Often the gender debate focuses narrowly on leadership and marriage, at the expense of many. But leadership and marriage are two of the highest ideals in Christian culture, right? Why would this debate be at anyone’s expense? As we live as Christians, what is the normative metaphor for relationships between men and women?
Growing up in the church and then attending a Christian college taught me that marriage is a Christian “virtue.” The vast majority of my peers desired to be married and would date according to the various trends for Christian dating. In order to ensure that this virtue be at the center of their futures, my friends “courted,” they “kissed dating goodbye,” they practiced “righteous dating,” they dated with “agape love” (and no “eros”), they “dated with a purpose” or “with passion and purity” and of course never “dated just to date.” Friendship was always a springboard to something more. Friendship between women and men was not satisfactory, and often true friendship ceased once the woman or man found the *significant other* they longed for so deeply.
The church certainly encourages marriage; most Christian singles ministries are designed for match-making, so that singles can begin to experience the joy of Christian marriage. Ministry becomes a dating service. Still other churches neglect or don’t know how to approach singles ministries. I recently heard about a church in my area that needed someone to oversee the singles ministry, but no one wanted to take it up even though 40% of all adults in their congregation were single (which is true for the general population of this country as well)! Consider that these singles are probably the most mobile and available “workers” in the church, with the biggest ministry potential. Singles are the ones that can donate more of their time and money to church ministries. How long can this continue to be neglected? Paul was aware of such wisdom as well:
An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:32-34)
Here’s another statistic you might not expect: about 25% of Americans never marry or cohabitate! And I found this next one particularly astonishing:
Duration of a marriage is linked to the woman’s age at her first marriage; the older a woman is at the first marriage, the longer that marriage is likely to last. For example, 59 percent of marriages of brides under 18 end in separation or divorce within 15 years, compared with 36 percent of those married at age 20 or older.
More interesting and possibly surprising statistics along these lines can be found here: http://www.gendercenter.org/mdr.htm (although the data is from the 1990s).
Marriage is indeed important, and my point here isn’t to trivialize it. I’m not condemning Christian marriage any more than Paul is, who continues in v. 35: I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. Paul knew something that our singles ministries often miss, that Christian singleness is more than a waiting period for marriage.
But is marriage the biblical ideal for *all* gender relationships among Christians? Should marriage be our highest aim? Paul seems to be saying that the ideal is to be fully devoted to the Lord, and somehow marriage “divides” devotion. The Bible teaches us about the nature of the relationship between husbands and wives, but this topic is limited compared to all the other texts on how to treat one another as fellow Christians. The Bible uses familial metaphors: we are God’s “children,” God is our “Father,” Jesus is the “Son,” etc. Therefore, I think that the metaphor that best describes Christian relationships is indeed a familial metaphor, but the spouse isn’t the source (or ideal) for that metaphor.
It is important to know what a Christian marriage should look like, and CBE is clear that mutuality is the governing principle as taught by Eph. 5:21. But for other relationships in the church, Christians should treat one another as siblings in Christ—caring for each other’s needs and loving them because they are bound by adoption to a common family. Such a metaphor is less exclusive because there is no prerequisite or exclusion, as there is with marriage. Therefore, the metaphor for understanding gender relationships, and indeed all relationships for Christians should be that of “sibling.” And there is no place for inequality among siblings before our Creator.