Sunday, February 21, 2016

ET15. God's ideal is an equal partnership in marriage.

This is the fifteenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
God's ideal is an equal partnership in a one-to-one marriage.

1. This is a conclusion we reach by following the great principles of Scripture. We know that all people are created in the image of God, both male and female (Gen. 1:27). [1] We know that in Christ there is no "male and female" (Gal. 3:28) and that the Spirit fills equally both men and women (Acts 2:17). So men and women are of equal spirituality and value.

We know from experience that men and women are of equal intelligence. We know from experience that the question of who is the wisest or most capable of leadership between any one man and woman is a matter of that man and woman. Some women are wiser than other men, and some women are better leaders than other men.

The logical conclusion is that leadership should be a case by case question. Which person, man or woman is most equipped and capable to lead in this particular instance?

As obvious as this conclusion is, many Christians believe it is biblical for men always to lead, whether in the church or in the home. This is an understandable interpretation from the letter of Scripture. We would argue that this is a point where must carefully discern the spirit of the Scriptures and take into account the context of some of its specific instruction.

2. We might start with the consequences of the Fall. To the woman God says, "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Gen. 3:16). You might conclude from this punishment that wives must be subject to their husbands.

But there is a theological problem here. Did not Christ die for the sins of Eve as well as the sins of Adam? It may have taken the earliest church a few years to realize that Jesus died for all the sins of all history. Acts 21:24 indicates that some Christians were still participating in the temple almost thirty years after Jesus died on the cross!

In the New Testament, only the book of Hebrews is explicit with a full understanding of atonement. Only Hebrews says that Christ died for all sins, past and present. Only Hebrews indicates that none of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were actually effectual. They were like rainchecks that waited for the solely effective sacrifice of all history--the death of Christ. Not even Paul explicitly makes a statement of this sort. [2]

The bottom line is that Christ's sacrificial death has forever undone the punishment of Eve. Childbearing may continue, because it is physical. But when we can play out the redemption of Eve in relation to subjection to husbands, why wouldn't we? [3] That is the clear trajectory of the kingdom. In the kingdom, women are not "given" in marriage (Mark 12:25). Women and men stand side by side as full equals in the kingdom of God.

3. So why is this issue even a question? It is a question because 1) we are prone to read individual verses more than see the broader principles of Scripture, 2) because we are not aware of the way in which the books of the Bible were incarnated revelation, and 3) we are unaware of our own cultural influences.

For example, polygamy is fully accepted as an option in the Old Testament. Like the full assumption of divorce, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 assumes the practice of polygamy when it insists that the firstborn son of the first wife is the one that must inherit first. Because polygamy is not a live option today, we find it easy to dismiss. I believe we should similarly recognize the notion of husband-headship as a cultural element in some New Testament instruction.

God's ideal in marriage is monogamy rather than polygamy. The ideal is one man and one woman, not one man and multiple wives. Nevertheless, God allowed polygamy in the Old Testament. Even the New Testament does not prohibit it, as it does unbridled divorce.

However, polygamy is a result of the Fall. It certainly made sense in ancient cultures with a large death rate and where the assignment of several women to one man helped those women survive. The move away from polygamy to monogamy is a movement toward the empowerment and equality of women. We complete that trajectory when we consider wives to be full and equal partners in marriage. [4]

4. Several of the letters in the New Testament also assume husband headship. 1 Corinthians, Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter all do. We are arguing that these instructions play out the principle of submitting to authority in a cultural environment where the man was considered the authority in the marriage. The underlying principle is to submit to those who are in authority over you, not the specifics of that authority itself. If the structure itself were part of the principle, we would expect it to play itself out in the kingdom as well.

But it doesn't. Husband-headship is a structure of earth, not of heaven. In the kingdom, wives will not be given to men. The pains of childbirth and our current bodies will be far behind.

There was nothing unique in Paul's world about saying the husband was the head of the house. Aristotle suggested as much in his Politics, some four hundred years before Paul. Aristotle wrote, "The head of the household rules over both wife and children, and rules over both as free members of the household… His rule over his wife is like that of a statesman over fellow citizens… The male is naturally fitter to command than the female, except where there is a departure from nature" (Politics, 1.1259a-b).

So it is at the points where the New Testament modifies the norm that it is being distinctively Christian. For example, when Paul says, "the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife," he was saying something quite striking indeed for his world (1 Cor. 7:4). Ephesians says, "husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies" (5:28), and "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (5:25). These are quite striking in Paul's world.

The trajectory of this teaching is thus toward the equal worth and value of wives, not toward husband-headship.

5. In 1 Peter especially, the structures of that age were assumed as a given--slaves under unjust masters, wives with unbelieving masters, nobodies in an evil empire. Peter tells them to conform and not to make waves. Scot McKnight has called this a "defensive strategy." [5]

Paul's letters also increasingly accommodate these structures over time. Although Acts portrays a Pauline mission that knows no distinction between the roles of men and women, a problem first arises at Corinth with wives in close quarters around men who aren't their husbands. 1 Corinthians 11 sets down rules to cope with this situation of the new age. If the wives will wear a veil, their men will not be shamed by the spiritual activity of their wives in a mixed group.

In Colossians and Ephesians, we see that household codes have developed. Again, they assume the household structures of Aristotle. 1 Timothy suggests that the tension created by the new power women were experiencing in the church had grown so strong that Paul needed to make his strongest statement anywhere on the husband-wife relationship. [6] In other words, this structure is not part of God's timeless plan but was first brought on by Adam's sin and continued in the late New Testament as an accommodation to first century culture.

The earthly structure of husband-headship was thus a practical solution to the tensions of a Christianity that had empowered women and wives beyond what many people in the church of that day could bear.

6. If we have the power to make our current world more like the kingdom, why wouldn't we? When we know what the kingdom is going to be like, why wouldn't we? When Christianity is playing out in a patriarchal context, it makes sense for it to operate in those categories. But when the surrounding culture already agrees that men and women are of equal worth, would it not be perverse to continue with the "weak and beggarly" elements of a passing age (Gal. 4:9)? When the broader culture agrees that women are just as wise as men, why would we artificially continue structures that were a consequence of the Fall?

It is sometimes said that someone has to be in charge in the family. If both wife and husband are submitting to one another (Eph. 5:21), it's hard to see why. And even if this dictum were true, would it not make sense for it to be whichever of the two is the wiser or the better leader? Or to make even more sense, shouldn't it be the person that has greater experience or wisdom in the specific area of the decision?

In Christ there is not "male and female" (Gal. 3:28). The way this verse is worded suggests that it is actually echoing Genesis 1:27: "male and female created he them." But in Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not, 'male and female.'" The new creation thus undoes stereotypical distinctions between male and female.

The ideal of eternity is an equal partnership between men and women. If we can put it into effect now, why not? That is the trajectory of the kingdom. The only reason for anything less is hardness of hearts.

Next Sunday: ET16. Sex should be kept within a marriage relationship.

[1] Occasionally someone who does not know Hebrew will suggest that only the male is said to be in the image of God in Genesis 1:27. But the Hebrew word 'adam is here generic: "mankind" or "humankind."

[2] 1 Timothy 2:14-15 thus cannot be used to say that women still lack something in relation to salvation because of Eve's transgression. Either these statements mean something else (e.g., that Mary's childbearing redeemed women from the curse of Eve) or 1 Timothy does not yet have the full understanding of Hebrews. These verses are clearly not the center point for a biblical theology of wives or women in general.

[3] It will not do to make the word "helper" in Genesis 2:18 into a subordinate role before the Fall. The majority of instances of this word in the Old Testament refer to God as a helper. For example, "You are my help and deliverer, O LORD" (Ps. 70:5).

[4] There is a tendency to read modern assumptions into biblical texts. Yes, a man becomes one flesh with a wife, but this has nothing to do with how many wives a man has. A man can become one flesh with each of multiple women.

[5] Scot McKnight, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), **.

[6] It seems fairly obvious to me that 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is not about men and women in general but about husbands and wives specifically. When the Greek words aner and gyne are used in close proximity, it is all the more likely that husbands and wives are in view. Similarly, the arguments of 1 Timothy 2:13-14 have to do with Adam and Eve, a husband-wife couple.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for this post, and for the entire series.