What does it look like to have a “biblical” marriage?
We toss that phrase around a lot–”biblical marriage.” It’s become a really loaded term.
But often it’s assumed that a “biblical marriage” is just obvious. Everyone knows what it is.
But do they?
I’m back from an extended time off to recharge and relax, and while the beginning part of that time off was super busy with family stuff and punctuated with my back going out (which wasn’t fun), I did have a really good final part of the vacation. And what I often do on vacation is read rather voraciously.
Because of that, when I get back I often have a ton of thoughts running through my head, and today I’d like to type some of them out before I lose them.
I want to talk about two different approaches to a “biblical marriage”.
First: The idea that it’s vitally important that the order of authority is maintained.
Let’s take this Bible passage, for instance:
Memucan answered the king and his nobles, “Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king but also every noble and citizen throughout your empire. Women everywhere will begin to despise their husbands when they learn that Queen Vashti has refused to appear before the king. Before this day is out, the wives of all the king’s nobles throughout Persia and Media will hear what the queen did and will start treating their husbands the same way. There will be no end to their contempt and anger.
“So if it please the king, we suggest that you issue a written decree, a law of the Persians and Medes that cannot be revoked. It should order that Queen Vashti be forever banished from the presence of King Xerxes, and that the king should choose another queen more worthy than she. 20 When this decree is published throughout the king’s vast empire, husbands everywhere, whatever their rank, will receive proper respect from their wives!”
Let’s set the stage.
The king of Babylon had requested that Queen Vashti parade around to show off her body to visiting drunk noblemen, and she refused. This caused quite an uproar, because she was treating the king with contempt.
So one of the king’s advisors gave this advice–banish Queen Vashti, so that the women of the kingdom will know that it is wrong to show contempt to their husbands, because if we don’t get a handle on this, then women may stop giving their husbands honor!
And that’s what the king did.
Technically, this can be called a “biblical marriage”, because it is marriage advice that appears in the pages of the Bible. But reading it in context shows that this is not advice that is supposed to be listened to. Throughout the book of Esther, the king and his cronies are the baddies. Esther and her uncle Mordecai are the good ones (and, I would argue, Vashti is too ).
Yet let me ask a question:
When you read this Bible quote, doesn’t it seem totally in keeping with Emerson Eggerichs’ arguments in Love & Respect? In fact, in Love & Respect he even quotes this passage positively, as if its advice is pertinent to us!
Wives virtually ask to be unloved when they “look down on their husbands”(Esther 1:17 NIRV).
He goes on to talk about how the book of Esther demonstrates the problems with women who don’t respect their husbands.
Imagine taking a story of a pagan king acting foolishly as the guide of an accurate way that we should see marriage! What does that say about the state of evangelical marriage advice?
But let’s take another step back and look at the themes in the whole book of Esther.
The book of Esther shows us the emptiness and pettiness of the quest for power.
In Esther, we see one group of people that is eagerly trying to benefit from the trappings of power and authority without doing anything worthy of respect and admiration. Everything they do, all of their actions, are about making sure they stay the top dog, and the order of authority is maintained.
The king throws a huge lavish banquet for the nobility in order to look good, and wants to show off his smoking hot wife (who refuses to comply). Then he issues a decree to try to maintain the illusion of his great power. Haman, his right hand man, spends the entire book plotting how he can get the people in the land to honor him and bow down to him. Basically everything that the Babylonian nobles do is to exalt themselves without ever caring about anyone around them.
Mordecai and Esther are shown in stark contrast to this. Mordecai, a Jew, reports on a plot to the king’s life and saves the king, even though the king isn’t even a good guy. Mordecai and Esther together try to save the Jews from the edict that they be exterminated. They exercise strong character and are the heroes in the story, while those merely trying to cling to power are shown to be pretty much nothing.
There is nothing about them to respect. Nothing about them to admire. They merely have power and use it badly.
The book of Esther (and, I would argue, the whole Bible) shows us the emptiness of a life focusing on who is in charge, rather than a life focusing on building good character and doing the right thing.
Now let’s turn to another way of seeing biblical marriage: the household codes in Ephesians 5.
For this, I’d actually like to quote at length from the late Rachel Held Evans. I read her book Inspired on the plane this week, at the advice of others, because of her take on the household codes. I thought she explained things so well, and rather than mangle her argument, I’ll just post her own words.
Many modern readers assume teachings about wives submitting to their husbands appear exclusively in the pages of Scripture and thus reflect uniquely “biblical” views about women’s roles in the home. But to the people who first heard these letters read aloud in their churches, the words of Peter and Paul would have struck them as both familiar and strange, a sort of Christian remix on familiar Greco-Roman philosophy that positioned the male head of house as the rightful ruler over his subordinate wives, children, and slaves…By instructing men to love their wives and respect their slaves, and by telling everyone to “submit to one another” with Jesus as the ultimate head of house, the apostles offer correctives to cultural norms without upending them.
Exactly! The household codes in Ephesians 5 were really Paul saying–”Okay, this is how you’re expected to live in Roman culture. Now let’s make it imitate Christ.” And he turned it around so that it wasn’t about one person exercising authority over another, but instead everyone having an attitude of humility and service. That’s revolutionary!
Rachel goes on to ask:
So the question for modern readers, then, is whether the point of the New Testament household codes is to reinforce the Greco-Roman household structure as God’s ideal for all people, in all places, for all time, or whether the point is to encourage Christians to imitate Jesus in their relationships, regardless of the culture or their status in it.
Yes! Those who try to make Ephesians 5, and Paul’s other household code passages, to mean that husbands must be in authority and power over their wives (as Emerson Eggerichs, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, even Tim Keller) may be missing the entire point.
Think back to the story of Esther. In that story, Esther and Mordecai showed the emptiness of the quest for power. Through their righteousness, the pettiness of those in power was revealed.
What if that’s part of the point of what Jesus came to do?
Earlier in the book, Rachel tells a story set in New Testament times, when one character muses like this:
“What I understand the apostle to be saying,” Nympha says, “is that the crucifixion of Jesus exposed the empire, and all forms of unjust authority, for what they are—cruel and empty, desperate and weak. Rome executed an innocent man, for what? Healing the sick? Telling stories? Riding a donkey into Jerusalem? The Messiah’s obedience in humbling himself, loving his enemies, caring for the poor and suffering, and turning away from violence made a mockery of this opulent and oppressive empire. It made a mockery of religious hypocrisy and exclusion. And his resurrection proves he is in fact Lord and Master of all, for even Rome could not bury him, even Caesar could not keep him dead for long.”…
“Maybe we are not called to overthrow the empire’s social order, but to disarm it, to reveal its emptiness compared to gatherings like these where slave, master, husband, and wife are equals in service to Jesus.”….
“And if husbands and wives love each other,” another pipes in, “and slaves and masters respect one another, and if all submit to Jesus as the head of the Christian house, the ‘chain of command’ begins to break down.”…
Drucilla wonders aloud if there will come a day when the world doesn’t need household codes, when Jesus really is Lord and Master of every home. That’s when Aelia has a dangerous thought. “They say Pax Romana begins in the home,” she says. “Maybe revolution does too.”
Rachel’s thoughts on the household codes were so impactful! You can get her book here.
Let me ask: What sounds more like the way of Jesus?
- The household codes are meant to praise the Roman concepts of power and authority and hierarchy for all time; or
- The household codes are meant to point us to the Jesus way of doing things, where divisions are broken down, and we’re focused on serving one another without a quest for power?
What if Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross showed the emptiness of the Roman/empire way of doing things, and defeated evil by showing another way? What if the Jesus way of doing life is not about power and authority at all?
And what if the evangelical church has so lost sight of the Jesus way, by instead using the words of Scripture to recreate a chain-of-command religion?
What would it mean to leave behind the chain of command model of Christianity, and the chain of command model of marriage?
What would it look like to live life as equals, serving one another and following Jesus? What if that is the revolution that Jesus brought, and what if He is inviting us to be part of that in our own homes? To show what real intimacy and humility looks like?
That’s the journey I’d like to take us on in the road ahead this year on the blog and on the podcast.
What does it look like to focus on intimacy rather than roles? What does it look like to live by the Spirit rather than a husband’s will? What does it look like to live sacrificially for each other, while recognizing our inherent worth in Christ? And how does such a relationship constitute an uncomfortable challenge to the status quo, and to those around us?
I hope you’ll join me on that journey! I think it’s going to be a fun one. And let me know what other questions these thoughts raise. Let’s keep talking, keep growing, and keep leaning into Christ as we try to find the Jesus way.
What do you think? Have you heard sermons quoting the pagan advisors in Esther positively? Have you been rethinking the household codes? Let’s talk in the comments!