The “All’s Fair” Dilemma

In this third part of our series, Marriage Myths, we take a look at the cultural myth that the perfect marriage is one in which the husband and wife are perfectly equal in every way.  While there is no difference in their value to the relationship, the husband and wife are not the same, nor were they designed to be.  Marriage isn’t about equality at all, as it turns out.  To see what it will do, keep reading…


The “All’s Fair” Dilemma

I brought a little something for show-and-tell this morning.  Who knows what this is?  Good.  It’s a mousetrap.  Okay, next question: Who knows what it’s for?  Close: It’s for breaking the spine or neck of a furry little woodland creature that is only a fraction of our size and was just out for an evening snack.  Its wife and 5,000 kids are probably going to starve to death now.  (Anybody feel guilty yet?)

I’m kidding.  I didn’t just bring this for show-and-tell to make you feel guilty about slamming a metal bar down onto the back of Jerry the Mouse.  I did it to ask you this question: Do you know how a mousetrap works?  Sure you do.  A metal bar is attached to a spring mechanism that holds it tightly open.  In order to set it up it, you push the bar against the force of the spring, move a rod over the bar and anchor it loosely into place by the trap switch.  When a small amount of force is applied to the switch, the pent-up force of the spring snaps the bar back to the open position in about a tenth of a second.  Do you know how many parts you need in order to make the mousetrap work?  The answer?  Exactly the number that are on there.

A mousetrap is really a pretty simple piece of machinery.  As a matter of fact, it is literally as simple as it could be without ceasing to function.  The technical term for this is that it is “irreducibly complex.”  That’s not always the case.  Consider your car.  There are a whole bunch of parts and pieces on your car that if you took them off, it would still work.  It may not work great or very comfortably, but it would still get you from point A to point B.  With a mousetrap, that’s not the case.  If you were to take a single part away from the mousetrap it would not work at all.  Forget working not as well, it would not work, period.  And yet, all the parts are different.  No two are the same.  They are all ideally suited to the function that they together accomplish.  In a way, then, a mousetrap is a little like a marriage.

This morning we are in the third part of our series, Marriage Myths.  Over the course of this month-long journey, we are taking a look at some of the popular myths about marriage that our culture tells us and why the truth about it is so much better than the fantasies.  In the first part of this conversation we held off on talking about any marriage myths so that we could make sure we had a good foundation in place for the rest of what we had to say.  This baseline amounted to a definition of marriage and a statement as to its purpose.  With the help of Moses’ description of the first marriage in Genesis 2, we were able to clarify that marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman designed by God in creation for the purpose of pointing people to Jesus.

Having established that, last week we tackled the first myth our culture tells us about marriage.  This was the idea that in marriage we are supposed to be united with our one, true soulmate if we are going to experience the highest levels of happiness and fulfillment possible.  As we said then, the problems with this are many, but amount to the fact that it leaves us seeking from people what we can only obtain from God.  Instead of seeking out a soulmate—a person whose identity has no doubt been shaped by any number of cultural trends that amount to a picture of perfection nobody can meet—we should shift our focus to becoming one ourselves.  If you are not married, you are striving to become the person the person you are looking for is looking for.  If you are married, your aim is to become your spouse’s ideal spouse.  The bottom line, though was this: Don’t seek a soulmate, become one.

The second marriage myth we are going to try and explode this morning is this: In marriage, the two partners should strive for a perfect equality between them.  Or perhaps to put that more simply: Marriage is about equality.  This is something that folks are taught to think today.  And while I don’t have scientific evidence to support that, I do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from a decade’s worth of pre-marital counseling.  In the particular set of material I use, there are two statements about the role each partner expects to play in the relationship that nearly always get answered in the same way.  The first statement is this: “I think the marriage will function best if one person assumes the role of head of the household.”  The second is this: “I think we will be happier if there is an even balance of power in our relationship.”  Nearly every couple I have counseled has said no to the first and yes to the second.  Interestingly, a higher percentage of guys answer that way than girls do.

Why is that?  Is it because they really believe it?  Well, in talking further with the couples about the issue of role relationships, I’d venture to say the answer to that question is no, they don’t.  When most couples talk about the kind of roles they expect to play, most of them fall into pretty traditional patterns.  Rather, they have been taught to say it by our culture.  You see, equality is one of our nation’s founding values.  But, unless we understand clearly what we are talking about when we are talking about equality, we are likely to wander off into some weeds that will quickly threaten to choke the life out of our relationships.  Let’s start then this morning by calling out this myth on its face: Marriage is not about equality.  It’s not about equality and if you try and seek it, not only will you not succeed, but you will make yourself miserable in the process.

Well, hold on now.  Aren’t all people equal before God?  Are you trying to say that a husband is somehow more valuable to the relationship than the wife or that the wife is more valuable to the relationship than the husband?  No, but if you wondered that at all, you have perfectly illustrated what is perhaps the chief difficulty we have in confronting this particular marriage myth.  There are multiple different ways to think about equality.  There are two, in fact, that are primary.  We can talk about an equality of role.  Here, every part is equal both in its contribution and its importance to the extent that they are all interchangeable.  One part is the same as every other and they could all be swapped out without impacting the overall product or output.  We see overtures toward an equality of role in the common cultural affirmation that you can be anything you want to be.  Whatever you set your mind to, you can do.  Anybody can be a _________ (you fill-in-the-blank).

The other kind of equality is an equality of value.  In an equality of value, no member of the organization or partnership is of more value to it than any of the others are even though their roles may differ wildly and the outcomes they experience from the venture will be proportional to their contribution.  Yet everyone is okay with this because they recognize their importance to the overall output.  Their contributions may not be the same, but the whole won’t work without their part.

Culturally speaking, while both of these kinds of equality are different and distinct from one another, the lines between them are fudged and even erased such that both are often assumed where only one should really be considered to exist.  The result of this is that while people who demand equality may be thinking one thing, the people from whom they are demanding it are thinking another.  The result of this confusion is usually headaches and disappointment and frustration for everyone.

When it comes to the marriage relationship, an equality of role doesn’t have any business even being a part of the conversation.  The other equality—the equality of value—does exist in marriage, but rather than being pursued as the goal, it is merely part of the set of foundational assumptions that undergird the whole thing.  Marriage isn’t about equality and it won’t make you equal to your spouse in the ways our culture tends to think it will or should.  And again, if you aim for that, you are going to both fail and be miserable.

So then, what is it about?  Well, we’ve already answered that question: It’s about pointing people to Jesus (including the husband and the wife).  Okay…that’s not really helpful here.  I think it is.  Here’s why: What happens when people get closer to Jesus?  They begin to reflect His image more fully than they did before.  In other words, they become more fully who they were made to be.  They become more complete, more whole, as people.  They become whole in Christ.  Alright, then, let’s say for the sake of argument that marriage isn’t about equality, but rather is about becoming whole in Christ.  How do we navigate the relationship between the husband and wife in a way that will get us to that place?

Well, as I said last week, I think the best place to come to such an understanding is also one of the most difficult in light of our culture’s foundational assumptions about men and women and the marriage relationship.  I told you last week that we were going to come back to it, and so, as promised, let’s take a look at what Paul says in Ephesians 5.  As we do this, I want to offer you what will seem to some to be a pretty radical proposal: We take what Paul says here seriously.

Let’s take a look at what he says here again and then we’ll spend some time talking about it.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, turn to Ephesians 5:22 and follow along with me.  Paul says this first to wives: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”  Oof.  We’ll come back to that in a minute.  Next, he says this to the guys starting in v. 25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”  There’s more there, but we’ll come back to that next week.  Verse 25 is enough by itself for now.

So then, what do we do with this?  How does this point us in the direction of a better view of marriage than the equality myth of our culture?  Speaking directly to the challenge of this passage: How are we supposed to make sense out of this in a way that doesn’t leave women demeaned and us as a culture drifting back into a time when the value of women was neither assumed nor celebrated?  In other words, how do we understand this in a way that doesn’t give justification to our critics?  Well, we can start by making it clear that Paul doesn’t somehow go easy on the guys here at the expense of the ladies.

It seems like he does, though, doesn’t it?  After all, he tells wives to submit to their husbands, but only tells husbands to love their wives.  Well, actually, no, he doesn’t.  He tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  This leads to a natural follow up question: How did Christ love the church?  You know this.  He died for her.  He was so committed to seeing the church, His bride, become fully what she was designed by God to be that there was nothing He wasn’t willing to lay down and give up in order to see it happen including His own life.  How about it guys: Is that how you are loving your wife if you’re married?  Be honest now.  This is God’s little girl you’re talking about.

Okay, so, is this just supposed to make us all feel guilty about not measuring up to Jesus’ lofty standards?  No, it’s a defining of our role in the relationship.  Our job in the marriage is to, by our love for them, see our wives become more complete in the image of Christ than they were when we first got married.  Above and before everything else, that’s what a husband is supposed to do.  And, we can only do this when our own relationship with Him is on a steady, upward trajectory.  What happens when our own relationship with Jesus is on this kind of a path?  We become whole in Christ.

With that in mind, let’s go back to what Paul says to wives.  Again, the text reads: “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.”  In other words, submit to your husbands just like you would Jesus.  The grounds for abusive interpretations of this are obvious.  How do we get it right?  Well, we start by making sure we understand it right.  A strictly literal translation of the Greek here would read: “Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”  And if you’re thinking I skipped a word there, you would be correct.  Not because I felt like leaving it out, but because it’s not there.  In the Greek, there’s no verb here.  We have to insert one in English or it doesn’t make sense.  In situations like this, the best way to figure out what verb to insert is to look at the verses immediately preceding this one to see if it makes sense to borrow one from them.   In this case, v. 21 reads: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  That’s where translators found the word “submit” to stick into the empty verb slot of v. 22.  But, “submitting” in v. 21 isn’t a main verb.  That means we can’t use it as our primary means of understanding what Paul says in v. 22.  The verb that gives us the most help is way back at the beginning of chapter 5 where Paul calls believers to be imitators of God as beloved children.  We can do that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit as Paul’s instructs us to be in v. 18.  And when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are going to practice this godly elevation of the needs and interests of others at the expense of our own (that is, submission), with the people around us as a function of our relationship with Jesus who already did the same thing with us because of His great love for us…the very same love that is to serve as the model for the husband’s love for his wife.

Now, there are some other cultural considerations that help us make more positive sense out of this including Paul’s call for wives to submit to their own husbands and not to men generally which would have been pretty radically liberating for women in his day, but let’s get right down to the meat here.  Just like he was for guys, what Paul is doing here is to define a wife’s role in the marriage relationship.  And her role is to practice a godly submission to her husband’s leadership in the relationship as a function and reflection of her larger submission to Christ.  Let me say that again and listen to the whole thing because the wording is crucial.  A wife’s role in the marriage relationship is to practice a godly submission to her husband’s leadership as a function and reflection of her larger submission to Christ.  If she tries to practice this submission, to fill this role, absent a relationship with Jesus it’s going to end badly.  She shouldn’t do it.  With that relationship firmly in place, though, she can freely fill this role with a beautiful confidence that her Savior will meet all of her own needs even as she seeks to follow His example in the lives of the people around her, starting with her husband.  And what happens when we follow Jesus’ example in the world around us, in the lives of the people around us?  We become more complete in His image.  We are made whole in Him.

Let’s step back together for a minute here.  What Paul is doing in these few verses is to set out the roles for husbands and wives in the marriage relationship.  In case you’ve been asleep: They’re different.  Husbands aren’t called to do the same things that wives are called to do, and wives are not called to do the same things that husbands are called to do.  The husband is called to be the head of the household and there’s really no escaping that conclusion in the Scriptures.  The wife is called to be submissively supportive of her husband, seeking to advance his vision for the relationship in a way similar to what the church does for Christ.  She does this, though, with Christ has her chief head, meaning that if her husband casts a vision in a direction other than she knows Jesus is leading, she says, “No,” and refuses to go.  Far from being some kind of a disempowering, devaluing place in the relationship, though, for a wife to get this role right demands a woman who is empowered by the Spirit of God and can confidently, ferociously even, advance the vision for her marriage she has helped her husband craft including humbly, lovingly, gently, submissively helping him see when he is getting off track.

Indeed, while there are times when a true leader can see something no one else can and has to say, “We’re going this way whether you see it or not,” in the vast majority of the cases this vision is cast and pursued by a collaborative effort in which each part, though different in function and role, works together to achieve the overall aim.  You see, the husband may fill the role of “head of the household,” but contrary to how our culture understands what this means, it does not mean he always gets what he wants.  When he’s filling his role properly, it often means that he’s the first one to sacrifice what he wants for the sake of what his wife does, especially in the common cases when both paths will lead to the same end.  It doesn’t mean that he’s always right; it means that he’s the first to acknowledge when he’s wrong.  It may mean that he’s the “king of the castle,” but only if you understand this king to be the king of service and sacrifice and self-denial and, yes, godly submission after the pattern of Christ, all for the sake of his family.  And check this out: When the husband and wife get their roles right, they create a cycle of life that makes the whole far greater than merely the sum of the parts.  He gives of himself in order to lift her up to Jesus as more complete in His image.  Meanwhile, she gives of herself to see Him moved in the same direction.  This cooperative effort creates a kind of ladder of blessing that will be to their great joy and God’s great glory.

But, this only works when each part plays its part.  The wife is not called to be like her husband.  The husband is not called to be like his wife.  They bring different strengths to the relationship.  They need to lean into each other to compensate for a different set of weaknesses.  They were designed for two very different roles.  They are, in other words, unequal.  Marriage isn’t about equality.  It won’t make you equal.  But, when each partner fills the role for which they have been designed by God, they will each grow more complete in the image of Christ than they were before.  They will be whole in ways they didn’t experience before entering into the marriage relationship.  Now, that doesn’t mean marriage is the only way to become whole in Christ.  Far from it.  But it is one of the outcomes of marriage when we get it right.  When we strive for equality after the pattern of our culture we will fail.  We will fail because marriage won’t make you equal, it will make you whole.  Marriage won’t make you equal; it will make you whole.

And isn’t that a better outcome anyway?  Think about it.  Imagine you somehow achieved an equality of role in your marriage.  There was no task in the relationship one of you did that the other didn’t also do.  And in equal amounts as well.  What would be the outcome of that?  Given the scientifically-recognized differences between men and women in all kinds of ways that make women objectively better suited to some tasks than men and men objectively better suited to some tasks than women, it would mean that half the tasks in the marriage get done well half the time and half the time they get done poorly.  To whose benefit would that be?  I’ll tell you who: Nobody.  Any organization that performs well only half the time is one that’s failing.  In school, if you get 50% in a class it means you have to take it over again because you failed.  Striving for an equality of role in our marriages is to pursue a path that will lead to failure.  Indeed, marriage won’t make you equal; it will make you whole.

How about if you achieved an equality of value?  Well, in one sense and as we said before, an equality of value does exist in marriage, but, no more than it does anywhere else.  And, if we make an equality of value our main focus—as our culture sometimes encourages us to do—what begins to happen is that we get hyper-fixated on any perceived inequalities between us no matter how insignificant they might actually be.  For instance, if one partner works and the other doesn’t, the one who doesn’t can fall to jealousy of the one who does.  If one partner makes more money than the other, a similar result can follow.  If one partner gets to go somewhere or do something or purchase some item or what have you, the constant worry of the other is how they can achieve a similar end so that things are equal.  It’s kind of like riding a bicycle.  In the beginning you are hyper-focused on maintaining your balance to the extent that you don’t ride very well.  In fact, you don’t get much of anywhere.  It is when you begin to let the destination become your focus, and the balance become internal that real progress begins to happen.  As long as equality remains the goal of marriage, we will never achieve it.  We will always only see the places where it doesn’t exist.  Marriage won’t make you equal; it will make you whole.

It will make you whole when each part is playing it designed part.  It’s like that mousetrap, and not because it was designed to smash the life out of furry, woodland creatures.  It is an elegant…if deadly…machine even though each part is totally different from the others.  There is no equality among the members of the mousetrap.  They are not interchangeable.  They don’t contribute in the same ways.  They don’t look anything alike.  And, without each of them playing fully the role they were designed to play, the whole thing fails to work like it should.  It is irreducibly complex.  Marriage is irreducibly complex too.  All the parts are required, each working exactly as they were designed, in order for it to work like it should.  And, like the mousetrap, the parts are not equal.  The husband and wife are not the same.  They are not interchangeable no matter what our culture declares to be true.  Husbands are not the same as wives, and wives are not the same as husbands.  They don’t contribute in the same ways.  They don’t look anything alike.  They are not equal.  Marriage won’t make you equal.  But when everything works like it should, it will make you whole.  Marriage won’t make you equal; it will make you whole.  Come back next week as we wrap up the series by tackling one last myth.  I’ll set it up like this: Just like marriage isn’t designed to make you equal, it’s not designed to make you happy either.  See you next week.

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