There has been much hand-wringing in the African American community over the steep decline in the number of black couples marrying. From 1860 to 1960, black people thirty-five and older were more likely to marry than white people in the same age bracket.1 These numbers began to flip in the 1970s—white couples were more likely to marry than black couples. The continuing rise in the number of black people who have never married has led to efforts by both the black church and governmental and non-profit agencies to reverse this trend.
While there are many reasons why black marriage rates have been on the decline since the 1970s, a roundtable discussion in 2003 focused almost exclusively on educating the African American community on why marriage matters rather than on the reasons why black marriage rates are so low.2 Their efforts presume that black singles do not desire to marry. By contrast, another study found that wealth matters for marriage. University of California–Berkeley researcher Daniel Schneider found that wealth inequality was a major contributor to declining marriage rates among black people, especially among young people with less education and a lack of financial assets.3
Unfortunately, neither of these approaches adequately addresses, from a faith-based perspective, the reasons that black Christian couples who do marry have a thirty-six percent divorce rate. I believe that one reason black marriages fail is because of the burden of traditional gender expectations.
Racial and Ethnic Privilege in Complementarian Theology
I believe that so-called “biblical” teaching that promotes hegemonic white, Western masculinity and accompanying gender roles in marriage is a major factor (in addition to the usual suspects—sex and money) contributing to the divorce rate among black Christians. A complementarian view of gender and marriage privileges definitions of masculinity and femininity that are hierarchical and ethnic-biased. In the US, heterosexual, white men are the standard of masculinity, and all other men, including black men, try to approximate that standard.4 Black women fare even worse against the norm of white femininity, particularly against white beauty standards. Thus, “biblical” masculinity and femininity as defined by the complementarian movement are impossible for black men and women to attain.
Refuting the “Biblical” Basis for Hierarchical Marriages
As an ordained minister, I consider the Bible to be authoritative, but as an Old Testament scholar, I am flummoxed by the uncritical use of Bible passages to promote male leadership in marriage. Readers trot out the same passages to make their claims: Genesis 2:18–24 (cf. Matt. 19:3–6), 1 Corinthians 7, and Ephesians 5:21–33 (cf. Col. 3:18–19; 1 Pet. 3:1–7). This betrays a lack of discernment in reading the Bible’s marriage-related texts.
Biblical writers often spoke of divine-human relationships figuratively. They were aware that although humans are made in God’s image, they are not God. Since humans are not equal with God, any relationship to God is always going to be subordinate. Therefore, when the biblical writers spoke of human reality in relation to God, they used social institutions they were familiar with to explain that hierarchy.
Common biblical metaphors used in prophetic speech to describe the relationship between God and Israel were suzerain-vassal, master-slave, parent-child, judge-litigant, and husband-wife. While each of these metaphors describes the bond between God and Israel as a relationship, they also make it clear that the relationship was one of hierarchy and authority, not equality.5 These relational examples were also inherently unequal and often violent, including the husband-wife metaphor. The danger in reading this literally is that some readers might take this as justification for spousal abuse.
In biblical cultures, marriage was unequal and even violent. But does the use of marriage as an illustration of hierarchical divine-human relations intend to teach that relationships of hierarchy are God’s ideal for marriage? No. In fact, the biblical prophets Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel often used the intersection of marriage, sex, and violence to shame male Israel and effect a change in its behavior. For example, in the book of Hosea, the prophet’s marriage to a promiscuous woman is figured symbolically as Israel’s breaking of its covenant with God. God’s justification for punishing the wayward nation is figuratively depicted as Hosea threatening to strip his wife Gomer bare and publicly expose her as a means to get her to return to marital fidelity (Hosea 2:3). It is important to recognize that the prophet is using figurative language about God’s relationship with Israel, not speaking literally about human marital relations.
In addition to using marriage as an analogy, the Bible describes many different types of marriage. Polygyny (more than one wife) was a form of marriage noted among patriarchs and monarchs (e.g. Gen. 30:1–9; 2 Sam. 3:2–5). Rape marriages are also recounted. The widow whose husband died without a male heir was forced to marry her brother-in-law to provide her deceased husband with male descendants (levirate marriage). Married men had sexual relations with any women except other men’s wives.
The Bible describes many different marriage models, but it does not prescribe every model as the biblical ideal. We need to be discerning in deciding what the Bible does and does not “clearly” say about marriage.
A Better Model for Black Christians
This still leaves one of the favorite passages of the complementarian advocates: Ephesians 5:21–33, that belongs to the household codes (Col. 3:18–4:1; Eph. 5:21–6:9; 1 Pet. 2:18–3:7). These codes contain regulations concerning wives (and women), slaves, and children. Black Christians have a tradition of rejecting literalist interpretations of this passage that sanction the enslavement of Africans, but have been slower to challenge interpretations that support the subordination of women to men.6 New Testament scholar Clarice Martin argues that it is time for black Christians to abandon interpretations that support hierarchical domination in the marriage relationship.7 Instead, black Christians should adopt an alternative marriage model that recognizes the equal value of each partner in the eyes of God.
The relational-cultural model developed by psychologist Judith Jordan and colleagues is one example of a positive model for black couples. This model promotes relational mutuality. Mutual relationship is open to affecting and being affected by the other.8 Maturity is achieved not by moving from dependence to independence, but by responsiveness to the other through empathy and understanding the other from her/his subjective frame of reference, respecting and enhancing the growth of the other, and being open to change. This is not a mutuality based on “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” but a willingness to match the investment of a partner for mutual benefit.9
God created the first couple in the Bible to complement and support each other as partners. The Hebrew phrase ‘ezer kenegdo, often translated “helper” (NRSV, NIV) or “help meet” (KJV) for the man in Genesis 2:18 should be understood as “one opposite” “corresponding” or “equal” to the man.10 Complementarians get this right. However, Eve’s subordination as a consequence of the first humans’ disobedience in Gen 3:16 should not be interpreted as God’s good intention for male-female relationships. Biblical teachings that espouse different roles and duties based on gender are hierarchical and ethnic-biased. As such, they have no place in black marriages between equals. It is my hope that black Christian couples will continue to work toward mutual marriage relationships as God intended.
- United States Census Bureau, “Historical Marriage Trends from 1890-2010: A Focus on Race Differences,” by Diana B. Elliott, Kristy Krivickas, Matthew W. Brault, and Rose M. Kreider. Presented at the annual meetings of the Population Association of America, San Francisco, CA, May 3–5, 2012, https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/marriage/data/acs/ElliottetalPAA2012… (accessed April 9, 2016).
- Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, African American Healthy Marriage Initiative Roundtable: “Why Marriage Matters.” Washington, D.C., August 1, 2003, http://www.aahmi.net/docs/roundtable.pdf.
- Daniel Schneider, “Wealth and the Marital Divide” in American Journal of Sociology, 117, no. 2 (2011): 627-667, http://dataspace.princeton.edu/jspui/bitstream/88435/dsp01p8418n25q/1/Sc….
- Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York; London: Routledge, 2005), 186.
- Renita J. Weems, Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 16-17.
- Clarice J. Martin provides a history of the Christianization of the Greco-Roman domestic codes in “The Haustafeln (Household Codes) in African American Biblical Interpretation: ‘Free Slaves’ and ‘Subordinate Women’” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. Cain Hope Felder (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 225.
- Ibid., 220.
- Judith V. Jordan, “The Meaning of Mutuality” in Women’s Growth in Connection: Writings from the Stone Center, ed. Judith V. Jordan (New York: Guilford, 1991), 82.
- Ibid., 83.
- For a full treatment of the Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo see David Freedman, “Woman, a power equal to man: translation of woman as a ‘fit helpmate’ for man is questioned” in Biblical Archaeology Review 9, no. 1 (Jan–Feb 1983): 56-58.