So what does a good marriage look like anyway? How are a husband and wife supposed to relate to each other? Is it a command and control relationship with the husband being like the general to the wife’s sergeant? Or does it have a softer look, more like a generous boss to a competent secretary? There’s always the model of the valiant knight to the damsel in perpetual distress, of course. And then there are variations on the idea of marriage as a team. But what kind of a team are we talking about? Is it more like a tug-of-war team with both husband and wife using their muscles to pull on the same end of the rope? Or like a baseball team with one partner polishing pitching skills while the other perfects catching?
Within the body of Christ, ideas about what constitutes healthy and effective marriage relationships usually fall somewhere on a continuum between two general types,“egalitarian” on one hand and “hierarchial” on the other hand, each with their multiple sub-variations. But which type is biblical? Which is the closest approximation of what God intended when he created marriage? Or, maybe both models are off the mark and that’s why we have diminished, and sometimes ruined, our marriages. Like one of Cinderella’s sisters, maybe we’ve been determined to squeeze our much-too-large foot into someone else’s much-too-small shoe, and we’d rather cut off our toes than admit that our models just don’t fit.
My recent reflections on the creation story have led me to think that when we men and women of God have finally figured marriage out, we won’t, in the first place, be debating about who gets to be the boss of what. Nor do I think we will be weighing, measuring and balancing to ensure parity either. No, we’ll be singing—singing Adam’s song, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” We’ll know we’ve come home when we’ve returned to the beginning—returned to marriage as it was created to be at the dawn of time.
For centuries the hierarchial model has been common in Christian marriages. Its fundamental premise is that God grants an authority to the male that he has not granted to the female. This authority is understood to carry into all relationships between the sexes but especially into marriage. Is this premise actually supported by Scripture? To address the question, we have to start with Genesis 1:27-28:
So God created humankind (Adam) in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (NIV, emphasis added)
In Genesis 1:27-28, God clearly elevates Adam above every creature creating him in the “image of God.” And God gives clear marching orders: Be fruitful. Fill the earth. Rule. But what is this Adam that God creates in his divine image and whom he authorizes to fulfill the cultural mandate?
In this passage, God uses a lot of words that don’t normally apply to a solitary person. Specifically, God calls Adam variously “him”, “them”, “male” and “female.” Hmmm. Know anyone like that?
From Genesis 1:27 through Genesis 2:21, we learn the story of Adam, “him-them-male-female”— the world’s first and only truly “generic person.” Granted, if we had a photograph of this Adam, from our perspective in a universe of both male and female humans, we would probably identify the creature we see as a male human, but in Adam’s universe, to what could he compare himself to fix his human identity? What plants, what animals were like him? None, as Adam sadly discovers in Genesis 2. Distinctly different from all of God’s other creation, Adam is human, nothing more, nothing less. Going back to God’s own words again, Adam is “him-them-male-female,” a formulation repeated in Genesis 5:2.
To all who regard the Adam of Genesis 1 as a decidedly male human, consider the following scenario: Let’s say you are instructed to open a drawer and describe what you find. You see that it’s full of ballpoint pens and a single pencil. It’s unlikely that you would say, “I see a bunch of ballpoint pens and one yellow, #2 pencil with one end sharpened to a fine point, and a small pink eraser at the other end.” All the pencil’s specific characteristics are meaningless in comparison to the pens that surround it. Adam entered creation in a similal fashion, as the only God-made human in a world full of God-made non-humans. The only meaning Adam’s particular anatomy could possibly have both for his self-consciousness and for our understanding of him, is in contrast to all the other living creatures God had made. And in relation to them, Adam’s anatomy meant only one thing: He was human, hence the awkward description “him-them-male-female.”
In Genesis 2, we find “him-them-male-female” in the garden where all kinds of momentous events take place. If we jump ahead of God and turn “him-them-male-female” into simply him-male, then we radically misunderstand what happens here. Most notably, we misinterpret the blessings to the human race as if they were the special possession of the male alone.
But even as there is a generic pencil in the ballpoint pen drawer, there is a generic human in the garden. Adam is the human race, literally all of it. Thus, it is the human race that receives the breath of God. It is the human race that is given the task of tending and keeping the garden. It is the human race that names the animals. It is the human race, existing in the form of a single human being, that is deemed to be not good — unlike the very good of the rest of creation.
Thankfully God acts quickly to fix this “not good,” and in the process, God does something completely new. Instead of going back to the ground to create a second “him-them-male-female” as a counterpart Adam, God takes his raw material from Adam’s side to make a woman. When Adam sees the woman for the first time, not only does he recognize her, but in the same moment of revelation, he also recognizes himself. Ish and Ishah, man and woman, burst onto the scene together. The lonely awkwardness of “him-them-male-female” is transformed into the co-humanity of him-male, her-female — Adam in two sexes.
So now that there is Adam in two sexes, what happens with the work God designated Adam to do, and the authority to accomplish it, bestowed by God in Genesis 1 where God describes Adam as “him-them-male-female”? In Genesis 2, Adam clearly understands, and the answer is shown by the pronouncement he makes as the world’s first human male. This is Adam’s opportunity for a “me Tarzan, you Jane” moment. This is his first opportunity to draw distinctions and explain who’s going to lead in this new world order of male and female. But he doesn’t make any attempt to do so. Instead he sings her a beautiful love song. He welcomes the woman with the exclamation that, like him, she is 100 percent Adam: “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” And yet she is wonderfully different: “She shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.”
Genesis 2, which might be conceptualized as “the age of Adam”, opens with the recognition of humanity as a unity-in-diversity. It begins with the empowering affirmation that all the gifts, blessings and authority of humanity that held when Adam was “him-them-male-female”, now hold for male and female, for they are related bone to bone, and flesh to flesh. Both are Adam.
Let’s go back and pull that pencil out of the drawer of ballpoint pens and run through the creation of the male and female again. The pencil is Adam, “him-them-male-female”. In Genesis 2, God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep and takes part of Adam’s side. (Break the pencil into two pieces.) And afterwards, God closes Adam back up. (Take the part of the pencil with the sharpened tip and put a replacement eraser over its broken end.) Then God makes the woman. (Now take the remaining part of the pencil and sharpen its broken end into a point.)
If these two pencils were tossed back into the drawer with the pens, we would now be able to make appropriate distinctions, not just between the pencils and the ballpoint pens, but between the pencils themselves. However, wouldn’t it seem odd to say that only one of the pencils is the real pencil, and that only the real pencil retains authority to write and erase. Each pencil’s very substance and origin prevent such a conclusion. Indeed, they are wood of one another’s wood, and lead of one another’s lead, each as perfectly suited to perform the pencil’s original task as when they were a single pencil. And so now we see, in Genesis 2, two beautiful creatures from the one.
What Genesis 2 reveals about marriage deepens the theme of co-humanity. If God meant to establish who was boss, meant to measure out to husband and wife different shares of the authority he endowed in Genesis 1, then Genesis 2:24 does not show even a hint of it: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” The task and promise of the marriage relationship is not for Adam the male to take authority over Adam the female, but rather to live in unity with the same harmony and oneness of heart and mind that existed at the beginning.
What is the Apostle Paul doing but repeating Adam’s song when, in Ephesians 5, he calls on husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies? “No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church.” And just so we don’t miss the point he’s making in this passage, Paul takes us back to the way marriage was supposed to be from the beginning by quoting Genesis 2:24.
If then, hierarchy was not intended for the married Adamic pair, does that mean couples should each contribute precisely 50 percent to the marriage? Probably not. The problem with a 50/50 percentage plan is that it doesn’t go far enough! When a couple focuses on measuring and weighing, on making sure that every party gets his or her due, the concept seems far too thin, far too calculating to capture what a marriage based on the Genesis account and restored in Jesus Christ looks like.
Granted, if I had to choose between “hierarchy,” which deletes my Genesis 1 authority under God and gives it all to my husband, and a 50/50 percentage plan, which would have my husband and me figuring out, politely of course, a balance of power, I’d definitely choose the latter. But God be praised, this is not a choice the Bible even envisions.
“This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.”
If I listen to Adam’s song, I discover that married co-humanity is not about calculating costs, benefits and relative advantages. Neither is it about keeping imaginary lines of authority straight. What it’s about is power — the power unleashed when husbands and wives live united as bone-to-bone and flesh-to-flesh. The power to bless each other, generously and with exuberant joyfulness. The power to help each other grow into the full humanity of God’s image bearers, each helping the other to shoulder full human authority to rule and to live fruitfully under God.
“This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:32)
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“Hey, wait a minute,” I hear you say, “what about all the New Testament teachings about the husband being the head and wives submitting? Don’t we have a clear, unambiguous marriage hierarchy here?” Here’s the short answer: No. Nothing in the New Testament overthrows creation, it restores it. If we interpret the New Testament such that it rewrites creation, we are reading it incorrectly.
There’s a much longer, more detailed answer to your question, but you have to go to the Christians for Biblical Equality Web site at www.cbeinternational.org and read some of the free articles that have been written on these passages, especially those dealing with the idea of “headship.”
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“What? You mean that’s all you’re going to say? I still don’t know exactly what a biblical marriage looks like! I mean, doesn’t someone have to be the leader, just like in any other organization?”
Great question. Here’s the short answer: your biblical marriage will fit you and your husband or your wife as perfectly as the tiny glass slipper fit Cinderella’s foot. But I’m sorry to report that there are no ready-made shoes you can grab off the shelf. You have to work out the exact details yourself, and that is hard work indeed. How the final design of your marriage looks will depend a lot on your age, the number and ages of your children, the education each spouse needs in order to respond to God’s call upon their lives, and other practical things like that. But, as the Apostle Paul says in Philippians, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Who could have known that you’d have the freedom, with God’s blessing, to work it out in your own marriage!!