“I don’t see what I don’t wanna see and I don’t here what I don’t wanna hear.” That is a quote from my sister, Tiffany Gabrielle Mendez. The context was when she was a teenage girl, and teenage boys would say shocking things to try to impress her. However, the quote is an apt summary of the way many Christians approach biblical interpretation. We could discuss how this bears on many issues, but our focus is marriage. The basic principle I want to communicate in this blog post is that biblical teachings about marriage assume biblical teachings about human relationships in general. I repeat, biblical teachings about marriage assume biblical teachings about human relationships in general. It sounds simple and obvious, but, unfortunately, it is not.
Let me give you an example. Someone very close to me was once a victim of domestic abuse. A wife who was badly beaten by her husband. I was always taught that a man should NEVER hit a woman. Even as a little boy, I got in enormous trouble if I ever hit a girl, even if she hit me first. This included my very tough sister who was four years my senior. Why? Because I would get married someday, and if I developed that habit, I would become a wife-beater. All of that made sense to me, and I learned to follow the rule religiously, though I had no qualms about belting boys on the playground who were provoking me (or vice versa). Later, when I began serious Bible study, I never found the “never hit a girl” rule clearly stated, much less the “never hit your wife” rule. This bothered me a lot. Why would the Bible not state that important principle when the world is filled with domestic abuse? I am ashamed to admit how long it took me to realize the answer, but finally it dawned on me. The Bible teaches that people are not allowed to hit people (Prov 13:21 Tim 3:3, Tit 1:7)! Why would the Bible need to specify that men are not allowed to hit women when it clearly teaches that men aren’t allowed to hit anyone? In fact, if it did specify the former, it might confuse men to think that hitting other men, or other little boys, is OK. That was the assumption a little scrapper named Pete Vik once made.
Now, of course, very few Western Christians in the 21st Century would argue that it is acceptable for men to hit their wives (however consistent they may or may not be). But our operating principle bears on so many other misunderstandings. Many men read words like “the head of a wife is her husband (1 Cor 11:3),” or “Wives, submit to your own husbands (Eph 5:22)” and see justification for a power trip. In reaction, much ink has been spilled in trying to deny that these phrases have anything to do with male headship by Christians who are bothered by this kind of behavior. I believe that the Bible clearly teaches male headship, but the abuses of this teaching help us understand why some of our brothers and sisters are so concerned. What is the answer? To be more specific, if the Bible does teach male leadership in the family, and it does, what safeguards does it give us against abuses of authority by overly puffed up husbands and fathers? This question is so important that it will be addressed from a few different angles in the next few blog posts. We will build a foundation on some core teachings from God’s Word. One of our titles for this post is “The Bible and How We Treat Other People.” Of course, the Bible says much about this, but we are going to cut to the central theme.
By almost any reckoning among Christians, one of the most important passages in the entire Bible is Philippians 2:1-11. This passage, properly understood and applied by husbands and wives, has the potential to neutralize any tension created by the idea of male headship. Of course, this is not a passage about marriage, rather it is a passage about Jesus, on the one hand, and how all of us are supposed to treat all the rest of us, on the other. The passage reads as follows:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11, ESV)
Verses 1-5a begin by talking about how we should interact with each other and treat each other. Verses 5b-11 explain how this is based in the example of Jesus. I am going to explain it backwards. In other words, I am going to start with Jesus and work back to us. This passage tells us about the humility of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the second person of the Holy Trinity – God the Son. One with The Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity! All powerful! The Creator of the Cosmos! The most exalted being in the universe and beyond! Having no beginning and no end! If anyone in the Universe had the right to demand the prerogatives of his exalted position, it was Jesus Christ. The phrase “in the form of God” means that his very nature was divine, a nature shared with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. However, he did not demand the prerogatives that come with deity. He did not grasp onto his equality with God the Father. Instead, he became a man so that he could die for our sins.
Theologians have spilled oceans of ink trying to figure out the meaning of the phrase “he emptied himself.” Careful to avoid Christological heresies (=false teachings about Jesus), they have carefully crafted long theological paragraphs to describe exactly what he put aside by emptying himself. But if we take a closer look at the passage, we find that he did not put anything aside. Rather, he took something on. This is the language of paradox, he did not empty himself by subtracting, but by adding. The one who had been fully God for all eternity became fully man when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. For Christ to become human was to empty himself. Note the clarifying phrases attached to the verb “emptied:” “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” If we wanted to get real nerdy, we would say that each of these “ing” words is an adverbial participle of means. In other words, they tell us how Jesus emptied himself. He emptied himself by becoming human. Not only that, he humbled himself. How? By becoming obedient to God the Father to the point of being killed in the most barbarous and shameful way possible: a crucifixion! Why did he do this? Because the human race was literally headed straight for hell, and his death provided a way for them to be saved. In other words, the most exalted being in the universe humbled himself beyond imagination so that he could put the needs of others before his own needs, wants and rights!
What command does the Apostle Paul give us based on the example of Jesus Christ? “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (2:3).” Whoever it is that we interact with, in whatever circumstance, we are to treat that person as more important than ourselves. No looking out for number one. No “you gotta take care of yourself first.” Not if you want to be a Christian. This is our great relational principle from the Word of God: “Treat other people as more important than you are.”
So let us connect this to marriage. Why the conflict over male leadership, because both men and women struggle to apply this relational principle. If a wife prefers her husband above herself, then the idea of male leadership ceases to be an affront. It does not, however, cease to be dangerous unless her husband also lives out this principle. If God has placed men as leaders in the home (and he has), then men bear the greatest responsibility for the Philippians 2:3 principle, and have the potential to do the most damage when they are not living this way. Some men think that being head of the house gives them prerogatives to get their own way. The man decides where the family will eat, go on vacation, what movie they will see, etc. Not if we’re talking about biblical headship. Not if we’re talking about biblical leadership. A man who considers his wife and children as more important than himself will only exercise leadership authority because he genuinely believes he is doing so for the benefit of his wife and children. Anyone who believes that the purpose of any form of leadership is about getting their own way is not a biblical leader. This means that being a biblical leader might shatter your dreams. Let them shatter! It might curb your-self actualization. Let it be curbed! It might mean that, from your perspective, you have to give up everything you wanted. Jesus says to you: “Give it up. You have me, let everything else go.” If this sounds like a downer, I would simply say: “Don’t get married then.” Not because marriage is a downer, but because whether it is a downer depends entirely on your values. If having what you want is more important to you than pleasing God as a faithful husband, then marriage is not for you. If your self-actualization is more important to you than the fact that someone’s life was better because you were there and you put their needs above your own, then marriage is not for you. If on the other hand, you believe that obedience to Christ and selfless love will bring a greater fulfillment than whatever you may lose, then marriage can be one of the most fulfilling things in your life. Again, it depends very much on your values.
If we husbands believe in male headship in the home, then we must realize that avoiding leadership responsibility is not an option. However, before we dare to exercise leadership, we had better come to terms with the above principle, and beg God to help us make it a reality in our lives. If you are a married woman reading this blog, I suggest you pray that God will give your husband these values. And if you are a single woman hoping to be married, I recommend you pray that God will bring you a man that has these values. Friends, a biblical model for marriage cannot work apart from Philippians 2. In the next blog we will talk about a passage that addresses leadership a little more directly: Mark 10:35-45. We are far from finished.