My Bias on Biblical Marriage

I told you last Sunday I was going to do some posts on what the Bible says about marriage. Of course, that is really going to be what I think the Bible says. I work hard to see what is there and separate it from my biases, but being human I’m sure I fail. So today I want to give you my history with this issue and how I have come to see and understand it.

My Bias on Biblical Marriage

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in a Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas. Austin was (and is) a very liberal place, surrounded by a very conservative state. In the 70’s Austin was known to be more gay-friendly than San Francisco and more green than Portland.

Our church didn’t talk about marriage (or sex), so I didn’t get any teaching on this until I changed churches at 20. Looking back I would guess most of the couples were somewhere middle of the road in terms of how they went about their marriage. Most would have given lip service to the husband as the head, but I don’t know how much it was lived. My parents tended to default to egalitarian, but there were times when my dad took a stand. When that happened mom followed along, but I suspect it cost him when he did it. (And I am deeply grateful for the times he did that on my behalf.)

At twenty I moved to a much more Bible-based church. They were certainly complementarian. A few years later I joined a pastor who was forming a new church. This group was legalistic, and I’d say they were close to patriarchal in their approach to marriage. I met Lori at that church, but I left it shortly after that because I was seeing significant problems both in terms of how the teachings failed to line up with the Bible and some issues of integrity. When Lori left that church later we started to date. We attended a variety of churches as we dated and when we were first married. These churches were complementarian, but not as far over as the one where I met Lori.

So early in our marriage, we were pretty hard complementarian – usually, more so than most of the folks in our church. Then I made the mistake of starting to compare what I believed to what the Bible says. I did this with most of my theology, one issue at a time. But the time I got to marriage I was well used to finding out that what I believed and or had been taught was less than 100% compatible with the Bible. Some was close, some was skewed, some was not to be found at all in the Bible. 

What I found as I looked at marriage in the Bible didn’t line up well with that I thought, with what I had been taught the last few years, or with what I was living. It wasn’t horribly out of line, but it didn’t fit right either. I saw, and still see, headship as a truth shown throughout the Bible. However, much of what I was taught about headship was at best added to what is in the Bible. Some of it seemed right, some did not, but most of it went beyond what is actually written.

I’ve studied this for 25 years now, and I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface. I have learned that much of what we teach is based on poor or iffy translations and a total lack of understanding of the audience to whom it was written. Often it makes sense when taken out of context, but doesn’t work when held up against the Bible as a whole. 

As a non-marriage example of this consider Matthew 25:31-46. If we had read only those verses and knew nothing else of the Bible, we would logically conclude that salvation is based solely on our works. It’s the only conclusion we could reach from just that bit of scripture. If we know the Bible as a whole we know that interpretation can’t be right, and we can then dig to find the truth that is there for us. 

Some of the most common passages about marriage are the same way; what some claim they say makes sense if all you look at is the passage. However, if you know the Bible as a whole some of those claims don’t fit. A few are contrary what the Bible says, and many are contrary to the tenor of scripture as a whole.

So what do I believe today? I haven’t found a label that fits. I believe that headship is a valid principle, but I don’t think God intends us to have a total top-down hierarchy. I think Scott Means put it very well in his The Problem With Roles in Marriage post when he said of marriage passages “you will find that these scriptures describe attitudes of the heart, not some kind of organizational chart or list of tasks for him and her“. It’s about the heart, not who’s in charge. If we ask the wrong question we can never learn what God has for us. The question I now ask myself is “Lord, how do you want me to treat my wife?” Then I look to the Bible for the answer to that question. 

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30 Comments on “My Bias on Biblical Marriage

  1. Why do you call it a mistake to compare what you believe to what the Bible actually says….?

  2. So what do you believe about headship and submission and how it should be lived out? Or will you get to that later on? This is something my husband and I often talk about and try to figure out based on the Bible and not what we hear or even what our parents did. But it is very difficult to first figure out what the Bible says within context and with translation, and then to wade through what we have been taught our whole lives or what we saw our parents do. I would love your opinion and maybe some examples of how it plays out in your marriage.

    • @Jessica Hill – Hopefully that will come out as I keep discussing that. For us it flows from getting the heart issues right, as Scott suggested. I also think there is more than one way to do it, depending on the couple and their lives. But if we get the heart right, right behaviour will follow. It’s a lot like the law leads to death but the Spirit leads to life.

  3. I’ve been reading Kingdom Man by Tony Evans and been finding it useful lately

  4. Paul, I just want to say that regardless of what your beliefs about marriage are and whether or not I agree with everything you believe, I think it’s great that you seem willing to challenge your core beliefs and seek the truth in the word for what God intends. I look forward to seeing what you have to say on this.

  5. I have found the complementarian and egalitarian labels insufficient to describe the full continuum of beliefs on headship / submission. Like you, I’ve encounter patriarchy described as “complementary” and just end up shaking my head at that one. I guess technically it’s on the complementarian side, but it bears little resemblance to the complementarians I know. Anyway, I really believe that if we’d pay more attention to the whole Bible and make an effort to be Christ-like, a lot of the debates would fall away.

    • @J. Parker – My problem is there are two points and a theoretical line between them – and I’m not even on that line!

      So we aren’t going to do that chose the verses you like version of the Bible we talked about? I think it would be such a big seller!

  6. Complementarianism was just a made up word because the feminist left has stigmatized the word “patriarchy.” Headship = Patriarchy. It doesn’t have to own all the baggage that non-Christian and some Christian forms of patriarchy have had. It just means “father rule”. We didn’t need an eight syllable monstrosity to convey a very simple Biblical idea. This word also begs for the watering down that it has gotten so we now have “hard” and “soft” complementarianism and even claims that one is not even on the spectrum.

    Egalitarians say that complementarians are just closet patriarchs anyway. So just own the word already. My response to that would be to say that egalitarians are just closet matriarchs. Because you only have three choices. Patriarchy, matriarchy, and anarchy. Anarchy never lasts because nature, and marriage, abhor a vacuum. And while couples vary as to the distribution of decisions, the test for who is in charge is always about who gets the blame when things go bad. Who has the greatest onus for ensuring the marriage succeeds? Answer those questions and then I will tell you who is in charge of the marriage.

    • @DougK – I’d agree complementarianism is a rebranding – and with a word that doesn’t fit well at that. But “father rule” is not good description of what the Bible calls for either. I see egalitarianism as a wrong attempt to address the problems of patriarchy. If I see the problems of patriarchy and don’t think the solution of “egalitarianism” is right, then I am not either.
      You say there are only three choices. I say “I am the head, please follow me” and “I will beat you into submission” are not the same thing.

  7. “I will beat you into submission” is criminal assault not a model for biblical marriage. I think that qualifies as a straw man argument. Of course when I say “father rule” I mean as Christ is head of the church. Christ does not beat us into submission. But he does hold us accountable for submission and loyalty even as he lovingly sacrificed his life for us. This analogy to Christ and the church should refute egalitarianism once and for all. Because no matter how perfect or sacrificial Christ’s love is for his church, there is no doubt as to his unequivocal authority over the church.

    Husbands are given authority and power to be exercised in sacrificial love and total devotion to leading his family as Christ leads him. When I hear the word “patriarchy” I do not infer abusiveness because I am not a victim of abuse nor am I a victimizer. I had a father I deeply loved and respected. He wasn’t perfect, but thanks to him I have very warm feelings about patriarchy. I associate it with strength, Godliness, high moral character, passionate devotion to following Christ’s headship over the family, love of wife first and then love of the children. I also associate patriarchy from the perspective of the rest of the family towards my father. Honor, respect, love, obedience, and trust. This is what a Godly patriarch receives from his family.

    This is what I want to give to my family and to receive from my family. There is no battle of the sexes. There is no constant wrestling over control. And not only do I believe this is what God commands of us in our family relationships, I also believe that God uniquely designed men and women, husbands and wives to innately desire.

    • @DougK – Sadly it’s not a straw man. And for every man who thinks it’s okay to use physical force there are a dozen or more who think yelling, manipulating, and controlling are acceptable. If you have not run into such men that’s nice, but they still exist.

      • I do not doubt that abusive men exist. My point is that the biblical model of patriarchy is not refuted by referencing the sinful aberrations. Do not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

        • @DougK – But there are those who think that falls within what is allowed by the Bible. Or at the very least when a wife report abuse the “godly men” ask her what she did to deserve it. I’d like to tell you this no longer exists, but it does.
          There are even more who will tell you a wife doesn’t have a right to say no to sex, and so a man can’t rape his wife. I’ve has men flat say that in the comments in the past.

    • I loved my father and admire him a great deal as well. He is exceedingly patient, as moral a person as I have ever met, kind and sacrifices to a fault, and loves Jesus with all his heart. If only Patriarchy had been the system in place in my home growing up, things for me and my brother would’ve been much better. But the one fault my father had was that he valued peace at any cost.

      At some point he decided that fighting with my mom wasn’t worth the effort required to run our family in a way honoring to God, and so my mom had pretty much free reign to do as she pleased. I certainly can’t blame my dad entirely for this as his wife was horrible to live with, but how I wish he had stood up to her and fought to take his place as leader in the home. It was hard to forgive him for the abuse he allowed.

      Not every man is as great as mine is and I realize this. Some men are cruel. Some men are abusive. But I’ll tell you that a good and righteous man might as well be an evil man if he doesn’t take on the role God expects of him. Men, your sons and daughters are relying on you to lead the home and protect them. Don’t abdicate your responsibility in the face of a controlling and forceful wife. Be kind and gentle and patient and loving, but don’t for a second think that this is enough on its own. I believe that God will judge fathers harshly for allowing thier families to be run in un-Godly ways.

      • @Brian,

        In your remarks, you only talked of God’s judgment over your father. Does this suggest there is no harsh judgment for your mother? If you likewise believe she will be judged harshly then why not say it? Your mother’s controlling nature was aided and abetted by a feminist secular culture and a church culture profoundly uncomfortable confronting the sins of women. For your father to resist this rebellion and lead his home as patriarch would have been a profoundly courageous act. It would have been biblically consistent, yes. But it would have required him to stand against all of the forces within and without the church that push against his headship. Do not underestimate the challenge he faced.

        • Mike, no one is against feminism more than me. That being said, where I grew up and with the parents I had I find it hard to believe that feminism had much of an impact on the actions my dad took or failed to take. And yes, of course my mom will be held accountable for her actions. I thought it would be a given that an abusive parent wouldn’t be looked at favorably by God. I don’t think it’s nearly as accepted an opinion that God will hold fathers accountable for allowing thier wife to sin.

      • @Brian – I’ve seen what you say many times.
        As I read it our family is our first minstry. If we fail at that, we fail at life. I doubt you and I agree what that should look like, but we agree it’s critical.
        The real issue is the word “allowing” in your final sentence. It makes it sound like a man can force his family to do what is right, and some will take that as permission to do things that are unbiblical.
        Plenty of God’s people have acted in ungodly ways, and that doesn’t make God a bad father. Like God we do what is right, and then folks decide what they are going to do.

        • Paul, A man shouldn’t do what is ungodly no matter what. That being said, if we are using the character of God as a template I think we will see that he never tolerated prolonged sinfulness with his “family”, the nation of Israel. Was he patient, kind, understanding? Absolutely. But as Exodus, Judges, and the Babylonian captivity demonstrated, God refused to allow his people to continue to sin. He never gave up on them completely, but neither did he allow prolonged disobedience.

            • To that I would ask this: Did God’s character change when Jesus came to earth? He’s he same God with the same character he always was. Jesus didn’t change anything at all about God’s view of sin. Also, even after Jesus came to earth God is seen giving out harsh punishment for some actions in the book of Acts. We need to remember that the New Testament is only half the story of God. Granted, as far as I’m concerned it’s the most important part, but we can’t throw out over half the book.

              Now, I have to say that we seem to see Jesus as this person who was meek and mild and never got angry and always let everyone walk all over him. I think this is a very flawed view of Jesus. Jesus routinely went head to head with the religious leaders of the day, constantly befuddled powerful men, and drove money changers from the temple in a fit of righteous anger. When a fig tree didn’t bear fruit, Jesus cursed it and caused it to wither away and die immediately. Jesus was no pushover.

              He willingly laid down his life for us because it was the only way we could be saved from our sins, but I when I see Jesus I don’t see a man who would allow his family to continue in sin. I think Jesus would discipline his family just as I think Jesus disciplines the church when it’s off track, and disciplines us when we are on the wrong path.

              • “Allow” is a vague word. Perhaps it would help if you could describe the actions you believe your father should have taken to keep your mother in line. Take away her credit cards? Put her in time out? Take away her TV privileges? Kick her out of the house and send her to a homeless shelter? What exactly are you suggesting here?

                • I think that’s a legitimate question and I agree with you. I’m not entirely sure specifically what actions he should have taken, so in a way I can only speak in general terms. In general I think there needs to be an escalation of action. It should first begin with a reasonably gentle talk letting her know that abusing the children isn’t acceptable, and talking to her in a way to let her know that it’s wrong and isn’t good for them. If it continues, the gentle warning needs to become a stronger warning.

                  After that point, more drastic actions need to be taken. What form that takes depends on her and the situation, but I think it should include kicking her out of the house and cutting her off financially or physically restraining her from causing harm to the kids if that’s what it takes. I also firmly believe that the steps to confront a sinner as laid out by the Apostle Paul should be taken. First, bring another believer, then several, until eventually the entire church tells her she is wrong and she is separated from the body. I think this is important because too often this type of thing happens in secret. Everyone around me thought my mother was a great Godly woman.

                  So, I don’t have an exact step by step guide as to what my father should have done, but I darn sure wish he had done everything in his power. Instead, he did nothing. Nothing isn’t good enough, not by a long shot.

              • @Brian – No, God did not change. But our relationship with Him changes, and that is huge. The changes are massive.

                As for kicking a wife out, that’s pretty harsh. It’s also not going to fly with the law. Doing that is a good way to end up with a restraining order and you being removed from the home.

                So we are back to what does allow mean. In many situaiton the husband really doesn’t have the ability to force complaince even if he thinks that is what God expects of him

                • Oh I absolutely agree that it won’t be easy. Legally speaking, husbands are at a distinct disadvantage because women are thought of as non-violent and non-abusive in general. So yes, a husband fighting to protect his kids in our culture is facing an uphill battle to say the least. But I would fight that battle with my dying breath before I let children be abused. If that means I go to jail or what have you, then so be it. If it means taking the children and moving away then that’s what it means. Maybe that’s just me and maybe aim extreme.

                  • Have you heard of the Duluth Model? Read some of the criticisms on the Wikipedia article about it ( Your father very easily could have been assumed the violent perpetrator, been arrested and put in jail. Your mother would have been awarded custody and he would not be in a position to defend you at all.

                    You need to focus on the source of the violence and the systems that allow it to fester. Trying to blame the only reasonable parent for the actions of the unreasonable one is misdirected anger. And it is not necessary biblically either.

                  • @Brian – When you originally said “abuse he allowed” I didn’t realise you meant abuse of children. In that case the laws would generally work for the man, if he was wise about how he proceed. Kicking her out of her own home would not be a smart way to go.

                  • I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear Paul. You are unfortunately still more correct than not with regards to he law. Mothers are still given the overwhelming benefit of the doubt when it comes to violence and abuse, and a father loses these battles more than they win.

                  • @Brian – I made a wrong assumption about what you meant by abuse – that’s on me.

                    It’s a no win situation for the legal system. Stylistically it’s more likely to be the man. And there are men who are full on beating and sexually abusing who can come across as sane and innocent. Some of those same men can pull their wife’s strings to make her look crazy. I’ve seen this a couple of times, and it’s amazing in a totally scary way.

                    Because of this I think a lot of people in the system become jaded and just go with the flow. Not right, but understandable. It’s getting better, but not fast enough.

                    So basically the standard of proof is very low for women and much higher for men. A woman can go in half-cocked with no evidence and be believed, a man can’t. But if the man is wise about it he can create enough doubt that the situation will be examined properly.

                  • I agree completely with you Paul, and I’ve heard of men being able to win even though they were abusive, it’s just way harder.

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