What follows is a work in progress as I work through some ideas. That said, if you disagree, feel free to push back!
In just a few weeks Ike and I will be celebrating our third wedding anniversary. Each year as we mark this occasion, we have used it as a time to reflect on our marriage, its strengths, and its weaknesses. We reminisce about our favorite memories and the ways we’ve grown. We also assess, as honestly as possible, how well we are loving and serving one another.
This year I have found myself thinking a lot about our wedding vows. One section in particular. In our respective vows, Ike and I committed to the following:
Ike: Just as the bridegroom, Christ, loves his bride, the Church, and gave himself up for her, I pledge to do the same.
Sharon: And as the Bride of Christ submits herself to her heavenly bridegroom, I pledge to honor, love, and respect you all the days of my life.
This language is based off of the instructions in Ephesians 5 to husbands and wives, and prior to getting married I had a very clear idea of what these commitments would look like. Ike would be the spiritual “head” of our family, and I would defer to his leadership. In my mind, I thought the distinction would be very clear and obvious, though certainly not coercive, divisive, or hierarchical. Somewhat organic, I suppose.
In reality, the distinction has not been clear at all, at least not on a daily basis. Of course we both have our “jobs” in the family, some more stereotypical than others. Ike handles the finances. I handle much of the cleaning. Ike takes out the trash. I decorate the home. We both share cooking responsibilities, and we both clean the dishes.
However these chores really have nothing to do with our vows. Not really. They are a matter of preference that differs from home to home. The real question centers on the theological vision of Christ’s relationship with his church. How are we modeling that mystery, and are we doing it well? To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure about the answer. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have needed to defer to Ike’s headship. About 99% of the time we either share one mind about something, or Ike chooses my preference.
So yesterday I asked Ike what he thought. Did he feel I was adhering to my vows? Did he feel honored, loved, and respected? He said that he did, very much so.
Then I asked him how he felt about his own vows. How did he feel that he was loving me as Christ loved the church, practically speaking? In his mind, what did that look like? His response was really wonderful, and one of the reasons I love him so much and I am so grateful for him.
He said that when you look at Christ’s headship, he never forces the church to submit. His love and his sacrifice is never contingent upon the church first acting faithfully. Instead, God is always the initiator. Only when God initiates in grace is the church compelled to love in response. In that way, God leads. Not through power, not even through protection, but through grace.
For him, that is what it means to be the head of the home. He models Christ by laying himself down for me on a daily basis and leading in love. For him, this christological vision is especially important because it defines his role not in relation to me (that is to say, his masculinity is not defined in contrast with my femininity), but in relation to Christ. Christ is where he begins and ends as he understands his role as a man and husband, and this produces a profound security and confidence about his masculinity. He is not threatened by my strengths because his masculinity is not derived from his distinction from femininity. His masculinity is derived from his modeling of Christ.
I love him so much!
Ike’s Christ-rooted confidence is evident in our marriage. It is a blessing. But what are we to make of the day-to-day interactions that do not seem, for all intents and purposes, to reflect the Christ-church distinction? Are we espousing one theology and living another?
I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think the mutuality of our daily lives reflects two Scriptural truths:
1. Christian marriage best reflects the Christ-church relationship when the couple shares one heart and mind. That doesn’t necessarily mean a couple agrees on everything, but it does mean they are committed to spiritual principles such as obedience to God and honoring one another’s dignity.
Returning to the Christ-church analogy, the church’s submission to Christ does not often feel like submission when this unity of spirit is present. It doesn’t feel like submission anymore than Jesus’ obedience to the Father felt like such. Instead, Jesus and His Father shared one mind and one purpose, and the church should aim to share one mind and one purpose with Christ. Husbands and wives, also, should grow together in unity and intimacy so that they share one mind and one purpose. This unity does not preclude the presence of conflict in marriage, but it does mean that the husband and wife should be united in their desire for reconciliation, healing, and faithfulness to God.
When this unity is present, submission does not feel like submission at all. It is freedom and it is good. And while this kind of language is difficult for some Christians, it is nevertheless important and Biblical. Submission is not only a Scriptural word that describes our relationship to God, but it is one of the ways we reflect the relationship between Christ and his church. In a world where surrender and radical trust are often seen as negatives, we can provide a different kind of witness. Submission to God, and even submission to one another, is not a thing to be feared.
2. However, the marriage relationship is not perfect or absolute in its mirroring of the Christ-church relationship. This is evident in marriages where the husband dominates the wife, and in marriages where the wife degrades the husband. Even so, the imperfect analogy of marriage is not necessarily bad. It reflects our humanity, which means we are to approach marriage with an additional frame of reference, one for which Scripture provides additional guidance.
Although marriage is meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church, it is not at all clear from Scripture that this is a totalizing paradigm. Ephesians 5 also speaks of “submitting to one another,” and 1 Corinthians 7:4 speaks of the husband and wife as having “authority” over one another’s bodies. There is a very real sense in the Bible that Christian marriage should be defined by a mutual give-and-take, a dynamic that is NOT present in Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ does not submit to us. God does not compromise with us. God does not need our input the way a husband needs the wisdom and counsel of a wife.
This is because the marriage relationship is also one composed of humans, which means that spouses relate to one another not only as Christ and the church, but also as brothers and sisters. When we get married, we don’t throw out all the Scriptural directives to believers in relating to one another. Instead, there is a mutuality to marriage that is consistent with our membership in the priesthood of believers, which accounts for the organic dance of marital decision-making and daily living.
For some, this admission of our mutual humanity would seem to compete with the Christ-church relationship. Is it possible to hold onto both at the same time? I would say yes because we see this tension in Scripture itself and we must be faithful to it. There is indeed some mystery, but I think the mystery is good. I have written before about the sinful love for formulas and rules. We want things to be black and white, and while there are certainly irrefutable doctrines of the church, Scripture also provides us with guiding principles and narratives for living, not simply flat propositions: Seek wisdom, love God and your neighbor, bear the fruits of the Spirit, follow Christ. These principles can take different forms in different situations, which gives them a beautifully wide range of applicability that is always life-giving and true.
In addition to the mystery of these two marital dynamics, it is also crucial to take seriously the humanity of marriage in light of marital abuse. If we are to make the command to submit into a universal formula, then we make ourselves inconsistent when we permit women to flee situations of abuse. Instead, while holding onto the Christ-church vision we must also hold onto the reality that we are imperfect humans and there are times when a woman does not relate to her husband as if he is Christ because, simply put, he is not.
All of that to say, I am beginning to understand why my relationship with Ike looks different than I first imagined. For one thing, I didn’t understand the nature of Christ’s headship as I do now. My understanding of headship was far more cultural than christological. For another, I didn’t think of my marriage as a union between human believers.
As I said, these thoughts are a work in progress. I am sure I will learn much more in the years of marriage to come, and I look forward to that. In the mean time, in as much as an evangelical can speak of sacraments, marriage has indeed been a means of grace in my life.