I’ve been spending a lot of time lately researching the theological underpinnings of the complementarian/egalitarian debate. And what I’ve found is that complementarians (those who advocate specific, hierarchical roles for men and women in the home/church/society) rely heavily on a few passages of Scripture: Genesis 1-2, Ephesians 5, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 3.
(You will notice that these are the passages that appear under “key texts” section of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Web site.)
The way I see it, relying on the letters of Peter and Paul is somewhat problematic because in nearly every case, the admonition for wives to submit to their husbands is either preceded or followed by the admonition for slaves to obey their masters. In fact, the word “likewise” is often used to link the two. So one has to wonder if the inclusion of hierarchical language in these “household codes” is more reflective of the culture’s values than of God’s values. Just as the institution of slavery is not ideal, perhaps hierarchy in marriage is not ideal either.
This isn’t enough to completely dismantle the complementarian position, of course, but it does raise some questions, which is perhaps why complementarians rely so heavily on the creation narrative to support their position.
The Creation Narrative
It is hard to overstate just how frequently the role of Eve as Adam’s “helpmate” comes up in complementarian literature. Entire books have been written with this premise—that Eve’s subordinate position to Adam in the garden before the fall shows that this is what God intended all along, that a good wife serves first and foremost as her husband’s helper. The problem here is that the word “helpmate” (or “Ezer”) is used 20 times in the Old with 17 of those occurrences referring to God helping man! Surely God is not subordinate to man…so perhaps Eve’s role as helper refers to a partnership rather than a hierarchy.
Again, this is a highly simplified summary of my findings. There are of course many other texts and interpretations to consider. The whole point of this post has been to bring us to this next verse…
As I studied, I got to wondering about what Jesus had to say about all of this, and the passage that suddenly jumped into my mind was the passage in which the religious leaders try to best Jesus in a theological debate by asking him about the post-resurrection marital status of a (hypothetical) woman who had been married seven times.
Jesus’ response is kinda shocking: “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25.)
It amazes me that consideration of this passage appears so infrequently in the complementarian/egalitarian debate. If hierarchy in marriage is truly an expression of God’s desire for creation, then why is the institution done away with completely in the new heaven and new earth? And on a more personal level—What the heck? Maybe I’ll feel differently in 60 years, but I kinda like being married to Dan and can’t really imagine life without him. Does being “like the angels” mean that all the precious relationships we build during the “age of decay” simply dissolve in the “age of renewal”?
This is of course a multi-faceted, complicated issue with many angles to be considered…which is precisely why I’m bringing it up in the inappropriately small space of a blog post. :-)
I’d love to hear your thoughts on hierarchy and marriage in the context of Jesus’ words, whether you’re a theologian or just a curious traveler like me trying to sort it all out.