Conflicting Marriage Messages

Break out your boots–I might step on some toes here…

When it comes to marriage, evangelicals hear conflicting messages. On the one hand, it’s “Husbands, man up! Lead your families.” On the other hand, we hear “Marriage is a partnership, designed for oneness.” Usually we hear these from the same speaker, in the same speech or sermon.

Does anyone else see the dichotomy in that? Or is it just me?

I know a lot of complementarians (the “equal but separate” group) and a lot of egalitarians (the equal in every way, doggonit, group). I don’t necessarily hold to either camp’s primary arguments–I’m somewhere in the middle. (And yes, I know a lot of people there, too). Such vast disagreement about the same collection of biblical passages shows that the issue is one of hermeneutics (interpretation). The Bible may be inerrant, but we humans are not.

Not only do we interpret scripture inconsistently, we apply it inconsistently. For instance, complementarians believe in the hierarchy of the husband over the wife, as they interpret Ephesians 5:23 “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…”

The key word here is “head.” American Christians assume it means “leader” because that’s how we use it in business and everyday life, and it is one of the legitimate options in our English dictionaries. When we hear it in conjunction with another person, we hear in our minds, “Head over…” And when read in context of the wife being called to submit, well, the leadership motif seems to fit perfectly.

Philip Payne can tell you why the Greek word for head, kephale, likely does not mean “authority.” But since many American evangelicals claim this belief, it’s fair to consider how they apply it. My theory is that we rarely practice what we preach.

On one extreme are the abusers who forget that the husband is called to “love your wives as Christ loved the church”–that is, to sacrifice for her, not lord it over her. You’ve also got wives who, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding style, acknowledge that the man is the head, but “the wife is the neck and she moves that head wherever she wants it to go.”

Neither attitude is biblical.

But even the rest of us are not immune. I’ll use my own marriage as a prime example.

When we were first married, we both believed this teaching. It was all we knew. At the same time, we were both well educated, intelligent, capable individuals with unique strengths and gifts. We mutually decided on where to attend church. We mutually decided on how to raise our children, when to visit relatives out of town, how to save and spend our money. We bounce ideas off each other while preparing bible study lessons or contemplating house remodeling. He has sacrificed much in order to allow me to stay home with the kids in their early years (but then, so have I). I have submitted to his preferences when he voiced a difinitive opinion (but then, so has he). We’ve done a decent job of give-and-take, working as a team, partnering together to make our family something that honors God.

Not once has he claimed headship as the reason he should have the final say in any decision. I doubt it ever occurred to him. Not once have I submitted myself to him out of  a sense that “he’s in charge” (stating the obvious: no, we aren’t perfect. This just isn’t one of our “issues.”) Our marriage follows much closer to the “oneness” model than to the hierarchical model we were taught.

As time as passed, I’ve realized the contradiction between my earlier beliefs and the way I actually behaved. I’m betting that we are not alone.

Some of my questions about the terms we use… How can one half of the partnership be the leader, yet the relationship still retain oneness and mutual submission? How confusing is it to young couples (perhaps couples of any age) when we equate “head of household”–which is an IRS term–to the biblical teaching on “head of your wife.” They are not the same thing.

Maybe there is another approach. Let’s teach men who Christ is, how he loved his people (us!) so much that he sacrificed his very life on our behalf. Let’s teach women about Jesus, who submitted to the Father’s will out of love for Him and us when he became incarnate for the express purpose of dying for us. Let’s all of us get to know Jesus, and apply his Spirit to our relationship with our spouses. We are his body, and He is our head (there’s that word again!). By His strength we can reflect that infinite oneness in our finite marriages.

Ephesians 5:31-32 “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Kelley Mathews (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) has written and edited for the Christian market for more than 20 years. Currently a writer for RightNow Media, she lives in North Texas with her husband and their four children. She has partnered with Sue Edwards to coauthor Mixed Ministry, Women’s Retreats, Leading Women Who Wound, Organic Ministry to Women, and 40 Questions about Women in Ministry. Find her books and blog at KelleyMathews.com.


  • Moderator

    I really enjoyed and

    I really enjoyed and wholeheartedly agree with your article. This is a real issue for Christian women. There is so much talk of feminists in the church, complementarians, or egalitarians. However, there is very little conversation about BALANCE. There is so little talk about how principles that seem to oppose each other actually interrelate. 

    I brought this up during Bible study one time, and some of my sisters in Christ simply dismissed the conversation as being irrational or irrelevant. My culture is majority complementarian. However, it becomes more about what "man made group" you subscribe to rather than what the Bible is actually teaching and illustrating. It's always good to hear from others who share my point of view and desire for balance. Thank God for Jesus! That's what he represents to me. He wasn't teaching the legalistic law or worldly values. He believed in balance, and I agree that's he's our prime example. If we all strove to live like Jesus, the world would be a better place.

    Thank you my dear sister! Please keep writing about those issues that are relevant to  Christian women everywhere, whether they realize and/or acknowledge it or not.

  • Nanachickies

    Conflicting Marriage Messages

    I have to agree with what you are saying.  In todays society I find it very hard to live by the bible as a wife.  If you are married to a non-believer it is really almost impossible.