellers would simply pay no attention. But because Rachel pushes on the boundaries of what’s acceptable in evangelicalism, she’s targeted with what amount to cries of “you do not get to call yourself one of us.” At the same time, people for whom the question of women in leadership is comfortably settled on the “pro” side rise to Rachel’s defense. In a real sense, people’s responses to A Year of Biblical Womanhood appear to be at least as much a measure of their feelings about Evans herself as they are a reading of the book, OR, perhaps, as a measure of which ‘side’ of the “womanhood” debate the reader is already on.

Of course, we humans interpret everything contextually; it is impossible not to do so. But it is possible to orient our interpretation charitably—to determine, even (especially?) when reading, to evaluate what we encounter as words from someone we are endeavoring to love as ourselves. When I speak and write—both professionally and personally—I like to be interpreted charitably. If I stake a claim on a slippery slope, or use the wrong word for something, or leave out an important link between two ideas, I am grateful if my hearers and readers gently help me find a way to move what I’m saying onto firmer ground, mentally correct my slip-ups, and help me build a little rickety bridge between one idea and the next. I think we do this all the time for people we love. Think, for example, of how we engage with children or elderly who can’t speak clearly, or even at all. We guess, we assume, we strive to understand, assuming not that they’re trying to “get one over” on us but that their efforts at communicating are in good faith. It is possible to do the reverse, of course, and I suspect that, too often, both child abuse and elder abuse are in no small part the result of a breakdown in this capacity for loving interpretation. A cry or a request is taken in bad faith as manipulation, and anger ensues. Who among us has never been guilty of mistakenly understanding another’s motives or intent? Who among us has never experienced the balm of being understood even when one’s actions and words are less-than-understandable? This is the hermeneutics of love in the everyday.

This, I think, is what Rachel Held Evans means when she says that she “loves the Bible,” as she says repeatedly and without apology, on her blog, in her book, and even on the Today show: that she loves God and God’s word, and that is why she continues to wrestle with the Bible in spite of its difficult and disturbing parts. Is that not, in fact, an exercise in the hermeneutics of love? If one loves God, and believes the Bible to be God’s word, will not one endeavor to understand the Bible in light of that love, to interpret its disturbing bits as charitably as possible? She quotes philosopher Peter Rollins:

“[W]e must attempt to read [the Bible] as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God.”

Rachel’s project—which involved a playfully imperfect (she repeatedly admits the imperfection) attempt to take the Bible “literally” in the things it says to women—has been interpreted as a “mockery” of the Bible; an exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion, if you like. But while I have seen critics pick her project apart as everything from unoriginal to straw-woman silliness, I have heard none of them affirm what is her clear aim: to show that the Bible is nowhere applied literally and, moreover, that to apply it literally and rigidly is, more often than not, to miss Scripture’s point in the first place. For a woman to cover her head during worship in St. Paul’s day was to lessen distractions. For a woman to cover her head during worship in (most evangelical churches in) our day is to have the opposite effect. This is a dynamic that appears again and again: Rachel’s attempt to ‘honor’ her husband in the mold of a 1950s housewife (a mold some contend is more ‘Biblical’ than Rachel and Dan’s actual egalitarian marriage) for example, has the effect of making him feel not loved and cherished, but simply uncomfortable. To apply the Bible “literally” as if its ancient context corresponded one-to-one to our own is, quite often, to invert its intent completely. Rachel quotes her etiquette teacher on the essence of good manners, which consist not in following the rules in the latest edition of Emily Post but in putting people at ease, much as Eleanor Roosevelt once did at a state dinner, when a guest mistakenly drank from the fingerbowl, and Mrs. Roosevelt, without blinking, followed suit. Rigid application of the rules can easily undermine their intent.

I find it hard to believe that I have not found one negative review that would at least grant the importance of this point. On the other hand, I have found dozens of reviews that barely concealed their fury at Rachel and her project. Incredibly, more than a few of these openly admitted not (yet) reading the book at all, much less reading it open to the possibility that Rachel might have something to teach them. I have not seen one review that crossed over to imaginatively identify with what Rachel has to say, regardless of their (dis) agreement. This is a hermeneutic of fear, suspicion, and (I don’t think the word is too strong) hate, for what hate depends on is ignorance and an unwillingness to open oneself to the other. Kathy Keller’s review, while seemingly rooted in the text of Rachel’s book, nevertheless, I’m sorry to say, does not appear to be engaged in an effort at sympathetic understanding of what Rachel’s project is trying to do. Rachel is not confused regarding the relationship of the Old Testament to the New; she’s highlighting the parts of the Bible many Christians would rather skip over.

Lest a reader contend that I, an Evil Egalitarian Christian Named Rachel myself, am only affirming all I have read in Rachel’s book, I will not deny that some of her hermeneutical conclusions struck me as a little unsteady: “it is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose.” To me, making sense of the Bible must include an understanding of its ancient context as well as a robust understanding of the Bible as a diverse-yet-unified, divine-yet-human whole, and making sense of the Bible in that way is less a matter of “picking and choosing” but of discerning what, in fact, is God’s preoccupation throughout; of understanding Jesus as the true fulfillment of all of the Scripture. But here’s the thing: I don’t think Rachel would disagree with any of that. I don’t assume that she has nothing to teach me. I read into what she’s saying to build up her argument, not to destroy it. For example, I think what she was getting at was nothing less than the well respected hermeneutic of love as expressed in (that old misogynist) Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine:

“If […] a man draws a meaning from [the Scriptures] that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.” (Book I, chapter 36)

 In other words, the Scriptures are summed up in “love God and love your neighbor,” and if a less-than-perfect interpretive technique gets you there, the telos of Scripture has been arrived at. (Of course Augustine was all for scrupulous Biblical interpretation. Be that as it may, this is what he says.)

 I realize that this does not sit well with everyone, especially with those for whom summing up Scripture as essentially and most importantly about loving God and neighbor is a little too open ended. (Wait? Who said that? Oh, yes. Jesus did.) Many of Rachel’s critics assert that if one does not interpret St. Paul to mean that all women everywhere are, by their very nature, unfit for leadership in the church, one is on a slippery slope that ends with tossing out the Bible completely. It’s highly inconvenient, then, that there are a good many people who neither interpret Paul that way nor abandon orthodoxy altogether. It would be so much easier, for them, I suppose, if Rachel Held Evans would just stop wrestling with the Bible altogether and dismiss it as a misogynistic, irrelevant, Bronze-Age text engaging in various power-plays. I suppose it just feels uncomfortable to take her book on its own terms, charitably interpreting it as words from someone claiming Christian, yea, evangelical, faith; rejecting certain interpretations and remaining within orthodoxy while asserting her love for the Bible. It might be protested that Rachel’s detractors are really just preserving ‘doctrinal purity’ and ‘contending for the faith.’ As a former (and sometimes-still) “contender” for various causes myself, I get that. We are free to engage in such pursuits, but we don’t get to toss out the Greatest Commandment and the one “like unto it” in so doing. To paraphrase Marilynne Robinson, claiming a particular kind of religious identity, and marking out its boundaries, is not more important than abiding in the kind of love that that identity should imply.

But then, with such charity, where would the controversy be? And without the controversy, where is the Shakespearean drama; the tragedy, the comedy, and the endless fodder for blog posts like this one?

Then again, Jesus didn’t get a favorable reception from the religious hotshots of his day, either. Maybe love is controversial after all.


33 thoughts on “Rachel Held Evans and the Hermeneutics of Love

  1. You apologized for the length but I think it was worth every word, Rachel. I especially like how you brought together Evans’ and Augustine’s thoughts under the umbrella of the Greatest Commandment.

    The only nit I’d pick is with this line: “she is automatically a person that Evangelical Men in Power fear”. Perhaps the words “Complementarian or Patriarchal” should be inserted before “Evangelical”, because I suspect this fear (and yes, “fear” is the right word choice in more sense than one) is not held by Egalitarian Evangelical Men in Power.

    Nice job, Rachel.


  2. Speaking as someone who finished the book yesterday and has already passed it on to my best friend, I’ll be the first to admit I’m biased in Rachel’s favor. But that said, I applaud your words here, and agree wholeheartedly that those who criticize the book are approaching it with a mindset of fear and condemnation–in a lot of cases, predetermined to dislike the book–and are wholly missing the point. This is a fantastic post.

  3. Rachel, thanks for your thoughts here. I agree with much that you have to say. A hermeneutic of love is exactly what we should be pursuing. I don’t find RHE’s arguments very persuasive (I have all sorts of problems with standard complementarian arguments too), to say the least, and find her approach to this important conversation very unhelpful, but I have been rather dismayed by some of the things that have been written against it.

    That said, if we are going to have a serious conversation, rather than merely a listening party, we must allow for the possibility that people are going to make a case that Rachel isn’t an evangelical and that she isn’t faithful to Scripture. Rather than being dismissed as beastly, such claims need to be carefully answered (I happen to believe that Rachel is an evangelical, but this is besides the point here). In most cases, the people who are making such claims don’t have a personal animus towards Rachel. They may well believe that she genuinely considers herself an evangelical and that she sincerely loves and seeks to follow Scripture. They just think that she doesn’t make a convincing case, that she is wrong, and that she is unwittingly misleading many others. This, I believe, is how a hermeneutic of love can work towards critics. A hermeneutic of love does not rule out radical disagreement. I want to be fair and charitable in my interpretation of others, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that I might arrive at the conclusion that they are dangerous heretics to be strongly resisted.

    My concern is that these debates proceed with a ‘he-hit-me-first!’ or ‘but-she’s-doing-it-too!’ approach on both sides. Rachel’s critics believe that their position has been grossly caricatured by Rachel. I think that they really have a point. As someone who has tried to engage with Rachel at length in the past, I can testify to the fact that it is incredibly difficult. One constantly bumps one’s head against just the sort of hermeneutic of suspicion that you mention here. The complementarian position is represented with terms such as ‘domination’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘power’, ‘rule over’, etc., terms which most complementarians that I know explicitly reject. Even when this is pointed out, the misrepresentation continues. The views of more extreme persons are used to represent all complementarians. Complementarians are presumed to be operating with bad motives. Negative judgments are jumped to, without believing the best and giving a charitable hearing before reluctantly arriving at unfavourable assessments. Opposition to women in pastoral positions or firm disagreement with Rachel’s arguments is often presumed to arise out of misogyny, rather than honest commitment to the faithful reading of Scripture and the continual and traditional stance of most of the Christian Church.

    It would be great to move beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion to one of charity, but for this to take place, we must all take the initiative ourselves, rather than waiting for those we disagree with to make the first move. We all need to recognize that it is possible for intelligent and well-intentioned people, who are seeking to be faithful to Scripture, to believe that we are radically mistaken and that our positions should be firmly opposed, and that such opposition need not be inconsistent with a hermeneutic of charity on their part.

    A good litmus test and practice of the hermeneutic of charity can be found in our ability to, before we respond to or criticize someone’s position, to describe their position in our own words to their satisfaction. If you can’t represent your opponent’s position in a form that they recognize and approve, you probably aren’t qualified to criticize it. Sadly, I don’t think that many people on either side of this conversation are able to pass this particular test.

    1. Good points, Alastair,and I think they work in looking at all positions. For example, you write: “The complementarian position is represented with terms such as ‘domination’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘power’, ‘rule over’, etc., terms which most complementarians that I know explicitly reject.”*

      I would take your earlier statement of how people may view Evans and paraphrase it like this: “Rather than being dismissed as beastly, such claims [(about complementarians)] need to be carefully answered … . In most cases, the people who are making such claims don’t have a personal animus towards [complementarians]. They may well believe that [complementarians] genuinely consider[ themselves not to be patriarchal] and that [they] sincerely love[] and seek[] to follow Scripture. They just think that [complementarians don’t] make a convincing case, that [they are] wrong, and that [they are] unwittingly misleading many others.”

      At least, that’s how I view complementarians. I don’t hold animus against them, I just think they are wrong and need correction before they continue to mislead anyone else. As you say, Alastair, this is not a beastly position but one that proceeds out of love.


      1. I disagree, Tim. The key issue here is that of representing opponents’ beliefs fairly and accurately. Most complementarians do not believe that men should ‘rule over’ or ‘dominate’ women. In fact, they explicitly reject such language. Consequently, to say that this is in fact what they believe is to bear false witness or to assume the very worst, presenting them as disingenuous. It is extremely bad form to impute to our ideological opponents supposed implications of their beliefs that they very strongly reject. It also tends to be a failure to engage with what people really say, because it is so much easier to engage with a caricature instead. This is a problem for all of us.

        It would be akin to a complementarian saying that RHE wrote her book to be a mockery of the Bible. It is one thing to make a case that RHE’s book holds the Bible up for mockery: it is quite another to impute beliefs or motives that she clearly and strongly denies to her, or to suggest that she holds to a position that presents the Bible as worthy of mockery. In a similar manner, egalitarians can make a case that certain complementarian positions lead to men ruling over or dominating women, despite their intentions, even though they may seek to resist such an outcome and deny that they hold it. Such a case can be made without suggesting that our opponents are deceitful or people of evil motives.

        As I said at the end of my last comment, the challenge should be for us to represent opponents’ positions in a way that they can agree with, before we show how their position fails, is unable to achieve its stated aims, is logically suspect, or not in accord with divine revelation. When we initially frame our opponents’ positions in ways that they firmly reject, we generally show that we haven’t been listening and don’t yet deserve the right to an opinion on the subject. This, of course, applies to all of us.

      2. Alistair, I truly appreciate your words, and am wrestling with them inside of a “complementarian” context. I think it’s definitely our duty to wrestle with the best interpretation of one’s words, not how we want to hear them. However, as often as “complementarians” protest that we don’t mean patriarchy, women holding “lesser” positions, male domination, we still have to deal with the actual structures that keep men in power and women in submission. Whatever we say about what we don’t mean, we should be careful to acknowledge that the minority person feels exactly the reverse of what we say we intend. At some point, don’t we have to recognize that the structures themselves, however those in power want to talk about them, still speak of dominion and maintain the power of the majority?

      3. That is a good point, Brian. Is it meaningful to protest the language of ‘patriarchy’ while preserving the structure thereof? It reminds me of the old “hate the sin, not the sinner” language, which seldom if ever is experienced by the “sinner” as “love,” which should be the point after all.

      4. Brian, a few points. First, the fact that you frame matters in terms of ‘keeping men in power and women in submission’ suggests to me that your conception of complementarianism might be partly at issue here. In Scripture submission is not set over against ‘power’, but a form of loving service. If complementarianism becomes framed in terms of self-possessed and self-serving power, rather than commission for empowering service something has gone wrong.

        Second, one of the biggest problems with many egalitarian frameworks lies in the tendency to frame everything as if all parties could be rendered commensurable in terms of a universal and univocal structure of power differentials. A hermeneutic of suspicion married to Foucauldian analyses of power structures tends to presume that all role differentials can be reduced to power differentials and can often cynically presume that where such differentials exist, they exist solely for the private and partisan interest of some powerful party or individuals. The problem is that the scriptures do not share the fundamental assumptions of such analyses in key respects. 1) Not all structures can be reduced to power: there are such things as structures of love, service, and established ministry; 2) power is not univocal: the primacy of one party over another in a particular role or field does not exclude the possibility of the relation of primacy being asymmetrically reversible. 3) differentiation in roles, gifts, vocation, and ministry is presented as divinely established and not entailing a denigration of parties that the world might deem ‘weaker’ or ‘lesser’ (see the order of the Church in 1 Corinthians 12, for instance). Each party has a role essential to the whole, which only they can play. 4) Power isn’t necessarily self-serving. The gifts and callings given to particular members are for the service of all. The ‘power’ of one party exists to empower everyone.

        Third, as fallen and cynical human beings, power is our natural language. It makes us doubt any claims of truth and love. More particularly, it can lead us to fail to see truth and love where they genuinely exist, as we are paranoid, and perceive all to boil down to power. Those who have drunk deeply (as most of us in this culture have) of postmodern suspicion and the tendency to reduce all social structures to cynical power games will quite naturally fall into the habit of presuming that everyone is self-serving and seeking to get what they can. We can also fall into playing these power games ourselves. It is worth recognizing that even Jesus’ closest disciples presumed at times that he was playing a form of power game or tried to play such power games themselves. Even when someone with this jaundiced perspective on human relations finds themselves in a loving context of mutual service, they will presume that all differences in roles are about power. Oppression and power games are all too often in the eye of the beholder, poisoned as it is by sin.

        Fourth, as we are fallen, even loving contexts of mutual service can collapse into power games. As the curse declares, the asymmetrical roles of mutual service that God established at the creation would tend to fall into one of men ruling over women, and women seeking to undermine men. Many marriages of all forms go this direction, as do both complementarian and egalitarian contexts. Much as we must beware of an ideology of suspicion blinding us to contexts of love and truth, so we much beware of ideologies of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ blinding us to contexts of oppression. Many complementarian contexts are oppressive in such a manner and, where they are, should be exposed as such. However, we should learn to try on hermeneutics of trust for size before we resort to negative assessments.

        Fifth, egalitarian contexts are by no means free of any of these dynamics, whether positive or negative (I have spent time in Christian egalitarian contexts for a few years and have seen plenty of this first hand). While their intentions and results have often been positive, egalitarian theories have all too often provided fertile soil for certain types of power games and oppression. Also, as egalitarianism often depends heavily upon particular far-reaching assumptions about power and a hermeneutic of suspicion taken to other forms of differentiated community, it is in particular danger of a paranoia that holds it back from exploring certain loving and truthful structures that might otherwise be open to it. Also, when the language of power games is so natural to you, it can be hard to form a rich and developed grammar beyond power. Avoiding power games can easily be presented as mere negation of power differentials, rather than the positive harnessing of differentiated strengths and gifts for mutual service. This suspicion is in danger of stunting growth and promoting fear. Alternatively, an ideology of ‘egalitarianism’ can all too easily cover up or be leveraged to serve people’s private power interests. Where differences are not acknowledged at the outset, new and far more intractable inequalities can arise or we can become blinded to existing ones. In some ways, complementarianism is built on the assumption that gifts, talents, and vocations are not given equally or indifferently in God’s world and so we must ensure that each exercises their differentiated role in a way that serves and empowers all. Where the opposing assumption holds, this imperative of mutual service can become muted.

        Finally, the language of ‘patriarchy’ as it functions for egalitarians is generally inherited from feminism’s hermeneutic of suspicion. The category of patriarchy elides all different forms of social structures where men and women have clearly differentiated roles into a single power game category. The category of patriarchy, formed as it is, is almost constitutionally incapable of recognizing differentiating structures as anything other than power structures. Consequently, it should be used only with the most extreme care.

      5. Alastair, I really appreciate the time you are taking in bringing your points forward. What you express though tends to prove my point. Complementarians insist they are not patriachical and insist everyone agree with that premise before discussing the differences between comps and egals. To me, complementarianism has patriarchical attributes no matter how much a complementarian might insist otherwise; complementarians just don’t recognize how this can be true.

        You don’t want me to say complementarianism is patriarchical? OK, then I’ll switch to describing the patriarchy without labeling it as such. The result is the same.

        In the spirit of your original comment, we should have these conversations with a mindset that the other person is doing her or his best to honor God. If they are mistaken, we should guide them to the truth. A hermeneutic of love is a good way to start.


      6. Tim,

        What complementarians are seeking is that they position be fairly represented in the debate. This does not mean that egalitarians are not permitted to claim that it is oppressive and patriarchal, just that they should engage with the position on its own terms before classifying it as such. It also means that, if complementarians expressly disavow a belief, position, or motive – say, the belief that men should ‘rule over’ women – that claim should be taken, unless there is overwhelming evidence that they are being deceptive, at face value. When people like RHE suggest that many complementarians are all ‘about power’ (as she has done in the past), or egalitarians easily jump to assuming deception, conspiracy, a desire for power, or misogyny as the motivations for complementarians they are at risk of unfairly representing complementarians. Complementarians present their claims as motivated by love (differentiated mutual service in Christ) and truth (the divinely established order as revealed in Scripture). All too often, however, complementarian claims are engaged with only as veiled power claims. This is to read complementarian positions according to an alien set of assumptions, rather than to see whether they work on their own terms.

        It is perfectly OK to criticize the theory or reality of complementarianism, showing it to be flawed, unworkable, contradictory, counter-productive, patriarchal, or oppressive, whatever. All that is requested is that you don’t present complementarians as teaching a position that they expressly deny (much as it would be unreasonable and unchristian of someone to say that RHE sets out to make a mockery of the Bible and divine authority, even though some – Christians and non-Christians among them – have been left with the impression that the book has this effect) without presenting compelling evidence that they are being deliberately deceptive. Also if someone makes a truth claim (e.g. that the Bible teaches a complementarian order or that the Bible supports women in priestly ministry), this claim should be engaged with as a truth claim, not just a veiled power claim.

        What is basically being asked here is that you begin by making very clear what you are criticizing and not imputing to people beliefs and motives that they don’t hold or strongly deny. In my experience, when egalitarians describe ‘patriarchy’, most of the time I completely agree with them: what they describe should be firmly opposed. The problem is that I have yet to find an egalitarian who can really describe the position that I support. Rather, they imposing alien categories upon certain details of my position and, extrapolating out from those, arrive at an ugly and oppressive caricature that I really can’t recognize. In other words, make sure that you understand a position extremely well on its own terms before you ever consider describing its dynamics in terms of categories that are not indigenous to it.

        As a particular example of this, ‘patriarchy’ as it functions within feminist and egalitarian discourse is a loaded category, based upon the interpretation of social order in terms of power relations, not really allowing for the possibility of clearly differentiated gender orders based on truth, love, or differentiated vocations (it is not at all surprising that someone who takes a category such as ‘patriarchy’ for granted should perceive complementarians to be straightforwardly patriarchal). As such, it tends to beg the question. It must first be proved that the social order is ultimately driven by power before it is fitting to analyse it in such terms. However, people who have been educated or socialized in a manner that leads them to over-emphasize the category of power in analysis of social systems can find it hard to imagine or entertain the possibility of a clearly differentiated and asymmetrical order that is not at root a power game, so they take the aptness of a tendentious category of analysis for granted.

        Anyway, I won’t have time to participate any further in this discussion for now, so I will leave you to have the final word.

      7. Hijacked!

        Of course everyone wants their position to be fairly represented and interpreted charitably; that’s kind of the point of the original post: read Rachel’s book carefully and sympathetically before dismissing as not measuring up to standards of categories alien to the book itself.

        Speaking as an egalitarian, I prefer that people don’t assume I’m merely rejecting a complementarian position because 1. I’m a Foucauldian, 2. I’m a postmodern and 3. I’m used to misrepresentations of the other position. I was required to write essays defending complemetarianism from the Bible as an undergraduate. I know the arguments well on both sides.

        {As a courtesy, please keep blog comments to >500 words. Thank you!}

      8. Alastair, you wrote: “they should engage with the position on its own terms”

        I disagree completely. A position should be engaged based on its reality, not its own terms. If I were to engage on the terms the other person insists on, no matter how misguided those terms are, then – as Rachel just said pointed out – I am allowing the other person to hijack and dictate the terms to the detriment of the truth.


    2. Alastair, it’s been really interesting to see how many postmodern rhetorical tactics you are using are in your deconstruction of the purportedly postmodern views of your opponents. I dunno. I have a wife who’s better at fixing bikes than I am. I’m better at making hummus than she is. I have more prophetic sensibilities in my preaching while hers are more pastoral; when I share my sermons with her before I preach them, they generally turn out a lot better. I can’t really think of a disagreement we’ve had in which it’s ever seemed appropriate to make a decision that wasn’t a consensus. None of that psychobabble you were talking seems like it describes our relationship. I just can’t help but scratch my head at why Paul’s instructions about how to translate Christlike mutual servanthood into the Roman social context in which the paterfamilias was legally the head of the family are applicable to a completely different social context today. Honestly I can see how it would be a little bit exhausting to engage you in an argument so it would make sense to me if Rachel hasn’t been enthusiastic about doing that.

  4. Nice post.

    It’s worth noticing that the OT prophets engaged in a hermeneutic of suspicion when they tested the gap between Israel’s rituals and the quality of their heart. The tool is incapable of testing truth claims. However, it can expose wrong motives for holding doctrines.

    1. Larry, I can’t agree with that characterization of the OT prophets. They were fully engaged members of their respective societies. In their cases, they KNEW what was going on; they were fully aware of the hypocrisy that was rampant. But you still see Hosea reaching out to buy back Gomer as a picture of God’s redeeming, eternal love for Israel; Jeremiah gives stinging rebukes to Israel (where did the term ‘jeremiad’ come from if not Jeremiah’s writing?) and yet J is known as the weeping prophet. Ezekiel is not allowed to cry over his own wife’s death in Ezekiel 24 as a sign to the people. They were not testing any gaps, they were responding to what they knew, whether from what they lived or from direct revelation from God.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I think it’s amazing that so many people don’t realize that they bring their own biases to everything in life – what they read, who they talk to, what they see, etc.

  6. This is probably the most sane, thoughtful contribution to the discussion thus far. Thank you for reminding us of our obligations as Christians. Also, I confess, I felt a bit “convicted” myself because I know that while I am a big supporter of what Rachel Held Evans has written there are dozens of other authors whose writings I dismiss because they are the writer. I need to reevaluate my thinking and seek to engage in a hermeneutic of love back the other direction.

  7. thank you thank you thank you! this is a phenomenal post! from within one of the denominations of the conservative “complementarian” project, I say “kudo’s!” There are so many gold nuggets in here!

  8. Wonderfully written. I think this approach to reading (with Much Ado About Nothing and Othello as literary examples) is so important especially in our era of unchecked visciousness all over the internet. You made me think about my response to my children…that I should approach them with a “hermeneutics of love in the everyday.” A wonderful reminder!

  9. “To me, making sense of the Bible must include an understanding of its ancient context as well as a robust understanding of the Bible as a diverse-yet-unified, divine-yet-human whole, and making sense of the Bible in that way is less a matter of “picking and choosing” but of discerning what, in fact, is God’s preoccupation throughout; of understanding Jesus as the true fulfillment of all of the Scripture.” That’s a way of understanding the Biblical text that sees it as “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Making it literal, scientific, and everything else is not about the authority of the TEXT, but the authority of the INTERPRETER. Biblical literalism is a populist hermeneutic, not a conservative one.

  10. Rachel you are a wonder! You have so nicely laid out a beautiful outline of responsible interpretation AND of response to non-biblical material. It seems that we have ‘A Perfect Storm’ here…in the midst of an incredibly divisive Presidential election split, to all intents and purposes 50-50 popular vote-wise we also have RHE’s ‘manifesto’ of egalitarianism.
    My wife and I split on this issue; I, the egalitarian am spoiled by my complementarian wife. I say spoiled purposefully; SHE does the heavy lifting in virtually every area. And, yes, that is to my shame. I opened this issue again with her today due to this blog. 34 years into a happy marriage, and she still smiles at me sweetly, and then does what she does. (And I say happy knowing that she agrees with me fully. I did not say perfect, but we are happy together.)
    The whole context of egalitarian versus complementarian is so loaded in our cultures, both the insular evangelical one and the broad societal one. Are we egals not bending the knee to the ‘ungodly’? Or are the comps just unable to leave their patriarchal origins? As you stated here ‘we all interpret everything contextually’ and so we all have to verify our motives as well as our resulting conclusions and hold most everything in a loose grip. I could be wrong about this one, and so, my opponent (whoever you are on whatever issue we are opposing one another) could you.
    I actually had no intention of buying YBW, the issue was resolved for me long ago, but I am realizing that this is cutting edge. RHE is dealing with a hide-bound, cultural form of christianity: Evangelicalism! And I am one of them/us.
    Perhaps we need to check out Jesus’s attitudes to the Pharisees and Sadducees to see if He might be saying something to us ‘religious’ types. And, yes, we are religious in the bad sense if we refuse to consider that as a possibility. We have our sacred cows that we dare not disturb. As ‘one of us’, I believe that most of our sacred cows are truly sacred; the Authority of Scripture, the Divinity of Christ Jesus, the way of salvation, etc,, etc. Thank you for giving me this chance to think through some deep issues again…and forcing me to consider reading Foucault (sigh…couldn’t I just read Much Ado About Nothing instead!?) God bless you.

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