Rachel Held Evans and Her Critics: They Are All Missing an Opportunity

"The Bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed." –Thomas Paine

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Oh good night! The “really saved” brigade is out, proclaiming that Rachel Held Evans, in her books and her blog musings, is guilty of heretical ravings. Some even claim that she is not a Christian and will be judged by God! (Did you not know that there are people on earth that know God's inner thoughts? In some circles that might be considered borderline mental illness.)  Of particular concern is her current book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  This book is garnering the interest of major news outlets, and, as such, deserves intelligent conversation that goes beyond “stomping feet.” I believe her critics and, to some extent, Rachel Held Evans herself, are missing out on a golden opportunity.

Denny Burk weighed in with a negative review here. Please read the comments. He does get pushback.

Of course, The Gospel Coalition weighed in and linked here to a negative review of the book by a woman on the Desiring God site.

Note to The Gospel Coalition: We are in Day 7 of silence on the filed lawsuit against one of your founders, CJ Mahaney. I guess child sex abuse takes a back seat to an “uppity” woman, hmm?

Roger Olson wrote a positive review of the book here.

I have watched her interviews, read her blog, and previewed some marketing videos. Please watch Evans' seven minute MSNBC interview and her two, one-minute videos promoting the book.


My review is not about the book, which I will read on an upcoming vacation. Instead, I want to discuss an underlying issue that I think many have missed no matter one’s opinion of the book.

Simply stated: The Old Testament is hard to understand for almost everybody except John Piper and some first year seminary students at SBTS.  Even Bible studies that purport to examine the “entire” Bible fail miserably in dealing with what I call the “please God, don't let them ask me about that verse" verses.

Through the years, I have listened and watched as Christians attempt to explain the Old Testament to inquirers.  It goes something like this. ”That was the Old Covenant that pointed us to our sins and our need for forgiveness. No one follows that anymore. Jesus took care of it. Let’s go to the book of John.”

But, we do practice some OT commands in some churches:

  • Tithing
  • Moses model leadership
  • Limited roles for women in the church

In other words, we still accept these things but attempt to put a New Testament spin on it. Most average Christians are visibly uncomfortable when confronted with issues such as:

  • God’s command to wipe out certain people groups
  • The numbers of wives and concubines of Jewish leaders
  • The unusual rules in Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus

When questioned on specific verses by outsiders, many run the other way. They excuse their inability to speak to the issue raised by condemning the questioner. “They don’t really want to know about God, they just want to criticize us. Don’t throw your pearls before swine.”

So, many stay inside their safe little churches and condemn atheists and agnostics for asking the hard questions. However, within those safe enclaves, strange theories abound and are tolerated. “If I can find it, I can claim it!” I have read those proclaiming the wonders of “The Leviticus Diet” and those selling the therapeutic oils of the Old Testament.” Here and here

Let’s face it. Many of the stories, commands, and the lifestyles of the Old Testament  can be difficult to understand and even harder to explain to those who are outside of the faith. For example, Christians condemn the polygamy of the early Mormons. Yet, David had multiple wives and concubines. The usual throw away Christian answer is that God allowed it due to David’s “hardness of heart.” The easy retort is, “So, why not now? I know lots of people who are hard in their hearts.” Of course, there are other ways to approach these questions but many Christians can't even get to first base.

Let’s take a look at a few rules of the OT from the NIV at Bible Gateway.

Leviticus 19:27, “‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

Leviticus 21:17-23 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary.

Leviticus 12:1-5 Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.

It is important for us to remember that the Israelites were living under a theocracy. God functioned as the ancient FDA, CDC, police force, refuse management, etc.

So some of the rules make sense. The Israelites could not eat shellfish because shellfish are bottom dwellers and eat anything that sinks to the bottom of their habitat – including human waste. Such a rule would protect the Israelites from an E Coli gastroenteritis which can be fatal for the young and the elderly.

Added at 4:50PM "And this begs the obvious question. What makes someone pure? I can imagine that all of those priests, etc bringing the offering all had their impurities hiding under the surface. So, is God interested in only the "superficial?" Who is more pure: a dwarf or a priest who is lusting after HIldah?"

Other rules are not so easy to explain, especially the command that those with birth defects were prohibited from bringing food offerings to God. The flip answer about "purity" pales beside the concern for compassion of the person with a birth defect. Of course, I could take the John Piper approach and call anyone who doesn't like it a sinner. That takes care of that, doesn't it?

Please feel free to share with all of us your particular “weird” law of the Old Testament. Try to explain why you think that law was instituted. Here is an example of what I mean

Leviticus 19:19
“‘Do not mate different kinds of animals.”
(Perhaps due to the sterility issue?)

“‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.”
(Bad for the nutrients in the soil, one attracts vermin from which the other did not have immunity?)

“‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”
(Possible shrinkage making the item too small and misshapen, rendering it useless. Difficult if resources are scarce?)

My good friend, Eagle, and I have had frequent conversations in which I have told him that I do not have answers for all of the verses in the Bible. I do, however, believe that the Scriptures give me the single best narrative that explains the world around me.

So, here is my concern for everyone in this conflict. I do not believe that Christians have done a great job of explaining the Old Testament and why we pick and choose what we will follow. I also do not think Evans’ explanation of “just following Jesus” immunizes her either, although I understand her sentiments. We are given the whole Bible and cannot cut out the inconvenient parts. 

We (all of us, not just the theologians) must deal with the inherent difficulties in parts of the Scripture. We need to be able to communicate these struggles to a questioning world. I am most frustrated that this conflict has boiled down to critics claiming heresy instead of kindly explaining their understanding of the issues to those who are listening. I think Evans could ramp it up a bit as well. For example, she could explain how Jesus fulfilled the law and how the dietary restrictions were lifted in the New Testament.

I think everyone should read Evans' book and wrestle with the issues she raises. I also think that her critics, especially all the self-proclaimed “gospelly correct” leaders, need to look at themselves and figure out how they can do a much, much better job in helping a watching world, along with people in the churches, to better understand the Old Testament laws and their relationship to the New Testament. For example,they could explain why God declared a woman, during her period, unclean for 12 days. That would be much more interesting than the usual ho-hum "look at the heretic" response.

Right now, it looks as if Evans' critics are more concerned about "proving" her heresy as opposed to taking this unique opportunity to explain the Old Testament to a confused world. We sure shoot our own, don't we? Oh yeah, "they" don't think she is one of our own.

Lydia's Corner:  Leviticus 11:1-12:8  Mark 5:21-43  Psalm 38:1-22  Proverbs 10:8-9


Rachel Held Evans and Her Critics: They Are All Missing an Opportunity — 539 Comments

  1. Jeff T – thanks for the great link, Nick, thanks for weighing in.

    Just through the first chapter of RHE’s book. I haven’t found unexplained sloppy hermeneutics yet. She explains why she decided to do penance on the roof clearly. Not sure why the Doug Wilson’s of the world missed this point (probably from not actually reading her book). I can’t speak for others, but this book has drawing power.

    As she lives out the virtues, they grow on her, and by extension the reader. I want to cultivate a gentle and quite spirit as Jesus commanded *Everyone* to do (not just women). If the book continues like this, it will be helpful to me. I have certainly noticed the effect of her attempts to practice virtues on her blog. She is so calm and gracious while the critics are character-assasinating her, sometimes in live time. Not sure she would have been as gentle pre-year of practicing virtues in the Bible.

    Well, I will have to see if she is going to start misleading me about the Good Book, but I am more suspicious then ever that her detractors either a) didnt’ read it, or b) skimmed it. Sitting through her first month has less to do with her (good or bad) hermeneutics and more to do with her attempts to be something she feels she can’t be, then learning how to rest in God and finding that is the way to have a gentle spirit – while still being strong. Do they go after Ann Voskamp too?

  2. Val – my guess is that most of them cherry-picked her publishers’ press kit and/or one-sheet press releases.

    [sigh – oh for actual book reviewers who read advance copies from cover to cover!]

  3. numo and Mot,

    Agreed! If ever SGMers should be able to read the writing on the wall, it is NOW! Maybe only the true believers are hanging on.

  4. Juniper

    I can see Doug Wilson as one of the trembling girls, pointing his finger at someone and crying “Witch.”

  5. DaveAA

    That comment at 1:28AM is the comment of the month!!!Thank you for your honesty. Youi truly deserve the title of TWW apostle! Thank you for being willing to share in such a transparent manner.

  6. Val

    I bet they do not read each others books before they “endorse” them. I am suspicious that many often pretend to read the books so others will pretend to read theirs and endorse them. 

  7. Dave A A –

    Thank you for responding in such detail. I was curious on your take, from the manly side. In the past 11 months, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that my marriage was much more egal than comp. I just don’t see how one camp functions that much differently than the other unless “discretionary” lording is allowed in the comp camp.

  8. Val –

    I believe that one of the TGC guys did get after Ann Voskamp when her book came out.

  9. Dee–yes, if we read our current culture back into the OT we can get awfully confused.

    Re the midgets and others banned from serving in the temple:

    No one had the “right” to be a priest, just as today no one has a “right” to church leadership or ordination.

    God chooses and calls whom God wills.

    In the OT we see progressive revelation at work. And eye for an eye may sound barbaric to us, but to them it was pure bleeding heart liberalism. In their culture previously, insult me and I may off with your head. God’s justice and mercy are slowly being revealed.

    The priests were types or shadows of Christ, as was the sacrificial lamb.

    Just as the lamb had to be without defect, so did the priests, pointing ahead to Christ our perfect Lamb of God and great High Priest.

    Today we shudder to call anything a defect, but not in those days.

    Allowing those visibly defective to serve would not have been an accurate foreshadowing of Christ.

  10. Brridget – a while back the whole what is a comp/egal marriage was hashed out in the comment section of RHE’s blog, with everyone deciding our marriages were all about the same degree of mutuality, yet labelling them differently. Many pointed out their parents would call their marriages comp. and they would call them egal. but they were living out (the decision making) pretty much the same between generations.

    So, it was settled. …Until, I kid you not, some panel at TGC had a speaker claim marriages these days weren’t comp enough (were they reading Rachel’s blog first?, because, if is on her blog, it must be wrong, ITO -In Their Opinion-). Shortly after, they quoted Doug Wilson claiming the marriages have to be submissive, even in the bedroom, against, well, people on both side’s view of the Bible. And now, Rachel is persona non grata, a threat, dangerous. I went from thinking, OK, we can agree to disagree, to thinking, they have totally lost sight of Jesus Christ and are now all about gender roles, who cares how many people they turn away!

    I think Rachel may have overturned a rock and sent revealed a much less God-centred heart in many of these guys. Otherwise, who cares how comp/egal someone’s marriage is – it isn’t a Kingdom priority anyways.

  11. @ Dee/Deb

    I think you may need to consider adding something to your blog. :-)

    You have the counter going of how many days goes by before TGC mentions the SGM lawsuit. I think you should add a counter of how many times Denny Burk posts an article on his blog about Rachel Held Evans. He seems to be very, very interested in her. I’ve counted 7 posts on his blog about her in the last 10 days. The commenters in his latest Evans post (yesterday) are picking up on the weird frequency of these posts.

  12. I think he is just trying to make sure the ladies in his arena don’t pay too much attention. Rachel is getting a lot of national attention . . . must be aweful hard for some peeps to swallow

    I think the blog counter is a good idea too. Maybe he’ll see how odd it looks and how much more attention it is drawing to the book.

  13. I think you should add a counter of how many times Denny Burk posts an article on his blog about Rachel Held Evans. He seems to be very, very interested in her. I’ve counted 7 posts on his blog about her in the last 10 days. The commenters in his latest Evans post (yesterday) are picking up on the weird frequency of these posts.

    Not only that. He deleted one post– his third or fourth one about Rachel Held Evans– called “What is an Evangelical?” in which he explained why she was not one. I asked him why three posts in a row about RHE and said it was starting to look like a vendetta. The next day that post was gone. But since then he has posted three or four more/

  14. Accuracy astonishment?



           When the Dead Sea Scrolls were examined by Jewish scholars, (in this paticular case the book of Isaiah) they were absolutely astonished at the accuracy  of the current text when mapped against that of the discovered text, which subsequently provided a dating range of 200 BCE – 1 CE. The Authenticity of Old Testament Scripture, can we trust it? Consider Carefully? You Decide.



    P.S. I am glad you were in the shadow of His mighty wings, during the tremendous storm. My prayers in general were exhausting! Forgive me for not being able to push it out to sea. I will have to humbly request a refund on that”mustard seed”.  I am still heart anguished with earnest prayer for those most severely afflicted.  I am however quietly please not to have numbered you among them, my prayers are with you:   “O continue Your lovingkindness to those who know You, And Your righteousness to the upright in heart.” Psalms 36:10. ATB


    You may be interested to know that this post has surpassed a post on creationsim as the Number One most commented post of all time at TWW. RHE is sure shaking things up in Christendom.

  16. if one disagrees Wayne Grudemn’s and John Piper’s rules for comp living, then one is a heretic on the level of denying the deity of Christ.

    Well, if the Deity of Christ is completely dependent on Young Earth Creationism, why not also on Male Supremacy?

  17. You may be interested to know that this post has surpassed a post on creationsim as the Number One most commented post of all time at TWW. RHE is sure shaking things up in Christendom. — Dee

    And that pic with the “Dan Is Awesome” sign is cute.

  18. IronClad – am not sure one can make a case for the entirety of the OT based solely on the Dead Sea Scrolls, as – to the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong!) – there are only portions of the OT in that archive.

    whether or not dating is accurate is, in some ways, kind of irrelevant to the point I was trying to make, but hey… text-only communication can be confusing at the very best of times, for me!

    Hope I’m coming across clearly. :)


  19. P.S. – IronClad, thank you for your concern and for your prayers! But please take it easy on yourself… God is God, and we cannot shoulder all the burdens of the world by ourselves.

  20. I know this thread is pretty much dead but I finally got the chance to read Kathy Keller’s review of the book. While thinking on it I have to wonder exactly what she does do with the Jerusalem Council and Paul’s Nazarite vow in Acts?

    This issue about the law is not as clear cut as she wants to make it in order to critique how Evans approached her book project.

  21. LOL Anon 1 – I actually learned something from the comment thread on her post – that Paul went and purified himself and paid a priest to do a sacrifice for him. I am sure TGC will twist it around to say it is bad hermeneutics to believe that meant anything (then we can have fun critiquing their hermeneutics) or some other silly excuse.

    Kind of funny that a post critiquing Rachel’s understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testament has glaring errors in that area, but… I guess all if fair in battling the heretics in their opinion. I am about 45% through Rachel’s book, no strawmen, no deceiving the reader about what the Bible says, no mockery yet… and it doesn’t look like it will show up later… I wish they would cite exactly where their problems with mockery or deception exist, and that they would actually read the book, not skim it… The book is pretty clear that she is poking holes in modern, western evangelical’s interpretations of 2,000, or more, year old texts, not the texts themselves.

    Plus, is all this so far off the Amish, Quiverfull or other groups literal readings? Long hair, skirts only, head-coverings, no birth control (even Catholic approved natural forms), polygamy (fringe Christians in her book), they are practiced today. Keller says no one applies it this way. Duggers anyone? Do those Duggar girls ever wear pants or cut their hair? I bet it is their literal readings of the Bible that inform their dress choice and hair cuts.

  22. Val, thanks for calling my review academic. I didn’t realize it was. This post is a really healthy challenge. Why not accept the challenge to explain your view rather than ad hominem attack your theological opponent?

  23. Morgan Guyton

    Sorry, I meant it was less simple/quick reading than many posts people link to on the thread. I didn’t mean it was bad, just a little different than some other links (longer, takes longer to think it all through). Sorry, after so many Driscoll/ Mahaney links, yours seemed deeper, more thoughtful.

    My apologies if the world I used was negative. I didn’t mean it that way.

  24. I didn’t take Val’s comment and link to the thread as negative at all, but I just went and had really good read. I can see a huge amount of work has gone into the post and responding to comments. I was fascinated by the interaction between MG and serrevin but also mentally exhausted by the time it was all over. #need to take a short walk outside as brain is now chokka

  25. And while Val was so quick to apologise and made it look easy, I’d like to apologise to ‘anonymous’ for doing a spew at him. I felt ashamed afterwards – I’m sorry I lost my temper. I posted when I was cranky at the comment and should have taken a breather. I’m learning…

  26. Val

    I do not think that Morgan was critiquing you. He was referring back to the article and emphasizing his critque of Keller. I realized that after reading it twice. I wrote him and we are going to repost his review here.

  27. Haitch

    I got permission and I am going  to reprint that article here, probably when i am away. I reformatted it to emphasize some of the quotes. I am sure he did not mean to be critical of Val. I think he was referring back to his concern about Keller’s review and mixed them together.

  28. Val you said —

    “The book is pretty clear that she is poking holes in modern, western evangelical’s interpretations of 2,000, or more, year old texts, not the texts themselves.”

    But this is exactly why they attack her so fiercely. She is poking holes in what some people believe and, in some cases, what is called orthodoxy, or the beliefs of some of the “fathers of the faith.” Orthodoxy has been placed on a pedastel for many, and they prefer to believe what someone else believed and wrote instead of wrestling with the texts themselves as we see RHE doing. If we only view the scriptures through the eyes of others, we are doomed to repeat their mistakes as well as gladly repeating what they understood correctly.

  29. Bridget —

    “If we only view the scriptures through the eyes of others, we are doomed to repeat their mistakes as well as gladly repeating what they understood correctly.”

    Or perhaps incorrectly.

    I’ve known people who seem to read “My Utmost For His Highest” every day, like a super-nutritious drink to get in one’s system.

  30. Morgan Guyton writes:

    The way that we attribute to the Bible completely un-Biblical affirmations about womanhood and marriage based on very recent, self-validating middle-class sensibilities is by convincing ourselves to read the Bible with the populist, ahistorical hermeneutical approach of Biblical literalism, which gives us permission to dismiss the need to read the Bible in conversation with its interpreters throughout the ages or with any consideration of its original historical context. And then we let our independent megachurch pastors, who operate outside the discipline of any magisterial authority, come up with the Biblical interpretation that will play the best with their target audiences. What’s utterly comical is the way that what so many Christians today call “conservative Biblical values” are really a market-driven reinvention of the Bible in the image of contemporary suburban sensibilities.



  31. Bridget – Oh, I didn’t know the Church fathers had much to say about women in their writings – well, nothing used today. Do you know what is considered Orthodoxy regarding women? I know the priesthood is exclusively male, but a) I have never been that comfortable with the priesthood to begin with, and b) no Protestant church has a priesthood (well, Anglicans don’t really, though some use the word ‘priest’ for a male reverend). So mostly what I think Rachel is getting at is how we love to turn the Bible into a how-to book for suburban middle class families. How to live out perfect gender roles, how-to live in a “godly” marriage, how-to – this and that. I didn’t actually know she was touching on true orthodoxy (church father’s prescribing gender roles), interesting. Can you point me to who I should google to learn more?

  32. Dee – Oh? Sorry, I thought my use of the word “academic” offended him. I have occasionally heard it can be insulting to Christians in some southern states to be called that word, but I don’t know if that is true, or why. So, I’m glad he isn’t upset with the word. I think ‘academic’ is a complement – because it involves hard work and deep thinking, just hard for us non-academics to read (I often use a note pad to keep track).

  33. Val

    You said  no “Protestant church has a priesthood”  Shhhh, don’t tell Driscoll, Dever, Mahaney, Mohler, Piper, et al. 

  34. Just found this article by Matthew Lee Anderson who identifies as complimentarian – it’s a post not just about his take on Biblical Womanhood and RHE but blogging culture also. I feel I need to go back and read it a few more times.

    The last 5 paragraphs are pretty punchy. Posting this ‘after the fact’ for posterity.


  35. RD,

    Just to clarify for our readers, the Pastor Mark Review is pure satire, and it’s pretty funny!

    Here’s the direct link, along with the disclaimer. 



    This is a fictional review not written by nor endorsed by Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church or the Acts 29 Network. But, it does use many repeated phrases and thoughts spoken by Pastor Mark over the past several years. This is the review Mark wishes his PR team would allow him to write.

    And, by the way, the authors of this review don’t have an “ax to grind.” This is what people with a sense of humor call “satire.” You’re welcome.