It seems that American evangelicals – conservative, liberal, emerging, and otherwise – are obsessed over the roles between husband and wife within marriage. In one corner (the typically conservative corner) we have Complementarianism, the belief that the roles of husband and wife compliment each other, which is to say that the husband is the authority and the wife submits. In the other corner (the typically liberal corner) we have Egalitarianism, the belief that the roles of husband and wife are equal, which is to say that the husband and wife share authority within the home and neither has authority over the other. The problem with the debate, however, is that it’s framed incorrectly, thus both sides end up missing the point and hold erroneous conclusions.
When forming an argument if you begin with a false premise then your conclusion will also be false and the argument invalid. In the debate between complementarians and egalitarians, both sides tend to begin with a faulty premise, namely that there is to be authority within a marriage. From the idea, “there must be authority within a marriage” both then seek to find where that authority ought to be placed. Both sides begin with the question, “Where does the authority lay?” yet neither side begins with the proper question, “What is the purpose of marriage?”
Marriage is a sacrament, at least for those who still follow the sacraments. Even for denominations that have done away with the sacraments marriage is still a very important event and taken very seriously. Even in the most country Southern Baptist Church, where the congregants would sooner drink unsweet tea and sing the praises of Lincoln and the Union than give any credence to “them Catholics,” marriage is treated as a sacrament in all but the name. In such churches, if you are over the age of 20 and not married the old women will begin to worry for you and the men will question you. No matter what strand of Christianity you run into, marriage seems to be an important aspect for that strand.
Yet, in all its importance we often fail to answer the question, “What is the purpose of marriage?” Sure, there are very practical purposes of marriage, such as having sex, having children, having a companion, and so on. Yet, one can imagine a world where such things can still occur, but marriages not exist. The Bible is clear that all of these things are to happen solely within the realm of marriage. Thus, the practical elements that come to mind, while representative of marriage, do not address the purpose of marriage. Why does God deem that these things ought to happen within marriage? Perhaps one could point to Genesis where we see that husband and wife are to “become one.” Perhaps the purpose of marriage is to become one, but what does this look like?
Of course, becoming one flesh is still just an aspect of marriage. While everyone agrees that the most successful marriages are the most self-sacrificial ones, not everyone agrees on how much self-sacrifice should be given. Seth Adam Smith (what a name) argues for total self-sacrifice, that marriage isn’t for the individual, but for the other. While popular (and mostly correct), there have been detractors. They argue (mostly correct) that marriage is about us, about a partnership. Yet, in both instances the purpose of marriage is focused on the “one flesh” and what that means. The purpose of marriage is focused on the participants in the marriage, not in the One who instituted the marriage.
The purpose of marriage goes beyond becoming one with each other. The purpose of everything in this life is to lead us to unify with God, to become divine in all things except essence and being. The sacraments serve to unite us to God in love. As Christ is, so we are to be, but this is a process. Thus, the sacraments (which were created for men and not for God) help us move towards this unification; none of the sacraments are good in and of themselves. That is, all of the sacraments are contingent upon Theosis; remove Theosis and the sacraments have no meaning, purpose, or context. The same remains true for the sacrament (or sacrament-in-all-but-name) of marriage. If we remove that we are to one day become as Christ is from our eschatological and soteriological view of the world, then the idea of “become one flesh” makes little sense within a marriage. We end up in senseless debates over how much self-sacrifice is appropriate or about who should be in charge.
Therefore, the above should show us that the purpose of marriage is to lead us towards unification with Christ, as this is the purpose of all sacraments. We unify that we might become unified; we unite in one flesh with another mortal so that we might learn how to unite with the One who is immortal. All followers of Christ engage in marriage; one is married to another individual, or one is married to the Church via a vow of celibacy. In focusing on what the majority of the Church will do, which is to be married to another individual, we see that the purpose of marriage isn’t for self-sacrifice or even for a partnership, but to help aid one another (and one’s children) in growing with Christ. Thus, everything within the marriage ought to prepare the couple for eternity. With the purpose realized, the content and context of marriage begins to make more sense.
If both are to aid each other, then both are equal. Both are, in fact, citizens of the kingdom of Heaven and therefore are equal already (Galatians 3:38). Even St. Paul points out that the husband’s body belongs to his wife and the wife’s body belongs to her husband, indicating equality in authority between the two (1 Corinthians 7:4). To this, the egalitarians smile and agree. Yet, even within equal relationships there is order. One would hardly argue that the Father is more important than the Son or Spirit. We would agree that within the Trinity though there is unity in essence, there is distinction in person, which means that order exists. Even within the most unified relationship in all of existence, in the Holy Trinity, there is order; so it is with marriage.
Within this order, husbands and wives are called to submit to each other (Ephesians 5:20-33). Husbands are called to sacrificially love their wives as Christ loves the Church and wives are called love their husbands as the Church loves Christ. In both situations, there is order, but it is sacrificial. To this, complementarians would smile and agree. Yet, even with order there is no exchange of authority, no final word, no, “I am the man and do as I say.” The man’s word is only as good as his intention and if he is not leading his family towards unification with Christ then he is unfit for his position. This is not to say the wife should rebel against him and humiliate him in front of everyone, nor should she do this even in private (and vice versa). After all, the legs do not mock the arms for being weak and Christ does not mock the Church in her various failures. Rather, love ought to win the day when one partner is weak and love is always sacrificial and submissive.
In this, marriage acts as an icon for Christ’s relation to us. Christ has authority over the Church, yet is not superior to us in nature (as He is both God and man, but in his human nature He is equal to us). Christ is, truly speaking, the first among equals concerning the whole of humanity. When we submit to Christ, the whole Christ, we must submit to His Divinity (a nature that is above us), but we must also submit to His humanity (a nature that is our own). In submitting to His humanity He does not become greater than us, any more than submitting to a boss or a parent makes either greater. Likewise, when a wife submits to a husband, she willingly submits to an equal (and the same is true when a husband submits to the needs of his wife).
The submission to one another is meant to help us become better in our submission to Christ. After all, if we can submit to an imperfect human’s needs how much easier is it to submit to Holiness Himself? We must never forget that the purpose of marriage – unification with Christ – is seen throughout the Bible. The Bible itself opens with the marriage of Adam and Eve and closes with the marriage of the Church to Christ. The purpose of marriage is to prepare us for the final marriage. It is not about I, it is not about you, it is not even about us, rather marriage is about Him. We only sacrifice to each other in order to help one another grow in Christ.
In light of this, it is time we move beyond talk of who is in control, whether it is an equitable partnership or whether the husband is the authority. It is time we move beyond the ceaseless and pointless debates over whether we should be married for other or for us. We are married for Christ. As St. John Chrysostom points out in one of his homilies on marriage, the married are to help one another become saints. Sometimes this requires us to submit to the needs of our spouse while other times it requires us to correct our spouse’s action. To find the purpose of marriage we must not look to the two being married, but to the One who instituted the system. Only then can we begin to move beyond Egalitarianism and Complementarianism and jointly unify with Him.