“A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans has been the talk of the town lately, drawing the attention of everyone from Christian bloggers to shows like USA Today and The View. While I have yet to read and review the book (I’ll do so when I have more time), the reviews have been interesting in their own right.
There has been a line of reasoning in several of the reviews, negative and positive, that I wanted to pull out and take a closer look at. One of the criticisms leveled at the book is that Rachel skewed the conversation about “real” biblical womanhood by including the Old Testament rules, which are no longer in play. In Bible scholar Ben Witherington’s positive review, he writes “Evans tries her hand at a lot of OT and even modern Jewish praxis, which she also didn’t have to do. After all, Christians are frankly not under any form of the old covenant and so it is a bit surprising to find, for example, a whole chapter of Rachel following Jewish practices in regard to menstruation.” Kathy Keller’s scathing review of the book rests largely on this premise, as well. She writes “You began your project by ignoring (actually, by pretending you did not know about) the most basic rules of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation that have been agreed upon for centuries. Perhaps the most basic rule–agreed upon by all branches of Christianity–is that Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete.”
This criticism left me scratching my head. I understand, of course, that we are not bound by Old Testament law, especially ceremonial law. But it seemed to me that this line of reasoning, focused on which rules do and do not apply to “biblical women,” is simply trading one set of culturally-entrenched rules for another–the purity taboos of the ancient Hebrews for the household codes of first century Greco-Romans. (Frankly, I’m not sure which I would choose, if I had to). And following “the rules” has always been secondary to following God, as Jesus, David, the prophets, and every godly person who lived before Moses made abundantly clear. It’s a side effect, almost, of living a God-honoring life in a particular cultural context.
While there have always been streams of Christianity that more-or-less jettisoned Old Testament law from the “Christian” canon, viewing it as the washed-up wreakcage of a second-rate covenant, I think that is a tragic mistake. I like Walter Kaiser’s view: that the particular commands of the Old Testament can (and should) be universalized, not dismissed as irrelevant relics. This is possible, Kaiser argues, because the particular commands of the Old Testament (and indeed, the entire Bible) find their root in God’s character, which is the unchanging basis for biblical ethics and morality.
It comes down to this: Is the Old Testament Law irrelevant now because God changed the rules? Or was it only ever relevant because it taught people how to live godly lives in their particular culture, in keeping with God’s character?
If it’s the former, we need to make darn sure we know what the new rules are, and follow them faithfully. If it’s the latter, we need to make darn sure we know who God is, and follow him faithfully, whatever that looks like in our context.
I am convinced it is the latter, and that the priciple applies to “rules” from both the Old Testament and the New. God is unchanging, transcending time and culture, and the gospel was meant to be contextualized, organically transforming every tongue and tribe and nation from the inside out. The particulars–church structure, organization of family, clan, or tribal systems, codes for dress and proper behavior–can and must change to suit culture, while remaining firmly rooted in who God is.
I’m not just splitting a theological hair here. This is absolutely crucial to engaging in God’s work in a rapidly changing society, and bringing the Good News to people who are different from us, people we may struggle to understand, and perhaps even struggle to love. (Consider the recent election, maybe?) How many millions, perhaps billions, have been turned away from the gospel because they thought it was a set of rules they could never follow with integrity, or a culture they could never truly belong to? We have mistaken the particular for the universal, called our rules God’s, and shut millions out of the Kingdom in the process.
For the sake of the gospel, we need to start disentangling our culture from our religion, and our religion from our relationship with God. Note that I didn’t need to say we need to give up our culture or our religion–far from it! Human beings were made to live within culture, and religious observance helps us to understand and experience God. Be we need to know the difference, so we can offer people Jesus without insisting they swallow our culture and church traditions as well.
What do you think? What role should Old Testament regulations play in our lives? New Testament instructions? There are many different opinions on this, so I’d love to hear what you think!