Posted in Mutuality

What’s in a name?

Out of necessity, people take complex ideas and give them a name. That is the nature of language, to give names to bigger ideas. Sometimes, however, terminology can be deceiving. Sometimes a term is misunderstood and misused so often that it loses its original meaning. Other times a term is coined specifically to put a friendly face on a not-so-friendly idea. We should be careful about the terms we use when we communicate. It’s important to make sure we understand what is meant when a term is used and not simply assume we  understand. This is especially true when we talk about marriage in the context of Christianity. 

In the late 1980s, a group of men led by Wayne Grudem and John Piper coined the term “complementarianism” to describe their view of marriage and formed an organization to define and defend their position. Complementarianism, to be brief, is the idea that men and women are designed by God to have different roles in marriage and society. Males are to have leadership and authority roles while women fulfill other supporting roles. The problem, as I see it, is that there was already an existing term for their position: patriarchy. (Some complementarians, such as Owen Strachan, have been brave enough to admit this publicly.) That term, however, is not terribly acceptable in modern society, so they felt a new term was needed.

There is another view of Christian marriage with its own name: Egalitarianism. This view of marriage believes that there should be no gender hierarchy in marriage or in society. They do not believe that men are created to be in authority over women. Despite accusations to the contrary, egalitarians do recognize there are differences between men and women and that these differences complement each other. (In that respect the term “complementarian” is a bit of a misnomer.) They simply do not believe that authority or leadership ability is one of those natural differences.

This debate about how to define marriage “biblically” continues to this day, at least in some circles. I use scare quotes around the word biblically because it is another term that is often used but rarely understood. The task of interpreting and applying the Bible to our modern lives is a complex one. Christians have struggled with the task for over 2,000 years, and have yet to reach consensus on a great many issues. Perhaps God doesn’t intend for us to all agree on every issue. Regardless, it is important for Christians to disagree charitably. Communicating clearly and clearly understanding those who disagree with us should be more important that winning a debate.

When it comes to our view of marriage, Lori and I tend to agree with those who call themselves egalitarians, but I’m not a big fan of the term “egalitarian” for a number of reasons. I prefer the term “mutuality”. I did not invent this term, I first saw it used (in the context of marriage) by Scot McKnight on his blog, Jesus Creed. If you follow our blog you will see us use variations on this term so I’ll briefly attempt to describe what we mean by mutual marriage.

Mutual marriage focuses on oneness

The first definition of marriage in the Bible is found in Genesis 2:24: “two are united into one.” Jesus reaffirms this definition in Matthew 19:5. This is the best definition of marriage we know and it should be the goal of every married couple. True oneness is expressed physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Where there is true oneness in marriage, there is no need for hierarchy or authority.

Mutual marriage is characterized by self-sacrificial love

Marriage is intended to be the highest and best of all human relationships. To that end, mutual marriages are characterized by spouses who are committed to the best interests of their spouse above all else. Self-sacrifice is a defining characteristic for followers of Jesus, as we see in Philippians 2:3-4 and Ephesians 5:21 and throughout the New Testament. Marriages are not exempt from this. In fact, marriage is perhaps the best training ground for learning self-sacrificial love.

Mutual marriage is not concerned about authority

This is the result of the first two characteristics. Rather than being concerned with who is in charge, a mutual marriage is focused on serving others as instructed in Mark 10:42-44. There, Jesus teaches that authority is not a concern for his followers. In fact, the only place in the New Testament that directly addresses authority in marriage is 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, where Paul teaches that each spouse has equal authority over their spouse’s body in regard to sexuality. We believe that many have misunderstood and misused the ideas of headship and submission found in the New Testament, but we’ll address that in future posts.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said “Once you label me, you negate me.” He had a point, because a single word is never truly enough to describe a complex concept, much less to describe a human being. “Mutual” or “mutuality” as a label applied to marriage is a big idea and this post only scratches the surface of defining it. Nevertheless, we need to use words to discuss ideas and I hope you’ll join us in the discussion.

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About Bob Mitton

Bob Mitton is an application development manager and teaching pastor at Central Church (Madison Heights, Michigan). He is co-founder of Permanent Passionate Partnership.