We live in a world brimming with competition. This can be seen through the widely enjoyed form of sports, or in the competing (and not so enjoyable) cultural standards for beauty. Desire for success even leads to aggressively competitive relationships in the workplace. No matter where one turns today, the main message seems to be “Get to the top no matter the cost.”
Standing in stark contrast to such self-serving ideas is friendship, a relationship where there is no power struggle. Both parties are equals, walking through life side-by-side, able to look at each other eye-to-eye because it’s not about who’s better or who’s the leader, but about how each person can better serve, love, and enjoy life with the other. Friendship is a beautiful parallel system that God created for humanity—two people coming to terms with their identities, together as friends, but also as individuals. We often learn the most about ourselves by learning about other people. Friendship is, perhaps, the most basic and important of human relationships.
I see this throughout the Bible, especially in one of my favorite passages, Ecclesiastes 4:9–12, where “two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. . . . though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.” Back-to-back, side-by-side, helping the other stand up when they fall down, bare their soul, and their heart still feels a little shaky.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people say that true romance and healthy marriages are built on friendship. I’ve heard that if friendship isn’t the foundation of romance, the relationship is doomed to fail. If the concept of mutual, life-giving friendship isn’t at the center of a romantic relationship, it seems rather forced and dull. Romance has to flow naturally from a place of authentic love (1 Cor. 13), from the desire to honor the other as above yourself (Rom. 12:10) and bear their burdens alongside of them (Gal. 6:2). That’s something required of us as Christians in general, not just as romantic partners.
So I get confused when I hear people bring up terms like “male headship” and “authority,” “leadership” and “roles,” when discussing the elements of a biblical marriage. I’ve listened to many friends, pastors, and writers alike speak on such topics, convinced that a solid marriage needs a leader in order to avoid power struggles and chaos. Yet no one preaching on friendship would ever claim that one friend has to be the servant leader, and the other has to submit. No one would claim that friendships devolve into nothing more than chaotic power struggles if one person isn’t put in charge. I’m guessing those same friends, pastors, and writers wouldn’t talk about submitting to their best friends.
Why? Because friendships aren’t contractual. Christ-like friendships are about doing life together. They’re about side-by-side community, about friends leading in their strengths and submitting out of love, not because the submission is demanded or forced upon them by Scripture, but because it is a natural outpouring of loving someone as you love yourself. That kind of love isn’t just used to describe marriages—it’s the same kind of love used to paint the picture of David and Jonathan’s covenantal friendship, where “Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself” (1 Sam. 20:17).
I don’t think there’s one right way to do marriage. Something as holy and mysterious as the marital covenant can’t be reduced to a set of rules or roles or several Bible verses pulled out of their ancient context. Just as I have seen many glorious marriages based on mutual submission, so have I seen marriages with the man as the head that are still radiantly beautiful. At the same time, I think the “headship” and the “leadership” language starts to sound more and more like an employer-employee relationship, a business leader and an administrative assistant, rather than a one-flesh bond of love and unity. Since when did Christ become not enough as the head of a relationship?
Authentic friendships don’t leave room for hierarchies, for static leaders and helpers, for legalistic rankings of authority. And from what I’ve come to learn so far, neither do marriages. With Christ as the head, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, become one in him, taking turns leading and helping, showing weakness and showing strength, because in Christ there is no fear. There is no shame. One is not pigeon-holed into a specific role, but allowed the space and fluidity to grow into who he or she is in Christ. God is constantly creating us into beautiful things—beautiful things that are organic, not forced or hurried, beaten down with never enoughs and just not theres.
For most of my life, I’ve heard sermons preached on marriage that only left me feeling restricted, like it was nothing more than a cardboard checklist of dos and don’ts, impossible standards with no room to be afraid and vulnerable and simply human. But I’ve also heard those same pastors talk about friendship, about David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi, about carrying each other’s burdens, and it was like breathing in fresh air that felt free. However, I only felt this way because I continued to box off marriage and friendship as two completely different concepts. Because that’s how they’re often talked about, right?
“Oh, they’re just friends.”
I still catch myself saying this now. Just friends, like the friendship is either ten times less than a romantic relationship, or a simple stepping stone leading to eventual marriage. It’s easy to paint marriage as the mountain top experience of all relationships, often times diminishing friendship in the process.
But that’s the thing—marriage and friendship aren’t in competition. They aren’t two separate concepts on opposite sides of space, racing against each other to cross the finish line. They’re interconnected and intertwined, constantly intersecting to reveal a breathtaking paradigm of mutuality. It’s a paradigm where both are equal and Christ is the head—a paradigm that most are quick to allow into friendships. And if friendship is the most basic building block of healthy romantic relationships, wouldn’t that same paradigm carry over into marriage?