Jon and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary a couple weeks ago. I use the term “celebrated” loosely, because we planned nothing ahead of time and barely managed to catch a movie with friends (the very romantic Star Trek, if you’re curious) before heading straight back to pick up the kids. Jon says he’d much prefer the blogosphere to believe it was roses and candy and the French Riviera, but the truth is the truth. At least we have last year’s return to our honeymoon location to look back on.
In any case, I feel like 11 years qualifies us to have a few opinions on marriage. I promise you, we do not have this thing all figured out. We have our share of arguments and snappishness, the usual frustrations and annoyances that make up daily life with another person. There will doubtless be plenty more challenges ahead. But we’re 11 years and two kids in, and we’ve faced our share of hard times. We’re still in love and more grateful than ever to be sharing this life together. I knew I was marrying a good man, but I have been consistently amazed by the remarkable husband and father Jon is.
But to the point: I say all that to establish my qualification to voice an opinion about Christian marriage. Take it for what it’s worth.
I have in recent years (read: since the advent of Facebook) seen links to various articles and blog entries on the topic of Christian marriage. Many have some helpful, if rather basic, marriage advice. But invariably, they seem to have one thing in common: They all name the principle of wifely submission as key to a successful marriage. They generally point to at least one of two passages. They may use Colossians 3:18, where Paul advises wives to “submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”* Most do go on to mention the following verse, which commands husbands to “love your wives and do not be harsh with them.” However, rarely do these articles mention that following the next two verses, which address parent-child relationships, is Colossians 3:22, which reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything…” And a few verses later, there is Colossians 4:1: “Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” These passages we acknowledge as no longer culturally relevant. The second, more commonly quoted, passage is Ephesians 5:21-33, which reads in part: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…” But again, these marriage articles may fail to mention the closing of this chapter: “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
Most of these marriage articles make good points about the self-sacrifice that is necessary for any marriage. And they are clear that both husband and wife are to serve each other in love. But they take it a step further, arguing that modern, feminist culture has damaged the biblical model of marriage, which establishes the husband as head of the family, the provider and spiritual leader, with his wife standing behind him in a support role, managing the household and family life. Growing up, I heard it frequently suggested that husbands and wives should always seek compromise, but when they were truly unable to settle a disagreement, the wife should submit to the husband’s will.
You know what my response is? Baloney.
I know I’m straying into controversial territory for some people. Many of you may ascribe to the picture of marriage presented above, and if it has worked well for you, then by all means, continue. Some of you have likely been at this much longer than 11 years! I do not intend to tell anyone else how to run their homes. But I do take issue with a default Christian perspective on marriage that is, in my opinion, less than helpful.
First, let’s examine the cultural context of the passages quoted above. Paul paints a picture of a godly marriage, and it certainly contains a loving husband as head of the household, with a submissive and respectful wife supporting him. But let’s also acknowledge that this advice was given at a time and in a culture when women had few rights and were treated as property to be transferred from father to husband at the time of marriage. Paul also advised women to stay silent in church, saving their questions to ask their husbands at home. (I Corinthians 14:34-35) He specifically forbids women from teaching men, pointing to the creation of Adam before Eve and Eve’s first fall to temptation, and suggests that women are saved through childbearing. (I Timothy 2:11-15) I think I can safely suggest that most of us have a different understanding today of the roles and rights of women. Perhaps we can agree that a Christian marriage today should look a bit different than marriage at the time Paul was writing?
I also take issue with the idea that “secular, feminist culture” is destroying the biblical model of marriage. I won’t wade into the truly treacherous waters of dissecting what exactly constitutes “biblical marriage,” but I will point to research that indicates divorce rates in the U.S. are 50 percent lower in homes where women earn half the income and men do half the housework. It simply does not hold up that by adhering to more equal gender roles, husbands and wives jeopardize their marriages.
There are really two related issues here: leadership and domain. At least one blog I read recently connected the idea of submission to the husband’s leadership and the home as primarily the woman’s domain. Both ideas seem problematic to me.
On a personal level, this may seem hypocritical. Jon works full time, and I left my job in 2012 to become a stay-at-home mom. I love being a full-time mom. I wanted to do this, and it currently works well for our family. But here’s the thing: I approach my role as a job. I don’t mean to say the work is drudgery (although, like any job, it certainly can be). What I mean is that Jon and I both have our work during the day, and then we share what needs to be done in the time that remains. He does not clock out of his job and expect to rest while I continue to work around the house. Some of our division of labor looks pretty traditional, some doesn’t. But neither of us views the home as mainly my domain. (He would take the suggestion as an insult.)
Even more important is the issue of leadership. When it comes to decision making, Jon and I are partners who give and expect equal voice. If we face major disagreements, we work until we find a solution. In a true impasse (which has been very rare), sometimes I give, sometimes he does. We’re both terribly stubborn, so it can take a while, but we always get there. We together set the spiritual tone for our family and together establish our family’s values and beliefs. We lead our family as a team.
I don’t intend to brag or suggest that everyone should do what we do. Instead, I am suggesting that it would be a shame if we felt our Christian faith required something other than this happy, workable, equitable arrangement. Do we really want to suggest to single or newly-married women that they should have less of a voice in their marriages? Do we want to suggest to young men that being a godly husband and spiritual leader means asking their wives to take a back seat? Proponents of this “Christian marriage” model seem to suggest that these are not unequal, but different roles. I absolutely agree that men and women have different strengths and needs and will have different roles in the family. But the specific makeup of a family is very individual, and I do not believe we should emphasize to women the principle of submission or suggest to men that they assume a “head of the household” role over the wife and children.
So what should a Christian marriage look like? I submit there are many biblical principles that apply across time and culture and work in families as different as the individuals who comprise them. They include: willing self-sacrifice, service, kindess, purity, faithfulness, commitment, hard work, shared faith, respect, discipline, laughter, prayer and, above all, LOVE.
My marriage advice boils down to this: Find someone who shares the things that really matter to you, build an equal partnership on core biblical principles like the ones above, and commit unequivocally to it. The rest is just one big adventure.
 Lynn Price Cook, “‘Doing’ Gender in Context: Household Bargaining and Risk of Divorce in Germany and the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 112, no. 2 (2006): 442-72, as quoted in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
*All biblical quotes are from the New International Version.
Brian and I will celebrate 23 years of marriage on Monday. I had “obey” taken out of our vows way back when – I wanted nothing of it — I was a young woman on the verge of my career and had what I felt were noble values to accompany my strong opinions. Well… 20 years later I decided I’d put “obey” back in first chance I got. I’ve learned a lot about biblical submission and believe now that it’s imperative that the husband is the spiritual leader and head of the household. I believe from Eden that this was God’s design.
I can say without any reservation at all that our marriage is far better than it was 10 or even 20 years ago since I have been open to the idea of true biblical submission and all that it entails. I’m happier and more fulfilled as a wife than I’ve ever been. This is the work of God in my life and a 180 from the young, stubborn and prideful girl that married my wonderful and patient husband.
This is not to suggest that I’m any kind of a doormat and my opinions are certainly heard and considered valuable to my husband. We are partners in every sense of the word, but this works because he is also submitted. HE always has been — I was the one rebelling against God’s divine plan. You’ll notice that wives are called to RESPECT their husbands and husbands instructed to LOVE their wives. Neither of those things come naturally to either party, thus the instruction. Wives desire to be loved and husbands value the respect of their wives. (As a side note I highly recommend the book by Shaunti Feldhahn, For Women Only. There’s a “For Men Only as well. Both are available as audio books and on Kindle and are short, fast reads.)
My lack of real submission caused a lot of issues that I’m only now becoming aware of decades later, most especially as it pertains to the raising of our children and specifically our teen boys. The Lord is doing a mighty work in this department.
I urge you to consider the texts you quoted again. Yes, cultures and times change, but the Word of God is timeless and relevant to today. I think that all of the Scripture you took issue with can be understood and applied to our culture today. Yes, even the parts about slaves, (servants, bondservants, employees…) when a true study of the language takes place.
ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Tim 3:16,17. We don’t get to pick and choose what we like and call foul or baloney on the stuff we don’t care for.
I really love the Amplified Bible when looking at these texts… Go back to your chosen texts and read them again in the Amplified Bible and see if they don’t make a little more sense to you for this day and age.
I especially appreciate 1 Peter 3 in the Amplified Bible (AMP)
In like manner, you married women, be submissive to your own husbands [subordinate yourselves as being secondary to and dependent on them, and adapt yourselves to them], so that even if any do not obey the Word [of God], they may be won over not by discussion but by the [godly] lives of their wives,
2 When they observe the pure and modest way in which you conduct yourselves, together with your [a]reverence [for your husband; you are to feel for him all that reverence includes: to respect, defer to, revere him—to honor, esteem, appreciate, prize, and, in the human sense, to adore him, that is, to admire, praise, be devoted to, deeply love, and enjoy your husband].
3 Let not yours be the [merely] external adorning with [elaborate] [b]interweaving and knotting of the hair, the wearing of jewelry, or changes of clothes;
4 But let it be the inward adorning and beauty of the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible and unfading charm of a gentle and peaceful spirit, which [is not anxious or wrought up, but] is very precious in the sight of God.
5 For it was thus that the pious women of old who hoped in God were [accustomed] to beautify themselves and were submissive to their husbands [adapting themselves to them as themselves secondary and dependent upon them].
6 It was thus that Sarah obeyed Abraham [following his guidance and acknowledging his headship over her by] calling him lord (master, leader, authority). And you are now her true daughters if you do right and let nothing terrify you [not giving way to hysterical fears or letting anxieties unnerve you].
7 In the same way you married men should live considerately with [your wives], with an [c]intelligent recognition [of the marriage relation], honoring the woman as [physically] the weaker, but [realizing that you] are joint heirs of the grace (God’s unmerited favor) of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered and cut off. [Otherwise you cannot pray effectively.]
8 Finally, all [of you] should be of one and the same mind (united in spirit), sympathizing [with one another], loving [each other] as brethren [of one household], compassionate and courteous (tenderhearted and humble).
Consider also: Ephesians 5:20-33
At all times and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One).
22 Wives, be subject (be submissive and adapt yourselves) to your own husbands as [a service] to the Lord.
23 For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the Head of the church, Himself the Savior of [His] body.
24 As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her,
26 So that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word,
27 That He might present the church to Himself in glorious splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such things [that she might be holy and faultless].
28 Even so husbands should love their wives as [being in a sense] their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself.
29 For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and carefully protects and cherishes it, as Christ does the church,
30 Because we are members (parts) of His body.
31 For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
32 This mystery is very great, but I speak concerning [the relation of] Christ and the church.
33 However, let each man of you [without exception] love his wife as [being in a sense] his very own self; and let the wife see that she respects and reverences her husband [[f]that she notices him, regards him, honors him, prefers him, venerates, and esteems him; and [g]that she defers to him, praises him, and loves and admires him exceedingly].
I know you don’t need the reminder, but of course will call on the Holy Spirit to show you truth as you study anything in Scripture. That’s a prayer always answered.
Congratulations to you and Jon – it does seem like just yesterday.
Happy anniversary to you, as well, Sara! It sounds like you and Brian have a very happy marriage, which is something to really celebrate. I appreciate your thoughtful reply. The approach you lay out is along the lines of the articles and blogs I have read. There is much here I agree with, especially regarding men needing respect and women needing love and affection, as well as the idea of mutual submission. I see that as the underlying principle we can pull from Paul’s writing on this subject. I agree that we can’t just toss out parts of the Bible that are difficult. But certainly we can acknowledge that we look for the principle, as sometimes applications in the Bible ARE culturally specific. (Another example that comes to mind is the instruction on plaiting of hair: A clear principle of simplicity, but specific instruction that is less applicable today.) I continue to respectfully disagree with the idea that a Christian wife is called today to be subservient or obedient to her husband. Of course I continue to pray for wisdom and understanding and to live God’s will in my life. In another 10 years of marriage, facing my children’s teenage years, I may have a whole new perspective on a lot of things!
Well said! I completely agree. We have always lived our marriage much in the same way you describe, and it has worked well for us. I, too, have seen those articles (and been to some of those marriage conferences). I sometimes wondered if we had missed the mark! But out of necessity, we do not follow traditional gender roles in our home, and it has worked well for us. I enjoyed reading your thoughts! Thanks!
So much of what you say in your blog, Jolene, I agree with. I too cringe at hearing some of the things that come out of Christian women groups today about submission. The thing that concerns me is the difficulty it presents to women struggling with domestic violence. The preaching of this kind of submission in these cases can cause more harm than good.
But on the other hand, we should be careful about altering in any way the Biblical model of marriage, which reflects the relationship of Christ and His church.
Our pastor gave an excellent sermon illustration once, when he had three couples come to the front of the church and placed them in different positions on the platform–one with the husband on a step above the wife, one husband and wife standing together at the same level, and another couple with the wife standing on a step above the husband.
After a vote from the congregation, the couple that best represented the text about the husbands being the head of the household surprisingly turned out to be the one with the wife above the husband, the one with the least votes! Because that’s where Jesus places the church, sacrificing everything for the church, placing it above Himself at all times.
It really made a lot of us think about the real meaning of submission and sacrifice…
That’s an interesting illustration, Teresa. The sacrifice and mutual submission aspects of marriage are so tough, because they are so contrary to human nature. I’ll admit, I don’t look for ways to make life easier for my husband as often as I’d like. It’s much easier to look for ways he can make my life easier! Good food for thought.