Rachel Held Evans and I have very little that we agree on. In the past I’ve been openly critical of her as a thinker, as a Christian, and -perhaps most of all- as a role model. However, she recently posted a response to a statement by Owen Strachan, the president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I wanted to run through her response, first pointing out some things I do take issue with and then a brief summary of why I liked what she wrote.
First… I agree with her that it is strange that a post from 2 years ago suddenly drew the attention of Strachan. It is almost as though he was LOOKING for a reason to call her out publicly. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all about holding people to task for statements they have made in the past. But to just randomly pull this up and post it without any context at all seems childish. Perhaps Strachan was doing research for something else (or even research on RHE) and this came up… but otherwise it just seems like when a husband brings up something that a wife did 3 years ago in an argument… immature.
Second, I wanted to run through a few things that RHE said that I do take some exception with.
- The title of her post was “Is God a man? (a brief response to CBMW’s accusation of heresy)” Technically speaking, this wasn’t an official statement by the CBMW… it was a statement by Strachan. Now, I get that this may seem like a nit pick… but there is a difference between Strachan as an individual making this statement, and Strachan as the president of CBMW making the statement on behalf of CBMW. It seems clear to me that this is a case of the former, and to act as though it was CBMW making such a statement exaggerates and sensationalized the situation (which is probably exactly why she did it).
- RHE notes that when God reveals his personal name, that he does so in a non-gendered way. To support this, she cites the fact that the phrase “I am who I will be” does not contain a gendered pronoun. This is true… in English. However, when you look at the Hebrew it is not quite as simple. While it is true that the phrase God uses Exodus 3 that is translated as “I am/will be” (אֶֽהְיֶה) is 1st person singular, this name is immediately followed by a verb with a masculine gendered subject. So that is “I am, he sent me” so even in the context of this non-gendered phrase, it is immediately identified as a masculine subject. Furthermore, the word LORD (יְהֹוָה) is a form of the 3rd plural masculine verb that was cited above. So God’s proper name is literally “He is/will be.”
- RHE also notes that since both man and women were created in God’s image that masculinity and femininity are BOTH on some level part of God’s nature. While this is not an impossible interpretation, an interpretation that is -at least- as likely is that the “part” of humanity that is the imago dei is non-gendered. Classically this holds more weight, since things like rationality, interpersonality, speech, communal orientation, and autonomy are not gendered. If what RHE is saying is true (that God is both male and female because both men and women are made in God’s image), then neither male nor female ACTUALLY bears God’s image… they only bear PART of God’s image.
- Finally, and I will be brief because this could merit an entire essay, she closes saying that occasionally using feminine pronouns to refer to God helps reminder her that “[She is] indeed created in the image of God, not as some lesser being who exists in perpetual subordination to men, but as an expression of God’s very self.” Now, I get what she’s saying, and I know she isn’t a trained theologian so the fine distinctions are not something she should necessarily be expected to understand. However, this statement comes dangerously close to pantheism… I’m sure that isn’t what she meant to say… but she nevertheless said it. We are not an expression of God’s self. We are creatures who are fashioned in God’s image. JESUS is the “exact imprint of God’s (the Father’s) nature” (Hebrews 1:3) We are not “inexact imprints of God’s nature.” Certainly not a minor quibble, but not something that I would expect her to really understand.
Alright, on with the surprising part. It won’t be as technical or verbose as my critique, but it bears no less (and in fact I intend it to bear more … it will just be easier to express and therefore take up fewer words) weight.
RHE is not known in Reformed circles for her clarity in thought. She often writes in ways that seem intentionally obscure, which is common among Emerging thinkers. However, in this post she is extremely clear about what she believes to be Christian orthodoxy, and extremely clear about the fact that she holds to it. What I appreciated the most is that on the things that she identified as orthodoxy, she was spot on. She confesses that Scripture is authoritative and inspired, that the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds are authoritative, and the basic contours of the Gospel. She affirms that there are distinctions between masculinity and femininity (rather than acting as though they are identical or that there are no substantive differences), and she affirms that God primarily reveals himself using masculine language. She also affirms that God is not masculine (nor feminine) and that when we use those terms thinking we are expressing who God actually is in himself, that we create an idol. Finally, she acknowledges that we ought to use feminine pronouns VERY sparingly. While I disagree with her on the fact that we ought to use them at all (IE I would say “She is our mother” is improper in reference to God, and rather we ought to say “He is our mother”), I appreciate that she encourages restraint. Finally, I deeply appreciated her graceful tone. She is known to be a bit of a spit fire and to lash out at times, and in a situation where she may have even been justified in doing so she gave a calm and measured response, with reasonable and well thought out theological and biblical support.
Finally, and this is more a critique of Strachan than anything else, I appreciate that she seems to recognize on some level that the term “Heresy” is not simply a synonym for “Error.” Strachan is a professor of Church History, so he ought to know that the term carries a much more severe connotation of judgement. He may in fact know that and may in fact have meant that her error (and don’t get me wrong, I think her views on gender, sexuality, and a whole other host of things ARE in error) are damnable. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt… in this case I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s ignorant of the connotation rather than to think he’s drawing the line of salvation around a position on whether or not we can properly refer to a being who lacks anatomical gender with a feminine pronoun in measured and rare circumstances.