1) Live Redemptively
God, the Holy Trinity, created humanity in his image—in the context of mutual, loving, intimate relationships. In creation, God declared everything as good, except one thing— being alone (Gen. 2:18), so God created the woman. The man and woman were equal and complementary (Gen. 2:23), completely vulnerable to one another and interdependent (Gen. 2:25). In the garden, then, marriage is characterized by cooperation, intimacy, mutual dependence, and mutual support. One of the consequences of the fall is that couples now fight for power, exhibited in a desire to rule or a desire to be “on top.” Tragically, instead of a love-based relationship which expresses mutual submission and equal regard, the marriage relationship has denigrated into a relationship based on power and control, role-clarity and order. Genesis 3:16 describes this tension: “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
In redemption, Christ restores relationships to their original design of the garden. Couples are exhorted to mutually “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). There are to be no more power-struggles to be “on top” in the marriage, rather, the only acceptable struggle is to be fighting for the opportunity to be “on the bottom”—serving one another in love. Relationships are reinstated as being equal and complementary (Gal. 3:28). Mutuality, familiarity, and interdependency are re-established as the norm in human relationships.
If you want to transform your marriage, live redemptively by putting Christ as the head of your home. Honor him and honor your spouse. Seek to serve and build up your partner, regardless of how you are treated in return. Compete with one another to outdo the other in service and defer to the other’s preferences. Read God’s word and pray together. Don’t expect your partner to initiate these times. If the Holy Spirit is prompting you to read God’s word or pray together, then take the initiative, regardless of whether you are male or female.
2) There is no “How-to” Manual
Our workshop title at a recent CBE conference, “Egalitarian Marriage— Here’s How,” was an intentional misnomer. There are no “how-to” manuals, recipes, or easy steps to follow in marriage and, in a certain sense, if one could develop such a “how-to” manual for egalitarian marriages, it probably would not be too egalitarian. The reality is that hierarchical marriages, with well-defined gender roles, probably function better and are more efficient; however, functionality and efficiency are important qualities for organizations like the army or businesses—not relationships! When was the last time you used efficiency and functionality as metrics for rating your friendships? Egalitarian marriages, like all marriages, are simply a lot of work. There are no predefined blueprints, so both husbands and wives must figure out what works best— a process that takes time, perseverance, and the ability to learn from mistakes. Invest in your marriage and work at your relationship, never taking it for granted. Love works, if you work at it.
3) Pursue a Dynamic and Maturing Relationship
While there are no blueprints, Jack and Judith Balswick have provided for us a helpful framework for understanding maturing relationships.
The spiral diagram at right is practical because it is not linear; instead there is non-sequential repetition with deepening and progression. The starting point of the marriage relationship is an initial covenant of unconditional love made unilaterally by both parties. Each marriage partner chooses to love the other in good times and bad, for better or for worse. In an atmosphere of security and love provided by this initial covenant, a degree of grace grows. As more and more grace is cultivated, couples are freed to empower one another. Empowering leads to intimacy, which then leads back to a deeper level of covenant commitment.
This model suggests that marriages will either be dynamic and maturing or stagnant and dying. While the initial covenant is a unilateral commitment of unconditional love, a mature covenant is a bilateral commitment of unconditional love. In order for growth to take place there must be involvement by both persons. Growth can be blocked at any point when one spouse is unable or unwilling to reciprocate unconditional love. When this happens, the Balswicks argue, the marriage will become fixated on “contract rather than covenant, law rather than grace, possessive power rather than empowering, and distance rather than intimacy” (The Family, p. 21).
The key to transforming your marriage is to always choose to build a relationship that is dynamic and maturing rather than to accept one that is stagnant and dying. We do that by increasingly offering to our partner covenant loyalty, grace, empowerment, and intimacy.
4) Love and be Loved
Marriage begins with a covenant to love in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live. A covenant is cut freely by one’s own choice to be committed to will what is best for the other, regardless of personal sacrifice or feelings. But, a covenant is more than a commitment— it is a spiritual act that is made before God and the community. As a spiritual act, therefore, the consequences of breaking this commitment are grave and far-reaching.
In ancient times, parties solemnized a covenant by walking down an aisle flanked by pieces of slaughtered animals. This practice signified an oath: “May it be so done to me if I do not keep my oath and pledge.” When God made a promissory covenant with Abram, he walked back and forth between the pieces (Gen. 15:17), indicating that he would take full responsibility for fulfilling both sides of the agreement— not just one side. Similarly, Christ demonstrated his own covenantal, unconditional love for each one of us by dying for us, while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8).
In the same way, an initial covenant in marriage is made unilaterally and unconditionally, regardless of your spouse’s response. Knowing and receiving Christ’s unconditional love gives each spouse grace to love their partner unconditionally as Christ has loved them. A mature covenant develops when your spouse willingly makes the same type of unconditional commitment to you.
Therefore, if you want to transform your marriage, fear God and honor the covenant that you have made before him and his people. Think about the consequences of being split apart like a slaughtered animal, if you are ever disloyal to your spouse, for this is the emotional, spiritual, and psychological pain that you will experience. Prior to even being tempted, find an accountability partner to help you stay faithful to your spouse. Re-commit to loving your spouse and doing what is best for him or her each and every day, regardless of what you receive in return. You will experience the joy and peace that comes from honoring God, loving your partner, and staying faithful to him/her until the end.
5) Forgive and be Forgiven
In the traditional marriage, roles are rigidly defined and segregated with little flexibility. The husband usually assumes the role of working outside of the home while the wife generally takes up the role of homemaking and caring for children. Advocates of modern marriages tend to react against the segregation in the traditional system and insist that marital roles be undifferentiated. Unfortunately, this often results in confusion and frustration as roles are ill-defined and unfulfilled.
The balancing concept between law and chaos is grace. In the context of egalitarian marriage, grace is manifested as creative adaptability and flexibility. In this light, roles are differentiated but not segregated. They are also interchangeable. Role differentiation means that the husbands and wives agree to serve one another by taking on assigned tasks which contribute to the maintenance of the household. This can only happen in an atmosphere of acceptance.
If you want to transform your marriage, accept your spouse completely, commit to being a grace-giver, and practice forgiveness. Only in this way will you nurture the type of family atmosphere that will enable your relationship to flourish.
6) Serve and be Served
The issue of authority in marriage is a controversial one. In the traditional marriage, authority and power was automatically ascribed to the male head, with the wife in obedient submission. In contrast, the modern marriage, with its focus on self-fulfillment, often leads to power struggles as both partners vie for greater freedom and autonomy. In an egalitarian marriage, authority is empowerment. It involves submission to the headship of Jesus Christ and to one another.
One of the great myths of power is a commodity with a limited supply: if you gain power, then I must lose power. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Would we argue that when God empowers us he loses power? With God as our guide, husbands and wives can be free from the fear of losing power and be liberated to empower each other to become all that they can be.
It may be helpful to grasp the similarity behind the words “helper” and “head.” Both words connote the idea of “support” or “strengthen” in the original text. The Hebrew word, translated as “helper” in Genesis 2:20 is the same word that is used of Yahweh as an ever-present help in times of trouble (Psa. 46:1). The Greek word often translated as “head,” suggests source, like the fountain head of a stream, rather than referring to authority. Just as the man draws strength, courage, and confidence from the wife’s support, the woman also draws strength, courage, and confidence from the husband’s support. Both words, “helper” and “head,” therefore, indicate that the Christian marriage is a paragon of mutual submission, mutual dependence, and mutual support— a place where both the man and the woman can serve and be served.
7) Know and be Known
Communication is the essential means for establishing and maintaining intimacy in marriage. In a traditional marriage, unfortunately, verbal communication often takes the form of pronouncements, a one-way form of communication. The husband legislates without consulting his wife and conflicts are often “resolved” through unilateral decrees or avoidance. Communication in a modern marriage is only slightly better. Since no partner has veto power, communication often becomes a battleground for demands that spouses make of each other. Conflicts are dealt with through confrontation and the overall tone can be highly aggressive.
In an egalitarian marriage, however, partners express themselves in a caring and concerned manner—always seeking the best for the other. Listening is the order of the day with an effort to understand the other’s point of view and to respond empathetically. Each spouse must have an attitude of submission and a willingness to give up one’s own needs and desires for the sake of the other and the relationship.
If you want to transform your marriage keep dating your mate. Make time to develop that intimacy. Listen to your partner’s day, hear their hopes, their dreams, and their fears.