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Where does marriage get you if no-one takes the lead?

When Mr. W and I embarked on marriage, there was no doubt in my mind that he was the head of the household. There was no doubt in his mind, either, because I had been sure to make it very clear to him.

It hadn't quite got through to the minister who married us, though, as – in spite of my firm insistence on publicly pledging to "love, honour and obey" – when the moment arrived he led us in the edited, symmetric version of the vows, according to which we need only love and honour one another!! I was a little put out, but swiftly pardoned the faux-pas on account of the doctrinal soundness and evangelistic tenor of his sermon. Besides, my embrace of the theology of wifely submission required no officialising and would certainly withstand a mere liturgical hiccup. I stressed as much to my new husband in the car on the way to the reception, and he was every bit as reassured as I insisted that he should be.

Only in recent years have I thought to question whether it really was the "innocent" mistake I took it for. Could it not rather have been (say) an act of pastoral care on the part of someone far wiser and more discerning than my earnest 21-year-old self? (Yes, yes, we were SO YOUNG; now just imagine how many times we've had that pointed out to us and spare us one more). Either way, it kinda seems ... well ... I want to say, sort of prophetic, maybe.

Not (I hope!) of any wilful rebellious turn against the wise, misguided, generous, infuriating, gentle, unreliable, stupendous person I am grateful to be doing life with. "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ," writes Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church (Eph 5:21), and I still hold this to be a profoundly integral aspect of following Jesus.

But as my knowledge of the Bible has increased, as I've grown in prayer and (I think/hope) in relationship with God, as I've grappled with the world as I find it and sought to understand the implications of God's royal reign for life here and now in that world, I have come to substantially re-evaluate my interpretation of the verses that follow (and related passages) about wives specifically submitting to husbands specifically. For one thing, according to the same New Testament household codes, slaves specifically are also supposed to submit to masters specifically. Since (elsewhere; 1 Cor 7:21) Paul is all for slaves obtaining their freedom if they get the opportunity to do so, I don't believe that Paul is mandating or justifying the institution of slavery; correspondingly, I no longer believe that he is mandating or justifying the subservience of women within marriage either [1]. I believe that he is observing the (worldly) hierarchical social order as it exists, and giving guidelines for living whole and humble and meaningful lives within it. I believe that he is empowering subjected people to reclaim their agency and re-order their lives with Jesus – and not their human 'superiors' – at the centre [2]. Meanwhile, he is calling those with worldly authority over others to exercise particular duties of self-giving care in addition to the universal requirements of Christ-like, mutual submission. And I believe that the (ab)use of his words to underpin a sexist (and racist) status quo represents a failure of the church to "not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." [3]

What about my erstwhile household head? How did he react to the news that his role had been revised? I could joke that he just "did as he was told, like always", but in reality I'm glad to say it's a journey we've taken together. If anything, he's been one step ahead of me more often than not, and we'd probably have gotten to where we're at sooner if I'd actually followed his lead as diligently as my convictions theoretically obliged me to.

Which, ironically, brings me back round to a common defence of the headship model... Even supposing it's not commanded by scripture, isn't it simply more efficient if someone takes the lead?

One especially sunny evening over the summer we were sat in the park watching two of those especially adorable little sausage dogs prancing about joyfully while their humans sat and chatted. The sight was all the more entertaining for the fact that, presumably as a strategy for keeping them out of too much mischief while they roamed free, they were loosely leashed together. They could explore in different directions, chase different critters, smell different smells ... and whenever the leash reached its length they'd regroup, compare notes, and pursue their best options jointly until the next time one of them spotted something interesting before the other.

My absent-minded smile mutated grimace-ward as it occurred to me that the scene would be a gift of a sermon illustration for a complementarian preacher. (A complementarian is a Christian who believes in male headship and female submission). Those hapless hounds between them had no sense of purpose or direction; they weren't going anywhere, except for round in circles. And that, my friends, is what happens in an egalitarian marriage. Without the unity of vision that is easily achieved by designating one person to be the vision-haver and the other the co-actioner of that vision, a couple risks pulling in different directions, unable to agree and therefore unable to action anything at all. This is something of an abbreviation of (one aspect of) complementarian reasoning but you catch my drift. "Coequal partnerships are just not optimal; both parties flourish more when one assumes the lead, and the Bible is pretty clear on which of the two that one should be," concludes the imagined sermon.

Interestingly, I've heard variants of this rationale from non-Christians as well as Christians: "It's just good business sense for someone to have the final say, or you risk getting stuck in a deadlock," they tell me.

*Sigh*. But those dogs seemed so happy! And so had I been, momentarily, until I went and sermonised myself despondent. It's not as though I can hold up our own marriage as an argument-crushing counterexample of unambiguously shining joint accomplishment.

Still, I dunno. I'm not quite ready to concede to the idealised alternative. I could – quite reasonably – object that at least those two dogs made full use of two differently attuned sets of eyes and ears and noses; that they had the benefit of multi-directional perspective; that when one was weary or stubborn or missing out on some good thing they had the other to set the pace or cajole or draw their attention where it was best placed ... none of which seems so very "suboptimal" to me after all. Except, such a rebuttal shares an underlying value judgement with the sermon illustration, and it rests on a premise that is due a little scrutiny.

"I don't think God calls us to be efficient", said a wise friend of mine in an in-real-life conversation about gender roles, instantly rendering most of our insights up to that point redundant. Yes! This! By my understanding of the Bible, God is profoundly more concerned with human character and relationship than He is with results or success of the type that we occupy ourselves with pursuing. If anything, He often seems (infuriatingly?) uninterested in and/or unimpressed by our would-be so-called achievements. Even, often, averse. The tower of Babel is the archetypal example: as Miroslav Volf puts it, "God opposed the totalitarian thought that "nothing that we purpose" is impossible (v6), and interrupted the totalitarian project to centralize, homogenize, and control." (Exclusion and Embrace, p226). The Hebrew scriptures are full of instructions that expressly undermine modern notions of efficiency for the sake of communal well-being and worshipful dependence on God: sabbath (Deut 5:12-15, Lev 25:1-7), jubilee (Lev 25:8-22), gleaning provisions (Lev 19:9-10), constraints on military expansion (Deut 20:1-9, Judges 11:6-9). Meanwhile, some of Jesus' strongest warnings are for those who, by human standards, seem most to have 'got it together' (Luke 12:13-21, Luke 10:23-26); some of his advice seems downright reckless from the perspective of responsible self-provision and forward-planning (Luke 12:22-34, Matt 19:21-22); and he repeatedly debunks his listeners' 'natural' assumptions about the correlation between God's favour and outward markers of successful living (John 9:1-7, Luke 6:20-26).

Seems to me that "optimising" is far more something the market economy asks of me than it is a Kingdom agenda. And, y'know what, I'm OK with disappointing the market economy. "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Mark 8:36)

What then, to echo the words of Micah, does the Lord require of me? "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8b). "Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Matt 16:24). Gulp. Simple doesn't always mean easy, hey.

Where then, if at all, does marriage fit in to this call? Well, Paul is of the opinion that it can get in the way somewhat. The interests of married people are divided: they have spouses to please, and worldly affairs to attend to. Unmarried people are free to follow Jesus more wholly. (1 Cor 7:32-34) We seldom give due credit to the Bible's radical affirmation of singleness as a condition ripe for the flourishing of women and of men alike. However, Paul stops a long way short of forbidding marriage, and he has many positive things to say about the scope for wives and husbands to practice self-denial and encourage one another in discipleship. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (Eph 5:25-27) I have two things to say about the fact that he doesn't, in so many words, require the same of wives. Firstly, there's common sense and mercy in placing less responsibility on those with less power (which is not to say that he's endorsing the then power arrangements). And secondly, the part of wives in mutual discipleship is nonetheless embedded in the call to mutual submission (5:21-22), which (as the author of 1 Peter remarks more directly in his version of the codes; 1 Pet 3:1-2) makes for a form of Christ-like example-setting. Marriage is by no means "optimal" for discipleship, let alone necessary, but the many things it can be (at its best, which sadly it isn't always, and I don't want to diminish how complicated and hard that might get) include a daily opportunity for self-giving neighbour love at the closest possible quarters, and a framework for accountability, encouragement and counsel by two people endeavouring to "spur one another on to love and good deeds" (Heb 10:24) [4].

Picture those dachshunds. If either resented the curb on freedom imposed by the tie between them, they dropped no hint of it. At no point did the leash become strained; at no point did they give vent to aggression. Each was content to yield. Dance-like, they bounded apart and together, within the space where they had been set loose, and when they heard their names they scampered instantly, with one accord, towards the voice. Whatever my imaginary preacher might have said, it seems to me there's worse examples to aspire to.

[1] His comments about children and parents are, I suggest, the exception that proves the rule: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”" (Eph 6:1-3, emphasis my own). By contrast with gender- and social status-based hierarchies, this inter-generational authority relationship is objectively "right" in Paul's eyes, and codified no less by the Ten Commandments themselves. It strikes me as a very equalising principle: only some people find find themselves in the position of a wife or a slave, whereas everyone has a turn at being a child. It also, considering the utter dependency and ignorance with which we begin life, and (ideally) the wisdom we accumulate as we progress through it, strikes me as hard to argue with – in principle, at least (sadly, it is all too easy to think of individual scenarios where it becomes painfully problematic).

[2] Peter's version of the "household codes" is even more explicit to this end: his instructions to wives follow seamlessly on from words of ennobling encouragement to slaves who are suffering under unjust masters. Seamlessly, that is, apart from a "convenient" chapter break and even (in many versions) a new (editor-inserted) heading...

[3] The household codes in Ephesians and 1 Peter are just two among several passages that have been cited to support a hierarchical understanding of gender in relationships and in church life. My intention here is primarily to describe my changed beliefs, not to show my full working or to answer every counter-argument to them. For further reading, see, e.g., Marg Mowczko's blog (in particular, her thoughts on 1 Corinthians 11), N.T. Wright's article Women's Service in the Church (which grapples with 1 Timothy 2 among other things), Rachel Held Evan's blog (she has some good stuff about the household code passages), and the Junia Project website, to name a few.

[4] My still-unfolding thinking about marriage has been enriched and challenged by a pair of papers from the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church debating the expansion of marriage to same-sex couples. Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church, The Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, 2010.

[Thumbnail image cc. by Bartłomiej Derski [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons].