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.