Christian marriage is a union of two people before God and man; it includes a promise to be faithful, and to love and cherish each other for the rest of your lives. Those are the facts that most of us can agree upon. Yet there are many aspects of marriage, within the Christian view, that have the church divided in opinions.
For example, some people believe marriage is eternal, lasting beyond our earthly lives, while others believe there is no marriage in Heaven. There is also disagreement about divorce, and when it might be acceptable to God, if ever. And of course, there is the huge debate (with most Christians on one side of it,) about whether same-sex marriages are accepted by God. I have my opinions about all of these things, and I could spend a lot of time writing about each of them and analyzing the Biblical support for both sides. But today, I want to focus on one of the issues that affects most of my readers, and myself, the most in our daily lives. That is, what are the Biblical roles in a marriage?
The two distinct viewpoints are known as complementarian and egalitarian.
Most Christians, and many non-believers, are familiar with the concept of the husband being the leader in a Biblical marriage. Traditionally, churches teach a complementarian view, in which husbands and wives each hold roles in a marriage that are equally valuable and important, but different. These roles are defined by Bible verses such as Ephesians 5:22-24, which says:
“22 For wives, this means submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For a husband is the
head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the
church.24 As the church submits to Christ, so you wives should submit to your husbands
In a complementarian marriage, the husband is seen as the leader while the wife is called to be submissive. Importantly, this type of marriage is not oppressive to the wife, because in many other Bible verses, husbands are commanded to love their wives selflessly. Any misuse of this view which allows abuse or disrespect towards women is not Biblically supported. Love and respect are the key components.
The lesser known view in the church is called egalitarian, which means equal. Roles are not defined based on gender, and the individuals in this type of marriage work more as a collaborative team. Decisions are made together, and disagreements are resolved by discussion rather than defaulting to the husband’s authority. Mutual submission and respect, based on love, are the key components here.
The egalitarian system is often criticized as being ignorant of scripture. Yet Biblical egalitarians, like myself, do not hold this view by ignoring scripture. I base my views in every area of life upon my best understanding of the Bible and God’s character. Verses such as this one, Galatians 3:28, support the idea that gender roles are no longer necessary when we are new creations in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I do not disregard the verses which might point towards a complementarian model for marriage, though. I simply view them with the understanding that translation, context, and interpretation of the Bible can lead to very different understandings of issues like this. I find different lessons in these verses, which are just as valuable and applicable to my life. And so, in the same spirit as I am a “rainbow fish,” I also believe in egalitarian marriage. (Coincidentally, egalitarianism is the only view that makes sense in same-sex marriages.) I see the big picture of God’s message as being one of love, freedom, and a call to willing selflessness–for everyone, no matter what their gender may be.
Both complementarian and egalitarian marriages can be beautiful, loving, healthy, and strong. And I emphasize again that both can be supported convincingly by passages in the Bible. I would not criticize a healthy and happy Christian marriage as being “wrong” for following a complementarian approach. For some marriages, the man may be a natural leader and the woman may be naturally submissive, and as long as the marriage is strong in love and mutual respect, I see no issue with that.
But for other marriages, like mine, these roles are not what feels right or works best. I was always confused and uncomfortable with teachings about gender roles in marriage, until I finally discovered that there are egalitarian Christians in the world. I used to worry that we were going against God’s best plans for us by working as a team, or even by my leading our decisions at times, rather than following a traditional “male leadership” model. Now I have peace knowing that my marriage is Godly, strong, and healthy just the way it is. As long as we are growing in love and maturity, and striving to serve each other rather than ourselves, I know that we will continue to thrive.
If marriage is a math equation in which two individuals come together make a whole, the question is this: Is the husband the bigger piece? Or are they equal? This is something you will have to decide for yourself. But the most important thing is that the two are a whole together. Marriage is all about unity in Christ. If you have that, I can’t see a way that God wouldn’t be pleased.
What kind of marriage do you have, or want to have? Have you ever been confused about God’s will for individual roles in marriage? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
P.S. Here are some great resources for more information on this topic!
For an overview on the differences and overall views of complementarian and egalitarian marriage:
For a Biblical foundation of egalitarianism:
For a Biblical foundation of complementarianism:
Christians for Biblical Equality:
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: