In the previous post of this Q&A on gender roles in marriage, we began looking at whether specific gender roles are God’s design for Christian marriages – roles in which, specifically, the husband is to take responsibility for leadership and the wife is to help and to submit.
Firstly, we started in Genesis, and found that God created male and female as equals, and designed the marriage relationship as one for two equals who serve one another by offering their strength to meet the other person’s needs. The first hint of males ruling in marriage is presented as a consequence of sin, and therefore not something to be emulated. Looking forward into the New Testament, we found that the meaning of “head” in Ephesians 5 has nothing to do with leadership and authority, but is rather a correction of a local myth about the creation story. The focus for husbands in the passage on marriage in Ephesians 5 is love.
Biblical Examples of Marriage
We’ve looked at the theory, now what about the practice? If men were designed by God to be in authority in Christian marriages, we should see this reflected in the examples of married couples we find in Scripture. In this post, I want to look at what we can learn from actual marriages throughout the Bible – do we see rigid gender roles promoted there?
A Man in Authority – Samson
The Bible does show instances of men asserting their authority over their wives, and it’s hardly ever pretty. For example, Samson sees an attractive girl and decides he wants her. He demands that his parents “get her for me as my wife,” and they comply. When things don’t work out so well within the first week of marriage, he stomps off home to his parents and her father gives her to Samson’s friend (oh, charming). He later wants to sleep with her again, not realising what has happened. Her father suggests that Samson sleeps with his younger daughter instead (Judges 14-15). Both Samson and his wife’s father demonstrate a callous disregard for the dignity and value of women – they are treated as sex objects, rather than as God’s image bearers.
Abraham Instructed to Obey Sarah
At least in the matter of how to deal with Hagar and Ishmael, God directly hands the authority to Sarah, rather than Abraham. “But God said to him, ‘…Listen to whatever Sarah tells you…” (Gen 21:12).
Elkanah – the Gentle Husband of Hannah
Elkanah, the husband of Hannah (who became the mother of Samuel the prophet) is entirely sympathetic to his wife’s dilemma of infertility. Culturally, a wife’s purpose was to beget heirs, and failure to do so was an accepted reason for divorce. Yet there is no hint of frustration or anger about this from Elkanah – he is presented as a tender, loving husband, who understands his wife’s emotional distress and seeks ways to alleviate it. When Hannah finally does become pregnant and give birth to a son, Elkanah does not stand in the way of Hannah’s vow to dedicate their child, Samuel, to the service of the Lord in the temple. She makes a decision, and Elkanah honours it.
When Disobedience is Right – Abigail
Abigail saves the lives of the men in her household by defying her husband, Nabal – a foolish and arrogant man with a violent temper. David was in his “outlaw period,” and not yet king. When he asked Nabal, for food, Nabal refuses point-blank, despite the fact that David’s troops had been protecting Nabal’s livestock. David vows to see every man in the household dead by sunset. Abigail, however, instructs the servants to generously load up the donkeys. She then leads the delegation to take plentiful supplies to David. She does this without her husband’s knowledge. Her foolish husband is struck down by heart failure when he finds out, and dies. Does Abigail’s seemingly unsubmissive action see God looking down on her? Not at all – in fact, Abigail’s reward is that, after being widowed, she marries David, becoming the wife of a future king (1 Sam 25). Abigail took a risk for the good of others, and was ultimately rewarded herself.
Astute Businesswoman – Proverbs 31 Woman
Proverbs 31 sets up the character of an ideal wife. If an ideal wife’s job is to be a submissive homemaker, then she doesn’t seem to be a great example. “Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.” Reading through the passage, it seems the reason for the husband’s material security is her hard work in contributing economically to the family – she runs a small industry, bargains for the best prices, and buys and sells land. There is no hint that she relies on his leadership in any of this. When it comes to real estate, it’s clear that the actions taken are all her doing: “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Even in something as major as the purchase of real estate, she appears to be able to make wise decisions on her own. This woman’s sphere goes beyond the home – it is also to be found in charitable works, and international trade. She is a wise and gifted teacher, and there is no reason to believe her husband does not accept and learn from this wisdom. He takes delight if her efforts bring her praise in the civic sphere. Her husband would appear to be this strong and decisive woman’s #1 fan.
Married Women Disciples of Jesus
Various women, some of them married, travelled with Jesus and the disciples, and provided financially for Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). We don’t know their husbands’ views, but it seems that following Jesus was their top priority.
A Ministry Team – Priscilla & Aquila
Priscilla and Aquila were among the key leaders of the early church. They were close companions of Paul. Both were involved as house church leaders and teachers. It has been widely believed, since the days of the early church, that Priscilla was the more gifted of the two and the one considered the leader. Whenever this pair is mentioned in the New Testament in general terms, Aquila’s name comes first, as was the custom of the time. However, every time they are mentioned in ministry terms, hers is given first.
True Biblical Marriage “Roles” Are Diverse
Biblical examples of marriages in action do not uphold the notion that the husband’s role is one of authority while the wife’s is one of submission. Marriages in the Bible are diverse. Both men and women act outside of the stereotypical “traditional” roles, and are not presented as having stepped outside of God’s will by doing so. These individuals are often shown as being blessed by God and, in some instances, approved of in ministry.
When we look both deeply into specific passages used to place husbands in authority and also broadly at the examples of marriages throughout the Bible, we see no evidence of God setting down any specific gender roles in marriage (beyond the purely biological roles of childbearing and breastfeeding). We do, however, see the principle of mutual submission (Eph 5:21) at work – a concept which frees couples to make decisions about how they do marriage based on what is natural for their personality types, and on their particular needs in any given season of life. Because of the focus on both partners voluntarily yielding in love to the other, a marriage of mutual submission, rather than rigid gender roles, is a natural and healthy place for true love and commitment to flourish.
Do you have a question about men, women, the Bible and real life that you’d like answered? Your suggested questions would be greatly welcomed for topics of future Q&A blog posts – just email Bronwen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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