Biblical Marriage: A Look at Love, Respect, and Submission

October 31st, 2012
What is biblical marriage?

When I heard that Rachel Held Evans was calling her husband "master" for a week during her “Year of Biblical Womanhood,” my first thought (forgive my gutter-mind) was "I bet they had some really good sex that week."

Or, maybe not. Evans’ husband Dan said, "You think it'd be a turn-on, but it wasn't."

I recently read in Parenting magazine about a wife who said reading Fifty Shades of Grey improved her sex life when she began calling her husband “Mr. _____”. (Shannon Ethridge would have something to say about that, I’m sure, as well as the “Master” honorific.) I honestly don't know if my husband would like such a term of endearment, but it probably couldn't hurt.

I’d say that maybe the traditional manhood and womanhood people are onto something with their emphasis on male authority, but I imagine it is the novelty or playfulness of it that gives such hierarchical honorifics their fantasy potential. In Old Testament relationships, as much of an aphrodisiac as such power might have been for the men owning the harem, I’m sure it didn’t have the same effect on the women.

But certainly the Bible’s instruction on marriage is about more than master-concubine dynamic or its modern equivalent in marriages with extremely hierarchical power dynamics. (As Evans points out, even modern couples who claim to have a “complementarian” marriage that makes the husband the authority and leader of the home don’t usually stick to that philosophy in practical life.) Modern marriage workshops and Bible studies tend to emphasize the love and respect paradigm based on Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:22-33.

“Wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body. So wives submit to their husbands in everything like the church submits to Christ. As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. . . . Each one of you should love his wife as himself, and wives should respect their husbands.” (Eph. 5:22-25, 33 CEB)

Of course, the verse before all this says “Submit to one another out of respect to Christ” (v. 21, emphasis mine), and obviously, both parties in a marriage need love and respect, but is it too extreme a stereotype to say women need love more than men, and men need respect more than women?

I am a fully liberated woman myself, with a career and the ability to speak my mind on any issue I wish. I make approximately the same amount of money as my husband, and I’m the primary bill payer, budget-monitor, etc. We parent as a team and take on tasks as needed, from cooking and laundry to changing light bulbs and unclogging toilets. He mows the yard and I nurse the baby, but that’s about the extent of our gender-dictated responsibilities.

I’d call what we have a fully egalitarian marriage, built on love and mutuality—a true partnership. But I have to admit, as a wife, I really struggle with being respectful to my husband.

I grew up in a house where we spoke our minds to one another, and we knew that harsh words didn't mean we didn't love one another. And especially in this age when it is popular to portray men as bumbling idiots, overgrown adolescents, and bombastic fools, I admit that I too often give in to the “look at the silly man—how would they ever survive without us?” dynamic.

Biblically, I would probably be stoned for my insolence. My husband is a pretty good sport, but it gets serious when, because he is a generally more easygoing person, I become the dictator and look down my nose at him for his Type B personality. I tend to micromanage and nag and critique. It's my nature, but it's not respectful—or loving!

Heresy alert: I need to submit more. Not because I’ve gotten above my station as a woman by being an equal partner in our marriage, but because our submission to one another is off balance.

I've started noticing that I feel happier with our marriage when I am being a bit more domestic, focusing more on my service to our family than on the reciprocity of his contributions. But it’s not the domesticity itself that matters. Whether it takes the form of cooking a big breakfast in the morning, taking out the garbage so he doesn’t have to mess with it, or minding our bank account without acting like a martyr, I need to be a better servant. This isn’t a “woman’s place” sort of thing—it’s a Jesus thing.

I have to say that this is really the element of Evans’ book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, that I appreciated most: the way she rediscovered the value of virtues that have been unfairly relegated to a—forgive the pun—domesticated version of biblical womanhood.

During her month focused on gentleness, she discovers that a “gentle, quiet spirit” is not about being meek and mild, but “strong enough to hold back, secure enough to soften.” She finds that kicking the habits of snark, gossip, swearing, complaining, and nagging are not just about being more ladylike, but about “regaining control” over her authentic personality. Or, as my husband says in his prayer before the sermon each Sunday, “Lord, make us masters of ourselves, that we might be the servants of others.”

During her month focused on domesticity, she discovered the joy of hospitality and the peace of meeting God in simple tasks like basting a turkey—not because God can only meet a woman in the kitchen, but because God is everywhere, including the kitchen.

And later, during her month focused on submission, she tried to cultivate the “disposition to yield” and to be a “helpmeet” in the bastardized version of the term (i.e. a helper with no authority, as opposed to a fitting and equal partner, a perfect match). Surely this was the virtue in which Evans least expected to find value, throwing her copy of Created to Be His Helpmeet, with its Stepford wife-like instructions, across the room seven times. But after debunking the modern biblical manhood/womanhood movement’s definition of submission and focusing instead on the Bible itself and the context of the early church, she finds in submission the essence of Christlike humility and a subversion of the world’s hierarchical orders.

In Christ, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. There shall be no more master and slave, man and woman, for all are one. The one who is “in his very nature, God,” lowered himself to take on “the very nature of a servant.” And we who follow Christ should seek to do the same, both in our marriages and as humble servants of all people, in Jesus' name.

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