“This is my beloved and this is my friend…”
- Song of Solomon 5:16
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Those simple, graceful words from the Song of Solomon have summarized the way I’ve viewed my relationship with my wife Gail ever since we fell in love as college students. I wrote a song using them as the main theme of the lyric and sang it to her at our wedding. They describe our mutual understanding of the nature of our marriage: we are lovers and we are friends. We are partners. We are two who have left our previous lives to make a life together as one.
Our relationship has never been about authority and submission. Understanding the Biblical passages that use those terms has been a process over the years. As a new Christian and young pastor, I held a more patriarchal perspective in my mind and in my teaching, but to be honest, I can’t say it really translated in any substantial way to our actual relationship. We were partners. I may have been the pastor, but she was right there at my side, as involved in ministry as I was (sometimes more so). In college we had served together on gospel teams and there was no hierarchy involved, save for someone who played the role of team leader. We each played and sang our respective parts and did so in harmony with the others. We carried this right into our life in the church.
At home we’ve always made decisions together or deferred to the other when appropriate. For a number of years my career path was the main one we walked, but only because it provided a clearer way. I’m sure that had Gail had a vocational path as definite as mine, things might have gone differently. I know this has often frustrated her over the years, but she has accepted her lot with grace and has creatively found many significant ministry opportunities in conjunction with what I was doing. We are both highly vocation-minded people. We have seen ourselves from the beginning as Christ’s servants and have always felt a strong sense of calling when it comes to serving others.
I sincerely can’t think of a time when a model of authority and submission fit our relationship. Usually, when I’ve made decisions on my own, they were foolish ones, unless they were decisions to do something loving for her that I wanted to keep secret. We work best when we work together, talk together, pray together, consider things together, and wait for each other to be of one mind.
During certain seasons of our life, Gail has played the “traditional” role (I’m still not sure I know what that means — which tradition?). She stayed home with the babies. She still is the main cook. She does more housework than I do (that’s often my fault, not her choice). She does the laundry, though that is primarily to keep me from destroying her wardrobe.
On the other hand, she has almost always worked outside the home, whether part-time or full-time. When she had the opportunity she went back to school and got her Masters degree. Now she runs her own counseling business. If at any time along the way, it would have made sense for me to stay home or play some other “non-traditional” role to support her in fulfilling her goals, I would have done so gladly. I will do so in the future if need be.
I would never think to set our marriage or relationship up as a template for anyone else. I believe all believers have great freedom in Christ to order their lives by his Spirit and through the wisdom that comes from Scripture, reason, counsel, and experience. Most of all, I believe with all my heart that Gail and I are meant to be partners — lovers and friends — together in Christ.
I have come to a much different understanding of the “authority/submission” texts in the NT over the years, one that I think makes much more sense in light of the overall Biblical narrative with its redemptive trajectory. I think a hierarchical model of the relationship between a husband and wife is part of the problem, not the solution to marital happiness, stability, and effective service for Christ.
There is no hierarchy between two people who call each other “beloved and friend.”