Marriage as Equal Partnership in 1 Corinthians 7 (Excerpt from Marriage in Interesting Times)
In our Bible Study session today we are looking at 1 Corinthians 7, a portion of Paul's Corinthian letter that covers a variety of issues concerning human relationships, including marriage, divorce, singleness, and celibacy, to name a few. The chapter begins with Paul answering the question of whether it is good for a man to touch a woman, that is, have sexual relations with a woman. I believe this was a question posed to Paul. He seeks to answer that question and others in an intriguing way. Although Paul is often seen as having misogynistic views, in this chapter he almost bends over backwards to suggest that men and women, at least in the marriage relationship, are equals. Below is an excerpt from chapter 7 of my book Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2016). In this portion of the chapter, I point to this call for equality in the face of traditional hierarchical claims. I invite you to read this portion, and of course, pick up a copy of the book itself.
The traditional model for marriage relationships emphasizes hierarchy or chain of command. The implicit message of this model is that women are by nature inferior to men, and therefore need male guidance. Therefore, due to their mental and/or physical inferiority, women should submit to their husbands (or fathers). This perspective colors the way that families structure themselves, but it also influences the way they interpret biblical passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33.
Although many traditionalists deny that they view women as being inferior to men, the way they envision male-female relationships in practice belie that claim. Resisting women in leadership roles, including the ordained ministry, is at least suggestive of such a view. It isn’t that there are no differences between men and women—the question is whether these differences imply subordination.
If we affirm the essential equality of the sexes, then male dominance cannot be affirmed. I would suggest that in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 Paul implies that men and women are not only created as equals but that they should relate to each other on the basis of mutual submission. If this is true, then should we not also read Ephesians 5 in the same light? That is, if 1 Corinthians 7 teaches mutual submission in the context of marriage, then should we not look to this principle in our reading of texts like Ephesians 5? If this is true, then perhaps passages like 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul appears to silence women in church should be seen as a culturally-relative directive that no longer applies as originally understood. That is, Paul is concerned about how the church is seen from outside, and feels the need to rein in those who have celebrated too greatly their freedom in Christ.
We can find several important implications for understanding of marriage and sexuality embedded in I Corinthians 7. First, Paul goes to great lengths to speak equally to both husband and wife. Second he never equates sexual intercourse solely with procreation; therefore, sexuality can be enjoyed as an end in itself within the context of marriage. A third implication is found in verse 6, where Paul insists that sex does not interfere with one’s spirituality. Finally, Paul does not in any way suggest that everyone should be married (though he does believe that if a person has strong sexual desires then in all likelihood that person should marry).
If the issue here is one of equality in the marriage partnership, it doesn’t matter if the partners are of the same gender or not. Marriage is a partnership of equals. That said, each couple will need to determine together how this partnership of equals will be lived out in practice. What is true for the sexual relationship is also true of the spiritual life of the couple. Notice that Paul never appeals to the husband as the spiritual leader of the home. Instead, he calls on the two spouses to decide together when and if they will separate for spiritual retreat. This isn’t necessarily the easiest or quickest mode of decision-making, but in the end it will be the most satisfying for both partners.
If there is this “minority report” that affirms equality, why do patriarchal ideas remain so ingrained in our society? Is it the Bible or the way we read it that reinforces the patterns with which many were raised (those of us who are Baby-Boomers know this pattern quite well)? Patricia Gundry, whose book Heirs Together proved to be a catalyst for change within Evangelical circles when it was published in the 1980s, notes that “mutual submission was a principle given to guide relationships between all believers. The verses following verse 21 (Ephesians 5) tell how to work it out in three of the most unequal relationships in the society of that day.” [Patricia Gundry, Heirs Together, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Books, 1980), p. 95]. To tell women to submit, children to obey their parents, and slaves to obey their masters was nothing new, but in each case the author of Ephesians modifies the traditional understanding in such a way as to lift the pairs to a position of equality. Therefore, Paul tells husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). If we understand the way in which Christ loves the church, then we can see Paul calling on husbands to take up a position of servanthood to their wives (Mark 10:45). Husbands are not to lord it over their wives (as they would normally do), but instead love them fully, seeking to be a servant. As a result, they would be putting themselves in a position of submitting to their wives.
What then is mutual submission? It is a principle that affirms that each person in a marriage relationship—or in any relationship—is of equal value (1 Corinthians 7:4). Mutual submission requires that a person not demand their full rights but recognize and value the rights of the other (1 Corinthians 7:3). It also means that decisions should be made together and whenever possible should be based on consensus (7:5).
Each couple must work out for themselves how this principle will be implemented. Patricia Gundry comments that “we need to be able to share equally in all the ways we can, in work, responsibility, pleasure, and opportunity.” [Heirs Together, p. 123]. She goes further to define what an egalitarian marriage might look like.
But when I say equal, I don’t mean “same as.” I mean equal in opportunity, equal in value, equal in personhood. I mean a relationship in which neither dominates or misuses the other, where decisions are made together when it is reasonable to do so. I mean a relationship of equal persons not a relationship in which the partners must be carbon copies of each other. [Heirs Together, p. 136].
Differences don’t require subordination. They simply mean that each person will accomplish their activities and roles differently. I’d use the word complement, but unfortunately this word has come to mean something less than equal. Since both male and female are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), the differences that exist between male and female are God-given and are designed for the purpose of mutual enjoyment. In a marriage based on the principle of equal partnership, each spouse is encouraged to grow and develop his or her gifts and talents and abilities, not as a means of competition but as a complement to the other. No longer should we encourage women to bury their intellects, gifts, dreams, and talents so that she can attract a husband or not hurt his ego. Each partner should find fulfillment in encouraging the other to develop God-given gifts, and one spouse should not gain fulfillment at the expense of the other