On Marriage and the Mutuality of Our Humanity

By July 19, 201212 Comments

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.


  • Eyvonne says:

    Sharon, I think your voice is so important. You addressed egalitarianism and complementarianism a while back and said you could no longer describe yourself as a complementarian.

    However, what you have described here is what I would consider a complimentarian position as it relates to marriage.

    But in a week when there have been lots of unhelpful (and sometimes hateful) words on both sites of the debate, this is a breath of fresh air.

    My husband and I were discussing these issues last night. Our relationship is similar to what you describe here. We have common goals, mutual aims, and work together in unity. Only when we’ve disagreed and could not come to a unified decision have I submitted to his decision because he is the head of our family. This has happened less than 5 times in 16 years of marriage. In every case, I’ve come to the conclusion that we were at an impasse and we would choose his route because I trust him, I trust the structures of the family dictated by God, and I know that my husband would never place me in harms way. I’ve never regretted those decisions.

    We also discussed that from the outside looking in, our relationship would appear egalitarian because most decisions, most daily life, most housework and most child rearing is done mutually, with consideration for the other. We are a team. It’s that simple.

    Thank you for addressing these difficult issues with reason and clarify. I’ve not yet been brave enough to do so publicly.

  • Sharon says:

    Eyvonne, thanks for sharing that! It sounds like you and your husband have come to a similar place in your marriage that I have with Ike. And as someone who has been married a short time, it is nice to be affirmed by someone like you, who has been married much longer.

    Regarding the term complementarian, I did not step away from the term because I necessarily disagree with all that it stands for. There is much about complementarianism that I think is Biblical. However, the terms complementarian and egalitarian have not only become terribly charged, but also unhelpful. Complementarianism in particular now represents such a wide array of positions that it can mean different things for different people, some of which are more Biblical than others.

    All of that to say, I am not anti-complementarian. Not even a little. But it is not a term I use to describe myself, nor do I use the term egalitarian. I don’t know what I would call myself, but I am trying to faithfully reflect the many good tensions we see in Scripture. I hope that makes sense!

  • Eyvonne says:

    With this statement: “However, the terms complementarian and egalitarian have not only become terribly charged, but also unhelpful.” I completely agree!

    Again in conversation with my husband, I told him we need a new vocabulary to discuss these issues because the current one is too laden with misconception, innuendo, misunderstanding and hidden meaning.

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts. Thanks so much!

  • trisha says:

    I have been married 25 years and the very basic principle of unity is missing from this conversation. The Trinity are in absolute unity. We absolutely do not move forward on any major decision that we are in disagreement. And in 25 years NOTHING has been urgent enough for one person’s decision to dominate. We have labored under the hard work of getting to understanding and agreement. There are many areas in our married life that one of has deferred to the other because of their strength, passion, or desires (I balance the checkbook, he is a much better artist and so makes many of the deorating/furniture decisions, I plan vacations,etc).
    That being said, I also agree that the current language is not helpful in discussion. Would love to hear thoughts about how to change that dynamic.

  • Tom says:

    Thanks for your post Sharon. I enjoy hearing from you regularly and profit from your thoughts.

    What you’ve described in your mutual humanity thoughts is how I’ve experienced marriage with my wife over our 40 years together. It makes more sense to me the more the years go by. It seems like people do a disservice to the Biblical picture of marriage talking about submission primarily in relation to times of disagreement (those very few times in 40 years we’ve bumped up against where we can’t come to agreement on something). It seems to me that submission is way more pervasive and beautiful in a godly marriage and people don’t talk about that or focus on that as much. The mutual submission of two people who are looking out for each other’s best, loving each other, and seeking to see their loved one’s gifts and strengths to be maximized in God’s kingdom work is a beautiful thing to experience and watch in other marriages. That’s why I like what you’re talking about, it gives a larger kingdom vision for my marriage.

    Thanks for what you do.

  • Sharon says:

    Tom, what a beautiful and important thought! That is so true!

    Trisha, you raise a really interesting point! Unity between Christians is SO important, a message that Scripture consistently conveys to the church. In that regard, unity is also critical in marriage, and a high aim for which we should always strive.

    Where I think this discussion gets tricky is in applying the model of the Trinity to marriage. This is a very common argument among complementarian theologians (that is, the Father-Son relationship is applied to human models of authority and submission), however it is interesting that the Bible never actually draws an analogy between the two. Marriage is explicitly compared to Christ and the church, but never the Trinity.

    Does that means the Trinity is an inappropriate category for thinking about marriage? Not necessarily. The mysterious unity between husband and wife–two persons, one flesh–certainly echoes the mysterious union of the Trinity. In that way, I am quite certain that married couples can look to the Trinity for direction. However, in the same way that marriage is only a picture of the Christ-church relationship and not a perfect reflection of it, the same limitations are in place as we reflect the character of the Trinity.

    All of that to say, YES, we should strive for perfect unity. Does that mean we must agree before moving forward? I think that is the ideal, but I’m not sure it is entirely reconcilable with the reality that we are also humans who do not enjoy perfect unity this side of eternity, no matter how greatly we may desire it.

    If I understand you correctly, we should never settle for disunity. We should always labor for unity in our marriages, and the language of authority and submission could be distorted to suggest that this laboring is not necessary. That is indeed a danger, which is why the unity we see between Christ and the church is a critical corrective. However, I also think there are times when a couple seeks unity of spirit but comes to a place of genuine disagreement, and I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. I wonder if God can use those differences between us to grow us and humble us. It is in the broken humanity of our marriages that we get to witness God’s redemptive and hopeful intervention.

    Of course, I’ve only been married 3 years so I am speaking as a truly inexperienced wife. But what are your thoughts on all of that?

  • I want to high-five you right now. This is great! And like others have said in these comments, in a week when the Christian blogosphere has blown up over these issues, this is such a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

  • Sharon says:

    Thanks Melissa!!

  • Kristen says:

    A friend sent me to this post. I think it’s wonderful that you and your husband are trying to imitate the picture Ephesians 5 shows of Christ and the church– but I am firmly convinced that the passage does not say that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church– rather, that the particular picture of Christ and the church shown in Ephesians 5 is the picture for marriage. Marriages are to imitate that picture, in the spirit of verse 21, “submit to one another.” I think that picture very plainly shows Christ’s submission: He submitted to being put to death by not only the Romans, but by those who would soon become the church! How many in that crowd who yelled “Crucify!” later called out in repentence to Peter at Pentecost, “What shall we do?”

    But I think the reason that marriage is not “perfect in its mirroring” of Christ and the church is that it was never meant to be a “mirror,” and certainly not of every dynamic of the Christ-church relationship. The passage doesn’t say that. Marriage can’t mirror Christ and the church because husbands aren’t meant to be God incarnate and wives aren’t meant to be their worshipers. But marriage can imitate the picture of Christ giving up His power and position and laying down His life in order to raise the church up to be glorious, seated beside Him in the heavenly realms. Even so the husbands in 1st-century Ephesus were being asked to lay down the power and position given them by their culture, and raise their wives up to be seated beside them, no longer under their feet. If we don’t understand what the passage would have meant to the original readers, we will be off in our understanding of what it should mean to us.

    Ephesians 5 is simply not a picture of Christ leading the church, or holding authority over the church. It’s a picture of Christ giving Himself up for the church, nourishing and cherishing the church, and raising the church up. And that is what I believe our marriages are supposed to be imitating.

  • Sharon says:

    Kristen, thanks for dropping by! Before responding, I looked into your interpretation a bit because I had never heard it before. Because it is new to me I may be offering an uninformed response, so bear that in mind and feel free to send me Biblical or doctrinal support to further support your position!

    Now, I am unaware of any Biblical language or Christian doctrine that supports the interpretation you are offering. As far as the language of submission goes, there is never a time in Scripture where Christ “submits” himself to the church, though he does obey the Father and he does submit himself to “death.”

    I think this is a point worth teasing out because the language of submission is a tricky one as far as it relates to Christ. In fact, there is a lot of debate about whether or not Jesus even “submitted” himself to the Father, or to what extent (ie. some would claim he submitted himself in human form, but the Son does not submit to the Father in any kind of eternal way).

    That said, I want to be careful about using the word “submission” to mean something that it does not. Namely, that submission is the same as sacrifice, which it is not. Submission necessarily entails a submission TO an authority, and the church is NEVER spoken of as having authority over Christ. Christ, on the other hand, IS described as having authority over the church (Eph. 1:15-23).

    That said, I can’t help but wonder (and correct me if you think I am way off on this) if you are wanting to embrace Christ’s sacrifice without embracing our submission to him as an appropriate response to that sacrifice. Yes, Christ did lay himself down for us, but we are in turn instructed to surrender to him, to follow him, to obey him. Paul uses languages as charged as that of “slavery” to describe what this relationship looks like. And while we must be VERY VERY careful about how we reflect this model in our human relationships, there is certainly evidence that, at times, we can and should. In addition to marriage, Scripture occasionally encourages Christians to submit to other authorities as well. In Scripture, authority is not always an oppressive concept but can, in the right context and in the right way, be an echo of the good authority of God.

    With all of that in mind, I really do think we need to hold tightly to the language that Scripture itself uses. The concepts of submission and authority have come to acquire very negative connotations in our culture because of the ways they have been perverted and abused, and we need to consider that seriously and soberly. Submission is not a concept that we can be cavalier about, even in our discussions. But that does not mean we discard the relationship between submission and authority altogether. Instead, we reclaim it, and Christian marriage is one way we do that.

    That is not to say that submission should be used as a battering ram that keeps women in their place. If it is, then it does not reflect the Christ-church relationship. And returning to my points in the above blog post, we simultaneously hold on to the critical tension that, as you yourself also noted, we are humans and our husbands are NOT the incarnate Christ. The analogy has its limits. But just because the analogy is imperfect does not mean it should be rejected altogether.

    I WILL say that certain branches of the church over-emphasize submission in a way that eclipses all other aspects of marriage and being a woman and a wife. Given the limited space that Scripture devotes to this topic, I think that over-emphasis is out of sync with the Bible’s own emphasis. It needs to be given its due place, and when it IS discussed it should be done delicately and clearly in a way that in no way affirms the oppression of women. But again, I am resistant to rejecting the concept altogether.


  • Kristen says:

    Sharon, I don’t think the word “submit” as Paul intended it implies that submission always entails authority. In fact, that meaning renders Ephesians 5:21 incomprehensible. “Submitting to one another in reverence for Christ” cannot mean “placing yourselves under one another’s authority.” We cannot each be in authority over one another– and yet every other instance where the term translated “one another” appears in the New Testament, that’s exactly what it means– each of us to each other, not just some of us to some others of us.

    Secondly, I don’t think we know each other at all well enough for you to be questioning my motives. I consider Christ my Lord and Master– but not every verse in the Bible that talks about Christ and the church is about that. Jesus said to His disciples, “You are my friends.” Was He talking about Lord-to-servants there? No, He was actually distinguishing His friendship with them from the Master-servant or Lord-subject relationships, for He said, “No longer do I call you servants.” I think it’s a mistake to take a passage that may not be about Christ-as-Lord and read Christ-as-Lord into it. This is NOT denying that Christ is Lord, it’s just saying that not every Bible passage is about that.

    I note that Ephesians 5, when it refers to Christ as “head” of the church, doesn’t say, “For Christ is Lord.” It uses the word “Savior” quite specifically, instead. So whatever the head-body metaphor in Ephesians 5 is about, it cannot be a “master-to-servant” metaphor or a “Lord to subject” metaphor. Christ DOES have these relationships with the church, but I don’t believe Ephesians 5 is holding either of these relationships up as a model for human marriage! Yes, Ephesians does deal with existing structures of authority in first-century Roman culture– and it does say to wives that they should submit– but “submit” means “yield/give in to” and is actually a word Paul chose carefully when speaking to wives, in that it actually doesn’t require that it be to an authority, (unlike the word translated “obey” which he uses to slaves and children.)

    I have, if you are interested, gone in-depth into the question, “Is marriage really an Illustration of Christ and the Church?” on my own blog. Part one is found here, and two other parts follow. You might find it interesting to look at the egalitarian perspective.

    • Tiribulus (Greg) says:

      Sharon, what you have here set forth IS (pretty much) what I would say is a complimentarian view. I actually teared up a little while reading of the soft loving concern you both have for each others well being and joy. It is SO rare. When Paul speaks in verse 21 of the 5th of Ephesians of mutual submission he is setting the stage for what follows. In other words he is describing what his admonition of “submitting to one another” looks like.
      Wives your submission is manifested in trusting subjection to your own husband as to the Lord as it is with the church. Husbands, yours is manifested in selfless giving as exemplified in Christ’s loving sacrifice for His church bride and subsequent nurturing, protecting and providing walk with her.
      The Greek of verse 32 most assuredly DOES say that marriage is an earthly illustration of Christ and His church bride.
      He sums up the passage with “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (ESV) He says IT, marriage, refers to Christ and the church, not the other way around. This is amply evinced in the fact that every single even vaguely orthodox translation renders it that way.
      Furthermore, the word ekklesia (rendered church) is feminine and christos is masculine. The nation of Israel, God’s covenant people are incessantly referred to in terms of marriage and even sexual imagery, I don’t mean in SoS either. Now in the new covenant church age, it is revealed that the promise to Abraham was intended to be fulfilled by Christ’s marriage to His Church bride as proclaimed by Jeremiah in his 31st chapter. A new covenant unlike the one one He made with Israel through Moses based on laws on tablets of stone, “my covenant which they broke thought I was a husband to them”.
      It is also simply false to say that hupotasso (submit or be subjected to) as in verse 24 doesn’t refer to authority. That is EXACTLY what it DOES refer to. It’s used in extra biblical sources of the time as a term of military subjection of troops to a commanding officer. That’s it’s etymology. Here it can be taken as either the passive or middle voice. I’m with your husband that it is middle (subject YOURSELF) as opposed to passive (which would be something “be put into subjection to”) I’m simply reporting what’s going on here, not trying to be a misogynistic chauvinist which I would die one thousand terrible deaths before doing.
      No, Paul says, wives your submission looks like this and husbands yours like this. Submit and forgo your self interests men, to her care and well being because you love her with the love with which you love yourself and with which Christ loves you. In fact that IS loving yourself. This a brief and clumsy exegesis, but it does explain why the church universal has taught some close version of this for like a couple millenia, at least in declaration even if she has been uneven in her practice. Tertullian is awesome on marriage btw goin waaaaay back.
      If you are even slightly interested, I would like to tell you why I believe I can make a pretty airtight case from 1st Corinthians 7 that supports your very accurate view that a women is NOT required to remain in danger in an abusive or otherwise criminal marriage (selling drugs outta the house or not even outta the house for instance). No way.

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