In Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian, Michelle Lee-Barnewall has two chapters on marriage. The complementarian-egalitarian battle in evangelical churches has been about both ecclesiastical roles and domestic roles for men and women. To engage with the domestic relations question, she deals with the Adam and Eve story and with the wives-be-submissive passage in Ephesians 5.
So first we have another rehashing of Genesis 2-3. Lee-Barnewall says the problem with much discussion of this passage is that people try to mine it for principles and rules when that is not what it is about. She finds a literary approach best. The principle conflict in the story is about whether Adam will obey the command of God. Eve is never given the command about what to eat but understands herself to be subject to it and susceptible to consequences of disobedience. Complementarians make too much of Adam’s primacy, but there is no reason to skirt to the differences in role between them. He is the caretaker of the garden and all that is in it, including her. She has a role as helper, companion, and partner.
As far as marriage is concerned, the story stresses oneness, intimacy, unity. The two are to be one flesh. The author sees a break in this when Adam tries to blame Eve for his disobedience. She is no longer united with him, but separated as “the woman you gave me.” This “objectification” of the woman is part of the fall from the ideal original state.
I agree with most of this, but would not put the idea of objectification in the Bible. Yes, the unity of the couple broke down, but objectification has modern connotations that I don’t think fit with biblical thought.
Lee-Barnewall’s repeated thought in this book is that the Bible does not use either equality or authority as its main standard for gender relations. The unity and oneness of God’s people is the concept that seems more prominent. For her, this is true in the story of Adam and Eve. The idea that men and women in marriage unite in oneness becomes the transcendent perspective for domestic life.
The second chapter on marriage deals with household rules in Ephesians 5:21-6:9. Actually she is mostly interested in just the idea in 5:23 that the husband is the head of the wife. What does that mean. Those who use this passage to support the husband as the authority and final decision-maker, see “head” as a synonym for “chief” or “ruler”. Egalitarians have sometimes tried to avoid this idea by seeing “head” as meaning “source”., as in the “head” of a river.
Lee-Barnewall goes into the use of “head” in Greek and Roman writings to show that neither of these approaches is quite right. In antiquity writers often used the metaphor of “head” to mean that part of the body that had an interest in the well-being of the whole. The head looked after the health and safety of the rest of the body. But there is no denying that “head” implied the part of the body that had the most importance and honor.
Then she applies the idea of “reversal” that she sees running strongly through, especially, the New Testament. In Greek and Roman society the person who was the head, such as a general or emperor could expect the members of the body under him to sacrifice themselves in his interest. So you would expect that if the husband is the head of the wife, the wife would be called upon to sacrifice herself for the husband.
But it is just the opposite. The husband, as head of his wife”, is commanded to use the love of Christ as his model and to give himself or sacrifice himself for his wife just as Christ did for the church.(Ephesians 5:25). This is a startling reversal and strikes at the heart of the macho ideas ingrained in Mediterranean gender distinctions. What would be shameful in the culture becomes honorable in the kingdom. This gives a completely different content to the idea of male headship.
In this context, when the wife is asked to submit to her husband’s headship, it is not in the interests of patriarchy, but of the loving unity of the relationship and the household.
I think this understanding of what Ephesians means is probably right. It is going to get a lot of push back today. I can hear critics saying that it still promotes male privilege.
We have a whole different world with women leading men in education and many careers. Some feminists are trying to put behind them their idea that marriage is slavery for women. With divorce at will and financial independence, women are empowered to insist on egalitarian marriages. The problem is that a lot of people do not find egalitarian relationships, where you must constantly and exhaustingly renegotiate everything, very attractive.
For these and other reasons marriage is in decline and relations between the genders– for younger people at least–have deteriorated.
This is not to say that Lee-Barnewall’s ideas, particularly her critique of individualism are not needed. It just seems to me that even in evangelical churches society is moving on to a new, and unsettling paradigm of gender relations to which marriage may not be relevant.
I say this as an old married guy who hopes to see his 50th anniversary in a few years. But I am pretty sure I would not marry in today’s climate. I am in a mainline church that accepts several different kinds of families and relationships–although I feel a little sorry for the confirmed bachelors in our midst. Many evangelical churches stress that they are “family churches”. But even many of them look the other way at cohabitation and other non-marital relationships.