Author Reviews, Gospel, Truth

2 Things Church Leaders Can Learn From the Life and Writings of Rachel Held Evans

If you’ve been reading my blog since it started in 2011, you know that I rarely weigh in on buzz topics. In fact, if everyone else is writing about it, you can bet I’m going to remain silent. The internet is a noisy place, and I want to make sure I am contributing value through my words-not just another opinion. Hence, many of my thoughts remain in my head as I tumble and simmer my own perspectives to make sure I am holding my view through the lens of God’s truth. What follows here is not my normal type of article, but it’s something I felt so strongly about that I needed to share, especially because my readership is largely pastors’ wives and church leaders.

For those of you unfamiliar with Rachel Held Evans, she was a 37 year old popular author who died less than two weeks ago after complications from an infection led to a medically induced coma and unsurvivable brain damage. She left behind a loving husband and two very small children- ages 3 and less than 1- and a devastated extended family. I would not even consider myself eligible to speak about her had I not first spent time in prayer for her family.

I’ve read many articles in the past week about Rachel, who was quite the polarizing person. Some upheld her as their Messiah- this was clear from several comments I read to the tune of “I’m scared of a world without Rachel in it.” (What about Jesus?, I thought.) Many expressed deep fear and even despair that she is no longer around to advocate for them. Others (so called Christians) callously and flippantly spoke of her burning in hell, as if it gave them some kind of pleasure to declare it. Both responses are tragic and uncalled for. If we truly have our faith placed Jesus Christ, then we don’t have to fear a world without our favorite human advocate. We would remember that Christ is our Advocate to the Father, would we not? If we love Jesus, then we should not be throwing out gleeful condemnations when an unbeliever dies. We would very much ruin any chance at loving and sharing the Gospel or having a voice of any kind with her family, would we not?

I cannot agree with either of those two approaches to her life and death. Indeed, blogs are public places where the family of the deceased will most certainly stumble upon and read. Perhaps someday even her own children will read what others have said about their mother. I want to be a gentle voice of truth in a world of cruelty where people think they own each other and can say whatever they want to. This is why I am approaching this topic from a different perspective- the perspective of Christian leaders. I write primarily to pastors’ wives here in my space, and this article is also so intended.

Having been actively involved in the writing and publishing arena for the past 6 years, I’ve known of Rachel as a fellow author and blogger. However, I had never read one of her books. Then she died….and I read so many conflicting articles about her. My brain was overloaded with people’s opinions, and I decided that wanted to know for myself who this lady really was. So I loaded two of her books on my Kindle a few days after her death: Searching For Sunday and Faith Unraveled. I read them both in 4 days. As a writer, she drew me in. Her style is witty and easy to read. But mostly what drew me in was wanting to know her story- her background, her journey, what she believed, how she arrived at her conclusions, and why. As an author, Rachel was nothing if not completely honest, even when it was self deprecating.

It is impossible to summarize everything about Rachel in this one article, so I’m not going to try. It’s true what they say- “Every person is a world.” But as I read, I assumed various perspectives which helped me to understand her better. By turns I was a little girl growing up in a Christian home like her- an analytical young girl then teenager who wanted desperately to “get it right;” then I was the searching college student, then the ministry leader (in my case, pastor’s wife.) Also, since I’m working on counseling certification, I read from the perspective of a counselor. What would I tell the hyper analytical counselee who is tangled up in doubts, obsessed with overthinking, bent on creating her own version of God, and ungrounded in truth?

And this perspective is what motivated me to write about her, and to share what I think leaders need to learn from her life.

In a nutshell: Rachel accepted the Gospel as a child, but continually had doubts as to the validity of Scripture and the existence of God. She pushed through those doubts by trying harder to be the good girl- the one who got the spiritual awards at church, the one who sat up front and drank in every word of the sermon. She attended Bryan College where her dad was a theology professor. Bryan College’s main goal (at that time) was to teach young people to be strong apologists, partly as a result of the weak apologetics that happened at the famous Scopes Trial. Toward the end of her time at college, Rachel’s doubts and wrestlings became so strong that she began to ask her questions aloud. And this is the part that sobered me: Rachel claims that no one would engage with her when she raised questions. Not her professors, not her friends and peers, not her father. (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)

Hers is a long, sad story of moving away from truth, and it seems that her heart was hardened over time. She admits that she became deeply cynical, which led to her eventually asking questions only to challenge people (and not to understand truth), and trying to draw others who were peaceful believers into her own storm (her words.) Her first book “Faith Unraveled: How A Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned To Ask Questions” is her personal journey from faith to unbelief- how she came to no longer believe that Jesus Christ is the only way, or that Scripture is inspired and to be understood and obeyed literally. She moved from fundamentalism to evangelicalism to emergent church and postmodernism. She considered herself to be a deconstructionist of the finest sort. She wrestled continually with the goodness of God and the reality of suffering and poverty in the world. She wrestled with hell and evolution and underwent a metamorphosis of sorts after becoming dis-allusioned with church (as told in Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.) Still searching for peace, she helped with a church plant, then tried every kind of church there is (even visited a Catholic monastery) before softly landing as an Episcopalian. As I read her story, I could feel her lack of grounding in truth. She careened from one way of thinking and believing to another, one church to another, one idea to another- trying to find peace. She seemed unable to rest in the sovereignty of God and the fact that there are some things we cannot understand. She admits that there were parts of Scripture that she did not like; likewise she was loathe to submit to God’s ultimatums, choosing to blaze her own trail according to her feelings at the moment. Hence, her frequent mentions of “if it’s all true” and “on the days when I believe in God.” Unstable as water, she did not excel (Genesis 49:4), and her writings are fraught with a lack of being rooted in anything other than herself. Like James writes, “{she} who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed.” (James 1:6)

What I want to say to leaders of churches and ministries – and yes, even to parents and grandparents- is this:

  1. Engage with people when they have doubts. Furthermore, PRY into their hearts to find out what is going on. Don’t be afraid of questions. Don’t reject questions or take them as a personal attack. Rachel was my age, and so I understand the church scene in which she grew up- it was a time when if you asked a question of an authority figure, you were automatically branded as rebellious and un-submissive. While I do not lay all the blame of Rachel’s straying on the leaders in her life at the time, it is tragic that no one would engage with her on the hard topics. No one. Life is full of hard questions. My husband and I have done our share of counseling hard things already in pastoral ministry, and we want to be even better equipped as we begin church planting. Fellow pastors’ wives, we should never, ever turn anyone away who has a hard question. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we are responsible to engage with them through conversation, Scripture, and prayer. We are responsible to dig a little deeper to see what is really going on in the hearts of those in our spiritual care- both in our churches and in our families. After reading Rachel’s books, I am even more committed to embracing and counseling through hard, awkward conversations with those who are struggling.
  2. Recognize when searching doubts turn to willful doubts. In Rachel’s case, I could see the turning point when her searching doubts turned to willful doubts. She admits it herself- that she started going around trying to get people to be upset and mad at God with her. Somewhere along the way, she crossed a line, and it seems that when she would not retain God in her mind, God gave her up to that kind of mind- a mind that could no longer grasp and be rooted in truth. Yet so much of what Rachel wrote sounded so good and true. In her books, at times I was nodding yes, and then suddenly I was shaking my head no. Scripture frequently flooded my mind as I read, providing the answers to the wrong conclusions she arrived at. She was random, all over the place, even contradicting herself multiple times. She believed what she felt like believing, and it changed on a whim. She knew this, and claimed that she wanted to be always willing to change with the “evolution of faith.” When I came up for air while reading Rachel’s books, my husband and I had long talks about whether or not we think she was genuinely saved, and how and why she arrived at the conclusions (more like non-conclusions) she did. I am not God, but as much as Rachel said that sounded true, there was just as much that categorized her as an unbeliever. The things that characterized her as an unbeliever are non-negotiables according to Scripture, and challenged the very heart of the Gospel being “not of works, lest any man should boast.” As leaders, we need to be both aware of and wary of authors who are writing things that sound so good, but are not pure truth. I am not afraid to read authors who believe differently than myself, because I am grounded in truth and I weigh what I read against that truth. BUT I would not put certain books into the hands of the ladies in my church, especially new believers or people who have similar doubts as the author’s. All this to say- it’s one thing to get in the milieu of doubts with people who truly want to learn and change and embrace truth. It’s quite another thing when people embrace willful doubts and rebellion against truth. We need to recognize both, because the latter can do much damage in the life and health of a church if they draw others in with them.

Friends, let’s be fiercely committed to be grounded in truth ourselves, and to help to ground others in truth! Rachel’s life is a stark example of what happens when a person rejects truth and resists making the choice to trust who God is and what He has said. The spirit of fear and doubt is not from God- He gives power, love, and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7) And He wants us to be “rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:7)

5 thoughts on “2 Things Church Leaders Can Learn From the Life and Writings of Rachel Held Evans

  1. Thank you for the post. I had heard of Rachel but was not familiar with her “story”. This post helped my understanding. However, I do have one concern with your conclusions. You conclude (as she did) that “no one” was willing to engage with her on her questions. It seems if we read an author who comes to some faulty conclusions and seems to be self deceived then we should also be aware the reporting of their “facts” can be skewed as well. I have had people who I know have been confronted (in love) with truth and who have been gently pursued by spiritual mentors who report to others that “no one cared” to check on them or ask how they were doing or “engage” them in discussions. Your whole “warning” is based on the words of someone you conclude was “unstable.” I agree with your warning. I fear, however, that her words, (although her genuinely felt experience), may be an exaggeration that is really an excuse to continue on her merry way as a “victim” who can blame her choices on the “evil authorities” who did not answer her questions or who were not willing to engage with her questions. Proverbs 17:18 tells us “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.” Those who she blankets with her “no one” might have a different perspective than she did and it would be good to know that before accepting just her side of the story. A loving God chooses to “give someone up” due to their own constant choice to rebel. This may be the case with the “no ones” in Rachel’s life. I have been that “no one” and it hurts to be relegated to such a status when you know that you tried to reach out, to answer, but were met with such constant rejection of truth and scorn that you finally resort to “answering not a fool according to their folly.” Then, of course, you’re are placed into the “people who didn’t care” column when that scorner reports on their treatment to others. I hope her parents, teachers, spiritual leaders know that some do not accept her statement that “no one” was willing to engage with her. I fear this type of acceptance just lays greater pain on those who close to her who did try. Thanks, again, for the post. It contains much insight into her life and motivations.

    1. I take your point, and that is why I stated that she “claimed” that no one would engage with her. Furthermore, God was always engaging with her through His Word, but the real question is whether or not she was engaging with the Word. I did not lay full blame on her leaders, but because I have experienced that same tendency in leadership (to not allow questions, but to quickly offer Christian cliches) I wrote TO leaders with just a reminder to be willing to engage hard questions. You are right when you say that some people who go their own way will claim that no one helped them- and I’m sorry that has happened to you. The truth in that case is that no one told them what they wanted to hear. This could be the case with Rachel as well, and in her books I definitely sensed when her turning point came- from curious questions to cynical questions with an agenda behind them. I think you would get a better sense of her journey of doubts and questions if you read her books. Again, my article is just a synopsis of a very complicated story. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts!

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and careful reflection. I haven’t read her works yet, but since I’m working on writing and speaking about women and healthy churches, I have Searching for Sunday on my list to read. I wish I would have read it before she passed away though because I think I will engage with the book differently now that she has passed away, if that makes sense.

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