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Published Date: February 27, 2023

Published Date: February 27, 2023

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Christian Marriages through Time: A Brief Historical Review

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Often when lecturing on women and Scripture, I’m asked: “Doesn’t the Bible teach different roles for husbands and wives?” My response is simple: “Regardless of gender, our calling as Christians is to imitate Christ.”1 Scripture advocates not for biblical womanhood or manhood but biblical Christhood—a truth continually obscured and distorted by forces inside and outside the church. To restore our vision, let’s take a quick flight over history to observe how couples have transcended cultural expectations in following Christ.

The Early Church

Two couples feature prominently in the New Testament. Both were Paul’s closest coworkers. 

Paul referred to Priscilla and Aquila more than anyone else, except Timothy. They first worked as tentmakers in Corinth. Then Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila moved to Ephesus, where Priscilla and Aquila planted a church in their home. Here they taught Apollos, a gifted teacher, with Priscilla in the lead (Acts 18:26). Cited ahead of her husband in four of six references,2 the couple transcended gender expectations as Priscilla taught a prominent leader in the church in their home. Later, both risked their necks for Paul equally, and all the churches honored their courage (Rom. 16:3–4).

Like Priscilla and Aquila, Junia and her husband, Andronicus, were Paul’s coworkers and also prominent apostles. Their marriage conformed not to cultural expectations but to their calling in Christ, even as it landed them in prison (Rom. 16:7).

Captivated by Christ and called to service, both of these early church couples show rather than tell how their marriage conformed not to patriarchal culture but to their calling as Christian leaders. 

Monasticism to the Reformation

Fleeing Roman persecution in the third century, Christians flocked to the desert, where they formed monastic communities. Detached from marriage and childbearing, women’s leadership in these communities flourished—a pattern that persisted through the Middle Ages until the Reformation. Even as Reformation theologians began to devalue women and prioritize the husband’s authority, women like Argula von Grumbach (1492–ca. 1564) advanced the Protestant faith for forty years despite her abusive husband, whom she refused to obey. Her writings and pamphlets circulated more widely than any male theologian, except Martin Luther.

The Modern Era  

As the Protestant faith flourished the “priesthood of all believers,” new denominations formed with marriages more readily supportive of a wife’s ministry beside or independent of her husband. By the early 1800s, more couples were working together to embody biblical Christhood. Consider Phoebe Palmer (1807–74), whose surgeon-husband fully supported her leadership as she shaped Holiness theology and launched a movement. Couples like Angelina Grimké (1805–79) and Theodore Weld (1803–95) advanced the abolitionist movement and fought for women’s equality through their writings, lectures, and organizing. A union of equals, their biblical vision to free slaves and empower women was global in impact. Likewise, Catherine (1829–90) and William Booth (1829–1912) cofounded the Salvation Army. Committed to ending the exploitation of the girls and women of London, their lives had one focus: serving those at the margins.   

Women like former slave Amanda Berry Smith (1837–1915) gained world renown as a missionary and leader of leaders. Women like her helped shift the density of the Christian faith from the West to regions of Asia, Africa, and South America.4 Here they developed close relationships with the world’s women, and as allies to them, they raised awareness of the practices that harmed women’s marriages and families. Crying as only a mother can, former slave Sojourner Truth (1797–1887) built empathy for mothers who, like herself, watched as their children were sold away from them. Likewise, Frederick Douglass (1817–95) also exposed the brutality and hypocrisy of Christian patriarchy as it desecrated marriages and families, writing:  

He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,—sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,—leaving the hut vacant, and the heart desolate.5

During the modern era, single women outnumbered men two-to-one in Bible institutes, venturing alone to distant and dangerous locations worldwide. Questioning men’s reluctance to marry these mission-minded women, the president of Prairie Bible Institute writes:

It is still possible to endure loneliness and apparent frustration amid heat, filth and stench. Probably you will not marry, as the percents of men going to the mission fields is very small. But, if you have given your life to Jesus and can trust Him to supply your needs (or give you grace to die joyfully), we will be glad to consider your application . . . This is an opportunity to prove the Omnipotent God! If there are still some old-fashioned young men who feel called to serve the Lord in hard places, with no earthly security, they too may apply.6     

Without husband or family responsibilities, women once again embraced wide opportunities, demonstrating their capacity as leaders. What is more, the disregard for marriages and families in non-dominant cultures mobilized organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) with its army of women determined to dismantle structural patriarchy and its impact on marriages, families, and especially girls at the margins. After decades of anti-trafficking work with the WCTU, physician, scholar, and activist Katharine Bushnell (1856–1946) concluded that marriages and families would remain vulnerable to abuse until Christians read the Bible without devaluing women as moral inferiors, giving others license to treat them as lesser.

The Contemporary Era—CBE Today 

Bushnell’s scholarship proved instrumental to CBE’s founders in articulating a biblical basis for mutuality in marriage and exposing translation errors that supported male dominance contrary to the Bible’s original intent. CBE republished her book God’s Word to Women and introduced her scholarship in CBE publications and events, meeting a very real need.7  While complementarians rarely publish or convene events on abuse, the topic is continually in view for egalitarians, given not only dissatisfaction in male-dominant marriages but also as it fosters impunity, strict gender roles, and a lack of empathy—prominent qualities of #MeToo and #ChurchToo perpetrators.8 

Since CBE was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1988, the issues of marriage and forces that diminish its purposes have been continually in view. How can Christians imitate Christ when dominance and abuse torment and cripple marriages, families, and those around them? In contrast, healthy marriages built on biblical mutuality leverage enormous gospel-momentum, flourishing the lives they touch.

We celebrate Christian marriages throughout history as a striking power for good, returning double to Christ in service to the world. Unselfconsciously, these marriages transcended cultural barriers, confronted injustices and abuse, to evidence the moral force of Christ they served. In this way, these couples also resembled those who never married, whose communities or organizations multiplied their efforts because single or married, our highest vocation is the imitation of Christ—a life that will always seem both powerful and peculiar in the eyes of the world.

Notes
  1. See Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 5:1–2; Phil. 2:5; 1 John 2:6.
  2. See Acts 18:2–3; Acts 18:18; Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3–4; and 1 Cor. 16:19.
  3. After Apollos’s encounter with Priscilla and Aquila, he leads many to Christ (Acts 18:27–28).
  4. Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), ix.
  5. Frederick Douglass, Life of an American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 119. See also Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape From Bondage, and His Complete History (New York: Collier Books, 1892).
  6. L. E. Maxwell, The Prairian yearbook (Prairie Bible Institute, 1958), 68. See also Mimi Haddad, “Egalitarianism: A New Path to Liberalism or Integral to Evangelical DNA?An Evangelical Tradition (a special edition journal of CBE, 2013), 14.
  7. CBE has hosted two conferences exploring abuse in Christian homes, in 1994 and 2021. The conference papers were published in books like Women, Abuse, and the Bible: How Scripture Can be Used to Hurt or Heal, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger [CBE’s founding president] and James R. Beck [CBE board member] (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).
  8. Shuji G. Asai and David H. Olson, “Spouse Abuse & Marital System Based on ENRICH,” accessed 7 February 2023. See also William Wan, “What Makes Some Men Sexual Harassers?The Washington Post, 22 December 2017.