marriage is a hierarchy?

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Is marriage a partnership or a hierarchy?

This was the subject of discussion several weeks ago on one of the blogs I follow.  The author, a female, wrote of her frustration with Christians who view holy matrimony as a hierarchy rather than a partnership.  While she did so graciously and tactfully, I believe the entire discussion was based on a false premise:  A marriage must be either a partnership or a hierarchy; it cannot be both.

I don’t believe that statement is a biblical (or logical) one.  A hierarchy does not in any way exclude union and cooperation.

I’ll go even further to say that neither does a hierarchy necessarily exclude equality.

Jesus is fully God, as is the Holy Spirit.  Yet Jesus used his authority to send the Holy Spirit to us.  And Christ was himself sent by the Father (being under his authority).  It seems to me this is an egalitarian relationship in which one person of the Trinity has willingly decided to submit to another.  Father, then Son, then Spirit.  It is at this moment of submission that a partnership becomes a hierarchy — while still remaining a partnership. The Trinity is not a hierarchy because the Father has greater power or worth than the Son, but rather because there has been a willingness to submit by one or more parties.

I see marriage as a partnership.  I believe men and women are equal. But I also believe marriage was intended to work best 1) when the husband gives his life fully for his bride (“as Christ loves the church”), and 2) when the wife willingly submits to her husband out of love.  What I’m afraid we often forget is that when a man loves a woman like Christ loves the church, it looks a whole lot like submission to her.  And when a wife submits to a husband who acts like Christ, it looks a whole lot like submitting to Christ himself.

Christian marriage presupposes that both parties have submitted first, and fully, to Christ. A wife who is in submission to Christ cannot conceivably offer full submission to a husband who is not.  No man — or woman — can serve two masters.

Only when I am in submission to Christ can I love my wife as Christ loves the church. And only when we are both in submission to Christ can she willingly and fully submit to me.

Of course I don’t believe it’s only marriage that’s supposed to work this way. The church is certainly a partnership as well.  Yet, I have willingly and out of love submitted to the shepherds at Stones River Church.  I trust they love me as Christ loves the church, and I see that they are, even now, sacrificing themselves in service to that very church.  These men are in partnership with my family as we serve in Tanzania, although we recognize their Spirit-given responsibility of nurturing and protecting us, and we follow the example they have given us for living in God’s kingdom.

Paul urged the Corinthian church to follow his example as he followed Christ.  I figure the God-given role of a husband and father isn’t far at all from that.

Series continued:  marriage to an unbeliever (and sanctification the result) and marriage as a (misunderstood) play



Filed under family

22 responses to “marriage is a hierarchy?

  1. I didn’t read the blog that influenced the writing of this one, but I agree with what you have said. I see abuses of the submission concept on both sides (man and woman), but I think if it is incorporated as God intends it to be, it works and blesses a marriage.

    Before I got married I thought it would be tough. It sounds tough and unpleasant. But I’ve found it is really quite wonderful and I see now so many reasons for submitting to my husband as it is described in the Bible that I did not understand before. I’ve still got plenty to learn, but the more I learn, the more I see how God’s plan is indeed the best one. I didn’t always think so and I wondered why marriage was necessary in the first place when not being married seemed to work just fine. But once married…and once married for a while, I’ve seen more and understand more.

    I like reading reminders of this sort. It strengthens the resolve and the purpose in me to be that kind of spouse.

    • janie, i’m like you in that there was a long time (in my 20s) that i wasn’t so excited about getting married. but it is one of the very best decisions i’ve ever made — at least marrying christie was. it may have less to do with marriage and more to do with my wife. though i still think that at times it’s tough. probably because i’m still a pretty selfish person.

  2. jay @ bethegospel

    I appreciate the way that you handled this subject man. Thanks for the dialogue.

  3. I think far too many women believe submission=subjugation and resist the idea, and resist consideration of the idea. The movement in culture to push women to be wholly independant from men, and to resist anything that looks like the 50’s home life is rampant in tv, schools, everywhere really. “I’ll be your wife, but don’t think for a minute that I’m not doing what I want when I want”. Women are encouraged to live as though they are single even after marriage. A difference in role does not mean a difference in value or equality.

    I hope the above rant was not interpreted as being the pretense of a daytime talkshow about controlling husbands, lol.

    • john, you’re welcome to rant — though i wouldn’t have myself classified your words as strongly. i definitely agree that a difference in role does not mean a difference in value, and that there currently seems to be a walking away from that idea among young women.

      but when you write, “I’ll be your wife, but don’t think for a minute that I’m not doing what I want when I want,” i can’t help but think that men have been allowed to have this attitude for decades. so the women, it seems, are only responding in kind. they’re indeed only asking to be treated with equality. men have been allowed to act as though they’re single after marriage, so why can’t they? until men are loving their wives deeply and truly sacrificing themselves for their families, none of this will work.

      and i believe it’s our role, as men, to be that example.

      • Amanda McLemore

        Thanks so much for posting this reply. It’s so encouraging to see true men of God who are laying down their lives for their wives and children…but firstly, like you said, submitting their lives fully to Christ.

        • i’m not sure how i feel about being called a true man of God. that is certainly who i aspire to be, but some days i feel i’m very far yet.

          thanks for coming by, amanda, and for the comments. you’re welcome anytime.

  4. JLynn

    Very beautifully put, Brett.

  5. I’ve heard a lot about this topic lately – the complementarian vs egalitarian view of marriage. I like your take a lot that a partnership and hierarcy can coexist – and indeed make a beautiful relationship. In fact, thought your description was so good I was going to link to your blog yet again!

    The only thing that made me hesitate was this part: “A wife who is in submission to Christ cannot conceivably offer full submission to a husband who is not. No man — or woman — can serve two masters.”

    I was wondering if a woman is truly unable to fully sumbit to her husband if he is not in submission to Christ, as long as he is not asking her to contradict her responsibilites as a follower of Christ. Couldn’t him being sanctified through his wife, or being won by her conduct be partly due to her benevolent submission to him?

    Certainly as you said, ideally, both husband and wife would be submitted first and fully to Christ. But this is often not the case.

    I was thinking those verses about serving 2 masters were in regard to serving God vs money. Do you believe they can be applied in the context of marriage as well?

    • Tisha, your one hesitation is worthy of further study for you and Brett. I would suggest 1 Corinthians 7 has some insights on this.

      • john, thanks for pointing us there (i think tisha was already there, herself). as you can now see, i’ve posted my thoughts on the subject. but i’m not very sure of them (though they make sense in my head) — so i’d appreciate redirection or further questions if i so need it. the truth is i don’t know that i’ve ever heard anyone explain well the husband’s sanctification in this passage — though i’ve not gone searching for answers. what i’ve given is simply what seems logical from the text. i had something else planned to post today on the blog, but i’m considering tweaking the response to tisha and posting it. it’d be worth getting others’ ideas on. i’m rambling now.

    • tisha, i hope the following is alright with you…

      i originally posted a response to your thoughts here. but then decided this conversation is probably worth publishing as a conversation in itself. so i’ve removed my comment that was here only minutes ago — and instead tweaked it and made it its own post.

      you are mentioned in the post, and portions (the majority) of your comment are printed there. i assumed you wouldn’t mind — let me know if you do, and i’ll be happy to edit you out of said essay. also, i linked to your blog, which i was almost certain you wouldn’t care about either.

      • That’s fine, thank you for asking. I’m just so glad you responded to my question! But, I will not say thank you. =) I don’t often read theology blogs because there can be a lot of bickering. I so appreciate the way you dialogue and discuss issues here – humbly, trying to help others learn while learning yourself.

  6. randy morgan

    good stuff, jamesbrett.

    right before paul wrote, “wives, submit to your husbands,” he wrote “submit to one another out of reverence for christ.”

    • thanks, randy. but in fairness and honesty, i should admit that i have studied the subject better than i live it. one of my greatest objectives for the new year is to be a better husband and father.

  7. Pingback: marriage to an unbeliever (and sanctification through it) | aliens and strangers

  8. Pingback: marriage as a (misunderstood) play | aliens and strangers

  9. Pingback: Words of a Fether » Missing The Point

  10. Robyn

    A marriage can be a cooperative hierarchy in the sense that a wife can choose to stifle her voice and participation in the relationship voluntarily. But it cannot be both a hierarchy and a partnership of EQUALS. Hierarchy, by definition, places one person “over” another. There is no equality in hierarchy. If one truly believes that marriage is ordained by God to be a hierarchy, must one acknowledge the subordination of the wife to the husband and that they are NOT EQUALS in the relationship. Sure, they’re equally human and equally valuable to God, but they cannot be equally yoked, walking side-by-side, in the marriage. If that is your position, okay. But please don’t try to argue that there can be both equality and hierarchy in a marriage.

    The Bible clearly teaches that believers are not to consider themselves better than one another, but to humbly place others above themselves. They are exhorted to confront one another in love, which one cannot do with a superior under which one is subordinate. They are commanded to submit to one another in love and unity. Do all these instructions go out the window just because two believers are married? Are they no longer bound by any other teaching in the bible?

    Can a wife do all those things while playing the role of “private” to the husband’s “general”? Nope. Because if one is subordinate to the other–if one person is in “authority” over another–there is no room for equal participation in decision-making. The balance of power will be with the dominant partner.

    No where does the bible say, “Husbands, exert authority over your wives and make sure they obey you.” It is unbiblical and wrong for a husband to insist that his wife submit to him. Even if you believe that wives are to do whatever the husband says because he is the boss of the relationship, the implication of the “wives submit to your husbands” passage in the Greek is “wives submit YOURSELVES to your husbands.” Husbands are to love their wives AS CHRIST LOVED THE CHURCH AND GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR HER. Husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives. They are to put HER needs before their own. They are to constantly SERVE their wives as Christ was a servant on earth. Not insist that she “respect my authority!”

    If a couple chooses a hierarchical model for their marriage, it’s really none of my business. But it’s also none of anyone else’s business if my husband and I choose and equal partnership without hierarchy and choose to make all our decisions jointly. If anyone is happy with a dominant husband and an inferior wife, then I’m glad they’re happy and that their marriage works for them. But don’t you dare tell me that my marriage isn’t godly because it looks differently from yours.

    I think that many passages on marriage are interpreted outside of the 1st century context and with an incomplete hermeneutic, but I won’t break them down one by one here. Honestly because I doubt anyone would listen with an open mind. If anyone *is* interested, I suggest they check out Christians for Biblical Equality’s resources. There is excellent exegesis by respected, orthodox theologians that support my beliefs.

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