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.