What is the biblical view of marriage? What biblical roles do men and women play? Who is the leader? Who submits? As pastors, these are questions that we have been asked by people in and outside of our congregation. Most often, it is due to the fact that they have come face-to-face with a particular ideology about marriage and gender roles within a marriage.
Two of the most common perspectives on marriage within the Christian community are complementarian and egalitarian. Simply stated, in the complementarian view, men and women are of equal intrinsic value and worth before God. However, the man is the ultimate authority for every decision in the church, in marriage and in life, and the woman is simply a “helper.”
Conversely, the egalitarian view holds to the belief that authority and responsibility in marriage, church and work are based upon an individual’s calling and giftings, and are equally available to both men and women, husbands and wives, in all realms of society.
As Free Methodists, where do we land when it comes to our view of marriage? One of the unique distinctives of being a part of this particular Christian tribe is that we believe God views men and women as equals, not from a hierarchical perspective. As such, we hold to an egalitarian ideology and biblical view about marriage. Free Methodists affirm that men and women –– as well as all ethnicities –– are free to serve and lead equally in the home, the church, and the community at large.
Is this biblical? Yes. Along with many other theologians, Free Methodists believe that Christ is actively restoring Creation back to a pre-fall type of relational wholeness. How did the first marriage function? Well, they were equal image bearers (Genesis 1:27). They had equal access to the Father (Genesis 3:8). They were given equal authority over creation (Genesis 1:28). As well, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is equally given to men and women alike (Acts 2:17). Additionally, the Holy Spirit distributes spiritual gifts to build the church and further the kingdom of God without any bias toward or restrictions placed upon a particular gender (Romans 16:1–2, 7).
Furthermore, God says, “I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). Biblical scholar R. David Freedman suggests that a more accurate translation of this verse would read, “I will make a power [or strength] corresponding to man” (fmchr.ch/rdfreedman). Freedman goes on to state that the only way the woman would be able to relieve the man’s aloneness is to be his equal.
In looking at the life of Jesus, we see how He adds yet another layer to the mystery of the marriage union when He says, “At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’” (Mark 10:6–8).
Jesus’ words lead us to ask the following question: Do two people become one or does one engulf the other? It would seem in complementarian theology that the man engulfs the woman. There does not seem to be a true melding of two people into one. The wife is lost.
And what about the Apostle Paul’s words to husbands and wives, articulated in Ephesians 5? We agree with pastor and theologian Tara Beth Leach’s assessment: “Paul is not advocating for hierarchy, instead for radical love and selflessness from wife to husband and husband to wife” (fmchr.ch/tbleach). The greater concept from Ephesians 5 is to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). Mutual submission, no doubt, takes a lot more work and more intentionality from both parties in the marriage, husband and wife. Yet, this is what we, as Christ-followers, are called to do.
In our marriage, one way we practice mutual submission as husband and wife is by deferring to one another’s strengths. There are subjects and areas in life where one of us is exceedingly smarter and/or has more experience than the other. As such, we yield to each other’s admonition or advice. We know each other’s strengths, we defer decision-making to the other based upon individual strengths, and we trust one another to make the best decision for our family. We lead from our strengths in order to be an incredible team.
However, when we do not agree on the next step forward for our family or our careers — and there have been several disagreements over the years — we press the pause button. The pause button protects us from forcing our own agenda and causes us to seek the Lord’s input. In doing so, we have never missed out on a blessing because we pressed pause. However, there have been times when one of us forced our way forward, and the results were disastrous. We sincerely believe the Lord gave us each other to make us wiser, more compassionate, and better reflections of His nature.
If you would like to further investigate the egalitarian view of marriage, as well as leadership in the church, we would highly recommend the following resources:
- “Together – Reclaiming Co-Leadership in Marriage” by Tim and Anne Evans
- “Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul” by Craig S. Keener
- “Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity” by Katherine Willis Pershey
- “Marriage Made in Eden: A Pre-Modern Perspective for a Post-Christian World” by Alice P. Matthews and M. Gay Hubbard
- “Mutual by Design” by Elizabeth Beyer
- “Partners in Marriage and Ministry” by Ronald W. Pierce
- “Still Side by Side” by Janet George
- “Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family” by Gilbert Bilezikian
Jada A. Swanson and Jon E. Swanson are Free Methodist elders who both serve on the pastoral staff at CrossView Church in Snohomish, Washington. Jada is a contributing writer for The Park Forum, maintains a spiritual direction practice, and is pursuing a doctorate degree in theology. In addition to serving at CrossView, Jon is a creative consultant to churches, nonprofits and entrepreneurs. He holds a doctorate in worship studies. Together, they parent two teenagers and travel the world in search of the next best coffee shop.12