Patriarchalism in most of its forms, whether in “soft complementarianism” or in the blatant sexism of popular Christian authors such as Douglas Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and others, has always found itself in a tight corner of the bedroom.
We are told that men rule over the family, have personal authority over their wives in marriage, and have “ultimate authority” before God for the marital relationship (Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family, 23) because of “God’s original design.” At the same time, we are told that sex and sexuality in the marriage is a central, defining, theologically-significant activity and aspect that flows out of the marriage bed, into family dynamics, and finally into church, education, and government spheres. For this reason, only men should be pastors of churches, professors of seminaries, and soldiers in the military.
What is strangely missing from this model is the fact that biblical marital sexuality is explicitly egalitarian (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7, Song of Songs). Putting two and two together, this would demand that the marital relationship itself be egalitarian, not male-“led.” An egalitarian sex life simply does not lead to a patriarchal marriage.
But since this very suggestion is threatening to the “traditional” establishment, millions of Christians are required to believe (via peer coercion, enforced interpretations of denominational statements of faith, subtle hints of terminated unemployment, etc.) the novel and contradictory theology that marriage should be patriarchal, but sex within that same marriage is (and apparently must be) egalitarian. Yes, this belief is more or less the default position for a huge portion of today’s American evangelical churches, and countless couples are counseled accordingly.
The popularity of this theological nonsense prompts me to briefly review how biblical sex is perhaps the greatest theological vindication of an egalitarian marriage. Parts 2 and 3 will address the Old Testament and New Testament teaching respectively.
Just How Important is Sex in Marriage?
While sex is not required for genuine, godly marriage (marriage is obviously more than sex!), for those couples who desire and are capable of doing so, sex and sexuality are very significant. (One can say the same things about procreativity in marriage). Sex is, in many ways, a microcosm of the marital relationship. What happens in two persons’ most vulnerable, intimate moments can indicate many things about the nature of their relationship in general.
The centrality and importance of sex and sexuality is embodied in Christian Scripture in countless ways, such as in the familiar use of certain metaphors, or in instruction, whether in Mosaic law, family relationships, covenantal signs, or in the history of redemption itself: God is preparing a bride (Rev. 19:7; 21:2; cf. Is. 62:5; 2 Sam. 17:3; Jn. 3:29), and the consummation of all things is a wedding feast (Rev. 19:7); God is likened to a female bear (Hos. 13:8), a mistress (Ps. 123:2-3), a hen with chicks (Mt. 23:37), a mother (Hos. 11:3-4; Is. 66:13; Ps. 131:2) who gives birth (Dt. 32:18) and nurses a child (Is. 49:15; 42:14); idolatry is synonymous with prostitution (Is. 23:17; Ez. 16:30, 35); rebellious Israel is presented as a wild woman who “spreads [her] legs to every passer-by to multiply [her] harlotry” (Ez. 16:25, NASB) while innocent/sanctified Israel and Judah are presented as a pure virgin (Jer. 14:17; 18:13; 31:14; Lam. 1:15) just as the church is (2 Cor. 11:2); the whole Corinthian church is told to be strong like men are strong (1 Cor. 16:13); wisdom in Proverbs is a beautiful, precious woman (Prov. 1:20; 8:1-9:1), etc.
In short, countless aspects of biblical theology are presented in terms of sexuality and marriage precisely because sex and marriage are so fundamental to human nature. The Bible uses gender in its language, images, prophecies, teaching, and history because it is something everyone can understand: everyone is sexual.
Christian critics of egalitarianism fully agree. Sexuality is central to marriage and anthropology. John Coe in Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective, says, “To say that gender is inessential to the human being is to deny and confuse the self, to split off self from self, to live a lie” (189). In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Piper and Grudem favorably cite (21) the egalitarian scholar Paul Jewett (1975:172), who says:
Sexuality permeates one’s individual being to its very depth; it conditions every facet of one’s life as a person. As the self is always aware of itself as an “I,” so this “I” is always aware of itself as himself or herself. Our self-knowledge is indissolubly bound up not simply with our human being but with our sexual being. At the human level there is no “I and thou” per se, but only the “I” who is male or female confronting the “thou,” the “other,” who is also male or female.
In his book God, Marriage, and Family, Andreas Köstenberger defines marriage as, “a sacred bond between a man and a woman, instituted by and publicly entered into before God (whether or not this is acknowledged by the married couple), normally consummated by sexual intercourse” (78). He goes on to say that, “sex is a part of man’s calling to live his life to the glory of God,” “the purpose of sex…is rooted in the heart and creative purposes of God,” and “within the marriage bond, sex is the ultimate physical expression of deep, committed, and devoted love” (80-82).
So what kind of “deep, committed, and devoted love” in marriage is this—according to biblical ideals?
Before we answer this, we should address a more fundamental issue: how should we even begin going about answering that question, even within a view that gives primacy to Scripture? The theologian cannot simply pick and choose texts that appear to support our beliefs and then go from there. That would lead to an imbalanced and excessively-biased approach.
Here is what one complementarian theologian advises: we ought to “first examine those portions that address the topic at length, and interpret less clear passages in light of the longer, more direct ones” (White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an, 153). So, going along with this common approach, what portions of Scripture address the topic of marriage at length? Where is the nature of marriage addressed most thoroughly?
Upon surveying the biblical books, the answer is fairly clear: in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament and in 1 Corinthians 7 in the New Testament. These are the largest sections on marital sexuality in the entire Bible.
So in the next two posts, we’ll look at the Song of Songs and 1 Corinthians 7 and see what kind of marriage and sexual life is portrayed.