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Review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood

| November 10, 2012

Readers of A Year of Biblical Womanhood who make it all the way to the back matter will notice that Rachel Held Evans thanked me in her acknowledgments. She said, “Thank you, Mary Kassian, for being so funny and honest and delightful, even when we disagree.”

That was nice! (I’m glad I didn’t miss it. It’s a good thing I’m nerdy enough to read all the footnotes and shout-outs.)

Let me explain how Rachel and I know one another.

Someone alerted me to Rachel’s Year of Biblical Womanhood early on in the project. Since I’ve been associated with the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) in one way or another since the early 1990s, since I helped coin the term complementarian, since I’ve written and spoken extensively on the topic of biblical womanhood, have taught courses on biblical womanhood at evangelical seminaries across North America, have blogged and written books about biblical womanhood, have published a resource entitled, True Woman 101: Divine Design – An eight week study on biblical womanhood, and since I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of women about biblical womanhood, I figured I was in a unique position to help Rachel understand what complementarians mean by the term “biblical womanhood.”

I wanted to give her direct, personal access to a woman at the forefront of the contemporary biblical womanhood movement. I hoped to answer her questions about complementarity, give her the opportunity to verify her perceptions, and challenge her to avoid false caricatures so that she might honestly and accurately represent our position.

So I called Rachel up and offered my assistance. I gave her my private phone number and email. I made myself available to help her navigate her way through living out biblical womanhood in the upcoming months. Though she didn’t take me up on the offer, she did attend part of a conference on biblical womanhood at which I spoke, and throughout the year we talked a couple of times.

I like Rachel. In our personal interaction, I’ve found her to be genuine, warm, and engaging . . . she’s the type of person you’d love to hang out with at the local hipster coffee shop, to enjoy a stimulating conversation, some laughs, and a steaming mug of fair-trade soy latte (extra foam).

Rachel is a great storyteller. And some of her escapades in A Year of Biblical Womanhood are amusing. Her question of how to apply the Bible in various cultures and times is an important one. It’s one that Christians have wrestled with for millennia.

Other bloggers and reviewers have addressed some of the problems they perceive in Rachel’s hermeneutics and overall approach to the Bible. But I want to specifically address the problem of how she characterized—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, caricaturized—what complementarians believe. Given my attempts to facilitate an authentic conversation, I was keenly disappointed by what I read about complementarianism in Rachel’s book.

Complementarity and the Art of Homemaking

In the opening pages of her book, Rachel points out that the impetus for her A Year of Biblical Womanhood project came from the modern “evangelical complementarianism” movement. (p. xix). She specifically identifies the movement whose “theological bulwark” is “found in the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” (p. xix).

I’m glad she clarified who exactly she means by “evangelical complementarians.” She’s talking about my people. I’ve been with that movement from the start. She’s walking into my backyard. Her book is specifically aimed at the particular brand of evangelical complementarity of which I am a part.

A few sentences later, I had my first and best laugh of the whole book. “Evangelical complementarianism,” claims Rachel, “[is] a movement that began as a reaction to second-wave feminism and found some of its first expressions in the writings of Edith Schaeffer (The Hidden Art of Homemaking, 1971) and Elisabeth Elliot (Let Me Be a Woman, 1976).” Rachel goes on to explain that complementarianism rests on the “uncompromising conviction [that] the virtuous woman serves primarily from the home as a submissive wife, diligent homemaker, and loving mother.” (p. xix).

“The Hidden Art of Homemaking???!!” I just about fell off my chair. That book was written seventeen years before the inception of CBMW and about twenty years before we adopted the term “complementarian.” I have never even heard of it. I highly doubt whether John Piper and Wayne Grudem—the founders of CBMW—have read it. So to cite it as the first expression of evangelical complementarianism is hardly defensible. Complementarians would certainly not identify it as such.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood and I were not off to a good start.

Homemaking as a Woman’s Highest Calling

Here’s the thing. Though the relation between The Hidden Art of Homemaking and CBMW is spurious, and Rachel’s sound bite summarizing complementarianism’s “uncompromising conviction” lacks accuracy, the book had to convince readers, right up front, that complementarians are obsessed with women being housewives. Without a clear connection, Rachel’s tongue-in-cheek gimmick of a year of biblical womanhood wouldn’t have worked. Barring this premise she couldn’t have poked fun at complementarians with her escapades of learning how to cook and clean with Martha Stewart, sew, knit, care for a vinyl doll, and call her husband master . . . the hyperbole would have been rendered nonsensical. So though I’m disappointed, I’m not entirely surprised that Rachel misrepresented the complementarian movement with this caricature. In a way, the very genre of the book demanded it.

Rachel claims:

“The elevation of homemaking as a woman’s highest calling is . . . a critical centerpiece to the modern biblical womanhood movement.” (p. 22)

“The importance of homemaking in the contemporary biblical womanhood movement cannot be overstated, and proponents tend to use strong, unequivocal language to argue that the only sphere in which a woman can truly bring glory to God is the home.” (pp. 23–24)

Homemaking as woman’s highest calling is our critical centerpiece? Hmmm. Maybe I didn’t get the memo. I found myself curious about which “proponent of the modern biblical womanhood movement” used “strong, unequivocal language” about homemaking being woman’s highest calling. And which complementarian in her right mind would even remotely assert that “the only sphere in which a woman can truly bring glory to God is in the home.” I am personally acquainted with virtually everyone at the core of the modern biblical womanhood movement. If anyone in my yard is saying this, I want to know about it.

So I leaned in close to listen.

A few sentences later, Rachel quoted three women to substantiate her claim. I was taken aback to discover that one of them was Debi Pearl, whose child discipline teachings have (rightly or wrongly) been identified by the media as abusive and linked to the deaths of several homeschool children (CBS News). Most evangelicals consider her to be fringe and extremist. She certainly is not representative of the modern complementarian movement. Yet Rachel implies that she is, and quotes her in the book numerous times. (pp. 24, 103, 108, 207, 211). This is extremely unfair. It’s academically sloppy. It would be like a reporter implying the Unabomber represents the view of environmentalists. As a complementarian, it’s difficult not to feel offended.

The second woman Rachel quotes is Stacy McDonald, who wrote a book entitled, Passionate Housewives Desperate for God. McDonald is associated with the Vision Forum and the biblical patriarchy movement, so it’s clear that she isn’t representative of the core of modern evangelical complementarianism either. I don’t even know who she is . . . though if I googled “housewife + homemaking + evangelical” and threw “homeschooling” in there for good measure, her name would undoubtedly come up. (p. 24). [**See note added below]

Rachel specified that it is the “modern” and “contemporary” biblical womanhood movement that is the focus of her concern, so I was surprised to see her blow the dust off some old quotes, penned in 1990, by Dorothy Patterson:

“Keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.” (p. 23)

“We need mothers who are not only family-oriented but also family-obsessed.” (p. 178)

I was curious. Since these quotes are over twenty years old, and since I wouldn’t want anyone holding me to what I said (or how I said it) twenty years ago without asking me about it first, I phoned Mrs. Patterson to ask her if/how she would rephrase the sentences if given the opportunity. (I call her “Mrs” because she’s a Southern Belle—and the venerable Steel Magnolias of her generation who were raised in the post-war 40s and 50s have some pretty strong opinions about proper titles, matching shoes and purses, silverware patterns, and things like that. :-) )

Mrs. Patterson told me that she would nuance the first quote by clarifying that “though she may not do these chores herself, she senses the responsibility to see that her home is kept in order.” She would nuance the second quote by using the word “impassioned” instead of “obsessed.”

Now I’m not defending Mrs. Patterson or what she wrote twenty years ago. She can do that for herself. My point is that Rachel’s thesis that homemaking as a woman’s “highest calling” is the “critical centerpiece to the modern biblical womanhood movement” is based on extremely slim pickings. I found myself asking, “Where are all the quotes and who are all the complementarian proponents using ‘strong, unequivocal language to argue that the only sphere in which a woman can truly bring glory to God is the home’?” I scoured the pages and footnotes of the book for the supporting evidence. But I couldn’t find it. Rachel doesn’t say.

Not the Critical Centerpiece

I am keenly disappointed that Rachel based her entire book on a caricature that those at the core of the biblical womanhood movement would decry as patently false . . . particularly since I initiated our relationship in hope that she would avoid using that tact. At the biblical womanhood conference she attended, Rachel heard me emphasize that the movement is not about conforming to a 1950s-June-Cleaver-type pattern. She would have been hard pressed to find many women fitting the housewife caricature sitting with her in the audience.

The women in the room were publishers, physicians, theologians, business women, bloggers, students, and social activists, women who had PhDs and women in the military, women who were married, single, and divorced, with children and without. Some were old, but most were young. If complementarian ideology were truly what A Year of Biblical Womanhood portrays it to be, my messages would have urged all those women to find husbands, have kids, and stay at home so that they might “truly bring glory to God.” . . . As if.

Perhaps I did not make myself clear, or perhaps Rachel didn’t understand, or perhaps she was too invested in the project to adjust her portrayal of complementarity. In any case, I feel frustrated that the complementarian movement was so misrepresented. As I read through A Year of Biblical Womanhood I kept seeing visages of Dora the Doormat and other Scary Straw Women of Complementarity.

Here are some quotes from True Woman 101: Divine Design that I emailed to Rachel while she was still working on her book. I sent them to her to demonstrate that complementarians do NOT teach that biblical womanhood consists of women squeezing themselves into a cookie-cutter happy-housekeeper-with-husband-and-kids mold:

“The Bible presents a design for True Womanhood that applies to all women—at any age and at any stage of life—old, young; single, married, divorced, widowed; with children or without, whatever. Its design applies to women of every personality type, every educational level, every career track, every socioeconomic status, and every culture. God’s design transcends social customs, time, and circumstance.” (p. 16)

“The solution isn’t to try to rewind the clock to the 1950s, and squeeze women back into that culture’s “Leave it to Beaver” stereotype. No. The solution—the biblical solution—is to embrace the Word of God, and ask Him to help us figure out how to live out His divine design in this culture.” (p. 155)

“The Bible doesn’t give us a simplistic, prescribed set of rules about what womanhood must “look” like. It doesn’t tell us, for example, how long our skirts should be, or whether we should pursue advanced education, or that women must be the ones who clean the toilets and cook all the meals, or that we should never work outside of the home, or that all women should get married, or that we must educate our children a certain way. The Bible doesn’t contain such checklists.

“Women are not the same. Womanhood will look different from woman to woman. It looks different for Mary than it does for Nancy. It may look different for your friend than it does for you. It may look different in Nigeria than it does in Canada . . . for a married woman than a single one. . . for a twenty-year-old than a sixty-year-old . . . for a gregarious woman than a quiet, reserved one. . . for an athlete than an artist. . . for an outdoorsy type than an indoorsy type . . . You get the idea!

“That’s not to say that our decisions don’t matter. In His Word God has given us timeless principles about womanhood that transcend culture. It’s important that we wrestle with how to implement these principles. We need to rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance to help us figure out how to apply them in our particular situation. But we must avoid a cookie-cutter mentality. We are all unique. Every woman’s circumstances are distinct. We each need to carefully discern how to apply God’s principles in our own lives, and we can encourage one another in that process; but it’s not up to us to determine how they must be applied in other women’s lives.”(p. 210)

I don’t know how I could have spelled it out more clearly.

A Glaring Omission

In the book, Rachel chronicled her interaction with a woman who is an Orthodox Jew, a woman who is Amish, a Quiverful daughter, a Polygamist, a Catholic woman, a Quaker, and a woman who is an egalitarian pastor. But where are the evangelical complementarian women? She doesn’t interview us, talk to us, and she hardly even quotes us. To me, the omission is glaring. Even disingenuous. It strikes me as extremely odd that the book includes the perspective of everyone except the women who lie at the heart of its critique. I suspect the reason we didn’t make it into its pages is that we don’t fit the stereotype, and our presence would have ruined the whole charade.

During one of our phone conversations, Rachel specifically asked me about the True Woman Movement. My friend, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, with whom I co-authored True Woman 101, and who has been instrumental in leading the movement, is single and in full-time ministry. Nancy has never married nor borne biological children. Given this, I am at a loss to understand how Rachel can assert that “the critical centerpiece to the modern biblical womanhood movement” is “homemaking as a woman’s highest calling.” Exactly which modern biblical womanhood movement is she talking about? Certainly not the one I’m a part of.

I stressed several other key points in my conversations with Rachel: I talked about the difference between principles and application. I pointed out that though complementarians agree on the principle of complementarity, we often differ as to its application in the home and the church. I emphasized that even those involved in CBMW have a divergence of opinion as to the specifics of how to apply the principles of manhood and womanhood. Even Nancy and I don’t land in exactly the same place on every point of application. But that’s common with principles taught in Scripture. Take modesty, for example. Two people might agree on the principle of modesty, but one favors ankle-duster dresses, whereas the other is okay with pencil skirts. The Bible allows for some differences when it comes to matters of personal application. (1 Corinthians 8)

I talked to Rachel about the difficulties and challenges of biblical application. I spoke about the importance of avoiding simplistic checklists—and how disturbed I am when people misapply complementarity in that way. I stressed that complementarity is not about a checklist of mandatory behavior or a stringent division of labor, but about becoming who God created us to be as male and female, so that we might showcase and exalt the spectacular relationship between Christ and his Church.

Tiresome Caricatures

If Rachel would have specified that she was exploring the way various faith traditions approach womanhood, or if she had been clear that she was addressing the cookie-cutter housewife paradigm enforced on the “fringes” of evangelicalism, or the way that “some” who call themselves complementarians uphold an outdated 1950s model as the ideal, then the book might have been more palatable. I—and many other complementarians— share her concerns about the excesses and abuses that exist. But sadly, the complementarianism portrayed in A Year of Biblical Womanhood is just another tiresome straw (wo)man argument. I think Rachel’s publicity stunt confuses rather than clarifies the issues. Most complementarians who read the book are bound to feel gravely misrepresented, misunderstood, and even hurt by it.

So while I sincerely appreciate my relationship with Rachel, and the fact that I discovered kind personal kudos at the tail end of her book, I am sad and profoundly disappointed that I did not discover an accurate portrayal of complementarity in the body of it.

(*Note: All page numbers are from the Kindle Edition) 

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**03/12/2012:  After this post was published, Stacy McDonald emailed my office. She wanted me to clarify that though her book was released by the Vision Forum, she is not formally associated with that organization and it does not represent her views. She also wanted to clarify that she does not support the views put forth by Debi Pearl.

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