May 3, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Rachel Held Evans
Can egalitarians and complementarians get along? We asked a prominent author and blogger.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Rachel Held Evans. Rachel is a popular Christian blogger, author, and speaker. Her latest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood was a New York Times bestseller, provoking conversations on gender roles in Christianity. She's been featured on NPR, in Slate, the BBC, The Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), The Times London, The Huffington Post, and on Oprah.com, among others. Her blog is widely read.
Today we asked Rachel about the writing process, the role controversy plays in building an online platform, and if she can get along with complementarians.
You're a popular Christian author, blogger, and speaker. Have you always enjoyed writing and when you did you first sense this calling?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. In fact, in third grade, my mom tied my hair back in bun, placed a pair of fake glasses on my nose, and sent me out the door with a legal pad under my arm so I could dress up as an author for “career day” at school, just like I wanted. (Had I known the true author’s dress code, I would have worn my pajamas and a pair of slippers to school that day instead!) Since then, I have been writing and writing like crazy, and I feel so blessed to get to do what I love for a living. Writing is how I process things. It’s how I understand the world around me. And, in many ways, writing is how I pray, how I worship, how I share the Gospel.
You're known for your outspoken egalitarian position when it comes to gender issues and church leadership. Is there a way to hold an egalitarian position and yet respect the convictions of those who are complementarian?
Oh certainly! The best conversations I have with complementarians are those in which we recognize from the outset that our differences stem from variations in biblical interpretation, not a divergence in our esteem for Scripture itself. Many of my closest friends disagree with me on gender roles, so I know from experience how important it is to celebrate all the things we have in common—like the gospel, for example! And communion!— before engaging in another healthy, vigorous debate about the meaning of the Hebrew word, “ezer,” or the context of the New Testament Greco-Roman household codes.
Now, I do think that because the complementarian position generally involves some degree of regulation and limitation when it comes to women’s roles in the home and church, the impetus is on complementarians to show that their restrictions on women are justified. While I certainly do not consider women in ministry to be a “salvation issue” or fundamental to Christian orthodoxy, I do think it is an incredibly important issue because it affects more than 50 percent of the church. (Well, really, it affects the whole Church. What I mean is that women are not a mere issue; we are a significant part of the Body.) And so I advocate for gender equality with a lot of passion because I believe the Church functions at its best when all people—male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free—can share the gospel in the ways that they are most gifted and most effective. I think of Phoebe Palmer, whose teaching converted thousands upon thousands of people to Christianity in the 1800s, and my hero, Leymah Gbowee, who launched a peaceful revolution to end Liberia’s long and bloody civil war from the pulpit of her church, and I wonder how many more of these stories we could tell if all women were free serve as they feel called in the Church.
Some have said that you have brilliantly built your platform with well-publicized feuds with institutions like Lifeway and/or The Gospel Coalition. Is this fair?
I’ve been blogging for nearly five years, and in that time, have seen slow, steady growth from one or two readers a day (namely, my mom and someone searching for another Rachel Evans), to several thousand readers a day. I credit this growth to two things: consistency and collaboration.
The biggest shift in blog traffic for me occurred when I started writing every day, on a schedule. There wasn’t a single event or post that suddenly grew my platform; it was just the hard work of sitting down at the computer every day and getting a post up. Writing every day forced me to collaborate more, and this is where I think things really took off. I began working more closely with my readers—crowdsourcing interviews (our “Ask a…” series has been one of our most popular series), working through books together, taking suggestions and critiques seriously, and always participating in the comment section, where nine times out of ten, someone has left a comment that is significantly more thoughtful and helpful than the original post. (I love my readers. They are a diverse bunch: stay-at-home moms, clergy, Hebrew scholars, professionals, students, grandparents, singles, evangelicals, atheists, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, rabbis, you name it.) I also began inviting a diversity of writers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to share guest posts, and I launched several collaborative series—our “mutuality week,” our recent series on abuse, a series on biblical interpretation, and a series on sexuality, to name a few. Basically, I try to create a community in which people feel safe asking their toughest questions and where a diversity of viewpoints are presented.
Of course, another element of collaboration is that sometimes people offer critiques of my posts, and sometimes I offer critiques of other people’s posts. For example, you alluded to the fact that last summer, I was critical of a blog post from the Gospel Coalition in which the author stressed the importance of maintain male authority and female submission in the marriage bed. The post said that a man “conquers and colonizes” a woman, who “receives, surrenders, and accepts” his total authority in the bedroom. Obviously, as an egalitarian, I had a few objections to this argument, not the least of which was 1 Corinthians 7:3-4, which stresses mutuality in the marriage bed, as well as the picture of mutuality we see in Song of Songs. In addition, having friends who have survived domestic abuse, I found the language the author invoked to make his point troubling. And so I wrote a critical response to the Gospel Coalition post. Now, obviously, a post like that is going to gain some attention—it’s about sex! But I felt like it was important to speak up, considering the damage that sort of theology and that sort of language might do.
Whenever I write a post like that, it’s inevitable that a few people will object on the grounds that challenging fellow Christians, particularly Christian leaders, threatens Church unity. But my aim in such cases is not to start a “feud” as you put it, but to offer fair, thoughtful critiques of published material so that others are equipped to respond. Christians are allowed to disagree; it’s how we disagree that matters. And so I do my best to be fair, to debate the issues and not attack character. This is why I try to stay specific in my critiques. I avoid vague, unspecific language like “all complementarians believe,” or “some have said” in favor of citing specific books, quotes, blog posts or articles to keep from further muddying the water.
Controversy will get you a few bursts in traffic over a few days, certainly. But readers only stick around for the long term if you offer consistently good writing, interesting conversation topics, and a place at the table for them to share their own thoughts and questions.
How would you counsel pastors and Christian leaders as they engage online?
Pastors and church leaders who are accustomed to operating in highly-authoritarian church environments where disagreement with the leadership is discouraged will likely struggle to write online because writing online automatically expands a writer’s audience and opens the writer up to criticism. Rather than fighting this, I encourage pastors and Christian leaders to really engage their comment sections, and become open to hearing from a diversity of new perspectives online. Think of yourself as a conversation-partner.
I struggle with criticism as much as anybody, believe me, but learning from my readers by being open to their input, attentive to their stories, and receptive to their constructive criticism has made me a better writer and a better person. The mantra I repeat to myself before standing behind a podium to speak or before hitting “publish” on a blog post is this: “Be yourself, Be honest, Be kind.” I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but when I keep that attitude, I learn from them.
What is your view of the evangelical church today? What gives you hope and what gives you pause?
What gives me hope: As the center of Christianity shifts to the global South and East, and as evangelicalism in America becomes more ethnically diverse, I am excited about all the new stories, new perspectives, new insights, new questions, new traditions, and new foods we will be enjoying around the table. It will be interesting to see how these changes might force evangelicals in the U.S. to confront some of the cultural assumptions we tend to tie into our faith, and I hope it will make us a little less materialistic, a little less individualistic, and a little less certain of ourselves. I am also excited about the growing enthusiasm, particularly among young evangelicals, for social justice. And I am absolutely thrilled to see more and more women receiving seminary training so that they are more equipped than ever to teach and lead in the Church.
What gives me pause: I worry about the evangelical preoccupation with power, and the tendency to conflate a political “victory” or “loss” with a victory or loss for the Kingdom. When we spend a bunch of time arguing about keeping the Ten Commandments in public buildings, or forcing clerks to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” or ensuring that Christians “vote their values” on election day (as if the teachings of Jesus can fit on a ballot!), or preserving rigid hierarchies in our homes and our churches, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost the plot. Our first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God—not to a political party or platform—and the Kingdom of God grows not through power or might, but by the Spirit. The Kingdom of God starts with the poor and marginalized. It makes the last first and the first last. Its leaders are servants, and its citizens are peacemakers. And it grows from the ground up, little mustard seeds stretching into great trees.