Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Women, Men, and Christian Marriage

I spoke several years ago to a young evangelical on Christian women submitting to their husbands. She spoke openly and earnestly about how eager she was to enter into a relationship that has that dynamic. While I don't reject all marriages that take a more traditional form, I'm really uncomfortable with the assumption that true covenant marriage *must* have this structure.

Having been challenged by the good sister to a genial scriptural battle royale on that point, it's hard to know where to begin. 1 Timothy seems a good place to start, as it's usually where folks go to make this point.

Of course, if we take 1 Timothy 2:12 as literalists read it, I win by default. Yield to my inherent God-breathed chromosomal superiority! Submit to my saying you don't need to be submissive! Hee hee. But that would be cheating.

The issue with 1 Timothy (and the other epistles) is whether we read them as speaking to an eternal ideal, or to the way that that eternal ideal expresses itself in the particular context of 1st century Roman society.

As an example, the repeated exhortations for slaves to be submissive to their masters (Titus 2:9; Colossians 3:2; Ephesians 6:5) assume a societal situation that we now universally reject. The assumptions about women in Roman society are similarly outdated.

Yes, scripture says it. But if you accept --and you must--that slavery is an institution that is antithetical to Christ, then it is important to understand that the assumptions made about Roman marriage were very similar. A wife was understood as part of the household, with status not considerably higher than a slave or a Barcalounger. Though a tiny minority of women had property rights under Roman law, most were, de facto, owned.

We no longer live--nor should we in Christ desire to live--in the world to which that scripture spoke. But other scripture speaks on the subject as well.

Genesis 2 and 3 provide the foundation for most of church attitudes towards women. Eve, or so the story goes, is responsible for messing us all up by chowing down on the fruit of the tree of good and evil. She falls from her created purpose—which was what?

Woman was made to be “a helper.” (Genesis 2:18) Viewed through the lens of tradition, this gets interpreted as implying a submissive role. Adam decides, Eve helps. Preferably with the laundry and the diapers and the vacuuming.

Yet the Hebrew term for “helper” in Genesis 2:18 is "ezer," which does not have a submissive connotation. It is used, for instance, in 1 Kings 20:16, to mean “ally.” In Psalm 30:11 and Psalm 54:6, it is used to describe the help that comes from the Lord. Not what one would call subordinate, eh?

The ideal for the relationship between men and women is found in Genesis 22:23-24, where they are united “as one flesh.” This form of union is affirmed by Christ in his teachings on divorce (Mark 10:1-9, Matthew 19:1-6). It does not seem to necessitate one having inherent authority over another.

But the Yahwist story of creation in Genesis 2 and 3 goes on to describe our fall from grace. Our key verse relative to the issue at hand is Genesis 3:16, where the Hebrew Issha (she wasn’t Eve yet) is told that for her disobedience “..your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” So what does this tell us? Is a man's rule over woman part of the goodness of God’s creation? No. It’s part of the curse that befell humanity when we fell away from God and God's intent for us. So should Christian marriage reflect our fallen state? I obviously don’t think so.

We are in Christ a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). Through Christ, we are--men and women alike-- liberated from Adam’s fall (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22). If Christ is the new Adam who restores us to right relationship with God, does that curse of submission still rest on womankind? As Paul would say, “By no means!”

There are some other overarching principles in Paul that are worth surfacing when you try to understand Christian marriage.

First, Paul’s organic approach to the church. Again and again, Paul returns to the idea of the church as the body of Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27). Within that body, there exist a variety of roles and gifts, but it is not for us to prioritize among those gifts. They are each necessary and complementary to one another. (1 Corinthians 12:1-28) In challenging the assumptions of the fiercely competitive Corinthian Christians, Paul aggressively rejects the idea of hierarchical authority within the body of Christ—of which married Christians are most certainly a part.

Further, if we claim that gender should provide a basis for authority in Christ, that would require us to reject Paul’s soaring and revolutionary assertion in Galatians 3:28, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Ancient Rome didn’t have the ears to hear that, but that’s no excuse for us.