Ben Witherington’s hard-hitting critique of Rachel Held Evans’ new book

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has penned a fairly hard-hitting review of Rachel Held Evans’ new book Searching for Sunday., which landed on The New York Times bestseller list last week. Witherington likes Evans personally and even affirms her as a “genuine Christian person.” He is generally sympathetic with some of her complaints about evangelicalism. Nevertheless, he comes down pretty hard on her affirmation sex outside of marriage. He writes:

I wish Rachel had continued her studies in a formal way and been better trained in Biblical interpretation and how to deal with difficult ethical and theological issues. I have seen what happens when Christian college kids come to seminary and realize in their first year of seminary that college has given them just enough reading and training to make them dangerous and half-baked when it comes to understanding the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

Rachel with her keen mind has overcome not only some of her context but some of her education, but it would have been so much better if she had continued that education, not merely by continuing to read, but by having good dialogue partners who are not just pastors, or peers. But alas, this apparently has not happened, and as result, she uses her blog and her books to promulgate her heartfelt convictions, even when, had she run them by some older and wiser professors of faith, she might have thought better of some of the things she has said and is saying. And of course, there are thousands out there in the blogosphere prepared to give the Amen to her pronouncements, thousands who resonate with and feel like her. That sort of affirmation is intoxicating, but it is not the approval of the one person who really needs to pass judgment on what we say— the Lord Jesus Christ.

That Jesus tells us plainly enough that there are only two options for Christians— chastity in singleness, and fidelity in marriage, with the latter clearly enough defined as the relationship between a man and woman (Mt. 19/Mk. 10), who alone have the possibility of sharing a one flesh union in Christ, because of course the image of God is male and female, not male and male, or female and female… There are two callings Jesus offers, and Paul affirms. Not three, four or ten…

… If we don’t believe the grace of God is greater than the power of our sinful inclinations, then we have given up on the power of the Gospel.

Read the rest here.


    • Kamilla

      That stood out to me as well, Dan. In fact, I know that at least one person offered to travel to Dayton at her own expense to meet with Rachel. The offer was spurned.

    • buddyglass

      Seems like you’re misreading him (Witherington). At least, based on the portion Denny quoted. He writes:

      …it would have been so much better if she had continued that education, not merely by continuing to read, but by having good dialogue partners who are not just pastors, or peers. But alas, this apparently has not happened…

      The problem is identified as Evans not having “continued her education” by “having good dialog partners”. He doesn’t seem to imply this was because there were no “good dialog partners” to be had.

  • William Smith

    Good review:

    “That sort of affirmation is intoxicating, but it is not the approval of the one person who really needs to pass judgment on what we say— the Lord Jesus Christ.”

    How sad it is that often the reverse is true: That Rachel and others often pass judgement on Jesus.

    • James Bradshaw

      Who is, Rick?
      Benny Hinn? John MacArthur? Jack Chick?
      Please provide specifics as to why, because the No True Scotsman fallacy shows up in just about every thread that references someone who holds a sympathetic view of homosexuality.

      • buddyglass

        Only God knows for sure. That said, the Bible talks about knowing them by their fruit. If there were clear and unambiguous biblical teachings that Evans simply discarded out of hand (which many would disagree is the case) then would be a pretty serious thing.

    • Ike Lentz

      Did Rachel forfeit her Christianity by coming down wrong on an important issue? Then welcome her to the same club of nonbelievers as Jonathan Edwards, who owned slaves and defended slavery, Martin Luther, who was openly anti-semitic, and King David, who had his own take on God’s plan for sex and marriage- polygamy.

  • Don Johnson

    I agree with much of Witherington’s review, but not all. I find I agree with much that RHE says, but not always in the way she arrives at her conclusions, and some of her interpretations allow cheap shots that hit the target from those that oppose her ideas.

    On Ben’s review, I think Matt 19/Mark 10 are in the specific context of Jewish marriage laws in the Torah and specifically how to interpret what we call Deu 24:1-4 and other mistakes the Pharisees made in the area of marriage and divorce. One may think it is obvious and plain to extend this context in general, but I think one needs to be careful.

    I have learned to be triggered by the claim of a plain reading (“Jesus tells us plainly enough…”), so I shuddered when I read it in the review. I wish such would never be claimed. It is a claim to a magisterial level of reading ancient text, that no one can seriously and faithfully read it otherwise that one does.

  • Christiane Smith

    Two thoughts immediately come to mind when reading this post:

    that ‘wisdom’ doesn’t come to us from being ‘older’ and ‘more learned’, at least not the kind of wisdom that is ‘revealed’ by the opening of our minds and hearts supernaturally;

    and that all people of faith, not just evangelicals, run the risk of sitting in judgment on one another as well as ‘those other sinners’,
    and doing it in such a way as to place our own selves at risk of losing perspective on who we are as sinners and Who is the Source of our own salvation

    I am grateful for this post for allowing me into a better understanding of the thinking of evangelical Christianity and yes, I do think it wants the best for people and yes, I do think that it is often seen unfairly as hypocritical . . .

    but I also think that any faith community has to take some responsibility for how it presents itself to the watching world. . . . REASON: we are ‘witnesses’ to Christ Our Lord, and we cannot let our human pride undermine that witness so that we become like the Pharisee in the temple pointing the finger at ‘that other sinner’ . . . that would be a betrayal of our own witness, not an affirmation of it

    some thoughts, as seen through the same glass darkly as all the rest of us
    . . . and yet there is light and there is hope . . . and we are not without help or comfort . . . let us not forget to be compassionate for the weaknesses of our kind that have called down from heaven the good news of God’s love . . . all we have and all we are come from Him
    … we rest in Him alone

  • Ryan Davidson

    Witherington’s review strikes me as needlessly paternalistic and condescending. Thus, it’s difficult to see that his arguments will have any persuasive authority beyond those who have already made up their minds that she’s wrong.

    Her views are largely consistent with those of other conservative scholars, including James Brownson and David Gushee. I see no reason why Evans should necessarily have privileged Witherington’s views over theirs.

    I suspect that most evangelical churches will end up adopting something along the lines of the “third way” approach proposed by Ken Wilson. Truth be told, many large evangelical churches already practice that approach; they simply haven’t acknowledged it formally.

    Will there be holdouts? Sure. Then again, most of the holdouts already depart from mainstream evangelicalism (e.g., Willow Creek, Saddleback, NorthPoint, etc.) in any number of other ways. Remarks like those of Witherington simply highlight those differences, and serve to confirm the view that the more conservative elements of evangelicalism are devolving into something akin to a protection racket. Few people under the age of 45 are going to view Witherington’s contribution here as much different from grandpa sounding off about having to walk to school uphill through the snow in both directions.

  • Christiane Smith

    Hi RYAN,
    that Witherington is accepted as a scholar gives him the cred to evaluate the writing of another Christian . . . that is understood . . . but when the term ‘paternalistic’ is used to judge his critique of RHE, then that raises the issue of her gender and not just her relative youth . . .

    I am Catholic and goodness knows, there has been and still is enough paternalism in my own faith community to sicken many,
    but there is also this:
    three women of my faith have now been raised to the position of ‘Doctor of the Church’, meaning that their contribution to the Church’s theological understanding is considerable and unique to them, and their title bears witness to the Church’s appreciation of their gifts of insight and communication to benefit the whole Church,

    and this tells me that even among the most conservative and seemingly locked-in paternalistic of faith communities,
    the greater gifts that God has given to His people were not limited due to their gender, and that the Church, in the face of its paternalistic tendencies, can not deny those greater gifts nor the women who brought them to fruition in the service of the whole Church. A change? Or just maybe, a recognition of God’s gifts given and shared with love ? Does it matter? I don’t think so. All that is of goodness comes to us ultimately from God. That is what we know.

  • buddyglass

    Side note: I like what I’ve read from Witherington whenever I’ve come across something of his online. Didn’t expect to see him here, though, considering he’s a fairly vocal egalitarian who supports women in the pastorate. Which, if anything, makes his criticism of RHE that much more credible. Kudos to Dr. Burk for crossing the aisle?

    • Christiane Smith

      thank you for input . . . and I would say ‘kudos to Dr. Burk for hosting a conversation that represents different points of view from across MANY ‘aisles’ in the Church’, yes.

  • Ken Temple

    I remember reading some of Rachel Held Evans thoughts a few years ago – at her blog and which she documents in her earlier book about growing up in Monkey Town; her struggles where: (the ones I remember)

    1. Why did God say that women could not be pastors/elders/teachers in authority in a church?
    2. Evolution vs. Creation (and the Scopes trial in her hometown of Dayton, TN.)
    3. the doctrine of eternal hell
    4. missions and what about those who died and never had a chance to hear about Christ

    She said some thing like, “I don’t like organizing ladies teas or baking a cake, etc.; I want to teach the Bible and ask hard questions.”

    She said she was always asking questions of the leadership and pastors and always stirring up trouble and challenging things . . .

    Many of her doubts about her Evangelical upbringing started with questioning God’s word and those issues above that are the classic road well traveled to liberal theology.

    Satan is still crafty and uses the same method today to cause people to doubt and go astray, “Did God really say that?” (Genesis 3)

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