Contrary to popular Christian belief, 1 Corinthians 7—not Ephesians 5—is the longest and most substantial chapter on marriage in the New Testament. Another surprise? Marriage is presented in explicitly egalitarian and not hierarchical terms. Yet another surprise? It’s the only passage that actually talks about husbands and wives having authority over each other.
It took me over twenty years as an active Christian, five readings of the entire Bible, and three degrees in theology and biblical studies just to finally find this out—and millions of others still haven’t, even at sixty or seventy years of age. Talk about the power of theo-political structures! Can you imagine how different the church would be if Christians were educated from a non-androcentric, patriarchal perspective?
Well anyway, in verses 4-5, we read the remarkably bold statement, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This is the only passage in Scripture that actually talks about husbands and wives “having authority” over each other, and it is unashamedly mutual. There is no male privilege here. And what is significant is not only the starkness of the terms, but the nature of the subject matter: sexual intercourse—in particular, each spouse’s right over each other’s physical bodies for sexual purposes. And logically, it seems inevitable that this equality in the bedroom characterizes the marriage relationship as a whole—or at least, it should.
The rest of the chapter also bears this tone. For those who are skeptical of whether 1 Corinthians 7 is more “substantive” or “substantial” than Ephesians 5 (a passage typically drilled into the American evangelical’s head from a young age), consider Ronald Pierce’s observation (2009:8-12):
… [Paul] addresses no less than twelve related, yet distinct, issues regarding marriage and singleness—again, more than in any other text. Third, his rhetoric is explicitly, consistently, and intentionally gender inclusive—while at the same time reflecting a carefully balanced sense of mutuality. Fourth, written about the time of Galatians (a.d. 49-55), 1 Corinthians 7 applies to marriage Paul’s declaration that race, class, and gender are irrelevant for both status in Christ (Gal. 3:28) and relationships in the church community (Gal. 3:3; 5:1, 7, 16, 25). Thus, 1 Corinthians 7 should be considered a point of reference for later gender texts (1 Cor. 11, 14, Eph. 5, Col. 3, 1 Pet. 3, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 2) as a more comprehensive statement against which these should be interpreted... Though this chapter should not be used to nullify or diminish the clear teachings of other texts, it must be afforded its own voice in the evangelical dialogue.
But don’t take my word for it, read the texts for yourselves:
…each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (7:2b).
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (7:4).
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (7:5).
…the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Cor 7:10a-11).
…if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him (1 Cor 7:12-13).
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband (7:14).
For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him (1 Cor 7:16-17).
The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband (1 Cor 7:32-34).
This is not the kind of approach one would expect from a person who sees marriage as an exclusively male-led, female-subordinated institution.
As noted above, verse 4 is particularly significant. It presents a view of marriage that is unparalleled in the ancient world (Payne 2009:106-107). Ciampa and Rosner write in their Pillar Commentary that the mutuality in the text was “revolutionary in the ancient world,” that it “clearly pointed to a radical and unprecedented restriction on the husband’s sexual freedom,” and “the only other place a similar thought is recorded prior to Paul is in the poetic notes of mutual belonging in the Song of Solomon (2:16a; 6:3a; 7:10a)” (2010:281). No surprise since, as we saw in the last post, the Song of Solomon also presents the ideal marriage through an egalitarian vision (though in much more “earthy” terms!).
I have wondered, as many of you have, how anyone could possibly get around such remarkably straight-forward concepts in the New Testament. What is the complementarian response to such plain teaching? What argument is provided?
Grudem and Piper respond here (RBMW, 80):
Do the call for mutual yielding to sexual need and the renunciation of unilateral planning [in 1 Cor 7] nullify the husband’s responsibility for general leadership in the marriage? We don’t think so. But this text definitely shapes that leadership and gives added Biblical guidance for how to work it out. It makes clear that his leadership will not involve selfish, unilateral choices. He will always strive for the ideal of agreement. He will take into account the truth that her sexual needs and desires carry the same weight as his own in developing the pattern of their intimacy. This text makes it crystal clear that leadership is not synonymous with having to get one’s way. This text is one of the main reasons we prefer to use the term leadership for the man’s special responsibility rather than authority. (See question 36.) Texts like this transform the concept of authority so deeply as to make the word, with its authoritarian connotations, easily misunderstood. The difference between us and the evangelical feminists is that they think the concept disappears into mutuality, while we think the concept is shaped by mutuality.
I don’t mean to be condescending, but any first-year student in logic, philosophy, or rhetoric will notice that this paragraph is a perfect case study of when an assertion (e.g., indicative statement) is confused with an argument (premises leading to a conclusion). What is the rational basis for “we don’t think so”? There is none. There is simply a string of assertions amounting to, “we just don’t believe the egalitarian position; this verse does shape our presuppositions, but it does not dislodge them.” Why? Well, because! We wouldn’t be complementarian if we didn’t!
Amazingly, this is the extent of complementarian response to perhaps the greatest biblical case against patriarchal marriage—at least in this “flagship” complementarian publication. 1 Corinthians 7 is not meaningfully addressed anywhere else. I don’t know about you, but this is not a view anyone should find particularly comforting or persuasive, despite the degrees behind the names who produce such writings, or the denominations in which they are involved.
One will not find any more meaningful responses in other complementarian publications for all of the same reasons. The text so plainly overturns patriarchal ideals that it can only be dismissed, not meaningfully addressed. So, the rhetoric does all the talking.
Interestingly enough, the same goes for the Song of Songs. In the twenty-plus years of the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, how many articles examine the Song of Songs? What about on the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s website? Surely one! It’s an entire book involving marital sexuality!
The answer: none. (Go to cbmw.com and do a search for “song of songs” or “song of solomon”; as far as I can see, there are no publications dedicated to expositing the book).
Then again, how could they? It would be such an overt act of public eisegesis (reading something foreign into the text instead of exegesis, reading out of the text what it has to say) that no one would possibly take it into consideration. A “complementarian exposition of the Song of Songs” would be nothing short of public embarrassment. So, as it is probably wise, attempts aren’t even made.
But the contradiction remains to this day: egalitarian sex amidst a patriarchal marriage. Daniel Akin’s book God on Sex is a perfect example. The author is a strong complementarian and yet we read that, at least when it comes to sex, things are mutual and egalitarian: “Sexual relations are equal and reciprocal. The Bible does not give the man superior rights over the woman or the woman superior rights over the man” (49). It does not even occur to him that this mutuality just might indicate the nature of the marriage relationship in general.
We now conclude this three-part series on biblical sex and how it directly undermines patriarchy—patriarchal marriage in particular.
The largest sections on marriage and sexuality in the Bible are the Song of Songs and 1 Corinthians 7. Both present marriage in anti-patriarchal (explicitly and overtly egalitarian) terms.
Patriarchal theo-politics and the complementarian higher-education/church education apparatus has, for nearly a century, kept a tight blinder on the eyes of thousands of Christian thinkers. The result is that no one is even encouraged to ask the obvious theological question: “Okay, so, sex is egalitarian, but marriage is patriarchal... how can I believe this again?”
This is a question everyone should ask their patriarchal-leaning friends and pastors, especially those who believe sexuality is so important to the shape and nature of marriage.