An Interview with Rachel Held Evans: A Conversation on Egalitarians and Complementarians

By Trillia Newbell

rachel held evans

Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood

When I wake up each morning my first thought isn’t about my role as a wife and mother. I’d like to say it is about God but if I’m honest, it’s probably about coffee. But after thinking about coffee I begin to focus my eyes and heart on God. I pray and read. I greet my dearest love if he hasn’t left, my husband, and then begin to write—my work. I don’t wake up each morning thinking I’m a complementarian.

But today was different.

Today I woke up and was filled with thanksgiving that I am a complementarian who has been taught well. I understand that I am completely equal before the Lord (Gen 1:26-27, 2:18); I have a voice and an important role in the church and in the home (Titus 2:3-5, 1 Peter 4: 10-11); and if exercised properly, my husband’s leadership in the home is one filled with grace and sacrifice (Ephesians 5: 21-33). I am not oppressed or suppressed. My husband and my pastors affirm my work as a servant of Christ in the church (worship team, children’s ministry, writing ministry and other) and in the home.

Yet, there are men and women who believe that “my” interpretation of biblical manhood and womanhood is in error. One such author and blogger is Rachel Held Evans who I am excited to be featuring today.

You might be wondering, “How can you be excited to feature someone who disagrees with you?” If so, I’m so glad you asked. The debate between egalitarians and complementarians can become quite heated. I imagine if Rachel and I sat down in a coffee shop we would graciously disagree. We would debate, we would attempt to convince the other that the Bible states otherwise, but in the end I don’t imagine we’d walk away with contempt in our hearts. At least I hope we wouldn’t. And though I disagree with her and believe that God’s Word, each word, is living and active and useful for me today (Hebrews 4:12), I’m interested in what she has to say.

What sparked my interest is her new book coming out later this year, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Join me in welcoming Rachel to Women of God Magazine in this Q&A:

Q: How and why did you come up with the concept of doing “biblical” femininity for a year?

Evans: I’d grown up hearing pastors, Sunday school teachers, friends, and family talk about “biblical womanhood.”  I knew it was something I was supposed to want to achieve, but I was troubled by the fact that no one could seem to agree on exactly what it meant…probably because both “biblical” and “womanhood” are pretty loaded words! As I began to study more about women in Scripture and the history of women in the Church, I became fascinated with the debate regarding women’s roles in the home, church, and society that has become such a part of Christian culture, particularly evangelical Christian culture. As a writer, I like to focus on things that are deeply personal and that spark my curiosity, following those ideas down whatever rabbit hole they may take me. So one morning, as I was taking a shower, I thought to myself—What if I did it all? What if I immersed myself completely in this notion of “biblical womanhood” by following all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year?

Obviously, I was inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ very funny book, A Year of Living Biblically. But I feel like my project takes on new meaning given the fact that, in the evangelical culture of which I am a part, “biblical womanhood” is still held as an ideal to which women must ascribe.

Q: What would you say is your main message in your book A Year of Biblical Womanhood?

Evans: My main message is that the Bible does not present us with a single mold for how to be a woman of God. I illustrate this with my own misadventures in biblical living (wearing a head covering, learning to cook, remaining silent in church, calling my husband “master,” working on that “gentle and quiet spirit”), as well as by the amazing stories of biblical women like Ruth, Deborah, Jael, Sarah, Tamar, Esther, Mary of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Junia, Priscilla, and Tabitha.

Q:  How do you read and interpret your Bible? In other words, do you believe it’s inerrant?

Evans: I love the Bible, and I hope I spend the rest of my life learning from it, wrestling with it, and digesting it. I believe that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that followers of Jesus will be equipped for good works. Debates surrounding inerrancy seem rather theoretical and beside-the-point to me, as I certainly don’t think my interpretation of Scripture is inerrant, (and I can’t very well read Scripture without interpreting it). Knowing this, I try to hold my interpretations humbly, with open hand, ready to learn from others who bring their own experiences, expertise, and gifts to the text. I rotate through versions, enjoying everything from the old fashioned King James to the NIV to The Message. Right now I’m working my way through The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV), which is wonderful!

Q: What is your view on womanhood as it relates to the church, women’s roles, etc?

Evans: I am an egalitarian, which means I believe the resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurated a new Kingdom in which Christian women enjoy equal status and responsibility with men in the home, church, and society, and that teaching and leading God’s people should be based on giftedness rather than gender. My husband and I function as a team of equal partners, with no gender-based hierarchy in our relationship. I fully support women who are called to preach the gospel, and I believe women can honor and bring glory to God in various capacities—in the home, in a job, as mothers, as singles, etc.

Q:  I realize that you left your church because of various reasons, one of which was the issue of women’s roles. When did you first begin to question how the church was structured?

Evans: Even as a little girl, it bothered me that the only time women spoke in church was when they were missionaries sharing slides from their overseas work. I didn’t understand why that was allowed, but teaching from the pulpit was not. I’ll never forget when, as a junior in high school, I gave my testimony in front of the youth group and a male classmate approached me afterwards and said, “You’re a great teacher and speaker. Too bad you’re a girl.  You’d probably be a good pastor.”

That sentiment—“too bad you’re a girl”—haunted me, and over the years I began to see how it is often perpetuated in the Church, and how it can affect how Christian women think of themselves in relationship to God. After I encountered female teachers and leaders whose sermons were meticulously researched, beautifully presented, and profoundly challenging, I began to question why we would ever want to prevent qualified women from teaching the gospel when we really need “all hands on deck” when it comes to sharing the good news that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again!  So I returned to those biblical texts often used to forbid women from teaching and leading—like 1 Timothy 2—did a little bit of research, and became convinced that, given his praise of female leaders (Junia, Phoebe, Lydia) and teachers (Priscilla) in the book of Romans, the apostle Paul was speaking about a specific group of women in 1 Timothy 2, not to all women everywhere. Since then, it’s been tough to be a part of any congregation that forbids women from teaching and assuming leadership.

Q:  Why do you believe this message is important?

Evans: I think a lot of Christian women feel like they’re always falling short of some sort of biblical ideal—that they’re not sufficient homemakers, that they aren’t “gentle and quiet” enough, that they have to impose a hierarchy onto their marriage even if it doesn’t feel right. I’m hoping that by demonstrating that none of us are actually practicing consistent “biblical womanhood,” I will encourage women to cut themselves and one another some slack. There is no mold we have to cram ourselves into. There is no ideal. There is no blueprint. There is only the common call to follow Jesus, to love the Lord with all our heat, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As challenging as that is, it’s also quite liberating in its simplicity.

Q:  Do you think The Church can function with varying convictions about the issue of femininity? In other words, do you believe that complementarians are in error and this error could negatively affect the church?

Evans: I do believe that complementarians are in error, and that this error is already having a negative effect on the Church. In a more egalitarian society, I think it hurts our witness when women come to the Church volunteering their leadership and teaching gifts, only to be told their contributions will be limited to keeping the nursery, bringing food to pot lucks, planning baby showers, and that sort of thing. These are important and noble services, of course, but women have so much more to bring to Christianity! We have fresh insights into scripture, new ideas for growing and nurturing the Church, passion for spreading the Gospel, and talents that uniquely equip us to do so. When complementarians talk about advancing a more “masculine Christianity” and call for a return to “biblical patriarchy,” my heart breaks. I believe the Kingdom is at its most beautiful when it reflects a community in which there is no more power-struggle between slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, for all are one in Christ.

That said, I think complementarians and egalitarians can work together for the cause of Christ, and that this discussion can be held with both passion and civility….as you have so graciously demonstrated by your invitation to chat! Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.

A word about my life as a complementarian

And thank you, Rachel!  It was so encouraging to read your words because in so many ways, I agree! God has made men and women equal. God gives us great pictures of ideal womanhood like the Proverbs 31 woman, but the application is extremely broad. Jesus’ salvation is freely given and is all of grace to all who believe (Eph 2:8).

But as I woke up this morning and was able to be thankful, I believe I’m thankful because my experience has been different as a woman. I’ve been an evangelist for my campus ministry in my church- sharing the gospel and leading Bible studies, I’ve spoken to the younger women, I currently write, I’ve read Scripture from the pulpit and shared prophetically from the mike. There isn’t anything or anyone holding me back from serving the Lord fully. No I have never taught men or pastored, but I am convinced that God has ordained that role for men in the church (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Tim 2:11-15).

I believe God has indeed called us all to be ministering and I’m thankful that as a woman, in the context beyond my home, I have been able to do so.  God has given all of us varying gifts and varying roles (1 Cor 12: 4-11). I am thankful for his creativity.  I do submit to my husband, and am thankful to have a husband who loves his family and serves and sacrifices for us daily. I am also thankful that God has allowed me to minister to my kids who day in and day out I have the opportunity to reflect God’s grace to as I fail, ask for forgiveness, forgive, teach and lovingly serve.

For more information about Rachel Evans and her new book, visit her website at http://rachelheldevans.com/. For more information about biblical roles and the current debate visit The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. For an encouraging article about the many ways women can and do serve read John Piper’s A Challenge to Women.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

14 Comments to “An Interview with Rachel Held Evans: A Conversation on Egalitarians and Complementarians”

  1. Curtis says:

    Trillia,
    Thanks for sharing this interview. I find your pre and post comments surrounding the interview with Rachel interesting. They interest me because you seem willing to share a title (Complementarian) with some, especially the most vocal and influential, who would be unwilling to allow you to do some of the things you seem to believe God has equipped you and called you to do.

    Some of your fellow complementarians have said it is inappropriate for you to read Scripture from the pulpit. Some of them do not leave room for your ministry of teaching and proclaiming among the males in your campus ministry. There are some who share your complementarian category who have written with the specific aim to criticize your experience that “has been different as a woman.” Your experience is far too egalitarian in practice for those that Rachel and other egalitarians are trying to challenge and push back against. I’m not sure you would enjoy the same freedom to serve and minister if the advocates for “biblical patriarcy” had their way.

    • admin says:

      I’m not sure Curtis. I only know my experience and it’s definitely a complementarian environment. With that said, I really appreciate you reading and thanks for the comment. -Trillia

    • E.G. says:

      First, I’d like to say a big thank you for this gracious interview.

      Second, I’d like to echo Curtis’ comment. I’d add that this blog really is a teaching ministry and you can’t be sure that men (like myself, and, I assume, Curtis) don’t read it. As such you are already more egalitarian than *many* of our complementarian sisters and brothers.

      And, third, I’d like to note for the record and sake of context with this overall comment that I’m a committed egalitarian.

      • admin says:

        That’s interesting. There are so many blogs from complementarian women. I’m not sure that I agree- I definitely think that God would addresses the church, in the context of a church. I appreciate you comment though and I’m thankful that you sensed the gracious tone. God is good!

      • Jonathan says:

        I agree with the previous comments – what I’ve heard from complementarians is far more strict – women may not speak from the pulpit or teach men in any capacity. Strangely, they seem to normally be allowed to teach children and sometimes youth, regardless of gender (not sure why age matters). I’d love to know more about your convictions, though – why can you teach hundreds of men (and women) through a blog post but you may not teach hundreds of men (and women) from a lectern on a Sunday morning? Seems to me that teaching is teaching, regardless of context. As an egalitarian, I have no problem with any of these, but I’m interested to learn more about where (and why) complementarians draw the line.

        • admin says:

          Great questions. First, I’ve never taught from the pulpit. Just scripture reading. Just wanted to be clear. The next is that this blog is geared for women. If I write to address a man it’s never been to teach about the Word of God (and honestly I think I’ve only written one post directly for men and it was quite specifically directed to inform and not teach- inform of my personal experience). So, that’s it. I’m trusting God that I can glorify Him through this blog and keep with my convictions. I’m thankful for your thoughts. Blessings, Trillia

  2. This was a really good interview. I followed Rachel’s series on this last week so it was good to hear the discussion with someone who believes different. Personally I think it goes back to God’s original intent in Genesis 1 before the fall. Was Adam to be the leader of the home then, and Eve to submit? If not, then I understand, after Christ’s death, Rachel’s view. However, Christ’s death on the cross does not seem to cancel other curses. Working is still hard, childbirth is still painful, and snakes still don’t have legs. So why would submission (if only ordered by God as a curse) be the only curse lifted as a result of Christ’s death on the cross? That does not make sense to me.Personally, I do not think God created submission as a curse but as His original intent for His glory. I believe, if operated in the power of the Holy Spirit and respected with the fear of God, submission, dare I say, may be a good thing. I too submit to my husband. While engaged I seriously wrestled with the idea of submission until I came across Philippians 2:6 speaking of Jesus. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped”. Yes, Christ submitted to God AND was equal to God. Submission does not mean unequal or less valued. I do understand however, that submission has been used as a tool to hurt women and feed the egos of men for selfish gain. This does not reflect the image of Christ, and is not God’s intent for men and women. His intent was that we reflect His image.

  3. It honors God to have the grace, dignity and stature to invite someone you know you disagree with to your blog, in order to engage in conversation with you. Thank you for this example!

  4. Kelly says:

    What an interesting article! I think that like you, I agree with much of what Rachel said. That said, I do *not* like labels most of the time. As those who love and follow Jesus, we should ask for wisdom and insight as we read His word, and pattern our life after it, by His grace. It is easy to have a stereotype of “reformed” people or other such labeled people….and I believe it can really get in the way of unity and appreciating each other in the body of Christ. God has such a high view of women, and we see them leading other women all across Scripture. While I would agree that women are not to hold a role of authority over men (pretty clear in the NT), there is definitely a place for women to be leaders (of women) in the body of Christ (also pretty clear as it’s commanded in the NT). We cannot simply shove aside people like Miriam (led the women in dancing and singing after the Lord gave victory), Deborah, Esther, etc. God equally gifts men and women, though I think He’s pretty clear on authority structure. It can function so beautifully when a humble male leader recognizes the value and gifts of women in his flock and then seeks to affirm them, equip them, and let them soar! How blessed those men are when they are able to then see the beauty of Christ displayed in lives of these women!

  5. amy maples says:

    WOOHOO!!!! So happy to see Christians debating issues with love & care & respect!!!!!!!!!!! thanks to trill for hosting this, rachel for being kind & gracious even in your disagreements, & to the commenters for the same thing!

  6. Love that you’re willing to host a gracious conversation. It’s so refreshing to see respect and kindness!
    Christina P., egalitarians believe in submission! Mutual submission. Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Husbands and wives are called to submit to one another.

  7. Kathryn Elliott Stegall says:

    Very interesting, Trilla! Are you a complimentarian because it fits comfortably with your experience or because you believe it is the Word of God?

    “When some portion of Scripture appears not to conform to the gospel, this should warn us that our understanding may be incorrect and that intense reexamination is necessary.” (1 Tim. 1:10–11; Phil. 1:27, Gal. 2:14.)

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/17375122/Full-Rights-of-Sons-Chapter-I-The-Interpretation-of-Scripture

    • admin says:

      Wonderful question and thank you for visiting. I am convinced in the Word of God that he has called men and women to differing roles. It is my conviction…