Three tightly intertwining strands create a strong cord.
The well-known words in Ecclesiastes —“a cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccles. 4:12b) — are often used to create a visual icon in our minds of the marriage bond. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then this simple graphic can transmit a lot of information about unity and oneness. But what if someone completely redesigned this icon and placed the three strands end to end and connected them with small knots? I wish this were merely a hypothetical question. Back when I was a new believer, my Christian education imprinted my mind with this altered image. I was repeatedly taught that at the wedding altar, when a man and a woman “tie the knot,” the following stratification goes into effect:
God = top strand
Husband = middle strand
Wife = bottom strand
Somehow, I didn’t realize that this chain of command had essentially replaced the intertwined image. Instead, I was told that both systems could co-exist in harmony. Oneness and stratification. I didn’t comprehend that the layered version hindered the closeness and connection inherent in the triple-stranded cord. My elders claimed that real unity could not be achieved without hierarchy.
My Stratified Marriage
At a small, picturesque church nestled in the Rocky Mountains, my husband and I exchanged our wedding vows. I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of our lives together! Yet it didn’t take long before marriage problems arose as we were learning how to relate as husband and wife. To find solutions to our struggles, I gathered advice from popular Christian marriage books. I viewed the authors as older and wiser teachers, and I believed that they could help us better understand the Scriptures relating to marriage. All of these writers helped to reinforce the hierarchical arrangement. Based upon this perspective, the two sexes appeared to be vastly different from one another beyond the obvious physical differences.
Their material devised gender analogies: Assertive is to godly men/husbands, as passive is to godly women/wives. So a distinguishing difference between the sexes is that men are supposed to be bold. Strong. Assertive. These qualities defined masculinity, according to these authors. Rather than encouraging wives to also view ourselves as strong iron — “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17) — their advice taught me, as the wife, to view myself as soft. Weak. Passive. This, they said, defines femininity. Like fragile flowers and delicate vases. But these so-called feminine traits are unable to “sharpen iron.”
Another part of my conditioning taught me to view my husband as the leader of our relationship. If I wanted to enjoy a happy and successful marriage, these teachers explained, then deference or submission was a critically important attitude and behavior from me, the wife. My husband’s leadership role bestowed upon him certain “divine” rights. Like a king. During my childhood, I had also learned from chess, card games, and history that kings have more value than queens. All of this indoctrination made my rank as a wife abundantly clear to me. My lower functional role — the bottom strand — required me to give a special form of homage and reverence toward my husband. I didn’t realize that by adopting this belief I was placing someone else between me and God and therefore committing idolatry. Instead, I actually thought that I was following God’s will.
So anytime we had a decisional deadlock, I needed to allow my husband to overrule. Why? Because I had been taught that men have been “divinely” granted special tie-breaking authority. The chain of command placed my husband directly between God and me for important decision-making. My preconditioning led me to believe that a virtuous Christian wife chooses to defer to her husband’s decisions — unless he is leading her into sin. Since we didn’t stand on equal footing in this area — as in equally intertwined — proper communication became confusing for me. When it was obvious that we disagreed on something, how quickly should I submit and defer to him? Proverbs 25:24 loomed in my mind: “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.”
At what point does discussing opinions turn into quarreling? I thought it better to err on the cautious side than to cross over that subjective line. Factoring into this decision was another deeply ingrained opinion; husbands should initiate because men were designed to lead. Wives, on the other hand, should willingly follow and comply. Therefore, I saw it as part of my husband’s role to make sure that he had fairly weighed my position and concerns alongside his own before arriving at his final decision. I thought that he, as the designated initiator — and also because he was called to love me sacrificially as part of his own body (Eph. 5:25-33) — should make sure that I was okay with the end decision. Yet too often he ended up thinking that I was in complete agreement with him when I was actually just deferring and submitting to him. He didn’t realize that I was trying not to be stubborn and quarrelsome about my point of view.
Sadly, this type of communication in which I neglected to share my opinions left me feeling more and more unloved by my spouse. I thought that he knew I was submitting (complying) and had not changed my mind. As a result, I couldn’t understand why he appeared to be dismissing my viewpoint. He, however, thought I was fine with the decision and had become completely swayed over to his viewpoint. Obviously, neither one of us were good mind readers. Carefully following prescribed gender roles interfered with our problem solving abilities. My submissiveness prevented us from reaching solutions that were mutually satisfying. Our marriage, and our unity, suffered.
While the marriage knot was holding us together, it simultaneously was building a barricade between our souls and was hindering our emotional intimacy. As our hearts felt less intertwined, I mourned the state of our bond and union. The “fruit” of following my prescribed gender role led to bitterness and resentment instead of love, sorrow instead of joy, internal discord instead of peace, frustration instead of patience, and isolation rather than unity.
Repressing my anger did not produce good fruit in my life or in our marriage. Instead of clearly communicating with my husband when he had sinned against me, I stifled my disappointments. After all, I thought that passiveness — not speaking up — defined my role as a wife. When he noticed a greater distance developing between us, he had to pry out how he had wounded me. Since he was taking the lead and initiating, I felt that it was finally okay for me to voice the offense. But by that point, he had trouble remembering clearly the original details and situation. Following our assigned gender roles was creating a dysfunctional relationship. How does passivity allow iron to sharpen iron?
My Unified Marriage
Several years later, I finally heard about biblical equality. Jeff VanVonderen’s book Families Where Grace Is in Place was radically unlike any other Christian marriage/family book I had read before. The difference? It was written from an egalitarian perspective. VanVonderen’s words opened my eyes to an entirely new way of seeing Scripture. In exploring Genesis 1:26-28 VanVonderen shows that:
…the man to whom responsibility was given — to be fruitful, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over every living thing — was both male and female. So this is the first aspect of God’s original plan for marriage: for males and females to be co-rulers, co-subduers (p. 18-19, emphasis added).
His [God’s] intent was that we rule together, dependent upon Him, mirroring His triune image in the way we relate in love to each other (p. 21).
For many years I had read the Bible through the eyes of gender hierarchy that taught me to see a permanent, creational hierarchy between husbands and wives. As I worked through Families Where Grace Is in Place, the Holy Spirit gently convicted me of idolatry toward my husband. How blind I had been before! No human should stand between God and me. God alone is my leader. My protector. My good shepherd.
The golden rule is straightforward and self-explanatory: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). But how do you apply the golden rule to your spouse when you believe that the other gender is too different and even opposite from you? I believed my husband and I needed to treat each other differently. Yet following legalistic gender rules led to confusion, distance, and anger in my marriage. Following the golden rule, on the other hand, is building bridges between us.
Egalitarianism has shown me that to truly become united and one with my husband (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5-6), I had to see myself as his spiritual equal. No hierarchy. Stratification separates marriage partners, but pursuing the egalitarian model of marriage — where the three strands are closely intertwined —has been producing much healthier “fruit” in my life. Communication within my marriage has been improving. Both of us can now freely act as iron to help each other grow in spiritual maturity. No more holding this marriage together with knotted threads. I want my marriage to be a strong cord.
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