Theological Analysis of Gender, Marriage, and Human Relationships

1. Marriage as a Sacrament

Gender, marriage, and human relationships are some of the most fascinating aspects of all of creation.  Since literally the beginning of the world, men and women have been exploring what it really means to be man and woman.  Needless to say, the fall made things quite difficult in this regard.  Man no longer finds it a simple task to be a man, and woman struggles to fit into her role as a woman.  After the fall, gender roles were blurred, marriage became almost impossibly difficult, and human relationships were seemingly broken beyond repair.  There is hope though, as Jesus Christ came to redeem what was broken, right what was wrong, and clear up what had been blurred.  Throughout the centuries, theologians have continued to investigate gender, marriage, and human relationships and their function in this already—not yet time period.  The purpose of this paper will be to briefly explore several different views from theologians of the past regarding these issues, followed by an examination of the biblical teachings of gender, marriage, and human relationships.

In Catholic thought over the centuries, marriage has come to be a known as a sacrament.  Calvin, though viciously opposed to marriage as a sacrament, articulates, “All men admit that it was instituted by God; but no man ever saw it administered a sacrament until the time of Gregory.”[1]  According to many Catholics, marriage is a “sign of the sacred thing, that is, of the spiritual joining of Christ with the church.”[2]  Yet Calvin is not convinced; noting that a sacrament “be not only a work of God but an outward ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise,” he goes on to argue, “Even children can discern that there is no such thing in matrimony.”[3]  This particular vein of thought, that marriage is a sacrament, is popular in Catholic circles but not quite as prevalent in Protestant traditions.  A shift to views in Protestant theology is now in order.

2.  Egalitarianism

One view that is prevalent in the American church today is known as egalitarianism.  Proponents of this view typically maintain that men and women are equal in status before God and as such can and should operate in equal roles as well.  Drawing on texts such as Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”) they claim that the ground is level at the foot of the cross and that no distinctions are made between male and female.  In their minds, this implies that men and women can absolutely function in the same roles in both the marriage union and in church governance.  They argue that men and women are designed in such a way that they have equal status before God and will be held responsible by him for exercising their gifts.  Contra the complementarian position (see below), egalitarians generally affirm that God grants specific gifts to all humans without regard to their innate abilities, their gender, or their specific race.

A few comments regarding men’s and women’s roles in marriage are now in order.  It seems to me that egalitarians get it absolutely correct in determining that men and women have equal worth before God.  I do not believe that any Christian would argue that point.  However, one weak argument in my mind is that equal worth inherently implies equal roles.  It does not follow that all distinctions are totally done away with once a person is in Christ.  If the egalitarian view of Galatians 3:28 (see above) is carried into its fullness, gender is completely obliterated when someone comes to Christ.  It seems abundantly clear to all that a man does not cease to be a man when he comes to Christ, nor does a woman cease to be a woman when she comes.  Using Galatians 3:28 to argue for egalitarian roles is irresponsible at best.  In the context, Paul has justification by faith in view, and his point is that no one receives special status due to race (“Jew or Greek”), status (“slave nor free”), or gender (“male and female”).  It seems that he does not have gender roles in view here at all.

It should be noted that egalitarianism is generally more popular among the surrounding culture than complementarianism is.  In the United States it is becoming more and more popular to elevate the status and worth of women in culture.  And rightly so!  For far too long women have been viewed as second-class and inferior.  Christians should be among the first to stand up and declare that women are made in the image of God and therefore have the same worth before Him as men do.  But this does not necessarily mean that they should have the same roles.  A quick look at the human body will easily settle this dispute.  Physiologically speaking, men do not give birth.  Only women can do that.  This does not mean that men are less valuable than women simply because they are not designed to complete a particular role.  It only means that they have been designed to complete different roles than women.

3.  Complementarianism

Complementarianism is the opposing system of thought over against egalitarianism, though opposing is probably too strong a description.  With egalitarians, complementarians hold that men and women have equal worth before God.  Both male and female were created in the image of God, and therefore both have an intrinsic value before Him.  Where complementarians generally break from egalitarians is over the issue of men and women’s roles in marriage and church government.  Complementarians typically view men and women as having distinct roles in both areas.  They will argue that having equal worth does not automatically lead to equal roles and will point to texts like Ephesians 5:22, 25 (“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord…Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”).  They argue that this text and many others clearly show that men and women have distinct roles to carry out in the area of marriage.  Women are supposed to submit to their husbands, and husbands are supposed to love their wives.  That there is no explicit command for a husband to submit to his wife, in their mind, is a strong argument from silence that both have separate roles in the union.

One of the strongest arguments for the complementarian view is the nature between the Trinity and male headship in marriage.  Wayne Grudem states, “Between the members of the Trinity there has been equality in importance, personhood, and deity throughout all eternity.  But there have also been differences in roles between members of the Trinity.”[4]  He goes on to say, “Though all three members of the Trinity are equal in power and in all other attributes, the Father has a greater authority.  He has a leadership role among all the members of the Trinity that the Son and Holy Spirit do not have.”[5]  This applies to particular texts such as Ephesians 5:22, 25 which state that the man is to have a leadership role in the household, though that does not limit the value or worth of the woman in any way.

One problem that can trouble complementarianism in the U.S. is the vehemence with which the surrounding culture views the thought (although it might be argued that they simply misunderstand the actual system of thought).  As noted above, American culture is growing more and more progressive in its views, for better or worse.  This means that complementarianism will not be as readily received as egalitarianism, and therefore it might become more difficult to stay in favor with the surrounding culture, though surely that is not the church’s primary concern.

4.  Gender, Marriage, and Human Relationships in the Four Acts

It now seems beneficial to examine the nature of gender, marriage, and human relationships using the four acts of the biblical drama—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Creation

The creation account is one of the most fascinating parts of the Bible.  In Genesis 1:26-27 God creates: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  What is important to note here is that God created both male and female in his image.  According to this text, both male and female are regarded as being made in the image of God.  That means that man images God and woman images God as well.  This implies that marriage is not necessary in order to fully image God.  Humans do not suddenly begin to image God fully when they enter into a marriage union.  But this does mean that male and female fully image God.  This also implies that man and woman have absolutely equal value before God.  It seems correct to state this because they both are made in the image of God.  Thus, any attack on the personhood of any individual is ultimately an attack on the image of God.

In Genesis 2:18-22, God forms the woman from the man.  As previously noted, both male and female separately are created in the image of God, yet God declares that it is not good for man to be alone.  This implies that the woman was created in order to help the man accomplish the work God had given him to do.  This is confirmed in Genesis 2:18 when God says He “will make him a helper fit for him.”  It has already been shown that the word “helper” here does not denote any sort of inferiority; it simply means that the woman was given to the man in order to help him accomplish the work God had given him.  On one hand, this seems to imply that the man in and of himself was inadequate or incomplete.  It is my conviction that that is not the case.  The man individually was created fully in the image of God and therefore was not incomplete in and of himself.  The man had everything he needed in order to be fully human.  Yet he was not capable of doing everything God had tasked him with doing, namely working and keeping the garden.  Therefore he needed a companion, someone to help him accomplish and complete this God-given task.  This does not in any way signify that the man or the woman lack fully human value if they are alone; it simply means that the man and the woman were both created in order to complement each other in order to achieve the purposes of God.

In Genesis 2:24, marriage is instituted: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  The original design in marriage was that a man should cleave to a woman.  This has striking implications for today, especially in an American culture that has virtually lost its mind regarding sexuality.

Fall

Gender, marriage, and human relationships became utterly disjointed at the fall.  This is visible in Genesis 3:16: “To the woman [God] said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”  As early as the third chapter in the Bible, it is clear that human relationships have been broken because of the fall.  The woman will desire to take her husband’s leadership role, yet God says that he will rule over her.  To the man God said, “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat plants of the field” (Genesis 3:17-18).  It is reasonable to assume that Adam is blamed most heavily for the fall because of his failure to work and keep the garden by allowing Eve to be tempted by Satan.  This implies that his working and keeping of the garden was also to watch over and protect his wife’s welfare, which he failed to do.  Now, because of the fall, it will become even more difficult to protect his wife’s welfare.  She will actually war against him in trying to do this.  She will desire for her husband, and he will have to work by the sweat of his brow to accomplish his task.  The fall has created large amounts of confusion and disjointedness regarding gender, marriage, and human relationships.

Redemption

Christ came into the world in order to redeem what was broken.  This redemption is, however, not yet complete.  This era is rightly coined the “already—not yet” due to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God already occurring at Jesus’ incarnation but not being fully realized as yet.  Gender, marriage, and human relationships have been broken since the fall, but Christ has come to redeem all of creation.  This is visible in texts like Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart (i.e., because of the effects of the fall on your lives) Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  Earlier, Jesus asks, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female…?” (Matthew 19:4).  It seems clear that Jesus is reconciling and redeeming God’s original purpose in the world by pointing back to the initial intention in the creation of marriage.

Another crucial text for examining marriage and redemption is Ephesians 5:25-27: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  In the direct context, Paul is giving an exhortation to believers regarding how they should act in marriage.  Incredibly, he bases his exhortation off of the redeeming work of Christ!  Paul sees marriage as a picture of how Christ loves the church, in that he redeemed her despite her faults.  This is how he bases his entire exhortation in this section.  So in redemption, Christ has come to redeem broken relationships by giving himself up on the cross in order to restore broken people to holiness.

Consummation

This section does not deal with the consummation of marriage proper, but rather with the consummation of creation generally.  One text that is crucial to this end is Matthew 22:30: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”  This does not imply that humans become angels upon the resurrection nor that they cease to be male or female, but it does indicate, although quite subtly, the purpose of marriage.  Apparently, the purpose of marriage is not to remain with your spouse forever, for Jesus declares that in the resurrection no one is married.  Then the question becomes, why is there marriage at all?  Turning to Ephesians 5 again, it is clear that marriage is a picture of how Christ loves the church.  This means that marriage is not necessary in heaven because Christ is actually there to love the church!  The picture is no longer necessary because the fullness of the reality is present in the resurrection.  At the consummation of all things, Christ will be at hand to display his great love to the church, redounding to the glory of his name.

5.  Conclusion

God created gender, marriage, and human relationships in order to accomplish his purposes in creation.  The fall tainted each of these aspects and made it all the more difficult for them to function correctly.  Christ came to redeem the broken creation, though this redemption is not as immediate as some might hope.  At the consummation of all things, Christ will be present to love his bride fully, which was the main purpose behind the creation of marriage in the first place, and all to the glory of his name.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1480-1481.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 1481.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 459.

[5] Ibid., 459.


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