Our Escape from a Mutually Unsatisfying Marriage

We were supposed to have a happy marriage. We both loved Jesus, embraced a simple lifestyle, and took scripture seriously. I planned to submit in everything and Jim was going to be the spiritual leader. We would have a “biblical marriage,” so we were all set.

Or so we thought.

As they played out in our very real life, all of our great ideas about leading and following, loving and respecting, deciding and submitting left something to be desired. Jim was frustrated by my inability to be the pleasant, affectionate wife he had envisioned. And I felt like I had been preemptively declared the loser in a battle I thought was supposed to be a partnership.

Something needed to give.

So Jim and I started talking about what was hindering our ability to truly enjoy our marriage. In the end we came to the conclusion that the Church tends to overlook the main thing when it teaches marriage:

Christian marriage is fundamentally the union of a Christian woman and a Christian man.

In other words, Christian husband and wife are first and foremost brother and sister in Christ, each still possessing all the rights and responsibilities that go along with following Jesus. The principles of Christian community do not mysteriously disappear once a couple gets married; to the contrary, they become even more important.

Since all believers are to strive for unity, and marriage ought to be the ultimate expression of unity, it stands to reason that everything Jesus and Peter and Paul taught about getting along with other Christians is even more important in marriage. Admitting our faults and confronting each other and speaking and receiving the truth even when it hurts are necessary components of a good, healthy, and mutually satisfying marriage.

But this is not how Jim and I were taught biblical marriage. It was all about roles and gender-specific duties. Husband, you must lead and make decisions and “love” your woman. Wife, you should support and submit to and “respect” your man.

And if you will focus solely on your part somehow, miraculously, you will have a hunky-dory marriage. It’s guaranteed. If for some reason you don’t end up happy, well, marriage isn’t supposed to make you happy, it’s supposed to make you “better.” So just suck it up and make the best of it.

Which is what we were doing.

But we weren’t satisfied with our suck-it-up, make-the-best-of-it marriage, in spite of all those gold stars for effort. We wanted to feel that deep affection and connection that drew us together in the first place, not just get our participation trophy when we landed in heaven one day.

What was wrong with the way we had been taught biblical marriage?

The first is that the Bible never says the husband is automatically right or that he should make all the decisions. We tend to think “head” means “boss,” but the Greek word for head, kephalē, is more nuanced than that. Some scholars even argue that a metaphorical usage of “head” identifies the source or sustainer of life, in accordance with the Greek belief that the head (rather than the heart) sustained the life of living organisms.[1]

This suggestion has led to a very big debate over what Paul meant when he said “the husband is the head of the wife,” some insisting he meant “authority over” and others “source” or “nurturer of life.” But I’m not sure we can prove what Paul meant by looking at the possible meanings of kephalē,[2] at least not in a slam-dunk, I’m-absolutely-right sort of way.

So we’re left with location, location, location, otherwise known as context, context, context, the best way to discern what an author meant by the words he used. And when Paul wrote about a husband’s headship of his wife, interestingly, he likened it not to Jesus’s role as Lord but as Savior. It would have been so easy for Paul to say “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Lord.”

But he didn’t:

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. (Eph. 5:23)

That Paul compares a husband as head to Jesus as Savior should tell us something. Jesus’s saving work entailed doing everything possible (including dying) to become one with his bride, the Church. So a husband’s headship, even if Paul understood some sense of leadership by the term, appears to be more about doing all he can to become one with his bride than anything else.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…to present her to himself…. (Eph. 5:25, 27)

This doesn’t mean a husband caters to his wife any more than she caters to him, but it does mean he has a responsibility to take the lead in creating a mutually satisfying marriage. And his wife has a duty to be supportive of his efforts.

Then who makes the decisions? Scripture is notoriously silent on our oh-so-important debate about marital decision making. Although wives are exhorted to submit, husbands are never urged to rule over their wives or to make their decisions for them. Instead they are to love their wives as they love themselves.

Jim and I decided the best way to get at the heart of all this was to make decisions in a way that unites rather than divides us. Now on those rare occasions when we don’t agree, we consider who will be impacted the most, who cares the most, and who has the greatest expertise, rather than automatically defaulting to whatever Jim thinks. Sometimes I yield because I know it will mean a lot to Jim and sometimes he does the same for me.

I can’t tell you how this has enhanced our love.

The second thing we learned is that nothing, including submission, should negate our basic responsibilities as human beings and as Christians. If that is the result we’ve misapplied the principle. It’s neither unsubmissive nor disrespectful for a wife to call out her husband when needed. Neither is it unloving for a husband to confront his wife. We make a mistake when how “unloving” or “disrespectful” something feels becomes the card that trumps truth and unity.

It may feel unloving when Jim tells me I’m being hard on the kids or that I’m too wrapped up in my own agenda, but if it’s true I need to hear it. And it may sound disrespectful when I tell Jim it hurts when he lets me down or puts the children first, but if those issues are causing division he needs to know. Appropriate give-and-take is not optional; marriage can’t be about playing our aces of headship and submission or love and respect to avoid painful, yet necessary, conversations.

Jim and I now realize that following a pattern, no matter how perfectly, never could have given us a happy marriage. But focusing on unity as our goal, talking about what would make our marriage mutually (rather than unilaterally) satisfying, and working together to achieve it did.

Jim and I only wish we had escaped our mutually unsatisfying marriage sooner.

[1] Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 117-37, is one example.

[2] When speaking of Christ’s headship Paul appears to have utilized both meanings: authority over other powers for the sake of the Church (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 2:10); and source/sustainer/beginning of life for his body, the Church (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 1:17-18; 2:19).

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