On Saturday, May 4, prominent Christian feminist and celebrated author Rachel Held Evans (37) died unexpectedly of complications from the flu.
Rachel was a courageous voice for those of us who have felt unheard and unseen in the church. Like Halley’s comet, she burst across an empty, dark sky to cast her light on the anguish felt by women and those at the margins of the faith. Boldly, she named many demons: loneliness and isolation, misogyny, racism, despair, bigotry, profiteering, hypocrisy, obstruction of women’s gifts, misplaced priorities, and baseless hierarchies.
Because of these failures, souls were distanced from authentic union with God and one another. Grieved, Rachel worked for change. Her first and perhaps strongest prophetic mission was to challenge a patriarchal reading of Scripture that diminished God’s image in women and marginalized their gifts and leadership.
Relentlessly, Rachel amplified the voices and experiences of women, pulling the curtain back on our devastated souls. An expert with words, she gave women, especially young women, language to express their experiences, to be authentic in their supreme disappointment and sorrow. In and because of Rachel, we had a strong guide, a new community, and power to boldly declare that the church’s double standard for men and women was nothing more than a naked emperor. Because of her (and others’) meticulous work, we could call it as it is: gender bias, not biblical interpretation.
Rachel was a beloved leader in a movement to take back the night from an ancient foe—patriarchy. Inspired by her work and the mission she loved, a massive online community of feminists formed. Collectively, they exposed the misuse of Scripture that amplified three passages over and against the nearly three hundred that supported women’s leadership in seminaries; in pulpits; as elders, teachers, leaders, and priests; and at decision-making tables at work and in churches, families, and marriages.
In her books, Evolving in Monkey Town and The Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel used the stories and experiences of women to critique the complementarian argument for male headship and female submission. She undermined their assumptions with humor and made the gender bias practiced by so many seem nearly on brink of ridiculous.
Her blogs were even more powerful. She nurtured a community of seekers who were eager as she was to ask practical—even obvious—and yet generous questions. I was honored to be asked to participate in her “Ask an Egalitarian” blog forum and witnessed firsthand how she coached her community to frame conversations in new ways. She used to say: “You are the hosts. It is your conversation.” “Experts” were now dialogue partners rather than “diodes” or one-way currents. Everyone, she insisted, had valid ideas, reservations, and experiences that deserved a fair and respectful hearing.
By example, Rachel led discourse that was confident and civil. This is what I will miss the most. It is a testament to her legacy that many who were a part of her early community are now pastoring churches. Consequently, many young girls now have the role models that she and others longed for decades back.
But it was her love of language and her masterful use of words that proved her greatest contribution. For Rachel, words were far too precious, too powerful to be abused or misused. They were God’s gift for good but too often used for harm. Words, for Rachel, were meant to build dignity not degrade.
I didn’t share all of Rachel’s views but she never misrepresented those with whom she disagreed. I always admired her passion. But what I respected most was her dignified treatment of those with whom she disagreed. She loved humankind created in God’s image and believed that every person, regardless of their opinion, deserves respect, love, and a fair hearing. For this, she has my deepest respect.
For this reason, I am certain, thousands upon thousands were drawn to her words, tweets, blogs, and books. She was an honest soul-seeker, relentless in her search for renewal and reform. Even when challenging repugnant and offensive views, Rachel aimed high above the fray. There was so much breath in her words, so much life in her searching. The world seemed to stand still as she questioned assumptions with respect, humor, and clarity. She made her point; she challenged views fearlessly without demeaning or demonizing those who held them.
Her soul-searching was magnanimous, charitable, whimsical, and most of all, authentic. She gave us the confidence that God welcomes—even delights—in genuine questions regardless of the sacred cows we may challenge. God is unafraid and unperturbed by our uncertainties (spoken and unspoken). Redemption, not retribution, awaits the faithful critic. God longingly meets us in our doubts and disappointments. God’s grace holds, so we can lean hard into our doubts. To me, that is what Rachel Held Evans’ work revealed. I learned so much from her courage, her challenges, and her persistent grace.
Thank you, Christ, for Rachel Held Evans. Her work inspired a generation of believers to press beyond the traditions and assumptions of Christian patriarchy. Standing in the gap beside God’s daughters, she led us through a dark valley, light sparking from her bold questions, her doubts, and her disappointments. She knew that faith is the hand that will lead us home, where every tear is wiped dry and where pain, crying, mourning, and death are all transcended, overcome, and redeemed.