Monday, February 16, 2009

A Theology Of Gender: Part Two

Part II:
Men And Women In Marriage

Due to the uniqueness of the marriage relationship in comparison to all other human relationships (such as those in ministry), I believe that the marriage model will appear on the surface to be more egalitarian than complementarian. I also believe that even under the surface the marriage relationship will be far more egalitarian than will other male-female relationships. However, I believe that a careful cross-comparative analysis of the three primary verse that deal with the marriage relationship (1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, and 1 Peter 3), as well as one or two other related passages, will show a distinctively complementarian model emerging.

1 Corinthians 7

1 Corinthians 7 is the longest single passage in Scripture dealing solely with marriage. Thus it would seem surprising that it has received little or no attention in the modern gender debate. However, this lack of attention isn’t really all that surprising when one considers the content of Paul’s marriage counseling. Despite its length, the passage deals mostly with a number of very specific situations that, on the whole, have very little application value when it comes to the issues at the heart of the gender debate. Most of Paul’s advice to unmarried virgins and widows would square well with either a Complementarian or an Egalitarian model, so there is little to argue about. And his almost insistent wish that most Christians would remain unmarried (though not practical or Biblical if taken to an extreme) leaves us with no marriage relationship over which to dispute.

The one place where an argument might be had is in the first pericope, verses 1-9 (there might also be a point of disagreement in verse 14, since Egalitarians might contest that Paul’s statement that a wife can sanctify her unbelieving husband seems to contradict the Complementarian argument that men should be the spiritual leaders, but I will touch on that briefly later). Paul is responding to a letter he had received from the Corinthian church regarding several issues of contention that had arisen between them in his absence. The first issue he addresses is what appears to be a kind of radical asceticism, where some of the church members were apparently saying that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, was bad. Paul responds to this false teaching by describing the mutual duty that the husband and wife have toward one another regarding sexual intimacy. Neither partner is to withhold conjugal rights from the other, and they may only abstain by mutual consent. Paul grounds these commands in two ways. First, by pointing out humanity’s fallen state and its general lack of self-control when it comes to sexuality. Second, by stating that neither partner has authority over their own body in this regard, rather the authority over the husband’s body belongs to his wife, and likewise the authority of the wife’s body belongs to her husband.

Clearly this verse suggests some kind of mutual submission of authority in the marriage relationship, but based upon this verse alone the only honest conclusion we can come to is that this is true with regards to sexual relations, and nothing more. Indeed, it may be true that this mutual submission model is to be the standard for all aspects of the marriage relationship, but that conclusion cannot be drawn from this verse alone. All that can be said is that, even in a patriarchal model, the husband does not have absolute authority over the sexual relationship. He may not demand sex whenever he wishes it, nor may he deny sex to his wife whenever he wishes. Every aspect of the sexual relationship must be consensual.

No argument for a male-headship model can be made from this passage, but neither can an egalitarian argument be made, for two reasons. The first I have already stated. The topic of discussion in this passage is simply too narrow to draw any definitive principles for gender roles in general. Second, even if implications could be drawn, the sexual relationship is unique within marriage. It involves two persons in a powerful, physical and emotional way that requires a level of mutual consent far above any other aspect of the marriage relationship. Thus applying an egalitarian model throughout the entire relationship is unwarranted and cannot be justified from this passage alone.

As I mentioned above, the other point of contention is in verse 14, where Paul says that a believing wife can sanctify her husband. Some argue that this goes against the complementarian claim that husbands are to be the spiritual leaders of their family. However, from the context of this verse alone, such a claim is unwarranted.

First of all, this is a special case where the husband is an unbeliever. Obviously an unbelieving husband cannot be the spiritual head of the house, and in such a case the wife might as well be viewed as a single parent, at least in regards to spiritual matters. Moreover, there are many special considerations given for the “unevenly yoked” marriage, including divorce if the unbelieving partner wants it.

However, even if it could be argued that a wife can continue to sanctify her husband even after he becomes a believer, this still fits within a complementarian model. Complementarians do not argue that a wife cannot be a mutual sanctifier to her husband, nor do they argue that she cannot be a “co-sanctifier” along side her husband for the children. After all, the wife is usually seen as primarily responsible for child rearing, thus it would make little sense to argue that she can have no sanctifying effect on the children. And so, once again, using 1 Corinthians 7 to apply an egalitarian model to every aspect of marriage is unwarranted.

This passage does, however, seriously shift the burden of proof to the Complementarians. The question is, “if this one aspect of the marriage relationship is to be egalitarian, why not all aspects?” To answer this question, we must look elsewhere.

Ephesians 5

Chapter 5 of Ephesians begins with Paul exhorting the Ephesian Christians to walk in love, light and wisdom. In verse 18 he tells them to be filled with the Spirit, and goes on to list several external actions that being filled with the Spirit would entail. He concludes this section with a final action: submitting “to one another” in Christ. He then begins a new section at verse 22, describing in more detail what this general submission looks like. Wives are to submit to their husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters.

The crux of the debate seems to depend on which of the two submission statements you choose to qualify the other. Egalitarians will interpret the wife’s submission in light of the command to submit to one another, and Complementarians will interpret the command to submit to one another in light of the further commands to wives, children and slaves. It seems more probable to me that the latter is the better approach. Paul gives a general command and then clarifies it, thus we should interpret the general command in light of the clarifications. It is unlikely that he is merely giving examples of certain ways in which Christians can submit to one another, rather than clarifying who is to submit to whom (because the phrase “to one another” doesn’t have to mean “everyone to everyone” but can mean “some to others”, this also makes the clarification understanding more plausible). And it is even more unlikely that the submission described is mutual or reversible, since no one would argue that parents ought to submit to their children.

The other major point of contention in this passage is over the meaning of “head.” In verse 23 Paul says that the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. Egalitarians generally like to interpret “head” as “source” or “source of provision”, claiming that there is no connotation of authority. Wayne Grudem argues that the Greek word translated “head” here (kephale) always, without exception in all of Greek literature, carries the connotation of “person in authority over.” More moderate Complementarians (such as Michelle Lee) recognize that “source of provision” fits well with the manner in which Paul cashes out the husband-Christ analogy. Paul speaks of Christ as the Savior of His church (Ephesians 5: 25-26), and in Ephesians 4:1-16 he refers to Christ as the head of a body. However, they also recognize that the “person in authority over” connotation is also present, and thus create a kind of middle road that remains slightly complementarian.

Which interpretation best fits the text? Though Wayne Grudem’s assertion may be a bit too strong, his research into the word kephale is very helpful in informing our decision. But even without his extra-biblical study into the word’s usage, all the clues we need are present within the text itself. Christ may indeed be the “source of provision” for his church, but verse 24 goes on to say, “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” The question is, in what way does the church submit to Christ? Do we only submit to Christ as a source of provision for us, without any hint of leadership or authority? Of course not. While it is true that all metaphors tend to break down after a point, the fact that Paul’s description of Christ as head is continually coupled with the command to submit makes the connotation of authority very hard to get rid of. Therefore, between Paul’s use of the head-body analogy for Christ’s headship, his repetition of the imperative to submit, and the general meaning of kephale, it seems more likely that Christ is meant to represent both “source of provision” and “person in authority over.” Thus both of these must be true of the husband-wife relationship.

One last comment must be made about this passage. Egalitarians often claim that male-headship is no different than slavery. Like slavery, male-headship was an institution in place in the 1st century that Paul was simply trying to regulate, but not endorse. When it comes to arguments like these, however, I see a certain amount of inconsistency from the egalitarian position. When it suits them, they are quick to point out that Paul is often radical and counter-cultural, and yet they turn around and claim that, at other times, Paul was merely trying to work within the status quo. Perhaps it is possible to apply this argument to slavery, saying that while Paul was radical when it came to racial prejudice, he was no outspoken abolitionist. To a certain extent, I admit, I do see the logic behind this egalitarian claim. However, racial prejudice and slavery are two separate things. What the egalitarian position requires us to believe is that Paul was at some times radical and other times unwilling to confront his culture about the same issue. For example, back in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul has no problem telling the husband that he must yield his authority over his body to his wife, and in doing so he seems very much ahead of his own time in recognizing that women have sexual needs and desires just as much as men do. It seems very unlikely that Paul would shy away from being counter-cultural in one instance and not in another, with respect to the very same issue. Moreover, because Paul was working within a dominantly patriarchal culture, as egalitarians rightly point out, he would have had to come out and explicitly command egalitarianism in order for most people in his day to understand him. And none of this takes into account the simple fact that Paul does, on many occasions, condemn slavery as a general practice (see 1 Corinthians 7:21 and 1 Timothy 1:10). He never makes any such negative comments regarding male-headship; he only ever endorses it. Also, the institution of marriage, unlike slavery, was ordained by God before the fall, making them too dissimilar to compare on purely moral grounds.

1 Peter 3

Briefly, I agree with the general consensus among egalitarians that 1 Peter 3 is written primarily to instruct Christians on how to be an effective witness. Christianity was viewed by many in Rome as a subversive religion, yet it would be too great a leap to make the blanket claim that Peter is merely instructing Christians to keep the status quo as much as possible. Peter’s advice to women that they should not adorn themselves extravagantly might even be viewed as a kind of subtle subversion. It is one way that Christian women can stand apart from the rest, without being openly subversive. Also, when Peter is instructing slaves to obey their earthly masters he says that “it is commendable if a man bears up under unjust suffering.” Once again we see that slavery is clearly not endorsed as an inherently good thing. Yet no such strong indictment of male-headship is given, quite the opposite in fact. Peter explicitly commends women who are submissive to their husbands, not merely in the context of being a good witness, and calls them daughters of Sarah, which would have been high praise for a Jewish woman. Finally, Peter explicitly calls women the “weaker partner.” What exactly he may have meant by this is debatable, but whatever he meant, the statement makes an egalitarian interpretation of the passage very difficult to accept. On the contrary, it strongly suggests that Peter believed a male-headship model was grounded somehow in the inherent differences between men and women, whether they be merely physical or something more, a very complementarian position indeed.

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