Rethinking Christian Marriage

Most people I know have an intuitive sense that men and women are equally capable and that in the best marriages they work together as a team. Yet many of these same individuals assume that it is God’s plan for the man to be in charge, based on the fact that the Bible commands wives to submit to husbands in a way that it does not require of husbands.

They believe it was God who established this patriarchal, hierarchical system of marriage.

I don’t fault my friends, though, since I thought the same thing for a very long time. I thought it, I taught it, I lived it. I wouldn’t have couched it in precisely those terms, but I was convinced that the Bible gave men the authority in marriage.

What hadn’t occurred to me was how the Bible’s instructions on marriage compare to the ones about government and employment, how we understand and apply those commands, and how that ought to instruct the way we understand the marriage teachings.

It was time for me to rethink Christian marriage.

And that’s what I want to help you do today.


Let’s start with government.[1]

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. (Rom. 13:1-2)

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority; whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Pet. 2:13-14)

From such passages we learn about the need for social order provided by the institution of government and that Christians have a duty to be law-abiding citizens.

If we were to take these words absolutely, however, as many do the marriage teachings, we would come to the conclusion that every form of government, including a dictatorial system of government that retains ultimate authority in one individual’s hands, is God-ordained. We would teach that even if you live under an unjust system, the only Christian response is submission. Since “there is no authority except that which God has established,” whether your “emperor” is Pol Pot or Idi Amin or Adolf Hitler, the only godly response remains obedience.

End of discussion.

An absolute understanding of these Bible passages was, in fact, often used to defend the idea of the “divine right of kings.”[2] Kings and emperors and dictators and tyrants can and did point to these words to support their belief that God had appointed them as rulers, that God had ordained the subjection of the masses to their personal authority.

In our current understanding of these verses, however, we do not believe it is necessary to retain the New Testament form of government in order to faithfully and properly apply the principle. In spite of the fact that we are enjoined to obey the emperor, we don’t. In fact, we don’t believe we need emperors at all. Instead we have concluded that it is far better to develop systems of government that emphasize proper checks and balances, that do not accord too much power to any one individual.

In our best forms of government, citizens are no longer directly subject to ruling authorities. Rather, we are all equally subject to the same sets of laws. No longer do we submit to individual people and their whims, but to the laws they represent. To the extent that the governing powers follow the law and ask us to do the same, we respect their authority.

If a police officer breaks the law, he can be charged with a crime. If the president oversteps his authority, he can be impeached. If a cabinet member obstructs justice, he can go to jail. In contrast to the views of kings and emperors and dictators through the ages, we believe government officials are accountable not only to God, but also to the people.

If we took the Bible’s words on government the same way that many take the Bible’s words on marriage, there would have been no American Revolution, no French Revolution, no end to British colonialism, no Civil Rights Movement. And we would not hail Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Sojourner Truth as heroes.

One of the issues that came between Martin Luther King and the white religious leaders he had hoped would support the Negro fight for freedom was King’s willingness to break laws when necessary. These men were blind to police brutality, commending officers for “maintaining order,” all the while exhorting King to be patient, focus on negotiation, and stop engaging in nonviolent protest.

No doubt the perspective of these white Southern pastors stemmed, at least in part, from the biblical teaching that governing authorities are established by God. Yet of these pastors King wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”[3]

I wholeheartedly agree.

But I also fear that, impassioned expressions of good will aside, my understanding of the real issues Black Americans still face today remains woefully shallow. Thank you, Dr. King, for helping me reconsider unquestioning adherence to a system that may still promote injustice, in the name of obedience to scripture.

When it comes to following the Bible’s teaching about government, we have learned that it is not necessary to preserve the autocratic, hierarchical form of government that existed when the New Testament was written, or any other unjust system that may pertain today. We understand that God has given us the responsibility to create forms of government that adhere to greater principles of scripture.


What about the issue of employment? What does the New Testament say to employers and employees, and how do we understand that today?

The first thing we have to recognize is that the primary system of mass employment in the greater Roman Empire was slavery.

Yes, slavery.

Tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, fishermen and merchants worked for themselves, providing for their own needs. Sailors, camel drivers, and day laborers were employed by others. In most cases, however, either you provided for yourself through land holdings or your own business, or you were someone else’s property and they provided for your needs.

Under the Roman Empire, a vast number of people “employed” by another did so as the property of their “employer.” In the larger cities up to one-third of the populace were slaves.[4] The empire had come to depend upon “slavery as the basic labor force” and envisioned no other practical means of providing for a large portion of the population.[5]

This was one reason why a just distribution of the land was so essential after the Israelites broke free from slavery in Egypt. Land guaranteed your future and the future of your family line and provided resources for establishing yourself in business. With masses of landless people in the Roman Empire, slavery became a widespread means of providing them with employment.

So how does the Bible instruct these first-century “working” relationships?

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart…. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them… (Eph. 6:5-6, 9)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. (1 Pet. 2:18-19)

The first thing we tend to do with such passages is ignore the obvious, gliding right past the fact that they have to do with a system of employment presumed upon the ownership of some individuals by others. We skip the whole slavery business and talk about employees working hard at their job and bosses treating employees fairly.

But that’s not what these texts address. We need to get that fact into our minds. They’re not about benign systems of employment where you can quit whenever you like and look for a better job.

No; they address slavery.

If we were to apply these texts absolutely, as is done with the marriage texts,[6] we would tell modern-day slaves to submit to their masters in everything, and to do it with a good attitude. We would enjoin little girls caught in sex trafficking and little boys stuck in forced labor to obey their masters from their hearts.

This is, in fact, how the proponents of slavery before and during America’s Civil War understood these words. They took them at face value, arguing that slavery was a God-ordained institution. If the Bible commands slaves to obey their masters, they reasoned, surely this system is part of God’s good and loving plan for the world.

How convenient for their desire to maintain an inexpensive, permanent, yet expendable labor force.

Today we universally reject as evil the hierarchical system of employment dependent upon the ownership of human beings. We understand that one person holding this type of power over another is wrong and inevitably leads to abuse. We acknowledge that although slavery was the assumed system of mass employment of the New Testament era, it is not only unnecessary but also immoral to perpetuate such a practice.

Instead, we have established systems of employment where all are equally subject to the same sets of rules and regulations that govern working relationships. Boss and employee are equally responsible before the law. Employers are accountable not only to God, but also to their employees.

In regard to employment, we reject the first century form – the widespread system of slavery – while retaining the principles of mutual respect and hard work.

No one I know claims that we should soften the New Testament forms of government and employment – autocracies and slavery – infusing them with kindness, love, and consideration.


We reject those unjust systems out of hand.

The fact is, we do not need to maintain these forms of government or employment at all. We have discovered that we do not need these types of hierarchy in human governing or working relationships in order to get along, that we do not need to give some people direct ruling authority over others.

We would never tell people suffering horribly under a brutal dictatorship that God would intervene if they would only truly submit to their leader from their hearts. We wouldn’t say it’s your fault that your family was brutally murdered by government forces before your very eyes, that if you would stop rebelling, God would “move the heart of the king.”

No, as an international community we would do everything in our power to change the system of government in that nation so that its citizens might enjoy justice and safety and peace.

We would also never tell one of the multitude of today’s slaves the same thing: if you would just really obey your master with a good attitude, he would treat you well. We would never say the reason you are whipped and choked and raped is because you are rebellious, and if you would just be obedient, your life would be happy and fulfilling.

No, we would do all we could to help the poor soul escape this evil imprisonment, and we would work toward finally and completely eradicating slavery in our nation and around the globe.

Clearly, we don’t believe the Bible teaches that we must preserve the hierarchical systems of the first century world in order to honor its commands.

Except when it comes to marriage.

As Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary puts it:

Although we respect governments and those in authority, we do not try to reinstitute the monarchy so we can obey New Testament demands that we submit to the king; nor would we reinstitute slavery so slaves can submit to their masters. Neither should we reinstitute old authority roles in marriage and thereby ignore the kinds of authority structures now standard in our culture.[7]

Why do we think it is necessary to maintain hierarchical marriage, based upon precisely the same types of texts as those historically used to defend the “divine right of kings” and the “God-ordained” nature of slavery? Can we not preserve the wonderful, beautiful, important institution of marriage without insisting upon the hierarchical form? Or will we continue to defend hierarchy in marriage in the same way our forefathers defended the monarchy and slavery?

Assigning some individuals power over others through hierarchical systems does not result in the fruition of Kingdom principles. Principles like mutual respect, mutual self-sacrifice, mutual confession, mutual repentance, mutual concern, mutual kindness, mutual responsibility.

We need to move beyond our simplistic understanding of the Bible’s teachings on marriage, just as we have in the arenas of government and employment. As long as we insist upon hierarchical marriage as God’s design, rather than merely the way of the first century world, we completely miss the boat.

It’s way past time to rethink Christian marriage.

[1] I owe a debt to Craig S. Keener’s comments in Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1992) for causing me to ponder the relation of the government texts to the marriage texts, something I had not done previously. See especially pp. vi, 34, 205 and 209.

[2] See, for example, James VI of Scotland’s defense of the divine right of kings based on Romans 13, penned in 1597-98.

[3] My discussion of King and his religious contemporaries, along with the quote, stem from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” dated 16 April, 1963, easily accessed many places online.

[4] Keener, 197.

[5] S. Scott Bartchy, “Slavery in the NT,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 4, 543.

[6] The most important evangelical work of this century discussing the intersection of the Bible’s teachings to women and slaves is William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001). I heartily recommend it. See also Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, chapter 6: “A Model for Interpreting Wives’ Submission: Slaves in Ephesians 6:5-9.

[7] Keener, 209.

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